What Is the Purpose of Church Discipline?

What Is the Purpose of Church Discipline?

As always, I’m late to social trends and breaking news stories. I recently watched the documentary “The Trials of Ted Haggard,” which was released in 2008.

Formerly a megachurch pastor in Colorado Springs, the documentary chronicles Haggard’s life in the year following a sex scandal involving another man that cost Haggard his job and reputation. He struggles to find work, is forbidden from returning to his home state of Colorado under his severance agreement, and seemingly has few to no friends left in the world. During the documentary, he explains that this was the exact reason he kept his private struggles with his sexuality private: he thought something like this might happen.

I only just discovered that Haggard continues to have new allegations brought against him as recently as last year. However, if the only story of Haggard you had been aware of was the 2008 documentary, you might walk away torn between whether or not his church’s response was appropriate. You might also deduce that Haggard’s attempt to showcase humility and remorse was purely self-serving. 

As with many stories involving real people and real situations, there is much to unpack. This is especially true for Haggard and the allegations that have continued to be brought against him over the last 15 years.

I imagine allegations against Haggard will follow him all the days of his life. To some, this is a consequence of his actions and even vindication for those who survived his abuse. To others, it may seem too harsh that he will only be seen through the lens of allegations found online. Which is the correct Christian response? 

Questions regarding church discipline continue to be at the center of every high profile story that sheds light on the moral, legal, and ethical failures of Christian leaders. But what is church discipline, and what is its purpose?

What Church Discipline Is Not 

Without a doubt, believers and non-believers alike pay close attention to the response of a church when a leader fails. But finding the “appropriate” response is not as cut and dry as some believe. Many factors must be taken into consideration, and the scrutiny of others watching can change the outcome of situations altogether. 

One vital distinction to make when it comes to the topic of church discipline is the difference between punishment and discipline.

The goal of discipline is to change future behavior.

The goal of punishment is to inflict suffering for past behavior. 

It’s critical for church leadership to respond with the goal of discipline in mind and not the goal of punishment.

Sure, discipline might feel like punishment for the person on the receiving end. That’s because correction of any kind is always going to be painful. I can’t think of one situation when sin is brought to light and the process of that is full of joy and celebration.

Further, there may be opinions regarding carrying out specific punishments against the person who has committed said offense, but the Bible is clear that inflicting compensatory pain should not be the church’s goal. 

As the nuance between punishment and discipline is considered, it’s also critical to understand that when there are legal offenses involved, the church is absolutely responsible to report them to authorities. It’s the role of our legal system to carry out punishment for offenses that have violated federal or state law.

That said, church governance should not lead with punishment.

What Church Discipline Is

The end goal of church discipline is redemption and restoration. In the same way church discipline should not be merely an excuse to inflict punitive measures, equally it should not be avoided.

Scripture is clear that church discipline is necessary for the overall health of the body of Christ. For the sake of the individual believer and the entire congregation, church discipline is necessary and should be exercised with the desire to see restoration for all parties involved. 

The Church is full of sinners who are journeying towards being made more like Christ. This means that sin is a very real part of the body of Christ. However, the reality of sin in our daily lives does not mean we excuse sin, brush it under the rug, or turn a blind eye. As painful as it is, sin must be addressed in a dignifying and loving manner.

Jesus talked about church discipline in Matthew 18, and Paul refers back to Jesus’ words in 1 Corinthians 5.

Scripture outlines church discipline as starting privately. However, to reiterate, if the issue at hand involves a legal violation, the church is obligated to report it to authorities in accordance with federal and state law. The call to first begin with matters privately is not a pass to violate local law. Unfortunately, this view has brought further damage to survivors of abuse

The church must do better in this regard. We must not “reconcile” the offender at the expense of the offended. The church must be a safe place for survivors to speak out against their abusers. Abuser should not be more protected than survivors.

Be that as it may, whenever possible, the matter at hand should first be cared for privately. This means systems need to guard against gossip, sharing information digitally, or even leaking information to news outlets. If restoration and reconciliation are not achievable privately, then the situation should be cared for publicly. This often means bringing it publicly before the whole congregation.

There are levels of public discipline. It might look like a leader stepping down from their position. As a final and most severe measure, the offender may be excommunicated from the congregation. This is a last resort but necessary when sin is unrepentant or it is clear the member is a harm to the entire congregation.

Guard Against Abuse of Discipline

Churches tend to swing from one end of not exercising church discipline at all, allowing blatant sin to exist within their midst, to abusing church discipline to maintain a heavy hand of control on the other. Both extremes are damaging to the church and individuals.

Church discipline should not be taken lightly in any circumstance. It should not be limited to the power of a certain individual or select few that have the opportunity to make unchecked decisions. Even those exercising church discipline have their own sinful tendencies that may surface in this process. It’s critical to guard against situations where power is abused.

Church discipline is a tool that should be used to bring about reconciliation and restoration. Jesus never intended for church discipline to be wielded as a tool of abuse itself. Nevertheless, it is a necessary process that must be exercised and used to prevent sin from manifesting itself within the body of Christ. Church discipline must be taken seriously, exercised with humility, love, and a biblical understanding of the offense of sin. 

I pray the church can showcase the light of Christ in the way it responds to sin. May we not be so harsh that we give the world the impression that God is just waiting to smite them, but may we also not be so flippant that we protect and side with abusers in our midst.