It will be a long time before I forget what David Platt taught me about the word “hell.”
In a gripping, urgent sermon on missions at the Together for the Gospel conference several years ago, the pastor and “Radical” author said that word has lost meaning to us because we use it so readily and so lightly. When we say that something was a “hell of a time,” for example, we prove that we have no idea what we’re talking about.
Platt’s correction on that point, and his charge to restore the full, awful meaning of that term, was important. But, there’s a broader truth to take away. How we use words, and what we mean when we use them, shapes our thoughts and trajectory, our attitudes and actions. This is especially important to remember when using words that describe who God is and what he’s like or terms that prescribe how his church should move about and exist in the world.
In recent weeks, the Karis elders have become aware of two situations in which members assumed they were putting themselves in danger of church discipline. This wasn’t true in either case, at least not the way these people were using the term - some sort of formal sanction that might result in them being cut off or cast away from the body.
We’ve tried to be crystal clear about what we mean when we say “church discipline.” But, in light of these misunderstandings, it seemed an apt time to give a (woefully) brief refresher. It’s our desire that we all mean the same thing when we use the term “church discipline” and, that in using the term properly, any unnecessary or unhealthy fear would be cast aside.
Church discipline, as it occurs Biblically, can be broken down into two main categories:
1. Formative discipline (see Colossians 3:12-17, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22, 1 Peter 4:7-11 and much of Titus 2-3 for a few examples of what this looks like) - Sadly, this is the least-invoked sense of the term. Yet, it is the most common type of discipline, something that, if our church is functioning well, should be happening all around us. This is the sort of discipline an athlete goes through when preparing for a race or game: Daily exercise and practice, building up muscles, seeking to grow in skill and health, so as to achieve a certain outcome.
In the church, this happens through gathered worship, through hearing the word preached, through rehearsing the gospel with one another in daily life, through prayer, in serving the body, sharing the Gospel and all the other parts of “normal” Christian life. This is believers helping believers flourish in the way God intends. If Karis is healthy and faithful, this sort of church discipline will be common among us.
2. Corrective discipline - This is often what people mean when they refer to church discipline, yet even this idea is misunderstood. The Bible calls church leaders, yes, but also every church member to participate in the sort of corrective discipline that helps individual Christians grow in faith and steer clear of false doctrine and sin’s destructive power; that sort of discipline, practiced on a church-wide scale, also maintains the witness of the church in our city, tells the truth about who God is and helps us retain our status as a peculiar, particular people called out for his glory (Romans 2:24, Hebrews 12:15, 1 Cor. 5:6-8).
Corrective discipline should, most often, be practiced on a small, simple scale - through words of rebuke and correction that benefit the believer, encouraging them to flee sin and pursue righteousness and wholeness with God (Proverbs 27:5-6, Hebrews 3:12-14, 1 Thessalonians 5:14).
The Bible makes provision, when unrepentant sin persists and the witness and fellowship of the Church is compromised, for an increasingly escalating process of corrective discipline that, in the most serious, tragic cases, ends in being cut off from the body and being treated as an unbeliever. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 provide the most clear-cut examples of what this looks like.
Even in these cases, restoration is the goal, not shame. Discipline is to be carried out gently and humbly, acknowledging that we, too, are sinners in need of grace. Discipline pleads and pursues; it does not punish. It woos and it warns; it does not humiliate and it certainly does not delight in separation or disunity. To get a sense of the spirit in which discipline is to be carried out, read passages like 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, James 5:19-20 and Gal. 6:1. Note also how Jesus’ words about church discipline in Matthew 18 fall immediately after the parable of the lost sheep, in which he expresses God’s great passion for those who have strayed.
Church discipline, then, is not something for God’s church to take lightly and it’s not something pastors should take lightly as well. Contrary to what some might assume, the elders do not enjoy engaging in serious corrective discipline. We do not have itchy trigger-fingers; we are not lurking around corners to see who we can catch. These sorts of church-discipline cases, which have been rare during my time at Karis, are carried out with heartache, prayer and much tears. They are also carried out holding to hope that God will restore, even after it seems any chance of immediate reconciliation is lost. We believe that no cause must be a lost one when God is in it.
Intense corrective discipline is not invoked when the elders see people doing things differently than they would, or when they make decisions we deem unwise. Typically - though I’ve learned when it comes to church discipline, there’s no such thing as “typical” - this kind of discipline is exercised when either a Christian is in danger of abandoning the faith or the church or has lived in a long-term pattern of destructive, unrepentant sin. Even then, restoration to Christ, to the church, is always the goal. Not shaming, not shunning, not guilt. It is grace, always grace.
In light of all this, how can we restore the full weight, but also the full beauty and complexity, of the words “church discipline”? How can we be sure we mean what the Bible means when we say it? There’s much we could do and discuss, but let’s start with three things:
1. Don’t use the term lightly. Just as with the word “hell,” we rob “church discipline” of its meaning and gravity by joking about it or by over-using it. You might have done it. I’ve done it, too. In a lighthearted conversation, someone jokes about something they’ve done or thought of doing, and we joke back with something like, “Sounds like someone’s getting ready for church discipline.” What a shame. If church discipline, like so many things, is both good and awful, we should treat it as such. It’s no laughing matter.
Ironically, we also use the term too lightly by wielding it with a heavy hand. If we treat church discipline like a weapon, and not something that’s for our good and to be used gently, we will cause unnecessary fear and strip the concept of all the goodness with which God has imbued it.
2. Seek clarity. Ask good questions of leaders, brothers and sisters, about what church discipline means and what it looks like. Don’t assume that something is or isn’t a church-discipline situation. If you’re not sure what we believe about church discipline, how it’s been used or, frankly, whether you’re in danger of it, ask. Please ask. We want to have these conversations with you. We want to be able to speak the same language and share the same heart. The more we refine our understanding of how God sees these things - and how we should - the better off we’ll all be.
3. Practice church discipline daily. If we really understand church discipline, it’s something in which we’ll joyfully, regularly participate. Intense corrective discipline is rare in churches where simple formative discipline is practiced faithfully. We give the reality of church discipline its due and invest it with its full meaning by being involved in it with as much intentionality and love for the body as any other part of church life. A life marked by church discipline is a normal Christian life. Let this be primarily what we mean when we talk about church discipline.
Aarik Danielsen is married to Brooke. He's an elder of Karis Church in Columbia, Missouri.