22 Mistakes Pastors Make in Practicing Church Discipline

Andy Naselli —  July 13, 2012 — 8 Comments

Jonathan Leeman, “Appendix: Mistakes Pastors Make in Practicing Discipline,” Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (9Marks; Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 139–40:

Pastors sometimes make the following mistakes regarding formal church discipline.

  1. They fail to teach their congregation what church discipline is and why they should practice it.
  2. They fail to practice meaningful membership, which includes (1) teaching people what membership entails before they join; (2) encouraging casual attenders to join; (3) carefully interviewing everyone who wants to join; (4) giving regular oversight to all the flock; and (5) maintaining an up-to-date membership list that accurately reflects who is present at the weekly gathering.
  3. They fail to teach their congregation about biblical conversion, especially the need for repentance.
  4. They fail to teach new members as they enter the church about the possibility of church discipline, and that preemptive resignations don’t work.
  5. They fail to ensure that the church’s public documents (bylaws, constitution, articles of incorporation, etc.) address the procedures of church discipline, thereby exposing the church to legal risk.
  6. They fail to follow the steps of Matthew 18 or 1 Corinthians 5, depending on the circumstance. In a Matthew 18 situation, for instance, they fail to begin the process by confronting sin privately.
  7. They misjudge how quickly to move toward formal discipline, either by dragging their feet or by rushing into judgment.
  8. They fail to adequately teach and explain to a congregation why a particular act of discipline is necessary.
  9. They tell the congregation too many details about a particular sin for which they are recommending discipline, embarrassing family members and causing weaker sheep to stumble.
  10. They treat the processes of church discipline entirely as a legal process with little consideration for shepherding the unrepentant individual’s heart.
  11. They give little attention to the differences between kinds of sinners and how that might affect how long a church should bear with a pattern of sin before proceeding to subsequent stages of discipline (see 1 Thess. 5:14).
  12. They forget that they too live by the gospel’s provision of mercy, and therefore prosecute the discipline from a posture of self-righteousness. Other mistakes follow from this wrong posture, such as an overly severe tone and standoffishness.
  13. They fail to truly love the sinner . . . by not begging the Lord for his or her repentance.
  14. They demand too much from a smoldering wick or bruised reed. In other words, their stipulations for repentance are too high for someone who has been deeply enslaved in sin’s grip.
  15. They fail to properly instruct the congregation on how to interact with the unrepentant sinner, such as how to relate to him or her in social situations and how to pursue his or her repentance.
  16. They fail to invite the disciplined individual to continue attending services of the church so that he or she might continue to hear God’s Word (assuming there is no threat of criminal harm). Also, they fail to inform the church that everyone should hope for the disciplined individual to continue attending.
  17. They put the responsibility for leading the discipline process entirely on the shoulders of one man, the senior pastor, thereby tempting individuals in the church to accuse the senior pastor of being personally vindictive.
  18. They fail to have sufficient elder involvement in the congregation’s life, such that the elders are unaware of the state of the sheep. This failure of formative discipline will inevitably weaken the church’s ability to do corrective discipline well.
  19. They fail to teach God’s Word on a weekly basis.
  20. They allow the congregation to approach a case of discipline with a wrongful spirit of retribution, rather than with the loving desire to warn the unrepentant sinner about God’s ultimate retribution to come.
  21. They pursue discipline on nonbiblical grounds (playing cards, dancing, etc.).
  22. They pursue discipline for any reason other than for the good of the individual, the good of the church, the good of the onlooking community, and the glory of Christ.

Related:

  1. Two Accessible Books on Church Membership
  2. A Popular Primer on the Church
  3. A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline

8 responses to 22 Mistakes Pastors Make in Practicing Church Discipline

  1. Helpful material. Thanks.

    “They fail to teach . . . that preemptive resignations don’t work.”

    This bit really concerns me. Isn’t a church that pursues discipline after a person has resigned guilty of harassment? And if the goal of discipline is partially to protect the purity of the body and the reputation of the church, doesn’t resignation address these concerns?

    • No, resignation does not address those concerns because the congregation will still have fellowship with the unrepentant member, treating them as if nothing is different. However the Bible clearly says we are to treat them as an unbeliever if they refuse to repent, and we are to no longer have fellowship with them. In some cases, resignation may just be a way to keep all their church friends intact and not have their sin publicly addressed.

    • Allow me to add one more reason why we should teach that resignations don’t work.

      As a pastor I am not simply after the purity of my church, but the full and complete Lordship of ever person under my charge. If resignation is a consistently viable option to end church discipline, then I am communicating that punishment is sometimes an acceptable goal of such a process. But such is not the case. Punishment is never a legitimate goal of church discipline. Rather, repentance is always the goal. But repentance will never happen if the back door of the church is left wide open, allowing individuals in sin simply to run away, never having to actually be held accountable. By firmly holding the back door closed, a person must confront the congregation that is called by God to lovingly discipline them.

      The reality that we as pastors face, however, is that this closing of the back door is one of the hardest parts of implementing church discipline, as I have witnessed again and again in many churches, including my own.

  2. Your comments make sense if the person tries to actually stay at the church. But is that likely to happen? I would think someone who is at such odds with a significant group in their church to the point of resignation would be moving on. And are therefore no longer under the accountability umbrella of that church. If we pursue them after that, what’s our rationale for not disciplining every believer in town that we believe is in sin? Or out of town for that matter?

    If a person resigns and ceases regular fellowship with the church, then it seems to me the key issues of church discipline have been addressed:

    1) The purity of the body… the person is gone.
    2) The reputation of the church and God in the community… they have made a break with the church so they no longer endorse or have the endorsement of the church.
    3) The church has done everything it can to bring the errant to restoration. What else can a church do without crossing the line into bullying and harassing?

    • Buck Jones Jr. June 28, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      If the person leaves the church, the congregation should be instructed that the person broke fellowship because sin in his life and that they are not to fellowship with him as if he were a true Christian in good standing. The goal is to win him back.

  3. Steven Gilchrist June 24, 2013 at 6:50 am

    Andy,

    Would you say, based on point #11, that chuch discipline should or should not happen with every sin we see another member commit?

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