I have practiced church discipline for over thirty years, and here are some of the practical reasons often posed to me against the practice of church discipline.
It was abused in the past
When the subject of church discipline surfaces, someone will inevitably point to the abuses of the past as reason enough to squelch the whole conversation and move on to something more palatable. It is an undeniable fact that there have been abuses in the past. George Davis writes, “A perusal of old church minutes would tend to justify the claim that in the past church discipline was often wrongly motivated and sometimes concerned with petty matters.” A classic example of abuse is when Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) forced Henry IV to stand as a penitent in the snow outside the castle at Canossa begging the Pope to cancel his excommunication.
To deny the abuses of the past is to deny reality, but to not practice church discipline because it was at times abused is to be unfaithful to our Lord Jesus Christ. There is really no logical reason to not do something because someone in the past abused it or did it wrongly. We can safely say that everything gets abused by someone, and everything is done wrong by almost everyone at some time. Thus, this same argument would do away with eating, dating, marriage, evangelism, offerings, ad infinitum. Past abuse does not seem to be a plausible reason to abandon church discipline, but rather it is a reason to do it right. George Davis comments, “Abuse in the past, however, can never justify neglect in the present.”
The antidote to abuses in the past and the negative connotations that now are associated with church discipline is to revisit the biblical teachings concerning it and implement it accordingly. It is like child abuse; the answer to child abuse is not to do away with discipline but to exercise good discipline. The worst form of church discipline is no church discipline because that leaves the church powerless, the gospel corrupted, and God dishonored.
It is beyond question that we have become a society of fear rather than a society of faith. Fear always becomes more prominent in secularized societies. When faith is diminished, the void will not remain long; fear will rush in as a mighty river. The first time that we see fear in the human race is immediately after the fall of man. Speaking about Adam and Eve, the Scripture says, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself” (Genesis 3:8–10, italics added). Apparently man had never experienced fear before but now after sin, which separated him from the presence of God and innocence, he is afraid even of God.
There is a godly fear that is a reverential awe of God. Such fear characterizes the godly like Noah and Abraham. It results in worship and obedience to God. The fear I am referring to is quite different and is not associated with reverence of God. This is seen in the ever-increasing types of phobias of our day. These fears are often the result of sin, separation from God, and not fearing God as man should. Fear is an ever-ready substitute for faith. When man’s faith in God is diminished, the prevalence of phobias is likely to increase proportionately—even in the church.
Fear keeps many pastors and Christians from facing the issue of church discipline. These can range from the fear of losing a pastorate, income, friends, a family’s love, respect from peers, diminished chances of being considered by another church, failure, family being severely hurt, being misunderstood, splitting the church, being severely criticized, and being ostracized by our peers, to name a few.
In all truthfulness, my experience indicates these things are some of the realities that must be faced, and they loom ominously and dauntingly over the challenge to practice church discipline. In other words, the fears are well founded. These things do happen, and no one can guarantee they will not. Each of these, not to mention multiples happening at one time, poses a sufficient deterrent to practicing church discipline for the vast majority. Again these fears are well founded, and their becoming a reality can exact an enormous price from those who dare to traverse the grounds of church discipline. This is especially true for the pastor and his family.
Nothing can remove these potential hurts or their concomitant fears. The only way to overcome them is the same way that we overcome every other fear, and that is by faith. Just as fear fills the void left by the absence of faith, faith also casts out fear. Some believe you must have all faith and no fear before you can really follow God. I suppose that is the goal, but I must admit I have never been involved in church discipline where I was not afraid. Some may say, “Well, if you had more faith you would have no fear,” and that may be very true. Two things seem to make the fear a reality with me.
First, I know I have a long way to go in my growth as a Christian, and I do believe when I have reached a certain place I may fear no more. Regretfully I am not there, and my Lord has commanded me to obey now; so I go ahead with some fear. My faith in the Word of God is what I follow, but I must admit that fear stalks the heels of my faith.
Second, I have personally experienced all of the previously mentioned potential fears and hurts (at least in the experiential phase if not the actual); consequently, I know firsthand how costly discipline can be for the church, the pastor, and his family. When the potentials become realities, and they cease to be an abstraction, they become exceedingly more intimidating. This is particularly true when you see your family having to endure so much suffering because of the vengeance of narcissism.
