Biblical Basis

Church discipline (which may also be referred to as "accountability") is one of the most maligned ministries in the modern church. It is also one of our most desperately needed ministries and one of the greatest blessings God has given to his people.

The Bible never presents church discipline as being negative, legalistic or harsh, as modern society does. True discipline originates from God himself and is always presented as a sign of genuine love.

The Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6).

Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law (Ps. 94:12; cf. Deut. 8:5; 1 Cor. 11:32).

God's discipline in the church, like the discipline in a good family, is intended to be primarily positive, instructive, and encouraging. This process, which is sometimes referred to as "formative discipline," involves preaching, teaching, prayer, personal Bible study, small-group fellowship, and countless other enjoyable activities that challenge and encourage us to love and serve God more wholeheartedly.

On rare occasions God's discipline, like the discipline in a family with young children, also may have a corrective purpose. When we forget or disobey what God has taught us, he corrects us. One of the ways he does this when we fall into sin is to call the church to seek after us and lead us back on the right track. This process, which is sometimes called "restorative discipline, " is likened to a shepherd seeking after a lost sheep.

"If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off" (Matt. 18:12-13).

Thus, corrective or restorative discipline is never to be done in a harsh, vengeful or self-righteous manner. It is always to be carried out in humility and love, with the goal of restoring someone to a closer walk with Christ (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1).

Jesus himself sets forth the basic process for exercising church discipline. In Matthew 18:15-20, he describes four basic steps we are to take to restore a straying brother or sister:

  • If a sin seems too serious to overlook, we are to go to our brother in private and appeal to him to repent.
  • If he will not listen to repeated personal appeals,1 we are to take one or two other believers along, so that they too can urge the brother to turn back to God.
  • If the brother persists in his sin, we are to seek the formal involvement of the church, initially by seeking assistance from our elders, and if necessary, by informing and asking for the prayers and assistance of the entire congregation. 
  • If even these efforts do not bring our brother to his senses, Jesus commands us to treat the person as an unbeliever, which means we no longer have normal, casual fellowship with him, but instead use any encounters to bring the gospel to him and lovingly urge him to repent and turn back to God.

The Bible leaves us a great deal of latitude in how we carry out these four steps, so various churches will approach this process in different ways. Most churches agree, however, that the disciplinary process has three main goals:

  • to restore the wandering brother or sister to the Lord (Matt. 18:12-15; Gal. 6:1);
  • to protect the unity of the church and guard other believers from being harmed or led into sin themselves (1 Cor. 5:6); and,
  • most importantly, to show respect for the honor and glory of God (1 Pet. 2:12).

Discipline Can Lead to a Lawsuit

These noble goals do not prevent some people from reacting angrily when they are confronted about their sin, even if it is done in love. That anger is often vented as gossip and slander against church leaders. In some cases, it also leads to lawsuits against the church.

Civil courts historical deference toward church discipline has declined significantly in recent years. As a result, more and more churches are finding themselves being threatened with lawsuits related to disciplinary matters. In one highly visible case (Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville), church leaders where held liable for over $400,000 for carrying out discipline against a woman who was openly living in adultery. The award was based on two causes of action:

  • Invasion of privacy: When announcing the excommunication of Marian Guinn, the church leaders informed the congregation and other local churches in the same denomination how and why her behavior violated Scripture.  The court found that this could constitute an invasion of privacy, which is typically defined as a "public disclosure of private facts which are objectionable to a reasonable person and not of legitimate concern to the public."
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress:  Because the church's announcement caused Marian Guinn apprehension and embarrassment, the court held that the church could be held liable for the "tort of outrage," which is typically defined as "intentionally or recklessly causing severe emotional distress to another by extreme and outrageous conduct."

Since the elders' actions were deliberate, they were not shielded from liability by virtue of the church's status as a nonprofit corporation. Therefore, they were found to be personally liable, along with the church, for the damages caused by their decision to carry out biblical discipline.

Reducing Exposure to Legal Liability

In the light of the Guinn decision and other more recent cases, there are two key elements to avoiding legal problems when seeking to restore a wandering saint. First, before conflict arises, clearly establish your policies for exercising discipline by taking the following actions:

  • Amend your church's disciplinary guidelines to address key aspects of discipline, especially the issues of whether you will continue discipline after an attempted withdrawal and whether you reserve the right to inform your members and other churches of your disciplinary actions. (Each of these issues is covered in the model Relational Commitments.)
  • Obtain informed consent to your disciplinary policies through membership classes, interviews and explicit Relational Commitments.
  • Teach regularly on church discipline so members remain aware of the biblical basis, purpose, and steps of discipline; this will help to reduce the likelihood of confusion and surprise when discipline is exercised.

