2. Create clarity about church membership.
In many churches, there is no church membership structure at all. But even in churches that maintain formal church membership, the expectations and processes are unclear.
Prospective church members need to provide more info than merely their profession of faith, previous church membership, and the area of service they are interested in. They need to know what the body is promising to them and what they are promising the body.
If church membership is a Christ-centered covenant relationship – and it is – their needs to be a clear, mutual promise between all invested parties that their yes will be yes and their no will be no, so that there can be no surprise when someone’s yes to sin is received with a no from the church.
3. Teach the process.
I remember a church meeting once upon a time where elders were sharing the grounds for dismissal of the lead pastor. The evidence was extensive and serious, and there was plenty of testimony about the elders having for years sought the pastor’s repentance and his getting counseling to no avail.
One woman, visibly upset, shouted, “Where is the grace?!” The whole idea seemed weird and unchristian to her. She did not have the biblical framework to know that the last several years’ of seeking the pastor’s repentance was a tremendous act of grace, and that indeed, even his dismissal was a severe mercy, a last and regrettable resort in seeking to startle him into Godly sorrow over his sin.
But churches aren’t accustomed to thinking of discipline that way; they think of grace as comfort and niceness. This is because we don’t teach them well.
For some, church discipline will always be objectionable because it seems outdated and unnecessary. But for many, their objection is a reflection of simply not knowing what the Bible teaches on the matter. If a church never broaches the subject until a church’s response to someone’s unrepentant sin must be made public, church discipline will always seem alien. “What are you doing bringing all this law into a place that should be filled with grace?” And the like. So we have to preach the relevant texts.
One word of caution, however: Some churches love teaching the process of church discipline out of all proportion; they love it too much.
In some church environments, church discipline is mainly equated with the nuclear option of excommunication, and the leadership of the church is not known for its patience but for its itchy trigger finger. Teaching the process of church discipline is not about filling the church with a sense of dread and covering the floor with eggshells. It’s about providing enough visibility about the guardrails and expectations that people can actually breathe more freely, not less.
Church discipline – rightly exercised – is motivated by real, sorrowful love and concern.