This post is part of our 10 Things You Should Know blog series.
1. Jesus and Paul both command churches to practice church discipline.
Church discipline is not man’s idea, but God’s. Whatever Jesus meant by “You shall not judge” in Matthew 7, he didn’t mean to rule out loving correction between Christians, as he describes it in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul then takes Jesus’ words seriously and exhorts the Corinthian church to put Jesus’ instructions into practice (compare Matthew 18:20 and 1 Corinthians 5:4). Do we know better than Paul?
2. “Church discipline” goes by different names.
The term “church discipline” is employed in different ways, and people use different terms for discipline. Broadly, people might make a distinction between formative discipline (referring to teaching) and corrective discipline (referring to correcting sin).
Inside the category of corrective discipline, people might use the term “church discipline” to refer to any act of correction, whether that involves privately and informally warning a friend or formally removing someone from membership in a church. When it gets to this last step, people frequently use the word “excommunication.” Among Protestants, excommunication does not refer to removing someone from salvation (which the church is incapable doing). It refers to removing someone from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Supper. To excommunicate is to ex-communion someone, kind of like a reverse baptism.
3. Nearly every organization practices discipline.
In spite of its biblical basis, the idea of church discipline can be controversial among Christians and churches, even though people readily accept the fact that other organizations or group must have some means of correcting or removing its members. A fraudulent lawyer can be debarred. A volatile player in the NBA can be fined. A malpracticing doctor can lose his or her medical license. A teacher can be fired.
Ironically, even “watchdog” websites who decry the practice of church discipline exist exclusively for the sake of correction, or discipline (albeit without any accountability!). This reaction to discipline in the church speaks volumes about the individualistic nature of spirituality and personhood in the West.
4. Churches should practice discipline for the sake of love.
There are many wrong motivations for church discipline, which have led to abuses in the process. The one right motivation for discipline is love. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). Churches should practice discipline for the sake of loving the individual caught in sin, that he or she might come to repentance (1 Cor. 5:5); for the sake of loving the weaker sheep in the church, that they might not be led astray (v. 6); for the sake of loving non-Christian neighbors, that they might not be confused by a false witness (v. 1); for the sake of loving Christ, that his name might be protected and honored (vv. 7-8).
5. Church discipline was a common practice among churches until the 20th century.
In the 19th century, Baptist churches in America excommunicated an average of 2 percent of their members per year, and yet the growth of these churches outpaced general population growth. Toward the end of the 19th and early 20th century, churches became more interested in reforming society (e.g., temperance movements) than in reforming themselves.
The advent of church marketing in the middle of the 20th century led churches to focus more on product appeal than on holiness. No voices rose up to speak against discipline. Rather, the practice just faded away (see Greg Wills, Democratic Religion).