Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman

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Jonathan Leeman’s book is a family member of the 9Marks series. The 9Marks series are a collection of Christian evangelical books that champion the biblical framework of the local church. In this book, the author argues that a vital mark of a local assembly of the Body of Christ is church discipline.

Leeman defines church discipline in the following way, in his own words. “In more specific and formal terms, church discipline is the act of removing an individual from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s table. It’s not an act of forbidding an individual from attending the church’s public gatherings. It is the church’s public statement that it can no longer affirm the person’s profession of faith by calling him or her a Christian.” He proceeds in the book to also call this act of church discipline as excommunication or excluding from fellowship, to which he says mean one and the same thing. Leeman notes that since the publication of books on the topic of church discipline, there has been a flurry of questions that have proved that the matter is not black and white. Questions such as: should teenagers be disciplined, should non-members be disciplined, what to do with non-attending members etc have been raised. He asserts that instead of having a legalistic in-or-out approach, the question requires pastoral examination and situational sensitivity.

Leeman starts off the book by asserting that the discussion on church discipline is entirely lost if we don’t undertand the gospel in the first place. And even if we do undertand the gospel, the discussion on church discipline is lost if we dont have a fine view of the gospel. He says that there is a presentation of the gospel that elevates Jesus as Saviour alone. In this presentation, Jesus has come to liberate us from the power of sin and death and offers salvation to all humanity. He asserts that this is correct. However, Leeman asserts that it is incomplete. A complete presentation of the Gospel also elevates Jesus as Lord. This means that Christ does not just save you, He also shepherds you. He isn’t only concerned about you receiving eternal life; He is also equally concerned about your life on earth receflecting the life that you have received. And in  this shepherding, there is discipline. Christians who only view Jesus as saviour are often uncomfortable and offended by shepherding biblical passages on discipline such as these:

‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭5:9-13 “When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.”‬ ‭(NLT)

Matthew‬ ‭18:15-17‬ “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” (NLT‬‬)

Hebrews‬ ‭12:5-11 “And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever? For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.”‬ ‭(NLT‬‬)

Leeman points out five purposes of church discipline. One, it exposes sin that loves to hide and grows to defile the church. Two, it warns compassionately to return us back to God as we anticipate the final judgement. Three, it saves one from waywardness and death. Four, it protects other church members. Five, it presents a good witness for Jesus and maintains the distinctiveness of God’s people.

The author makes it clear that church discipline is not a witch hunt. Rather, it applies within a certain framework. He says that churches should not excommunicate fellow Christians who have simply fallen into sin because that would augment to repentance and faith as criteria for being saved; it would make the criteria “repentance, faith and never-commiting-sin-x.” The goal is to preseve the reputation of Christ by weeding out people who claim to profess Christ but clearly (by case to case) are characteristically unrepentant, i.e. they demonstrate no remorse fo sin and no inclination towards godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10-11). 

Leeman says that when a church becomes convinced that a person is genuinely repentant, it should not proceed with any form of discipline. This is because the essence of church discipline is not a pursuit of perfection but rather of progression. Is the member repentant and in pursuit of fidelity to the cause of Christ despite their moral failure? True followers of Christ, the book asserts, despite moral failure demonstrate increasing purity and increasing poverty in spirit in a fallen world. Leeman adds that once while addressing a Christian member caught in adultery, his fellow pastor gave him wise counsel by stating that it was not surprising that a Christian would commit this sin. The real question would be how they would resoond to the rebuking of the very sin; his response to this correction would reveal where his heart truly lies.

The author also adds that formal public discipline is a lost cause in a church culture where informal and private discipline and accountability is unwelcome and not practised. Informal and private discipline happens in the everyday interactions with fellow Christians- at lunch, after church, at home etc. It is done lovingly, carefully and with the other person in mind. The author adds five practical things to employ when enacting church discipline.

  1. The process should involve as few people as possible for yielding repentance.
  2. When the process moves beyond one or several people, church leaders should lead the process.
  3. The length of the process depends on how long it takes to establish that a person is uncharacteristically unrepentant.
  4. Individuals should receive the benefit of doubt until the evidence indicates otherwise.
  5. Leaders should involve and instruct the congregation as appropriate.

