Try mentioning the subject of church discipline among fellow Christians in a mixed evangelical audience at a local coffee shop and you’re bound to receive mixed reviews. The overwhelming majority of churches in my town do not practice church discipline. If asked to review a history of their membership meetings (business conferences), you would not find one instance of public church discipline on their records for the last 50-100 years—if you found a single record to begin with.
What is the goal of church discipline? Is it punitive? Is it revenge? Is it to demonstrate authority over people in a spiritual manner? What is the ultimate goal of church discipline and how do you know when you’ve become successful?
Confrontation with a Purpose
The process of church discipline is explained in Matthew 18:15-20. The entire purpose of confronting someone who is living in sin is to bring the individual to a place of confession and repentance to God. If the vertical relationship is restored, the horizontal relationship will be a natural fruit of repentance. The goal is never revenge or punitive damage upon the character of the person being disciplined.
If we examine Matthew 18, we see that Jesus is the One who has given us our marching orders regarding church discipline. This overarching purpose is for the purity of the bride of Christ. Contrary to the opinion of most evangelicals, church discipline is not harsh and mean-spirited. It’s done out of love. Consider the words of Alexander Strauch:
Love is not just happy smiles or pleasant words. A critical test of genuine love is whether we are willing to confront and discipline those we care for. Nothing is more difficult than disciplining a brother or sister in Christ who is trapped in sin. It is always agonizing work – messy, complicated, often unsuccessful, emotionally exhausting, and potentially divisive. This is why most church leaders avoid discipline at all costs. But that is not love. It is lack of courage and disobedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself laid down instructions for the discipline of an unrepentant believer (Matt. 18:17-18). 
Excommunication with a Purpose
It’s one thing to confront someone in sin, but it’s quite a different thing to go through the steps to a final and divisive decision of excommunication. It seems so harsh and antiquated to the modern evangelical church. Would we really put someone outside of our church membership? That seems so counter productive to church growth – right? However, the purpose is to protect the purity of the bride of Christ and to demonstrate a desire as a local church to honor Christ with our lives. It’s one thing to claim to be a Christian, but quite another thing to live as a Christian. Too often evangelical churches put more emphasis on the words rather than the actions.
The entire goal of excommunication is to protect the purity of Jesus’ bride, to honor God, and to cause the people in the church to have a healthy fear of God. All of us should take heed of our own lives, because none of us are beyond a similar fall (1 Cor. 10:12; Acts 5:11). The goal is never revenge and it’s always with a goal of restoration. However, local churches cannot become local community clubs. In order to prevent a church from mission drift and becoming a community club, church discipline must be practiced. John MacArthur, in a blog post from February of 2003, wrote the following:
[Church discipline is] vital to the spiritual health and the testimony of the church. Ignoring church discipline is the most visible and disastrous failure of the church in our time, because it conveys to the world that we’re not really serious about sin. 
This past week we had a members’ meeting (business conference) on Sunday evening. We typically gather as a church and enjoy a meal together and then the elders of the church speak to the business and ministry of the church. During our recent meeting, a particular gentleman came before the church at the end of the meeting during the allotted time for church discipline and addressed the entire church. His goal was to explain himself publicly and ask for forgiveness. He was excommunicated from our church almost two years ago for committing adultery on his wife. After restoration between himself and God and restoration between he and his wife, he came before our church to ask for forgiveness and to request that his membership be reinstated. In my opinion, this is mission accomplished—almost.
It was a great thing to watch the disciplined member come back full circle and be accepted back into the membership of our church family. It was good for the young married couples to see this testimony of forgiveness, covenant keeping, and Christ honoring restoration. It was healthy for our church to see church discipline work as Christ designed. Too often, within evangelical churches, we see people who are held accountable simply move on and press the restart in another church where they’re allowed to harbor without any question or concern. That was not the case with this couple. After many months of difficult conversations, prayer, and ultimately a miracle from the Lord—their marriage was salvaged.
When I left the church campus and reflected upon the entire meeting, I was reminded that we’re not home yet. We must wake up tomorrow and fight the good fight of faith and persevere for the glory of God. We can’t slack off. We can’t afford to be lazy for one single moment in the journey of faith. It’s in those lazy moments that we find ourselves making catastrophic mistakes. We must keep fighting sin and work to become more conformed to the image of Christ until we arrive home.
- Alexander Strauch, Leading With Love, (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 2006), 152.
- John MacArthur, “The Disciplined Church,” (Grace to You, February 5th, 2013).
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