Groups Matter Initiative

February 27, 2014 — Leave a comment

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Regardless of how you think groups ought to be practiced in the local church, almost everyone would agree that groups matter.  In the context of smaller communities, people are known, loved, taught, challenged and led towards obedience to Jesus.  I am passionately convinced of the missional community strategy, but love groups in all shapes and sizes.

My friend Rick Howerton at Lifeway Christian Resources has a distinctive passion for groups as well.  His vision is:

A biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet making disciples that make disciples.

That’s a vision I can get behind!

As a leader in the local church, I also need accountability and goals that will stretch me, which is why I have pledged that our church will launch 100 new groups in this coming year.  Additionally, launching new groups is the single most effective way to connect people into the church community, and this will keep me and my team focused on the task of serving and loving our church well.

As you’re considering the coming year, I’d encourage you to check out Groups Matter, and consider how this effort can keep you accountable to the vision to see new disciples of Jesus made in your city and your neighborhood.

Much of what I have written here in the past focuses on the formative work of discipline in the church – discipleship.  Within Scripture, however, we also find another form of corrective discipline, commonly called “church discipline”.  This series forms the basics for a primer I wrote for The Austin Stone to understand church discipline.


Frequently Asked Questions – Church Discipline

Matthew 18:17 says we are to treat a person as a Gentile or tax-collector, which is just an unbeliever in my understanding. Why wouldn’t we eat with a person who is an unbeliever?

This seems to be good logic based on Jesus’ behavior in the gospel of Matthew, and it would indeed be appropriate to eat with a professing nonbeliever. Likewise in the case of someone who has been excommunicated, meals should be shared only on the condition that they profess to no longer be a believer in Christ.

In this case, we have the biblical mandate to love them with the affection of Christ Jesus, and to consistently share the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for their sin.

If however the hard-hearted brother or sister still confesses to be a Christian and yet lives in open rebellion to the explicit commands of Scripture, 1 Corinthians 5:11 gives us clarity on Matthew 18 that we are to “not even eat with such a one.”

Isn’t church discipline judgmental?  I thought we were not supposed to pass judgment on one another!

This is an excellent question as well, and thankfully, the Bible is not silent to it. Again, we refer to 1 Corinthians 5:12-13:

“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

After indicating that we are not to eat with a person who confesses Christ but lives in open rebellion, Paul tells us in this verse that we are not to judge “outsiders” – those who are not Christians – but we actually do have the mandate to judge those inside the church. And we judge insiders through Jesus’ prescribed course of discipline.

This is not the self-righteous judgment that says, “How dare you!” or “I am better than you,” but rather the loving judgment of the elders and the church that, based on the evidence of a person’s open rebellion, they may not be born again and are certainly resisting the Spirit. We lovingly and with great grief remove them from fellowship for the church’s purity and their good, as to bring about repentance.

Church discipline is never a punishment that we give for sin – Christ took all the punishment for sin on the cross! Rather, church discipline is a loving, heartfelt rebuke that comes with great grief on behalf of those who are meting the discipline.

Finally, we want to reiterate that the objective of discipline is repentance and restoration. If the person who has been removed from fellowship repents, we are to receive them gladly back into the church and restore them gently!

Additional Resources

If you would like to study the topic of church discipline further, below are some suggested resources:

What have you found to be helpful in processing through this critical practice of the church?

Much of what I have written here in the past focuses on the formative work of discipline in the church – discipleship.  Within Scripture, however, we also find another form of corrective discipline, commonly called “church discipline”.  This series forms the basics for a primer I wrote for The Austin Stone to understand church discipline.


The Outcome of Church Discipline

As we have faithfully practiced discipline as a body, we are overjoyed that in almost every circumstance the individual has been brought to repentance and restored with joy.

As to how we receive repentant brothers and sisters back into the fold, Paul gives us a very clear admonition in his letter to the Galatians:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:1-2)

As a grace-filled community of Christ-followers, we have the privilege to welcome and restore a brother or sister who has repented with great joy!  In the same way that God rejoices in the repentance of His children, so too should the church of God rejoice and restore a brother or sister who has turned from their sin. This means that we all forgive our brother or sister and seek their restoration in the community.

The church of God is the place where sinful people can forgive, restore, and rejoice together in a God who rescues us from our sin!

In the case of the unrepentant Christian, the process of discipline should produce a great brokenness for that person and a deep sense of urgent love for that brother or sister to repent of their sin.  Although we cannot associate with a brother continuing in sin, we can love them through persistent prayer and pleas to come back to the fountain of joy, Jesus.

A Prayer for The Church

It is our sincerest hope that as we pursue faithfulness to the Word of God, that He would produce the outcome Peter prayed for in the churches of Asia:

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Pe. 1:22-23)

As we seek holiness, may it produce in us a sincere love for one another and an earnest worship of our great Redeemer, Jesus!