The author give practical case studies on how his church dealt with a few members. He varies the cases by the type of unrepentant sin committed. The case studies offer a lot of wisdom. They are based on the following scenarios.

  1. The Adulterer
  2. The Addict
  3. The one who makes the news headlines
  4. The Bruised Reed
  5. The Nonattending Member
  6. The Faithfully Attending and Divisive Nonmember
  7. The Preemptive Resigner
  8. The Newly-Decided unbeliever.
  9. The Family Member

Jonathan Leeman, towards the end of his book says that church discipline can be smoothly accepted when the prelude is a series of teaching on the following subjects:

  1. Teach about holiness and repentance
  2. Teach about church membership
  3. Teach about discipleship
  4. Teach about self-deception
  5. Teach about discipline
  6. Teach about biblical love

On the final point he actually says teach about love. He doesn’t add the word biblical. But I added it because he distinguishes between the culture’s idea of love and the Bible’s idea of love. The culture has three views of love that are deceptive. 

  1. A sentimental view of love- It is truly love because it resounds with my feel-good emotions and it makes me feel special.
  2. A romanticized view of love- It is truly love if it allows me to express myself without receiving any kind of opposition. Anyone who disagrees with me is judgemental.
  3. A consumeristic view of love- it is truly love because it is the perfect fit for me and it works for me.

A biblical view of love on the other hand is supported by three pillars:

  1. Truth- True love will not ignore the truth and revel in deception that feel good.
  2. Holiness- True love will seek purity and the honouring of men and God.
  3. Authority- True love will submit to the power and counsel of godly accountability.

Leeman also recommends that churches get their administrative front organised before they pursue church discipline. In summary the organisations looks like this:

  1. Get documents in place: bylaws, church constitutions and statements of faith.
  2. Ensure proper legal foundation: membership classes should teach and avail bylaws, church constitutions and statements of faith.
  3. Organise the church membership rolls: keep records of members.

I loved the appendix of the book because it highlights 22 common mistakes that pastors make while practising chuech discipline. They are as follows:

  1. Failing to teach what church discipline is and why it should be practised.
  2. Failing to have meaningful membership.
  3. Failing to teach on biblical conversion.
  4. Failing to teach new members on church discipline and the futility of preemptive resignations.
  5. Failing to have church documents in place and exposing the church to legal risk.
  6. Failing to follow the biblical steps of Matthew 18 or 1 Corinthians 5.
  7. Rushing into judgement or dragging the discipline process altogether.
  8. Failing to involve the congregation and failing to teach the congregation why a particular act of discipline is necessary.
  9. Giving the congregation too much detail about a particular sin and embarrassing family members and causing weaker sheep to stumble.
  10. Treating church discipline as a legal process and neglecting shepherding.
  11. Not making distinctions between the different types of sins and the different discipline processes needed.
  12. Disciplining from a self-righteous stance and not a merciful stance.
  13. Failing to pray for the sinner and begging the Lord for his or her repentance.
  14. High demands and stipulations for one caught in sin’s grasp.
  15. Failure to instruct the congregation on how to interact with the unrepentant sinner.
  16. Failing to invite the unrepentant sinner to continue attending church.
  17. Putting the discipline process entire on one man and thereby tempting the church to accuse the pastor of being vindictive.
  18. Failing to have elder involvement in the life of the congregation.
  19. Failing to teach God’s word on a weekly basis.
  20. Using discipline as retribution instead of warning.
  21. Pursuing discipline on nonbiblical grounds e.g. dancing or playing cards.
  22. Playing politics- pursuing discipline while motivated by selfish reasons.

As I read the book, I wondered how Ravi Zachariah’s scandal would have been processed were he still alive. I wondered about Jesus’ parable on the separation of the wheat and the tares in light of church discipline. I also wondered about the implications of mental health on church discipline. All in all, I recommed this book. It is a useful resource for pastors and can be a great tool for church membership classes.

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Ernest is a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband and a father. He has been married to Waturi since September 2012. They have two daughters: Thandiwe and Ivanna. He is also the author of four books. The Wamboyes are passionate to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ clearly taught and understood in our post-modern world. They are champions of biblical discipleship and furthering the Kingdom of God by transforming one person at a time. They are the founders of The Relationship Centre Ltd (TRC), an organisation that aims to promote biblical family values in contemporary urban communities.

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