In perhaps the most quotable movie of all time, the character Vizzini frequently utters, “Inconceivable!”. When the Man in Black fails to fall while climbing a rope up the Cliffs of Insanity, he once again declares this to be inconceivable. It is then that Inigo Montoya utters his famous words:
You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”
I’m a “word guy”—I love words. I love words with wide semantic ranges. I love learning new words and discovering nuances in them. Words are wonderful! Words can evoke myriad responses in people, even when hearing the same word. Take the word discipline, for example. This word means different things to different people and even means different things to the same people at different times. When a professional athlete shows up to training camp 30 pounds overweight, he is said to lack discipline. When a teenager violates curfew yet again, she experiences the discipline of her parents. When pursuing graduate education one must choose a specific discipline in his or her chosen field. When an exhausted mother insists her three-year-old brush his teeth before climbing into bed, she is trying to instill good discipline in him. I suspect, however, that none of these uses of the word discipline evoke quite the same response as church discipline.
I was recently asked about this very issue. The one asking said in his experience church discipline always meant a member was being excommunicated—expelled from the fellowship of the church—for ongoing and unrepentant sin. For him church discipline was always negative. It was a serious and grave step, one that was always harsh and always final. In March I wrote an article about the unexpected gift that church discipline is, though in that article I was writing about “the final step of church discipline” as we read about in 1 Corinthians 5:3–5, not the process of church discipline.
For many churches, church discipline means a specific series of steps in correcting sinful behavior. Matthew 18 is nearly always invoked. There Jesus taught his disciples about life in the community of the church.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.Matthew 18:15–20 ESV
Churches have often understood this as a formal process, and the way it is often practiced (consider the one asking the question above; for him it was always formal and always headed toward that final step) indicated that excommunication was the only possible outcome. The reality of what Jesus is saying here is that excommunication should always and only be that final, last-ditch effort to win a brother or sister in Christ. If a church moves directly to that step, something has gone wrong in a very serious way.
The truth is that in a normal, healthy, well-functioning church, church discipline should be happening all the time, just as it does in a family. It is impossible for a group of sinful people—and where there is a group of people, they are sinful—to not sin against one another in some manner. Church discipline is the means we have been given to live together in community. What, exactly, is it? Church discipline is any action a church takes to correct a member and includes everything from exhortation to excommunication.
Church discipline happens in a variety of contexts. When a member reaches out to another member and says, “Hey, you might want to rethink that post on social media; it could be taken this wrong way…”, that is church discipline taking place. When a member reaches out to another member because she did or said something insensitive or even rude, that is church discipline. When a believer is engaged in outright sin and is exhorted or called to repentance, that, too, is church discipline, but these examples are all negative, or corrective in nature. That’s not all there is to discipline.
When a parent demands that a toddler brush his teeth before bed, that toddler has not done anything wrong, yet what the parent is doing is discipline. Discipline—including church discipline—can be either corrective or formative. When we speak of the discipline of athletes, for example, we usually mean it in the formative sense. An athlete is disciplined when she eats well or when he practices his free throws. These good behaviors have been formed in them. We discipline our children to engage in good practices of hygiene. We do a similar thing in the church. Yes, we correct negative behaviors, but we also seek to form positive behaviors. When we are exhorted to pray or to reach out to friends and neighbors and family and coworkers with the gospel or to read Scripture, the church is seeking to instill good, positive disciplines in our lives. This is discipline, too.
I love how the author of Hebrews puts this need for mutual discipline:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.Hebrews 10:24–25 ESV
The word translated “stir up” means to “rouse to activity”, to provoke. It means to agitate. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, a friend of my mother’s would often bark at my siblings and me to “stop agitatin'” each other. Inevitably I would stand up straight and look at the sibling I was agitatin’ and would begin chanting “Agitate Agitate Agitate” over and over again while twisting my body back and forth like a washing machine on, well, “agitate mode”, as it stirred up the clothing being washed. As I think back to the times I did this, I realize just how annoying it must have been to all in the room—and that’s the point! To stir up one another to love and good works is to irritate or annoy or agitate, but in a good, loving way. This means we step on each other’s toes from time to time, but we engage in an action to help one another by either correcting or forming good discipline. The writer of Hebrews is clear about the intended purpose of this: “stir up one another to love and good works”. Church discipline is only true discipline if this is the aim. The aim of discipline in the church is love. We love the Lord. We love his church. We love one another. We want what is best for one another, and that requires we call one another to move away from sin (corrective discipline) and to pursue love and good works (formative discipline).
Church discipline should not be a scary idea. Rightly understood, it should cause us to take great comfort that God has not left us alone. He sent us his Spirit who works through his people, that we might become more faithful. Whether we’re being called out for ways we’re falling short of the glory of God through our attitudes or behaviors, etc., or we’re being called into greater faithfulness, let us praise God that he loves us and demonstrates this love for his people by giving us church discipline. To say this another way, church discipline is the practice of making disciples.