Church Discipline (Book Review)

church-disciplineIf you are not familiar with the Building Healthy Churches series of books by 9Marks Ministry, then do yourself a favor and check them out.  They have even published a book, written by Jonathan Leeman, on the unpopular but vitally necessary topic of Church Discipline.  This is mercifully short book that may be read in only a couple of hours.  But the wisdom church members and leaders will gain from such a brief time investment is tremendous.

So why read a book that has a title you might be embarrassed to read in public?  If you are a church member, you will gain the following insights:

  • The difference between the Bible’s portrayal of the gospel and its portrayal in the popular Christian mind
  • The different responses to the subject of church discipline—why some view it as good, other a necessary evil, and still others an unmitigated evil
  • A framework for thinking about church discipline that draws first and foremost on gospel wisdom
  • Whether I should support my church practicing church discipline

If you are a church leader (an ordained officer in the church such as a pastor, elder, or deacon), you will profit from thinking carefully about the following:

  • The biblical basis for the practice of loving church discipline
  • Biblical reminders of what is the gospel, what is a Christian, what is a local church, and what is church membership
  • The foundational assumptions of church discipline
  • When church discipline is and is not necessary
  • What church discipline might look like in the context of a local church
  • What might restoration look like following church discipline, and when it should occur

In the first part of the book, Leeman lays the groundwork for thinking about church discipline.  Make no mistake, this is not a handbook on how to apply discipline to the myriad ways sin manifests in a church through the life of its members.  Although there is value in creating a taxonomy of sins, to a book of “case law” to establish precedent for future cases is a fool’s errand.  Instead, Leeman has a more modest a realistic goal.  Cultivating and imparting gospel wisdom is a more biblical method to provide resources to Christians for handling cases of discipline.  This wisdom rests on a number of principles that guide church discipline.

  • The gospel addresses all sinners wherever they are, but it never leaves them where they are.  The gospel calls for confession, repentance, and new obedience.
  • Church discipline applies only to church members.  Even the Apostle Paul refused to judge those outside the church.  Formal church membership is the biblical means for congregations to discern who is “in” the visible church and who is “out”.
  • Christians represent Jesus.  They are to believe and live as little “Christs”.
  • Jesus entrusted his authority to the church to officially affirm and oversee the citizens of his kingdom.
  • Christians are expected and required by the Bible and Christ himself to submit to the affirmation and oversight of local churches.

I might add that Church discipline is ministerial and declarative, never with force or compulsion.  In other words, church discipline is always and only legitimate as it serves the revealed will of Christ.  Discipline that is contrary to God’s revealed will in the Scriptures is not true and therefore not spiritually binding in the courts of heaven.

Leeman’s treatment of this difficult subject is pastorally sensitive.  He allows, within the parameters set forth in the Bible, church discipline to be informed by the situations and persons involved.  For many things aggravate a sin, and not all sins are equal in the sight of God.  The Westminster Larger Catechism, echoing Scripture, lists many of those aggravations.  Here is question and answer 151 in all its “King’s English ” glory!

Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.

Thankfully (mercifully!) there is one basic guiding principle of this book: church discipline primarily depends on how long it takes to establish characteristic unrepentance.  This is simple and helpful, because it does not create a dichotomy between acceptable and unacceptable sins.  Every sin is serious enough for God to justly send a person to eternal punishment in hell, and there is no type of sin that is too big for Christ’s blood to wash clean.  What makes sin a disciplinable offense is characteristic unrepentance because such a life reveals a heart in rebellion against God.  Unrepentance is incompatible with divine holiness, and Christians are called to live lives of holiness.  To deny that holy calling by a life of unrepentance demonstrates one is not truly a follower of Christ.  The church must help that person to come to repentance or declare to the world the church cannot vouch for the person’s Christian testimony (if he still confesses Christ).

Part 2 of the book is a collection of case for applying the framework of gospel wisdom.  They are not “canon law”, but are examples of how a church might pursue discipline in typical cases.  Just a few types include the Adulterer, Addict, Bruised Reed, Nonattending Member, Newly-Decided Unbeliever, and Family Member.  I agree with the book endorser who said, “The case studies illustrating situations requiring church discipline are worth the price of the book!”

Finally, Part 3 gives advice to the church leader who sees the value of biblical church discipline and wants to get started.  The most important and timely advice for this person is “Don’t do it.”  Leeman writes, “That’s the first thing I tell pastors when they discover church discipline in the Bible.  I say, ‘Don’t do it, at least not yet.’”  Why this answer?  Because before healthy church discipline can begin, a congregation needs to understand the purpose, goal, and loving motive behind church discipline.  The pastor and other church leaders must teach the congregation first, lest a mutiny erupt.  A church must be taught about holiness and repentance, membership in the body of Christ, discipleship, the nature and reality of self-deception, discipline, and most of all Christian love.  The second thing a church must have in place before it can begin the practice of church discipline is a framework of organizational matters.  Church documents need to be in place spelling out what is expected of members (beliefs and behaviors), what is the church’s authority structure and how its government operates, what to ordinarily expect when members are received and dismissed, and what expect in extraordinary circumstances that require discipline.  A church must set up proper legal foundations to protect itself from outside litigation prompted by internal church discipline matters.  The third thing a church must do is clean up the membership rolls.  Since it is not right to exercise discipline on those outside the church, the lines must be drawn clearly so the church leaders know who to shepherd.  The shepherd must know the sheep in his flock, and know them by name.  They must be those who follow the Good Shepherd and the under-shepherds in a particular congregation.  Fourth, church leaders must be in agreement on the plan to practice church discipline.

As the cherry on top, the book’s appendix lists 22 mistakes pastors make in practicing church discipline.  These are the final warnings of church discipline.  Don’t do these things!

The topic of church discipline may be distasteful for most.  This is as it should be for those who long for the day when Christ’s body will be pure, spotless, blameless, and mercifully made sinless.  In that day church discipline will be no more because it won’t be necessary.  But until that day arrives, the glory of Christ, the fame of his name, and the public witness of his holy church demands the practice of church discipline.  This book is a timely, relevant guide for all those who labor for that day.

Resources

Articles on church discipline at 9Marks

Reviews

Blogging Theologically

Vernon King

Goodreads

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