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.