Church discipline

From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2017. Article 14: Discipline in the church.

This is a picture of a church in Munster Germany where cages were once used to punish people promoting heresy against the church.

From Article 14, titled “Discipline in the Church” from our Confession of faith, paragraph 1: We believe that the practice of discipline in the church is a sign of God’s offer of forgiveness and transforming grace to believers who are moving away from faithful discipleship or who have been overtaken by sin. Discipline is intended to liberate erring brothers and sisters from sin, to enable them to return to a right relationship with God, and to restore them to fellowship in the church. It also gives integrity to the church’s witness and contributes to the credibility of the gospel message in the world.

Church discipline has been a central part of church life since the first church began with Jesus’ disciples. Didn’t Jesus tell Peter “Get behind me Satan” when Peter proposed the idea of protecting Jesus from death? A pretty big rebuke.

Understanding the entire scope of church discipline is too big for this message, but there are 2 crucial aspects of church discipline that need to be recognized: (1) discipline is needed for the church to function effectively, (2) discipline is always painful, but there is a wrong way to do it and a right way.

There are many examples of how extreme discipline has resulted in future generations regretting what was done by their ancestors and repenting of the discipline. For example, during the protestant reformation, many Anabaptists were killed for their practice and teaching of adult baptism, which was considered a heretical teaching at the time by the Lutheran church. In 2010, in a service of repentance the Lutheran World Fellowship asked for forgiveness for their actions.

There have also been abuses of discipline within the Mennonite church. In 2000 a healing service was held here are at Millersville Mennonite and a tree was planted to commemorate the repentance of excessive church discipline by Millersville Mennonite church.

Discipline in the church covers a range of actions from corrections, gentle rebukes, severe rebukes to more severe forms of punishment. In modern times in the Mennonite denomination, the most severe form of church punishment is excommunication.

The severity of any discipline is a reflection of how far someone has gone from what the church feels is their core identity. For example, I have received reminders, critiques, corrections and rebukes for what I do on a Sunday morning as I lead worship or preach, and I understand the heart of where the corrections are coming from. These are all forms of church discipline even if they are mild.

In the early church, the apostles considered “denying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, persisting in sinful conduct without repentance, and causing divisions in the church by opposing apostolic teaching” as among the most severe rejections of church identity.

Whenever a church has to repent of it’s past discipline it is basically saying “Our ancestors got it wrong, they emphasized the wrong thing” and when this happens, the question that it leaves us today is: Have we changed from our ancestors?

Who disciplines?

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.

Proverbs 27:6 NIV

From our confession of faith: According to the teaching of Jesus Christ and the apostles, all believers participate in the church’s mutual care and discipline as appropriate. When becoming members of the church, believers therefore commit themselves to give and receive counsel within the faith community on important matters of doctrine and conduct. Mutual encouragement, pastoral care, and discipline should normally lead to confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Depending on the person’s response, admonition may continue within a broader circle. This usually includes a pastor or congregational leader. If necessary, the matter may finally be brought to the congregation.

If you believe it is the pastor’s job to discipline church members, then let me be the first to correct you. Our confession of faith is right in saying that discipline is a responsibility for all believers. When we choose to belong to a church, we are saying to each other, we will all give and receive counsel and discipline.

There are 2 main reasons why we might say it’s the pastor’s job to do discipline: (1) the pastor is an institutional position of authority and (2) discipline isn’t pleasant and we pay someone else to do it for us.

Discipline, as we experience it, is most often exercised in 3 areas of our life: (1) When we were children, our parents would discipline us (2) when we went to school, our teachers would discipline us (3) at work, our bosses discipline us. It is easy to recognize a pattern here, a recognized authority is required to do discipline.

In our church, we do not openly recognize authority in the faith appropriately. It isn’t as clear cut as it is in families, schools or at work. Just because I hold the title of co-pastor doesn’t mean that I have the social capital in my faith relationship to hold you accountable.

When you read Paul’s letters or letters from any of the apostles, you will notice that they often address their brothers and sisters as their children. When they do this, they are asserting their authority in their faith relationship to speak words of direction and correction. It recognizes that they are like parents in their faith journey.

While the main question is: Who in the church should discipline?

I would rather have you answer this question: Who in this congregation would you accept discipline from? If you can answer this question, then I ask you to tell the person who you’ve named in your heart. If you cannot answer this question, then why can’t you answer it?

How do we discipline?

