The Dangers of Church Discipline

Church Discipline can be isolatingOne of my readers, commenting on a post I wrote about grace and nonjudmentalism, wrote, “How about writing a little about the difference between forgiveness and indulgence. What does biblical discipline, rebuke and reproof look like for believers in the church?”

It’s a legitimate issue. I’ve said many times that grace and forgiveness make us uncomfortable because it feels like we are letting people off the hook and allowing them to do whatever they want without holding them accountable.

It is undeniable that Paul in his letters held the churches to a high standard of conduct and expected them to act in a way that would bring honor to Jesus and clearly define the church over against the legalism of Judaism and the immorality of the Greek and Roman pagan religions.

But before we get into Paul’s letters and church discipline let’s look at Jesus, the “author and completer of our faith.” Jesus had some harsh words to say about sin, but he wasn’t really addressing sin in general sense. Jesus seemed to focus on certain sins. Let’s talk about them.

The first three I’m going to group together because wherever you see one you see the others: judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness. You almost have to define one by using the others.

  • Judgmentalism is the hypocritical and self-righteous condemning of another person for their sin.
  • Hypocrisy is the self-righteous and judgmental condemning of another person for their sin.
  • Self-righteousness is the hypocritically superior stance of thinking you are in the position of judgmentally condemning another person for their sin.

You know it when you see it. You really know it when you’re on the receiving end.

You don’t always know it when you are doing it, which means that you should proceed with extreme caution when you think you need to engage in church discipline, rebuke and reproof.

Extreme caution.

Jesus also had harsh things to say about nationalism, the belief that not only your nation but your citizens are superior to other nations and their citizens.

In Jesus’ day it was the belief that all the foreigners present throughout the former kingdom of Israel were unclean, ungodly, immoral, and unlawful, and Israel could not return to its former glory—be great again—until the land had been cleansed of them.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty judgmental, hypocritical, and self-righteous.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Finally, in the mold of the biblical prophets, Jesus condemned injustice in society. This is what it means for the church to “speak prophetically,” a phrase which, when many modern Christians use it, is instead meant to condemn the real or perceived immorality of non-Christians in society.

Let’s be clear: in the Bible speaking prophetically is about speaking truth to power, not about beating up regular people for their sins.

It is clear that Jesus thought that before attending to the sins of fellow church members, you need to attend to your own sin.

It’s not that you need to be fully sanctified—when does that happen?—or have fixed all of your own issues before dealing with another person, but you need to be fully cognizant of your deep sinfulness and even blindness to your own flaws—as Jesus said, you have a log in your eye—so that you do not approach a person with any sense of superiority or righteousness.

In other words, you must have a humility which is real and palpable.

Remember, before Paul confronted anyone about anything, he was struck blind by his over-confidence in his ability to know what was right and wrong, who was right and wrong, and who deserved to live or die.

When he called himself the chief of sinners, he wasn’t being falsely modest. The murders of Stephen and other Christians at Paul’s hand followed him all the days of his life.

Finally, the standard to which we are holding each other is the standard of love, which means that even in discipline, rebuke and reproof we must be truly loving.

Refusing to hide behind harsh judgmentalism, which always tears people down, we are to show great love, which builds people up and lets them see that we believe they are better than their present behavior shows.

Finally, church discipline is a matter for church leadership, not the average Christian. Paul was a leader in the church, and he held the leaders of the various churches responsible for the unity and witness of the churches they led.

Ultimately it is clear that both Paul and Jesus felt that the greatest threat to the unity and witness of the church was not people’s sin but the judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness of its leaders.

They were problems then, and they are problems now, and we’d do best to stay as far away from them as possible.

Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash

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