I do not think you have to be fearless to be faithful, but rather you must have faith greater than your fear. Our fear of failing God must be greater than the fear we have of anything else. That is the combination of humility and obedience that is necessary. In this light, some fear becomes an asset.
The demand for perfection
This argument can be stated thusly: if church discipline cannot be done exactly right (perfectly) then it should not be implemented. We all well know church discipline cannot be done perfectly. Therefore, we cannot practice church discipline. This argument includes two requirements. The first one is the requirement to be able to implement and complete the process perfectly. The second is the people implementing the discipline need to be perfect before the church practices discipline. Either of these, if followed, would preclude the possibility of ever practicing church discipline since there will inevitably be mistakes in the process, because no one is perfect, nor will they be this side of heaven.
Concerning the first requirement, Dr. Davis states it succinctly, “Some critics have argued that since church discipline cannot be implemented with absolute perfection, it ought not even be attempted.” There are two fatal flaws with this type of reasoning. First, we don’t hold this standard anywhere else; if we did, we would not allow anyone to do even some of the most basic things such as preach, evangelize or pray. Ultimately, man could not even die since he surely does not die perfectly. The second flaw is, it undermines Scripture with the tyranny of the perfect. The reality is God commanded the church to practice church discipline knowing she would not be able to do it perfectly. Remember, when a church practices discipline, it does it much more closely to perfect than when a church chooses not to even attempt it.
The second requirement postulated says, “Since no one is perfect, and we are all sinners; we cannot practice church discipline” or “No one is perfect, you know.” They may refer to the words Jesus spoke when the woman caught in adultery was brought to Him. He said to the Pharisees, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then He spoke to the woman and said, “Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:7, 10–11).
Without expositing this passage in this article, suffice it to say, they were in violation of the actual commands God gave since He required both the adulterer and adulteress be punished (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). These verses also remind us that God did prescribe punishing adultery, and He was quite aware that those to whom He gave the command were not perfect. Consequently, their imperfection was not what “without sin” referred to, and this incident is not a valid argument against church discipline. The same can be said of Paul’s commands to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5).
The idea that church discipline cannot be exercised because no one is perfect is based on a misunderstanding of church discipline—among other things. If a person, or everyone for that matter, was perfect then there would be no reason for church discipline. It is the very fact that no one is perfect that makes church discipline essential. It serves to correct an erring Christian and protect the Christian society. Church discipline reminds us we are all subject to like passions and should not ignore that reality or minimize the damage that can be wrought to the kingdom. The requirement of perfection further misunderstands not only the application of church discipline but also the breadth of church discipline.
Church discipline is not just the formal process of disfellowshiping an unrepentant brother or sister, but it is a brother holding another brother or sister accountable. This includes things like praying for someone or going in private to help a brother or sister who is wandering off the path of righteousness. The requirement of perfection also misunderstands the recipient of formal church discipline (I use the word “formal” to distinguish between the removal of the unrepentant from the local church and the other aspects of church discipline that permeate body life of a church seeking to following God).
Formal church discipline is not for the brother who is seeking the Lord and yet failing, but it is for the person who chooses to walk in open sin and defiantly disregards the Lord and His Word. Formal discipline is primarily for dealing with rebellion—not slipping. Handling a Christian who was a drunk in the past and now has been faithful to Christ for years, but slips every once in a while is handled quite differently than the person who claims to be a Christian but makes no progress in leaving the alcohol and following Christ.
I have counseled people with a vast array of problems. These were done in confidence and without the need for implementing formal church discipline. Although I do consider biblical counseling within the purview of church discipline, the difference in whether or not formal church discipline is implemented is not necessarily determined by the sin committed, but rather by people’s view of and response to their sin. If they are seeking to confess, repent, and work on it, I believe we ought to work with them with patience, love, understanding, and support (Gal 6: 1-3).
It is when they refuse to deal with their own sin that the process of formal church discipline is warranted. Formal church discipline is implemented when people have already, in lifestyle, left the church. Church discipline is the formal recognition of that reality, with an earnest attempt to bring about repentance through the loving reproof of their brothers and sisters in Christ while simultaneously protecting the local church (1 Corinthians 5:5–6).
 George Davis, “Whatever Happened to Church Discipline” Criswell Theological Review, Spring 1987, 349.
 Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1959), 208-209. (This story is relayed in part).
 Davis, “Church Discipline,” 347.