Church discipline has been a hot topic of late among certain circles. Some folks on one side of the aisle seem to view corrective discipline taken to its full extent (disfellowship) as unloving, and others (or so it could be argued) are almost too quick on the draw. As I’ve been reading Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathan Leeman, I’ve been extremely grateful (and impressed) at how well he handles the situational realities of corrective discipline.
In the book, he explains that while the general principle that guides how we deliberate a sin or a pattern of sin is fairly simple—”Does the person repeatedly refuse to repent, such that the person’s profession eventually becomes unbelievable and not affirmable? That is, does this person clench his or her fist around this sin so tightly that it outweighs all other protestations of faith?”—a whole host of situational elements need to be factored into a church’s deliberations. He offers the following examples:
- How long has he been a Christian?
- What teaching has he received?
- Does the sinner admit his action was wrong?
- Does he seem genuinely grieved over his sin, or is there a tone of annoyance in his confession?
- Did he quickly confess, or did we have to drag out the information?
- Was he immediately forthcoming with all of his sins, or did we have to dig them out one by one?
- Is it likely that he’s still hiding information?
- Is this a pattern? Is this characteristic?
- Is he inviting correction?
- Is he welcoming counsel for how to fight against the sin, or does he reject counsel, convinced that he knows best how to deal with it?
- As we discuss his sin, does it feel like he’s standing on our side against the sin, or is he defensive? In other words, is he saying, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s awful. What should I do?” Or is he saying, “Yeah, fine. Okay. We’ll see.”
- Are there factors in his personal or family history that make the sin not less wrong but more likely?
- Was he led into sin by others whom he reasonably trusted?
No two cases of corrective discipline are exactly alike—simply because no two people are exactly alike. While we should by no means take a relativistic approach to sin, we should be very careful to understand the context surrounding the sin being addressed. A brand-new 22-year-old Christian who’s sleeping with his girlfriend should probably be handled differently than the long-standing church member who’s doing the same thing. One may be sinning out of ignorance (the new Christian may not have gotten to the “no sex outside of marriage” parts of the Bible yet), where the other may be committing a presumptuous sin (they know it’s wrong, but they’re going to do it anyway). It’s the same approach a parent must take in disciplining his or her children. I don’t discipline my daughters when they do something childish in the same way I do when they do something foolish. Childishness—ignorance—requires careful, loving instruction. Foolishness—presumptuousness—requires careful, loving consequences.
While none of us are going to hit the bullseye every time when it comes to dealing with discipline issues, taking the situational elements into account will, by God’s grace, allow us to discipline in a way that honors God and gives grace to the one receiving correction.