What is church discipline (or excommunication)?

Several years ago a large church in Texas was sued by a former member because they disciplined her out of the church. The church claimed it was following Scripture and their own by-laws. She claimed they were slandering her and treating her unfairly. This instance is far from the only example of a church being sued for libel, slander or defamation of character after removing a member from the church. The practice of punishing a church member by removing them from the membership is known by different names. Many call it excommunication (but this is not to be confused with the form of excommunication practiced by the Catholic church), a lot of churches call it church discipline and some down South refer to it as being “churched.”

Church discipline is a difficult and painful subject. Many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, see church discipline as judgmental and cruel. Far too many church goers can tell stories of church discipline gone wrong. Pastors or other church leaders have wielded church discipline as a means to consolidate or maintain power. Churches have disciplined members because they were an embarrassment to the congregation. Discipline has been accompanied by personal attacks, gossip or slander. Opposite from abusive church discipline is the equally serious problem of no discipline at all.

Despite the challenges accompanying church discipline, the Bible repeatedly commands it to be practiced by the church. Jesus Himself was the first to describe the formal process of church discipline. The process is described in Matthew 18 and begins with a private conversation between two people that is based upon a deep understanding of how much Jesus loves His children. When one Christian falls into sin another is to lovingly step in to help bring the sinning Christian back to obedience. If the sinning Christian refuses to turn from his sin the other then brings two or three from the church into the conversation. This is small group goes to intervene in the life of the sinning Christian and call him back to obedience to Christ. The task of the group is to help maintain Biblical compassion and integrity throughout the conversation. If the sinning Christian refuses to repent, the small group is to bring the matter to the church body. All the church members are then to go to the sinning believer and implore him to repent of his sin. If he refuses to repent after the call of the church then the membership is to formally remove the sinning believer from the church.

Jesus’ instructions emphasize that Church discipline is not an unkind act on the part of the church. The church discipline defined in the Bible is an act of love that seeks to bring the wandering sheep back into the fold. A key element of church discipline are the words of Jesus, “if he shall hear thee; thou hast gained thy brother.” The purpose of church discipline is to restore a sinning brother to a right relationship with God and his fellow Christians.

Church discipline never threatens the salvation of the person. The church has no authority to revoke someone’s salvation. Nor is church discipline Intended to shame the person into compliance with the desires of the church. Biblical church discipline is not the same as shunning. The relationship between the church and the sinning believer changes, but Christians do not avoid the unrepentant. Though they can no longer interact together as brothers and sisters in Christ, CHristians still lovingly seek to win the person back to obedience to Christ. Though fellowship is now hindered by the sin that has come between them, conversation is not cut off by the church. Instead, Christians will compassionately call their sinning brethren to repentance and restoration.

Because sin always destroys the believers relationship with God and men, those who truly love one another will “pursue holiness with all men.” Loving Christians will consider each other to “rovoke one another to love and good works. Sometimes the church body must engage in the painful process of amputating a sinning member, but it always does so that the sinner’s “soul may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:5)