The second key element in reducing your exposure to legal liability is to carry out church discipline in a redemptive, biblically faithful manner. When carrying out church discipline, we are always safest when we are doing exactly what God commands! This usually involves the following steps:

  • Acting in a loving, patient, and redemptive manner, rather than being harsh, abrupt, or vindictive.
  • Be consistent in applying discipline to the people in your church.
  • Be careful not to show favoritism as you follow your disciplinary guidelines.
  • Always speak the truth.
  • Communicate only to people who have a legitimate right to know.
  • If discussing unproven allegations with officers, label them as such; do not allow unsubstantiated charges to be publicly proclaimed by the church.
  • Base decisions on clearly delineated biblical grounds.
  • If you get a threatening call from an attorney, be polite and gracious (Prov. 15:1), and provide clear documentation of your disciplinary policies and the commitments your members have made to abide by those policies.

Loving Accountability Can Actually Attract People to Your Church

Given our culture's love affair with autonomy and its antagonism toward accountability, there is no doubt that some people will have an initial skepticism or aversion towards church discipline. But most people have a similar aversion toward the concepts of original sin, God's holy wrath and the need for Christ to die in our place on the cross. The answer to this human aversion is not to abandon biblical truth and practice to avoid making people feel uncomfortable.

The solution is to preach and live out the truths of God's Word so lovingly and consistently that God will use our behavior to draw others to Christ (1 Pet. 2:12, 3:15-16). As Jonathan Edwards, one of America's greatest theologians and pastors, wrote, "If strict discipline, and thereby strict morals, were maintained in the church, it would in all probability be one of the most powerful means of conviction and conversion towards those who are without." 2

It is possible that some people will shy away from a church that exercises discipline. But there are many other people who are looking for a church home where there is genuine love, fellowship and community—a place where people are serious about helping one another to be conformed to the image of Christ. This attitude is beautifully reflected in the following letter, which was written by a young woman who joined a particular church largely because of its commitment to loving accountability.

Becoming a member of a church that exercises biblical accountability is exciting to me. I have much to learn about church discipline, and I have been teased that I'll be in favor of it until it intersects my life!  Nonetheless, for some basic reasons I believe church discipline is a necessity for the health of a church body.

Personally, I know the trouble of taming and training my own sinful nature to walk obediently under the lordship of Christ. Therefore, to be placed under the authority of leaders who take seriously my need for accountability is both a tremendous growth opportunity and a blessing. Were I to fall into sin out of ignorance or even outright rebellion, I would like to know that there would be consequences—consequences such as confrontation of my sin, guidance in dealing with it biblically, and then support while I work to correct my behavior. Embarrassing as that all may be, it serves the greater purpose of enabling me to walk closely with Christ.

Part of my zeal for church discipline comes from having previously attended churches that needed to exercise discipline but did not take on the responsibility. In those churches I watched marriages and families break up without the church's acknowledgment. Terrible, infectious feuds between families developed into division within the congregation. Also, individuals' sinful habits grew while church leadership appeared to merely shake its head.

It seems the church shied away from intervening so as not to complicate matters or trouble the involved parties. However, I believe the most loving act would have been to confront each situation and help in resolving the conflicts. Proper administration of discipline would have possibly given opportunity for restored health to the troubled parties and to the church that was looking on.

Finally, I believe people need standards from which to operate. Ideally those standards would be developed by God's Word and modeled by the church. I remember my family floundering as my parents sought for such disciplinary standards. My sisters struggled terribly as they were drawn into adolescent curiosity with drugs, alcohol and sex. We needed wisdom, loving support, and biblical truth to be spoken into our situation. Our church was uninvolved, seemingly unprepared and as helpless as we were. My family found outside standards from which to operate; shame and the advice of 80's media and psychology. The resulting decisions have left each of us with regret and hurt.

Administering church discipline seems like a frightening and difficult task. After all, who would like to be the one carrying out disciplinary action on his brother? However, the worth of such a program is immeasurable. It only makes sense to me that this would be a part of God's plan in creating a body of believers who are refined and committed to His ways.

Thank God for giving this young woman such a clear insight into God's design for his church! May he grant church leaders grace and courage to teach and promote this humble and hopeful attitude throughout the body of Christ.

Endnotes

1 The verbs used in Matthew 18:15-17 imply repeatedly going rather than making a one-time effort.

2 The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Two, Sermon V, "The Nature and End of Excommunication" (The Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, PA, Reprinted 1995).