Church Discipline vs. Responsibility in Relationships. Part 1

Church Discipline is not a phrase in the Bible. The Bible speaks of discipline in the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 12:6), but there we find that it is God who does it. God disciplines the ones he loves. With that verse in mind, I am proposing that the church does something different — the church does not do Hebrews 12:6, God does. When we use the phrase “church discipline” we may unwittingly mix categories in the minds of our hearers, and we may muddle an otherwise simple subject.

Discipline: A Top-Down Word Not Descriptive of Real Peer Relations.
In a discussion that is really meant to be about church membership and healthy relationships, speaking of “church discipline” may evoke the wrong ideas. To that end, I suggest we adjust our language. I speak from the Reformed tradition, so I am not against the subject, I just want to update our language.

That is, we would be well served if we distinguish between what God does in Hebrews 12 and what we do for one another in relationships. To that end, the English word “discipline” should be carefully employed to account for various sensibilities and backgrounds. I am of the mind that the English word, “discipline” is loaded with freight, and as such requires that we rethink how we use the term in describing adult/peer relationships in the church.

Marks of a Healthy Church
Daniel Akin speaks of church discipline as a jewel, and calls Southern Baptist churches to return to it, “The recovery of the lost jewels of church discipline and genuine disciple-making as essential marks of the Church.” I agree with his sentiment, but I am asking that he change the name of what he is proposing.

Mark Dever is famous for his book, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church; one of the marks is what he calls Discipline — referring to church discipline. Now, I definitely agree with the essence of the content of Mark’s chapter on the subject, but he needs to rename what he is talking about — and I hope to explain why.

A Simple Change Request. That’s All.
I am suggesting that naming something Church Discipline may be off the mark from what we ought to be saying about it (on the importance of properly naming things, see my earlier post). God disciplines in one sense, but the church does something different (what God is doing in Hebrews 12 should be understood as distinct from what we do for one another in Matthew 18).

Namely, the Bible talks about the people of the church having responsibility in relationships. For us, we don’t relate to one another in a top-down manner — where we discipline or punish one another — but we relate as neighbors and peers. It is in our neighborly relations that we are either behaving in a healthy or unhealthy way.

Adult, Peer Relationships
People are in healthy relationships when there is integrity, availability and accountability. When we live our lives transparently before God and the fellow members of the church then there is hope for health. The life lived transparently is one of responsibility, so that if someone is hurting, we know about it and there is a sense of duty to come to their aid. Likewise, if someone is living in rebellion, we don’t ignore it, but we meet them there. Healthy relationships among peers is not marked by one person disciplining (and certainly not punishing) another, but by coming alongside and loving, challenging (where needed), sharing, helping, weeping, celebrating, eating, and all the rest.

There may come a time when a relationship is so destructive that a separation is required. But, again, this is about being healthy, it is not about discipline. This is how health works. We can’t be abused; and so an abused person (if she wants to be healthy) will get away from the abuser. It is not loving to stay with an abusive person. If they won’t repent, then getting away from them is not discipline, per se, but rather it is responsible behavior (for more on wives in abusive relationships, see My husband hits me, can I leave him?).

A woman who finds safety from an abuser is instructive. In the same way, if there is a member of a church who is unrepentant or abusive, then the church is not disciplining that person by challenging them, they are being responsible in relationships.

How to be Responsible
Being responsible in relationships means going alone to the person first. It means doing things privately and honoring the friendship. Friends don’t gossip about the problems of their friends. Healthy and responsible relationships are sort of obvious this way.

Before a church can do what Christ commands in Matthew 18 (where Jesus tells us to go to our seemingly erring brothers and sisters so that together we can seek God’s perspective), relationships need to be operating. If a church merely follows the letter of Matthew 18 (while not having healthy relationships) they are in danger: they may implement policies they call Church Discipline, and miss the Spirit of Christ’s teachings. However, where there are loving relationships in a church and they follow Matthew 18, then healthy and responsible behaviors are being lived out and experienced. W must do Matthew 18 (if I can put it that way), but we must do it as loving adults in healthy peer relationships.

