Church Discipline and Church abuse

There’s been some recent discussion on social media about the use of church discipline and whether or not it can be harmful and lead to examples of abuse.  The discussion was prompted by this article by Steve Kneale which was then shared by John Stevens – you can read the thread below John’s tweet to get a sense of the discussion.

I want to take a bit of time here to respond to them concerns about whether or not church discipline can become abusive.  First of all, it is worth mentioning two things.

  1. We are specifically talking about church discipline through excommunication here as per 1 Corinthians 5 though strictly speaking it includes much more than that and excommunication is really the end point in a process which we have been trying to avoid.
  2. I have seen church discipline done well but I’ve also seen/heard of it being done very badly. It is therefore my view that church discipline should not be abusive but I’m aware that it can be used in an abusive way.

It is important also to remember that church discipline is in fact a key instrument in our toolkit for dealing with abuse and bullying in the church. Think back to those incidents where there have been serious examples of abuse such as the Ravi Zacharias case or the Fletcher and Smyth scandals. As well as criminal justice, what the victims were looking for and needed was a sense that there had been justice done in the church, that sin had been confronted and that others were protected from danger. Biblical Church discipline is designed for that.

When you look at 1 Corinthians 5 which is the main text used for such cases and at Matthew 18 which is often read in conjunction with it, then you realise that church discipline is intended to respond to persistent, often public, unrepentant and serious sin. It is not about the daily struggles that people have, it is not for penalising people when they slip up.

Church discipline also has the aim of restoring someone into fellowship and fruitful faithfulness to Christ. That may not always be possible not least because what is often being exposed is that the person lacked the fruit of repentance and so may not have been a believer in Christ in the first place. However, that is not the only purpose of discipline. It is also to protect the church family and individuals within the church. This means that church discipline is intended to deal with toxic people and so to protect from the resulting spiritual, physical and emotional harm that they cause.

I would expect church discipline of this kind to be used when, and only when, all other avenues have been exhausted through teaching, one to one meetings etc.  It should not be the first resort of leaders and there should be a level of reluctance. We don’t want trigger happy elders.  Discipline is painful because it feels a bit like an amputation from the body. The kinds of cases where I would expect it to be used are

  • Where there has been sexual immorality and unfaithfulness. This will include adultery, desertion and sexual abuse (in the latter case, there should be criminal proceedings too).
  • Where there has been false teaching and those involved have been unwilling to be corrected by Scripture.
  • Where a person has acted in a persistent bullying manner. I would include within this racial bullying and harassment.
  • Where there has been malicious  gossip and slander – particularly where whispering campaigns have been started to undermine somebody’s reputation through false accusation. These tactics are also used to create division within the church.
  • Where false accusation is wilfully brought and not retracted, corrected and repented of.

It is helpful to remember that we are dealing with sin that is often public and persistent when considering a particular concern. Is it appropriate for leaders to discuss a matter and then to share it with the church. Do they need the person’s consent? Are they straying into private matters? Are they gossiping.?Church leaders should be careful of straying into unnecessary salacious detail, however what is shared with the church is often already in the public domain. Furthermore, because discipline is designed to deal with toxic and manipulative details, what you quickly realise is that although they may make a thing about confidentially, they have been quite happy to spread rumours and half stories themselves. Indeed, the purpose of putting the matter to the church members includes ensuring that those whispers and lies are challenged and corrected.

It is important that other churches respect church discipline when enacted in another congregation. This means that the discipline serves its purpose in protecting other fellowships and allows another church to partner in seeking the sinner’s restoration. What a delight it would be to hear that someone disciplined in your church has repented and been restored elsewhere.  It also provides a safeguard, as indeed does the role of the church members in the decision. Elders should only enact discipline where they would be happy to share the reasons with the church members and with the leaders of another church on the basis that the allegations are quickly verifiable.  If we were in the wrong in bringing discipline, I hope that the leaders of another church would come to us and explain why.

Whilst people worry that church discipline may be abusive and whilst I know of unhelpful examples, I think the bigger issue in the church today is that so often it simply does not happen at all. Instead of following Biblical teaching on the matter, people use other methods to deal with issues and to get their way. This can include

  • That sin is simply ignored so that others continue to be harmed by the sinful behaviour
  • That church members start to make independent decisions meaning that the sinner is ostracised but not confronted with the Gospel
  • That other processes are used to deal with issues that lack transparency leading to harsh and unjust treatment of people that is either applied to someone who is innocent or is disproportionate in its impact.

Sadly, church discipline often comes at a cost. There is the emotional pain of losing a member, often this means someone you have invested a lot of time into the care of.  You will be accused of being unloving by people you have persistently sought to show love to. You will have lots of accusatinos and insults thrown back at you and sometimes threats too. Indeed, because the person dealt with through church discipline is likely to be manipulative and unrepentant, you can guarantee that no matter how gentle, patient, loving and transparent you were tha the story will be spread and accepted that you were the ones that cruelly drove them out of the church even though they were completely innocent. 

However, because this is something that God calls the church to do (note it isn’t just for the elders to enact), we can trust God that he will use church discipline for good. There will be people restored, there will be church members protected and God will use discipline to grow all of us so that our joy is made complete in Christ.

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