Much of what I have written here in the past focuses on the formative work of discipline in the church – discipleship.  Within Scripture, however, we also find another form of corrective discipline, commonly called “church discipline”.  This series forms the basics for a primer I wrote for The Austin Stone to understand church discipline.


The Process of Church Discipline 

The elders of The Austin Stone have studied, prayed and labored over the process of discipline as we put it into practice in our community.

Before we even begin to talk about the process of discipline, each and every step is covered in prayer and always practiced in plurality.  Through this, we ensure that multiple individuals are thinking sincerely and soberly about any given circumstance.

If we are made aware of or receive an accusation of sin, the first step an elder takes is to determine if that information is accurate. We lovingly approach the individual accused as well as the accuser with questions about the situation.

After careful observation, prayer, and consulting with one another, our elders will typically discern a process of restoration and give some practical guidelines for repentance. Each circumstance is unique and treated with a great deal of wisdom from Scripture and careful attention to the individuals involved.

The repentance process is usually overseen by a particular elder with great care over a period of time. We have seen God work in power through this kind of discipline – He has reconciled marriages, freed individuals from perpetual sin, and unified broken relationships between believers.

In a small minority of cases, individuals remain hard-hearted, and we then involve their wider community or close friends, which has resulted in some repentance.

Finally, should an individual persist in sin, we bring it before the church – our partners at the individual’s particular campus in most circumstances. In the life of our church we have seldom had to do this, but occasionally we will need the body of Christ to know about a hard-hearted brother or sister.

The hope of informing the body in the circumstances above is not to punish or shame the person in sin, but to help the body pray for and – as appropriate – lovingly challenge that person to consider their heart and seek repentance. We know that if not for God’s grace to us we would all be in a similar situation, so we beg him for more mercy for ourselves and that individual.

A Few Practical Concerns

When the elders inform the body of an individual who is unrepentant, we often receive a number of questions, such as:

  • What happens if I see this person in public?
  • How do we respond to their family?
  • What did that person do?

Much of how we handle these scenarios is rooted in our understanding of Paul handling something similar:

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Co. 5:11)

We believe this text gives us guidelines for how to handle someone who will not change – we remove the intimate fellowship of communal life together, which most often occurs around meals.

The heart of Paul, and the rest of the Scriptures, is that every believer who comes in contact with an unrepentant brother or sister cannot pretend that nothing is wrong. We have the obligation to love that person, and to love them in this case is to remind them of their continued ongoing sin.  We simply cannot be in their presence without the acknowledgement of their ongoing disobedience.

In the same way unrepentant sin grieves the heart of God, unrepentant sin grieves God’s church. In the same way God cannot tolerate sin apart from faith in the work of Christ, God’s church also cannot tolerate unrepentant sin from someone not seeking faith in Christ.

Much of what I have written here in the past focuses on the formative work of discipline in the church – discipleship.  Within Scripture, however, we also find another form of corrective discipline, commonly called “church discipline”.  This series forms the basics for a primer I wrote for The Austin Stone to understand church discipline.


The Heart Behind Church Discipline

When we hear the phrase ‘church discipline,’ many of us hear nails scraping down a chalkboard. For others, we’re bombarded with images of overbearing authority. However, the biblical prescription of discipline is not a process of punishment or abuse, but of love.

Our community practices formative and corrective discipline not because we like to say “gotcha!” or shame our members into submission, but because we genuinely love one another and want God’s absolute best for us all. To remain in sin or allow others to do so is not only to do something wrong, it is to miss out on the joy and reward of a life of obedience to Christ.

In most circumstances of sin, God graciously grants His children the gift of repentance when first confronted. The Holy Spirit works in the heart of the believer, and he or she is often thankful that someone cares enough to point out their offense and restore them to obeying God’s Word. In Christ we’re made new and our desires are transformed such that we want to be a people who humbly receive the faithful words of a friend (Prov. 27:5-6).

In some cases, however, a brother or sister persists in disobedience to God’s explicit commands. In response the church must lovingly, graciously submit to the authority of God and escalate the level of discipline, and if necessary, remove the person from fellowship.

The heart of discipline is love and the hope of discipline is repentance and full restoration to fellowship. Disassociation is painful for all involved, and yet undeniably necessary if we are to remain true to the bible. The only consolation through the whole process is the hope we have through faith in God’s Word: that ultimately suffering the loss of their Christian family and all the benefits that come with it would lead them to see the error of their ways and repent.

We know personally how difficult this sounds, and even more, how difficult it really is to practice. And yet as believers in Jesus, we must always fight to believe that God’s Word is true and sufficient for all we need for life in godliness. The greatest joy and fullness of life is found in obeying God’s word! Church discipline is part of enjoying God.

Additionally, the discipline process also serves as a warning for rest of the body (1 Tim. 5:20). Even the Apostles, the fathers and heroes of our faith, understood it as a reminder that in our flesh, we are all prone to desire sin more than God. In love, the church is to discipline that its people might grow in holiness, peace, unity, and the fear of the Lord.

I know many of you have been hurt by church discipline, but where have you experienced the grace of God through it?