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

I’ll read from our confession of faith: Jesus gave the church authority to discern right and wrong and to forgive sins when there is repentance or to retain sins when there is no repentance. Corrective discipline in the church should be exercised in a redemptive manner. The basic pattern begins with “speaking the truth in love,” in direct conversation between the erring person and another member. Depending on the person’s response, admonition may continue within a broader circle. This usually includes a pastor or congregational leader. If necessary, the matter may finally be brought to the congregation. If the erring member persists in sin without repentance and rejects even the admonition of the congregation, membership may be suspended. Suspension of membership is the recognition that persons have separated themselves from the body of Christ.

Our confession of faith echoes Matthew 18 and it’s a pattern most of us are familiar with. What isn’t so obvious at first sight is that one of the goals of this approach is to be discrete and maintain for as long as possible the trust in friendship. Take note especially of the phrase “…just between the two of you…”. When we talk about our friend’s sin with other people first, we betray their trust and we essentially become gossips. And how can we speak with a brother or sister with any authority when we’ve already betrayed them?

Another very common situation is that we talk (or gossip) about brothers and sisters who are not our friends and this is also a problem. The problem is that when we speak the truth to someone without speaking it in love then a lot of the assumptions that Matthew 18 is based on are compromised. Matthew 18 assumes the person being corrected is loved by the person doing the correction and that there is a relationship. It assumes that the witnesses are respectable people and respected by everyone involved. It assumes that the congregation is on the same page when it comes to the congregation’s identity and purpose. These are a lot of assumptions.

When a brother or sister does something you don’t agree with and you think it shouldn’t belong in church, ask yourself this question first: When is the last time I showed love to that person? It is important to remember how your brother or sister will receive your words of counsel or rebuke. When we speak truth without love, it sounds like judgment.

The majority of church discipline, whether they are words of council, correction or rebuke happen between just two people, and this is good news. It is much less common to have witnesses involved. And it is very rare to have the entire congregation involved.

It is possible that some of you here have witnessed church discipline at a congregational level that has resulted in restoration, but it is more common to see church division. This is mostly because issues that reach a congregational level do not have consensus in the congregation or they are complicated by other issues like authority and power struggles.

At the center of resolving issues at a congregational level is the question of church identity. What is the church’s mission and in what way is this teaching or behavior contrary to that mission?

Jesus is Lord!

When doing church discipline, it is important to keep the big picture in front of us.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Genesis 3:8-13 NIV

The tragic story of Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve are deceived by the serpent into eating the the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is representative of many of the problems we face today. First, being deceived to believe that they could become more like God and forgetting the fact that they were already made in the image of God. And then taking the fruit and eating it, rebelling against God’s authority. The very act of being faithless and rebellious is the opposite of God’s character and so instead of becoming more like God, Adam and Eve became even less than who they already were. And finally trying to hide from what they did and when they were found, pushing the blame from themselves.

Two themes run through scripture starting at Genesis 3: (1) the story of how people continued to rebel against God and (2) how God worked to restore us to the image we were created in.

Adam and Eve are punished for their sin, and while the punishment hurt Adam and Eve, it’s purpose was to prevent irreversible rebellion. Punishment itself is not enough to restore. This is where scripture finds it’s fulfillment in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Instead of living in the fallen image of Adam and Eve, we are restored by Jesus to the image of Jesus, the redeemed creation.

The goal of church discipline isn’t to hurt a brother or sister even though it does hurt, but we discipline to restore them to fellowship for the purpose of the church’s mission in the world.

From our confession of faith: We acknowledge that discipline, rightly understood and practiced, undergirds the integrity of the church’s witness in word and deed. Persistent and uncorrected false teaching and sinful conduct among Christians undermine the proclamation and credibility of the gospel in the world. As a sign of forgiveness and transforming grace, discipline exemplifies the message of forgiveness and new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As a means of strengthening good teaching and sustaining moral conduct, it helps to build faithfulness in understanding and practice.

At the heart of church discipline is identity. Adam and Eve were deceived about their identity. In trying to make themselves more, they lost who they were. In Jesus, we see the opposite, who gave up all he was so that he would become what he was meant to be.

Whenever we practice church discipline, one of the first questions we need to consider is: How is this behavior undermining the church’s mission? And this leads to a second question: What is the church’s mission? Do we all understand it in the same way?

When you pray, have you ever asked God to discipline you? It’s a strange request to make, but on occasion I will ask God to correct me, but I always add, “please be gentle”.

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