Churches are not Social Societies. Christians in the Church are a Band of Brothers and Sisters
Responsibility in Relationships will automatically lead to behaviors reflected in Matthew 18. For these reasons, we may want to move away from the talk of “Church Discipline” or “being churched” and move to the healthier view of responsible relationships.

A church can measure if healthy relationships are happening. We can tell if we are spending time with other members. We can measure how many times a month we are in a member’s home. We know if we drive places together or do spontaneous activities, if we pray for one another and fast together for the kingdom of God.

Craving Discipline can be a Mark of Unhealthy Relationships
Churches that don’t want responsibility in relationships are unhealthy. Churches that crave Church Discipline and not responsibility in relationships are unhealthy. It is possible to be detached from real relationships (to not know the people you worship with), yet to want them to conform to divine standards. This is strangely unhealthy. For it is the divine standard that we be brothers and sisters (not strangers in our own church families). It is a given: even the wicked want justice! Even a church of broken relationships can be a place where everyone wants moral conformity from those around them. In the case of a church with non-functional or broken relationships, implementing a thing called “discipline” is just another expression of non-functioning relationships.

Relationships are harder. Relationships often include cross-bearing, and time together, and prayer and fasting and weeping. If you want to remove all the cross-bearing, time, prayer, fasting and weeping and yet have a thing called discipline, then you are not seeing the bigger picture, and first you must remove the log from your eye.

Churches that desire to see a more concerted effort at a thing they are calling “Church Discipline” may by unhealthy, or they may be very healthy, and they simply need to change the way they speak about the matter. In thinking about their friends and peers in the church, they would do well to employ the bible-like language of love, accountability, relationship and responsibility.

Boundaries are Healthy and Loving
The break-down in our culture may be that we don’t know that a loving relationship may include boundaries. Abusers should not be allowed to continue their abuse (that is a loving boundary). Unrepentant sinners should not be allowed to be unchallenged (that is a loving boundary). Love means that we have responsibility in relationships. Best of all, that responsibility means that when we are hurting, others will feel responsible to come to our aid.

Responsibility in relationships is healthy.

A Real Practical Tool: Take This Survey
I wrote this self exam / questionnaire that you and your church leadership (your deacons, elders, board, Sunday School teachers) can take to see if there are healthy leadership behaviors in your church.

If I can reword Daniel Akin’s earlier statement, perhaps the beauty of my proposal will gain clarity, “The recovery of the lost jewels of responsibility in relationships and genuine disciple-making [are] essential marks of the Church.”

Change the Language, Help the Church
If we frame how we talk about this subject according to the dominant language of the Bible (e.g., Gal 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-4), I think more churches will understand and be helped by this otherwise seemingly Reformed topic. The fact is, this is not a topic of reformational theology, but it is a part of biblical theology in general. And biblical churches of any kind can benefit from implementing and caring about Matthew 18 and Jesus’ teaching on responsibility in relationships.

An Aside. Despite what They May Think: Clergy are not the Enforcers of a System of Discipline
I can hear an objection to all of this. Pastors would never be so crass as to verbalize the objection, but I know what it is. Namely, I know too many ministers who think of themselves as NOT in peer relationships with “their people.” They are other. And when they are, their real friends (their confidants) are not people in their church.

When it comes to identifying their closest friends and their real peers, ministers easily turn to people outside the church. They turn to fellow peers in the clergy class or (at best) to fellow staff members. This happens according to training. The conventional seminary wisdom is that real ministers need their closest confidants to be outside the church.

Through training and tradition, modern ministers and elders can think of themselves as a super-set in relationship to the church. This means that they can think of themselves as implementers and enforcers. When this happens, the phrase church discipline makes sense to a minister precisely as he thinks of himself as the church dad. His peers are the other dads of other churches… in this way, the church becomes piously hierarchical.

You can see why the clergy class thinks that it falls upon them to implement a system of church discipline in the name of Matthew 18. There is a reason they understand themselves this way.

