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Our congregation is hosting a workshop on financial stewardship. Members of the congregation talk to each other about budgeting and controlling their expenditures. A conversation is taking place. As members learn, they begin to think about implementing new practices in their personal and family lives. No one tells another person what he or she ought to do, but in the process of sharing stories of their adventures in financial discipline, change happens.

Is this church discipline?

Pastors, friends, and church leaders confront a person with the reality of a troubling behavior. A few questions remain: What now? Who else needs to know? What kind of treatment program should we advise? Which counselor would be most helpful? What support should the community offer? What do we need to say to the congregation?

Is this church discipline?

I can’t remember the last time I (or the church leaders) looked up the articles of the Church Order that deal with the discipline of church members. Meanwhile, our church has declared memberships lapsed, removed people from the rolls of the church, or archived their memberships as they move from place to place. I have confronted members about inappropriate and sinful behavior. But in all this, a formal church discipline process seemed either inappropriate or unnecessary.

Has church discipline become obsolete?

Has church discipline become obsolete?

The word discipline has at least two meanings relevant to this conversation. First, discipline is applied when someone has done something wrong. The person has sinned. In the workplace, a boss ought to confront that person and perhaps place a notation in his or her employment record. In school, a student who does something wrong is likely to end up in the principal’s office. But in church, there is often a reluctance to confront.


In order to exercise discipline, people need to have the responsibility and authority to do so. While elders have formal authority, in reality the relationship between elders and members is seldom of the quality where they feel comfortable exercising it. How can I confront when I hardly know the person? How can I have such a conversation when I seldom talk with the person about his or her walk with God?

But there’s more. Often we turn to Matthew 18:15-20 to help us understand the process of church discipline: “If a brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.” Church discipline does not start in council meetings, but in private conversation and confrontation.

In our individualistic culture, where often we remind ourselves not to interfere in other people’s personal business, it is hard to confront. In a culture where everyone is free to believe what works for them, who has a right to confront another person?

To put it another way, to whom have I given the right to speak into my life? Quite simply, most of us do not want someone to speak into our lives unless we are walking together in faith and life. The person who confronts me has to be more than a passing acquaintance, more than a fellow pew-sitter. Think of the people you know from whom you would be prepared to take correction. In our cultural and relational context, few relationships have the quality and depth that give us permission to speak into each other’s lives about the wrongs we have done.

A second meaning of discipline is also relevant to this conversation. Exercising discipline is what we do when we want to become good at something. We practice piano to become good at it. We practice a particular athletic move in order to do it well in competition. In the church context we often relate this form of discipline to discipleship. We discipline ourselves to become better followers of Jesus.

There are many ways this happens in the life of a congregation. Mentoring, small groups, a program of study, and many informal relationships of counsel or friendship encourage us in our walk with God. In these relationships we deliberately put ourselves in contexts where we learn, practice, and hold each other accountable. We join groups for ministry and learning that deepen our commitment to follow Jesus.

As a pastor there are certain times when I am able to have conversations that are deeper and more discipleship-orientated. In a counseling relationship there are certain expectations for listening and guidance. Small groups can be places where we speak more openly about struggles in our lives. Sometimes education sessions open doors for new conversations that disciple us in a particular area of life—as in the case of the financial stewardship workshop where members shared their struggles in budgeting and the use of credit cards, which helped them develop new practices.

These relationships are voluntary. In them, we agree explicitly or tacitly to walk together in faith and life. We agree that others can speak into our lives about living as faithful Christians. We expect to grow. We expect to change.

The Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 88-90) teaches about the nature of repentance. It is the dying away of the old self (genuine sorrow for sin and running away from it) and the rising to life of the new self (joy in Christ as we love and delight in living lives that are pleasing to God). Repentance is about change. Repentance deals with our bad behaviors. Repentance does not rejoice in wrong or justify it. Quite simply, facing and dealing with our sinfulness is central to our Christian experience. We die to sin and are made alive in Christ.

The church is a community of the repentant. We sin. We cannot make things right by ourselves. We need the forgiveness of Christ and the power of the Spirit. Christ, through his Spirit, chooses to work through the community of repentant sinners. Some of the best examples of dealing with sin can be found in support groups. The damage of the alcohol or drug abuse is acknowledged. The sin of pornography is named. Anger is recognized. Sexual sin is admitted. But rather than simply “name and shame,” support groups attempt to provide an environment where change is possible.

In relationships of support and accountability, a person can begin to live a repentant life. For discipline and discipleship to be a blessing in the church, such relationships are vital. Churches should be places where the personal daily practice of repentance is met by a community that supports a new life in Christ.

Change is difficult. The change that accompanies repentance requires us to embrace a new way of living. Perhaps the best place to recover the practice of discipline is to foster relationships of accountability and support in the congregation. Those relationships just might be the candles of hope that help each one of us come and follow Christ.

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