How should Church Discipline work between churches?

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In my articles responding to the Stephen Sizer case, I’ve argued that one of the problems that prevented an effective response to the problem of antisemitism in the church was a failure to do church discipline well. This affects both the immediate local church context and inter church relationships.  So, I thought it might be helpful to set out some quick thoughts on how we should approach discipline.

First of all, we should remember that God is disciplining his children all the time. Discipline is about correction and learning. It’s a positive and loving thing. Therefore, the best way the church can engage in discipline is by not simply thinking of it being just about the end point where there is excommunication.  We should start with the early work of pro-active discipleship.

However, times will arise when a church has to gather its members to act tin order to deal with a matter of serious sin with the ultimate sanction of removing someone from the church being available.  The basis for this is found in 1 Corinthians 5.  It is when a member is involved in public, serious, unrepentant sin.  It may be requested from outside and elders may be responsible for ensuring it happens but it is the church family together who are meant to take the action.  Note that whilst Matthew 18 includes provision for this kind of sanction in cases of private offense, the public sin does not require you to first go through the Matthew 18 steps of 1-1 confrontation.  The matter can (and in many cases should) be brought swiftly to the attention of the church.

The basis for action is that the accusations are backed up by evidence.  The Old Testament Law required at least two witnesses.  Paul insisted that this should be the case when an elder was accused too. This did not mean that elders had a higher level of protection than other church members but rather that they were subject to the same burden of proof.

It is important then that local churches are not just allowed but are encouraged to act to take discipline and enforce it where required.  It should not matter whether the local church is part of a denomination or network, the initial responsibility lies with that church.

If a church has disciplined a member by removing them, then it is incumbent on other churches and church leaders to recognise and affirm that discipline. This means that if a Christian starts attending a different church, then before anything such as membership or involvement is discussed, that the new church are responsible for checking to see whether there are outstanding issues with the previous church. For example, it would have been inappropriate for Stephen Sizer to join a church as a member whilst the CDM process was ongoing.

This also means that individual Christians including leaders need to be clear that their relationship to the person excommunicated has changed. I don’t believe in shunning and ghosting as happens in some places.  I do think that something changes. I cannot treat someone as a brother/or share close fellowship with when they are under discipline. This shows a disregard for those affected by their sin.  I can still have deep love and concern for them and maintain contact with them because I am treating them as I would my unbelieving friends. So, I should continue to act towards them out of love, compassion and concern not just for their wellbeing now but their eternal wellbeing. 

Incidentally, I don’t think this means that people are required to rush out public statements distancing themselves from a person who isn’t a member of their church or organisation. So, I do not think that the Church Society was required to repent or make a big statement about Stephen Sizer because he had previously been a member of the Society and had written for them.  I do think that his current church should be looking at the CDM ruling to see if this would have amounted to church discipline should the Biblical process have been followed.

Finally, this raises questions about what to do when a church fails to discipline a member or leader in serious, public, unrepentant sin.  I believe that in such cases, following Paul’s example, other respected Christian leaders should strongly exhort the church to act.  Sadly, if the church refuses to do so, then we need to recognise that they are sharing in the sin of the unrepentant member. This means that other churches and the network/fellowship they are part of should remove ties with the church until it comes to its senses.

Good and healthy church discipline requires a culture of compassion and grace. It is dependent on local churches acting well. It requires true Gospel partnership between churches. 

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