church discipleship

The Process of Church Discipline

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.

church discipleship

The Heart Behind Church Discipline

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?

church discipleship

The Theology of Church Discipline

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 Theology of Church Discipline

Throughout the pages of the New Testament, God is seeking to instruct us about His character, our sin and rebellion, the magnificence of Jesus and His atoning work, and how we are to walk in accordance with the will of God. The primary context for us to receive and obey His Word is in the church, among and alongside the people of God.

The biblical model for a church presents a redeemed people who have heard the good news of the gospel, responded in repentance in faith, gather together to worship, appoint qualified elders and deacons, and faithfully engage in the proclamation and demonstration of the good news of the gospel.

The church also has some specific instructions as to how it should operate. From Jesus’ direct teaching to His disciples, we find a particular set of commands for the church on how to approach a brother who is persisting in open sin:

“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. 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.” (Mt. 18:15-20)

In this teaching Jesus lays out a clear pattern as to how we are to love a wayward brother or sister:

  1. We first lovingly confront an individual alone with evidence of the sin.
  2. If the offending brother or sister is clearly in sin and will not repent, we are instructed to take two or three together to establish the charge of the offense.
  3. If the wayward brother or sister still will not repent, we are to tell it to the church.
  4. Finally, if all the previous steps have been faithfully pursued, we are to remove that person from fellowship with the body.

This basic process is also underscored and enumerated in several other passages, including 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Galatians 6:1-5, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, and 1 Timothy 5:19-21. At the Austin Stone, we believe in the authority and goodness of all of God’s Scriptures. That means even with an issue as difficult and painstaking as church discipline, we have sought to put Jesus’ commands into practice with all love and wisdom.

All of us have fallen into sin and struggle every day against the world, our flesh and Satan. The expectation of the Scripture, therefore, is not that believers walk in perfection but rather live lives marked by repentance. When we harden ourselves against repentance, church discipline is often God’s gracious means to bring us to an awareness of our sin and our need to turn from it (Rom. 2:4). In sum, then, the clear message from Scripture with regards to committed church members who fall into the snare of sin is that God will use His community to discipline and restore them with God and His people, if at all. Church discipline is a gift!

austin stone church discipleship

A Primer on Church Discipline

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.

  • Introduction
  • The Theology of Church Discipline
  • The Heart Behind Church Discipline
  • The Practice of Church Discipline
  • The Outcome of Church Discipline
  • Church Discipline FAQs

An Introduction to Church Discipline

As the Austin Stone pursues being a New Testament church existing for the supremacy of the name and purpose of Jesus Christ, we seek to make the Scriptures our authority for all of our life together.

While God’s will expressed in Scripture is less clear on some issues than others, God speaks clearly throughout the New Testament about the nature of church leadership, church membership, and church discipline. The arguments advanced below, therefore, are our attempt to articulate the theology and practice of church discipline we at The Austin Stone feel is faithful to the Bible’s instruction. We will look at three particular areas:

  1. The theology of church discipline
  2. The heart behind church discipline
  3. The practice of discipline at The Austin Stone

In James 5:19-20, we read:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

The heart of the elders at Austin Stone to in practicing church discipline is a deep love for the body and the deep responsibility and burden we have been called to bear on its behalf as we shepherd the church. We pursue discipline because it is an act of love that reflects the Father’s love for us (Heb. 12:6).

Love and discipline go hand in hand, and you cannot love well without the affection of Christ and a commitment to correct with His truth.

What has been your experience with church discipline?  How do you think it plays out in the context of a corporate church and a missional community?


Why Membership Matters

Over the next two posts, I’m going to focus on church membership (which we call “partnership” at The Austin Stone) from a few different angles:

For many in the missional church conversation, this particular topic tends to take a back seat, but there is a strong warrant for membership biblically and necessity as a church on mission over time.

Why Membership Matters

As I talked about in the first post, I believe there is a strong biblical warrant for church membership.  The Austin Stone is blessed to have many friends who lead many different kinds of churches, some of whom disagree with the necessity of church membership, and some who see no reason for it.  In this post, I want to highlight the benefits of membership in the local church.  Below are a few reasons:

Membership enables the church to commit to faithfulness together

Through membership, we commit to faithfully live out our identity as lead servants and lead missionaries of our together.  Covenant membership is a common recognition that we are called to live out our mission in unity, “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:27). Membership is a commitment to be faithful to each other as we strive toward Christ together, and cultivates a common set of expectations (built upon the foundation of the Scriptures) that all in our community can agree upon.

Membership gives us the opportunity to regularly celebrate and repent together

Each year, we take the time to stop and reflect the ways that God has been faithful to grow spiritual fruit in our lives through what we call Annual Partnership Renewal.  Our entire covenant community takes a season to reflect and pray on their commitments to the local church, and to consider how we might more faithfully follow Christ in the year ahead.

Through this reflection, we will be drawn to celebrate and repent, both of which bring much glory to God and joy to our hearts!  As a pastor, this is one of the most fruitful times of shepherding we have corporately, and provides a great deal of insight into the collective life of our church.

Membership enables us to be unified in doctrine when theological questions arise

As we grow to know God more intimately, questions about our faith will inevitably arise. As members, we intentional placing ourselves under the leadership of our elders and submit to a shared doctrinal statement or confession of faith.

When questions arise, we can call on this doctrinal statement as a resource to teach and equip us while we seek understanding through faith.  This common doctrine ought to be clear and precise, and convey the breadth and depth of doctrinal convictions of the church leadership.

For more information about the doctrine of The Austin Stone, please read our Affirmation of Faith.

Membership ultimately glorifies God

God has built the church on people that confess their faith in Christ publicly and represent Him to the world (Matthew 16:13–20). We are Christ’s ambassadors to the world, and Jesus teaches us that unity in the church – even in mission and service – shows the world that we follow Christ (John 13:35).  Covenant membership allows for a highly visible display to the world of our public association with Christ.

What benefits do you see in church membership?  What problems?