In Defense Of Church Discipline

Jonathan Merritt has an interesting two-part post chronicling reaction to the struggles of The Village Church, a large (twice the size of at least two NAPARC denominations) multi-site Acts 29 congregation in Texas, with a church discipline case. In this case a woman discovered that her husband was addicted to child pornography.  She sought an annulment of the marriage without consulting the church leadership (I’m unsure, whether, in their polity, they are elders) and she found herself under church discipline for proceeding with the annulment without consulting the church. This, they said, violated the church membership covenant to which they both had agreed. She renounced the jurisdiction of the church and they proceeded with public discipline, including a mass email to the membership. The move by the church to discipline the woman caused a storm of protest. In response the pastor has apologized for the way the case was handled.

In his posts, Merritt interviews Jonathan Leeman at 9 Marks about his understanding of discipline and Eugene Volokh about the law surrounding this sort of case. Both Leeman’s and Volokh’s comments are helpful. Volokh notes that most such cases should stay out of the civil courts but that churches who abuse the process could find themselves liable to civil action. Leeman is correct that the intent behind church discipline is to restore and the abuse of discipline is grievous and abuse does happen.

Wade Burleson, whom Merritt quotes, is surely right when he says, “Church discipline doesn’t mean kicking people out when they fail…it means loving people enough to walk with them through their valleys.” Amen. We should remember some basics, however. Nowhere in Merritt’s two-part post is any reference made to Matthew 18:

“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” (Matt 18:15–20; ESV)

Our Lord himself outlined the basic procedure for church discipline. In the case of personal offense, one ought to be reconciled to another. The church as an institution becomes involved when the offender is resistant. Only after the impenitent person refuses does it the procedure become more formal. Our Lord did say, “tell it to the church.” That is a public announcement to a congregation, to the visible, institutional church. Should one remain impenitent, that person does lose status in the church. It’s in this church-judicial context that our Lord spoke of binding and loosing and a gathering of two or three. We cannot be faithful to God’s Word and not excise this passage from Holy Scripture.

The instruction is so plain, so straightforward that the real question here seems to be whether there is such a thing as a visible church, whether there are officers, and whether they are charged with the matter of discipline. Merritt seems to cast doubt on the perspicuity of Scripture but it’s difficult for me to see how, in light of this passage and Matthew 16, one could think that our Lord Jesus did not establish an institution and a process for discipline. We see it also reflected in Paul’s dealings with the Corinthian church.

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:4-5; ESV )

These passages, taken in context, clearly say that Christ gave the keys, including discipline, to fallible sinful human beings. They will err. When they do, they should be held to account. We should also remember, however, that discipline cases are often very difficult. I’m sure that many ministers and elders can remember cases that they wish had been handled differently and many others that they wished had turned out differently. What faithful minister has not wept before the Lord over a discipline case? What elder has not trembled at the thought of reading a sentence of excommunication in a public worship service? I have sat in consistory (elder and pastor) meetings to pray with men about what to do about one who has walked away from the church. I’ve heard arguments in favor of erasure and arguments in favor of discipline of those who walk away. That is a difficult case in which good people will disagree.

Merritt wants to leverage the interpretation of Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, however, with a dictum from Augustine about love. If an interpretation leads to more love, it’s likely more true. Okay but who gets to define love? On what basis? Augustine was not a late-modern subjectivist. When he spoke of love, he was speaking of God’s love that is objective more than affective. In our culture the very act of church discipline, of calling people to accountability for sin or for impenitence, is considered unloving and yet Scripture would have us regard it quite differently. Those who’ve been faithful through the process of discipline know the hours of grief and suffering and self-sacrifice involved. Most believers will never see that process. Some of us have even seen cases where the person under discipline has repented because of the process. That’s the joyous desired outcome.

Finally, Merritt’s article might give the impression that the practice of church discipline is either a novelty or something those wacky colonial congregationalists got up to but that would be a false impression. In the Reformed churches our process is laid out in church orders that have their roots in the 16th century. I don’t know much about the polity of the Acts 29 churches but in the Reformed churches officers are accountable to broader (or higher) assemblies and courts. Our process to excommunication takes months and years. Before one may be excommunicated the case must go to the regional assembly of pastors and elders (classis) and the procedure reviewed. Sometimes classis says, in effect, “Not yet. Keep trying.” In other words, in a Reformed church there are checks and balances. If there is abuse at the narrower (lower) level there are places to which one may appeal. I have seen laity pursue cases all the way from consistory (the local elders and ministers) to classis and thence to synod only to see synod, the last court of appeal, overturn the previous assemblies and vindicate the laity. I suspect that when some people talk about discipline they’re only thinking of local, unaccountable pastors. In Reformed churches it isn’t so or at least it ought not be.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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5 comments

  1. I’m no theologian, nor have I ever attended a seminary, so this should say something. I’ve known for years since listening to certain Reformed ministers (like Mike Horton and Kim Riddlebarger) that church discipline is one of the marks of a true church, and this mark has been emphasized among the Reformed since the Protestant Reformation. And in the present, the lack of church discipline in Romanism serves as a great source of criticism for it.

    It certainly is no novelty, and the reason some perhaps don’t see it much is because they have a Calvary Chapel like polity and environment. In the case of Calvary Chapels (the non-denominational denomination), there is no such thing as church membership. Among others, there is more of a concern for the outward care (gym, food court, etc.) and happiness of members rather than the protection of the flock from wolves, both outside and within. Others who come from mainline churches may also be accustomed to a more lax environment, except if it concerns acts of mercy for the local community or abroad.