Minister are often brought in from the outside. They are interviewed, hired, and paid a salary. This may foster the notion of the clergy class as other and as independent of healthy peer relationships. They came from the outside, and they easily consider themselves as of a different sort. They can easily imagine themselves as part of an unstated clergy class wherein they do operate top-down.

Jesus was explicit in Matthew 20:25-28 that this is not so. If there is someone thinking that ministers are above this discussion because of Hebrews 13:7 and Hebrews 13:17, then I need only point out that ministers of the word must call people to faith. The authority that Hebrews speaks about is simple. The minister has the authority to call you to believe in Christ and follow him. He calls you to what Christ has called you to. That is what must be obeyed. “Believe Christ” is reasonable. It must be obeyed (hence Hebrews 13:7). Hebrews 13:7 and Hebrews 13:17 are about the appeal to follow Christ. The minister has no authority to call you to other commands or programs or systems. The pastor says “Thus says the Lord” as he states back Matthew 20:25-28, and he calls you to reject the piously hierarchical clergy structure that wants to get into the church.

In this way, ministers are not consultants who come in and enforce a system of discipline. They are not implementers of a thing called Church Discipline (a phrase, as I stated already, which is not even found in scripture). Ministers preach Christ and call people to faith. They do not implement systems of discipline-justice that are detached from relationships. Make a careful read of Matthew 18. You will notice that Jesus never puts the burden of helping erring Christians upon a board of elders or a clergy class. Pastors are not enforcers.

Read Part II.

This article was published under Church Discipline?.

6 Responses to Church Discipline vs. Responsibility in Relationships. Part 1

  1. Joanna Presley says:

    Wow! My eyes have been opened to Church discipline. I agree with this article & how we have to take responsibility for our relationships. Actually I agree with the whole article!! Great job Steve!

  2. Joanna, Part 2 is also helpful, and it covers some of the verses we spoke about the other night.

  3. Ann Boyd says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article at a time when I am struggling to find a way to explain how destructive “church discipline” can be. The language you outline in this article really helps me get a handle on what I want to express when talking about this topic. I have seen the destuction use of Matthew 18, rather than its redemptive power. And now, I can more easily explain why that is. Thank you and God bless you.

  4. Steve Rives says:


    I would imagine that your situation is common (not normal, but common). The root cause, if I may venture a guess, is lack of education among ministers. That is, half-trained partially-reformed elders who are unskilled in the Biblical languages (which is their duty) are none-the-less expert in church discipline, the Puritans, 16th century dogmatics, … but couldn’t parse a Hebrew verb to save their lives.

    Ministers are to be skilled in the word, not the tradition, but the semi-reformed type spend all their time reading the reformers but not the Bible in its original languages.

    And to make it worse, churches have installed elders who are skilled as business leaders or skilled in reformed dogmatics, but who are not pastoral (in the Biblical sense I am trying to suggest here — and which I have written about elsewhere regarding elders).

    To sum it up, your experience is predictable because of the horrible state of training among ministers. The situation is a mess. More and more ministers are less and less capable at handling the Word, and then they go and apply Matthew 18 like they are heroes of the church (defending its purity and all the other noble things they claim to be doing). Meanwhile, they could be defending the purity of the church by learning how to translate Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew scriptures.

    Why is it that people flock to churches where ministers are ruling by the power of their impressive presence and strong oratory skills?

    Anyway, I am sorry you have had to suffer what is all too common: untrained ministers who think they are expert because they collect lots of books, can read an English translation of Matthew 18 and have their Puritan doctrines close to their hearts. I may have totally missed your life situation, but the one I address here is real.

  5. I think there is a need for someone to start a pastors web-forum for discussing the thorny questions of church discipline in regard to domestic abusers. I often get feedback or reviews of my book from pastors who express their need for guidance and collegial discussion about this. I’m not a pastor or leader, I’m a survivor of domestic abuse and an author from that perspective, so I’m not the one to lead such a forum.

    Anyone here want to start such a forum?
    If so, do let me know (my email can be found from my website) so I can tell people about it and link to it from my site.

  6. Barbara,

    Related to your comment, I later wrote this article for the public newspaper in our area, “My Husband Hits Me, Can I Leave Him?”, it is here: