How and When Does Church Discipline Begin?

Reposted, with permission, from bradhambrick.com.

This post is a supplement to the “church discipline process” document/training posted earlier. The goal of this series is to equip churches to conduct church discipline with restorative excellence.

This post examines key elements of church discipline that need to be understood before the formal process of church discipline begins. Uncertainty about how to begin church discipline and what concerns warrant church discipline is often the reason that church discipline either is not done or feels reactive when it is done.

How Does Church Discipline Begin?

There are two predominant paths towards church discipline: (a) stalled out pastoral care, or (b) a crisis precipitated by hidden sin. We will look at the implications of each of these paths.

1. Stalled Out Pastoral Care

Here “pastoral care” may be a small group leader, ministry team leader, lay elder, or pastoral staff member. The point is that a church leader is aware of the repeated sin, has been meaningfully involved, and has been involving “higher leaders,” but change has not occurred.

The tone of conversation as pastoral care transitions to formal church discipline would sound something like this:

We have been talking about your struggle for [length of time]. It seems to me that your progress has been minimal or only in short-term bursts. [invite a response] We have already involved [list of people] to come alongside you [or you have resisted involving additional support]. Even with additional support, we have not seen significant progress.

This leads me to one of two conclusions: either (a) your level of honesty-cooperation-motivation has not been sufficient, or (b) you are not a believer and it is the absence of God’s presence in your life that is the reason for the lack of change.

I would like us to begin a more formal process of addressing your struggle so that we can improve anything that has been inadequate in how we’ve approached the first possibility. But I need you to realize that if you persist in this area of sin, even with an optimal plan and support for change that we, as a church, will, as an act of love, need to conclude the final steps of church discipline – removal from membership. Our goal is that discipline results in restoration. [This is the transition to having the initial conversation outlined in the “church discipline process” document cited above.]

This conversation would be had by the church elder who would oversee the church discipline process for this member. The setting would need to be somewhere that allows for a conversation of this depth. If a small group leader or comparable Christian friend has been a part of the stalled out pastoral care, then it would be helpful to have them present as well.

2. Crisis Precipitated by Hidden Sin

Common examples of this path would be: adultery, addiction, gambling, abuse towards spouse or child, and comparable offenses that come to light in the midst of a crisis event. In these instances, the secrecy of the church member prevents the church from taking the earlier steps of Matthew 18:15-20 when they would have been situationally appropriate.* The duration, life dominance, and impact of the sin merits a prompt call to significant change.

The tone of conversation as pastoral care transitions to formal church discipline would sound something like this:

We know this is a very difficult time. Our desire would have been to be able to provide pastoral care at an earlier stage in this process. But the active hiding of your sin has not allowed us to do so. As much as the impact of your sin, the hiding of your sin is a concern to us; because hiding sin reveals that our commitment to our sin is greater than our commitment to Christ. What we currently know is [concise summary]. We know that [list of needs] exist around this situation. We want to care for both the immediate needs and for your soul in this situation. That is why we want to develop a holistic plan of care that will require a high level of honesty and cooperation from you. You need to understand, that in our assessment, if you are unwilling to engage with this restoration plan, then that lack of cooperation should serve as a red flag to a problem greater than the immediate crisis. We are committed to walk with you to address the immediate and eternal crises if you will allow us. [This is the transition to having the initial conversation outlined in the “church discipline process” document cited above.]

It is advised that more than one church elder be a part of this conversation and one of them be the elder who will oversee the church discipline process for this member. The setting would need to be somewhere that allows for a conversation of this depth.

Note: A point of emphasis in this conversation should be that the discipline is not for the “size” of the sin, but for the member’s posture towards his/her sin. That is why the statement is made, “Hiding sin reveals that our commitment to our sin is greater than our commitment to Christ.”

When Is Church Discipline Warranted?

All of the discussion above begs the questions, “When should church discipline be initiated? For what kind of life struggles is church discipline warranted?” There are four criteria which should be met in order to assess whether a given situation warrants church discipline.

1. Clearly Moral

Church discipline is for sin-struggles. Suffering-struggles and aptitude-deficiencies are not matters of church discipline. When someone is in the process of church discipline it should be clear that they are willfully and persistently violating the moral teaching of Scripture and, thereby, disregarding the Lordship of Christ.

2. Lack of Cooperation with the Plan of Change

The purpose of the systematized process in the document linked above is to ensure that the plan of change is (a) biblical, (b) comprehensive, (c) clear, and (d) adequately supported. If these four criteria are met, then non-compliance would be the reason for ineffectiveness. As was stated in the section on “crisis precipitated by hidden sin,” subverting the opportunity to develop a plan of change through hiding and secrecy is also reason for coming under church discipline.

3. Concern for Salvation

Church discipline, at every stage, is a warning; not a punishment. Whatever punishment sin deserves has been paid for by Christ if only we will actively rely on him. Discipline is the increasingly-public voice of the church, as the Body of Christ, drawing attention to the fact that the member under discipline is not actively relying on Christ for freedom from their sin. It is the church saying “God will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7)” by our claim to rely on Christ for the forgiveness of sin without also relying on Christ for freedom from sin.

4. Public Harm to the Reputation of Christ

If “concern for salvation” is the church’s obligation to the member, then “public harm to the reputation of Christ” is the church’s obligation to its unsaved community. When a church holds a member in good standing, the church is saying to its community, “This person is a living example of the redemptive work of Christ.” Church discipline is the process by which the church seeks to either (a) restore the member to a life exemplifying this statement, or (b) uphold its testimony to the community by removing a member who is not actively exemplifying the character of Christ.

* Crisis-prompted church discipline begins at “phase two: engagement by more than one believer, including a church elder, in a formal process of change” because the hidden sin circumvented the opportunity for “phase one: engagement by a friend or pastor in a more informal process.”

Brad Hambrick bio


Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends and God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles.

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Bert Perry's picture

Probably said this with the first installation of this series, but my quibble here is that if we go back to the Greek, we find that discipline comes from the same root word as disciple/discipleship/train, and hence church discipline, in a way, starts from the moment a person walks through that church door or visits the church website.

Not the way Brad is using the word, I understand, but I have to wonder if a lot of the stress over church discipline would disappear if we viewed it as a normal process instead of an extraordinary one.  

dgszweda's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

church discipline, in a way, starts from the moment a person walks through that church door or visits the church website. 

Felt like this in a few churches that I have visited in the past Smile

Bert Perry's picture

That's not how I meant that statement, but I sure did get a kick out of your response.....yeah, been there, too.

dgszweda's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

That's not how I meant that statement, but I sure did get a kick out of your response.....yeah, been there, too.

Couldn't help twisting your statement, it was too funny.

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