Church discipline - what happened?

Raj Gupta

The Bible could not be clearer about the reality and necessity of church discipline. While it is right to expect Christians to be undergoing the process of sanctification, in a sinful world, from time to time there are people who are not growing to be more like Jesus in this way. And, sadly, there are some occasions when professing Christians rebel against godly behaviour.

1 Corinthians 5 is perhaps the clearest place that the Bible speaks to the need of discipline. The Corinthian church is proud of the sexually immoral behaviour of someone who professed to know and follow Christ. The church is told that some form of discipline is necessary both for the sake of the rebellious person (1 Cor 5:5) and also to protect the whole church from accepting, and ultimately engaging in the same kind of sinful behaviour (1 Cor 5:6).

The excommunication of the one professing to know Christ under such circumstances is hard, but necessary for the spiritual well being of all concerned.

Reflecting on this and other passages, I often ask myself the question: Have we gone soft on church discipline? Immorality and other sin is a reality in our churches. Sometimes there is repentance. Other times there is not. And yet, it seems that church discipline is rarely exercised, if at all. Here are 4 reasons why I suspect we don’t do well in this area:

1.     Postmodernism – in a world dominated by postmodern thinking (and a good dose of Aussie tall poppy syndrome thrown in), leaders are generally stripped of their authority and authority itself is despised. Everyone’s views are considered equal, and leader’s feel the difficulty of acting with the authority that the Bible says they should have.

2.     Pragmatics – our methods seek to win and persuade people. This, off course, is right (cf 2 Corinthians 5:11). We also know that involving people, generating ownership and inspiring people often produces better results. Even when we act in child protection issues, it is for the benefit of the whole Christian fellowship. But a result is that we find it difficult to rebuke and discipline those who need it.

3.     Anglican structures – the current round of AGMs across our churches reminds us that a member of an Anglican church is anyone is baptised and has attended for 3 months. Defining ‘membership’ so vaguely like this makes it difficult for leaders to have a basis to rebuke and discipline people. People themselves have not agreed to submit to the benefits and responsibilities of membership, and pastors themselves are vague about who they should be caring for.

4.     We don’t like it – enough said!

No doubt there are other reasons as well. I am just not sure that any of them are good enough.