    In light of all this, when Reformed Christians are only a speck in the U.S., it should be no surprise that church discipline as practiced by Reformed churches is rarely seen.

    Perhaps more churches should now consult lawyers in order to come into agreements with all members to help avoid legal problems? Many Christians seem to be of the mindset that if the church fails me, let me go to the gov’t to help fight the church. They would rather do that than perhaps ever be wronged.

  2. Acts 29, which is a creation of Mark Driscoll – installs the modern/popular “covenant agreement” document which is a legal instrument similar to a prenuptial – except there is a non-disclosure clause with other elements that border on cult-like sanctions.

    Acts 29 traces Calvary Chapel’s “Moses model” with their “vision-casting leader” update and adds the requirement of real legal steps in the case of violations.

    Backstory: in 2007 when Mark Driscoll adjusted his by-laws to grant him full power in his empire, many of his elders and associate pastors were wrongly persecuted and excommunicated. Plus, when Driscoll himself faced church discipline 2014, he resigned. Yet, none who sought reconciliation spoke out, due to the salaries/perks they would lose in violating their “covenant”. Matt Chandler, above anyone else, knew intimately, the limits of Acts 29 to keep Driscoll accountable.

    It is no surprise whatsoever, in light of the entire Mars Hill disaster, this poor woman at TVC suffered insult to injury in her plight. To Chandler’s credit (?) he finally did a good thing in the damage control department – apologizing and publicly teaching what was right/wrong. Yet, some think this result only occurred to avert bad publicity, as the woman went pubic with her protests.

    The ever popular, megachurch membership covenant (thank Rick Warren for implementing it) is there to protect the vision-casting leader and his assets. Each celebrity leader owns the IP on his brand and all the products therein; frequently including real estate, brand trade marks, media production companies (Word for Today); trade names for conferences (Resurgence), beond typical products like books and tapes. Numerous revenue streams. (Hill$ong, anyone?)

    This is why the term “Evangelical Industrial Complex” applies. It’s all about the celebrity leader pushing the vision of the big thing God is “doing”; buy the book, tape set, attend the seminar. This business plan is taught through subscriptions and pastoral/leader conferences like “Thrive” – where they teach classes titled: “Creative Solutions that Will Grow the Culture of Generosity In Any Church”.

    Much could be said.

    I hope someday, the details of this system can be effectively exposed and refuted properly.

    Mega/multisite-churches are posing as Christian churches but are imposing a legal document on members without clarifying what precisely membership covenants are. (The misuse of a biblical covenant is ironic, here. As a woman, if someone told me up front, I’d be unsupported in a case of egregious marital failure or some other wrongful abuse, then I’d be liable, in some way, I would not join that church.)

    Churches should educate members, “what does the church do, when the worse happens?”. Er um, I remember now. . . .the Bible and the confessions do that!

    It is gut-wrenching to know (as I do) those suffering from various abuses within their visible “church” – to the point of post traumatic stress (physical symptoms) where these folk cannot enter a doorway of a church again, as they experience real nausea and worse. Or who have received dangerous retaliation from the church (Dr. Anderson/Pajama Pages blog) mafioso style. (Dr. Anderson’s persecution is terrifying in light of anything else I’ve seen. He won a legal battle against Perry Noble/New Spring.)

    Yes, men fail due to sin. Thank God for the Presbyterian model in scripture.

    Yet, I’m pointing to the heartless, retaliatory spirit and actions, driven by power, greed and self-interest of large, multi-site venues naming Christ, as their brand.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    Is it true that advisement from a “higher” source meaning classis, synod, etc. can be ignored by the local congregation within the URC? Is is true that one congregation may ignore the censure/ discipline of another congregation?
    I have in past times had people make direct appeals/ complaints to elders rather than ever taking it upon themselves to speak to me about whatever matter. That would seem to promote mistrust and abdication of one’s responsibilities in being a member of a church. Not to mention the elders becoming a gripe hearing board. I would like to think that elders would have better things to tend to than doing someone else’s work.

    By the way, hello. It has been a while.

    -Durell Flood

    • Hi Durell,

      Good to hear from you. This is a good question.

      The URCNAs speak of “broader” and “narrower” assemblies rather than higher or lower, though I’ve seen reasonable arguments that such nomenclature isn’t that deeply rooted in Dutch Reformed history. Nevertheless, when Synod issues a doctrinal deliverance the congregations are bound to it. They have the choice whether to stay in or leave the federation but, as far as I know, they cannot ignore it. Art. 29 says:

      All decisions of a broader assembly are to be received with respect and submission, and shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they are in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order. Consistories who are convinced that they cannot comply with a decision of a broader assembly because it does not agree with the Word of God cannot be compelled to do so, provided that they state to the classis the points at which the decision of the assembly disagrees with the Word of God. If a Consistory refuses to comply with the final decision of the synod and a subsequent synod rules by majority vote that submission in the matter is essential for the unity of the churches, the congregation is no longer eligible for membership in the federation.

      http://rscottclark.org/tag/urcna-church-order-4th-edition/

      As to the latter question both Matt 18 and the church order are clear.

      Article 52
      In case anyone errs in doctrine or offends in conduct, as long as the sin is of a private character and does not give public offense, the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.

      In a private matter, the first step is go, talk to the person in question. Failing that, one has disobeyed God’s Word. In a public matter, it is a different question. If one approaches a consistory about a private matter before speaking to the other person, consistory should direct them to fulfill Matt 18 before hearing the case.

      Blessings.

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