Understanding the Process of Church Discipline and Repentance

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. James 5:19-20

Welcome Young Believer! It has always surprised me how rare the practice of church discipline is in American churches today. Having attended over a dozen in the last two decades I've only been to one that put this process into practice. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons the Church is struggling in the way it is... Because we are more interested in being accepting of all, than in holding one another accountable when we see sin among our members.


Sadly in our good intentions to correct for the judgment and legalism of churches we experienced in decades past we're allowing our members to wander in sin and confusing the visitors who are trying to understand what it means to be a Christian. Instead, we should lovingly be lifting one another up in prayer and holding our members accountable when there is clear sin taking place. Think about it this way, if a sheep wanders away from the flock chasing the next sweet patch of grass, not realizing that it has wandered into danger... would it be more loving for the Shepherd to allow the sheep to continue to wander to its heart's content or to go after it and bring it back to the safety of the flock?


How do we go about appropriate church discipline?


“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. Again 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. Matthew 18:15-20

This is the process of discipline that Jesus taught His disciples. The first thing that we should notice here is that it applies to those we consider our brothers and sisters in Christ. Those who are still outside the Body of Believers are expected to be in sin because they have not yet been redeemed exchanging their sinful nature for Christ's gift of mercy and righteousness on their behalf. To this end, we know that as Christians we are held to a higher standard of behavior than before we were saved knowing that the work God is doing in our lives should be evident in our character. The next thing I notice is that the Believer who has wandered is given multiple chances to repent before any consequences occur.


Step 1. Go to this person one-to-one.


Wait a reasonable amount of time to see if repentance and a change in behavior have taken place.


Step 2. If no change has taken place, then take another member of the church with you to address this person's behavior.


Wait a reasonable amount of time to see if repentance and a change in behavior have taken place.


Step 3. If no change has taken place, then take the issue to the Church so they can address this person's behavior together.


Wait a reasonable amount of time to see if repentance and a change in behavior have taken place.


Step 4. If no change has taken place, then consider this person as one who has not yet been saved, as a Gentile and a tax collector.


Now, what does this mean in the extreme circumstance that someone has so fully turned from the church that they won't listen to the correction even of all the members together? What does it mean to treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector? It does mean that they are no longer considered members of the church. However, it doesn't mean that they are to be treated with contempt or banished from gathering with the church altogether.


How would you treat someone that you know is not a Christian? Would you treat them with hostility and judgment? I would say absolutely not! Instead, we share the Gospel with them and continue to call them to repentance. We pray for them and we invite them to come to hear the truth about God's love and purpose for them. This is how we should be treating those who have for whatever reason been removed from our membership because of church discipline.


I won't pretend that this isn't difficult, especially as you've come to know this person as a beloved brother or sister in Christ. The injury inflicted by their choice not to turn in repentance before things got so far down in the process of church discipline is perhaps all the more painful because you know them this way. Forgiveness is probably one of the most difficult parts of being a Christian, we love to be forgiven... but learning to forgive in the radical way God calls us to is a whole different ball game!


Having only witnessed one situation where circumstances became this drastic I can tell you with great joy that because the church was willing to pour out love on this person in this way, they ended up repenting and returning to the church. This wasn't the end of their struggle, but it was the beginning of healing between them and the church. Not only this but members of the church such as myself who had never experienced this full Biblical process before were impacted greatly by the love our members had for one another.


If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

This should give us great hope as well, that if we are attending a church that faithfully practices this loving form of correction we won't be left to wander in our struggles, confusion, and mistakes. Instead, we will be pursued in love by our battle buddies who love us too much to see us lost! I don't know about you, but I find that immensely comforting! I can say with confidence that the churches I attended that responded in judgment, hostility, and banishment had memberships that were consistently fracturing every few years. Their members had no reason to pull together in unity through difficult times because they couldn't trust that their struggle would be met with prayer, love, and compassion.


It's interesting though because I've had recent conversations with people I love who don't want to commit to this level of accountability in church membership. They've been burned too many times before and now see a church's willingness to follow this Biblical structure as near to becoming a cult! I wish I knew what to say to comfort those fears, but is simply true that where human beings are left in a position to govern they often fail. I can't guarantee you that your church is always going to be right on the issues nor can I say with unconditional certainty that a church will always be acting in love when they enact this process against one of their members.


What I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that when in faith we do things God's way instead of our way He rewards are trust and obedience. So I would rather live in submission to a church that commits to this Biblical process than one that is either too accepting of sin or too willing to act in condemnation.


If you have any other questions about the process of church discipline, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!

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