Four Motivations for Practicing Restorative Church Discipline Michael White

March 20, 2017

Nineteenth-century Baptist theologian John L. Dagg famously put it this way: “When discipline leaves the church, Christ goes with it.” Though foreign to many modern churches—and antithetical to the church growth and seeker-sensitive fads of the last 40 years—in the 19th century discipline was widely practiced among Baptist congregations. In pre-Civil War Georgia, Baptist churches excommunicated nearly 2% of their membership every year, yet those churches grew at twice the rate of the population![1] Still, to modern ears the practice of church discipline evokes a bygone era, and may as well recall the Gestapo or medieval torture! But aside from the clear evidence for church discipline in texts such as Matthew 18:15–20 and 1 Corinthians 5, here I want to highlight four motivations for the practice of this good and wise work.

(1) It protects the individual member who wanders.

Though Christians are saints securely kept by God, the path of sanctification is not a straight line upward trajectory. With good reason we sing, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Because of this reality, within covenant church membership, restorative discipline functions as a loving process by which members hold one another accountable to live lives that have been transformed by the gospel. Fundamentally, restorative church discipline is a commitment to watch one another’s backs, and a pledge to come after one another when we stray. The goal of church discipline, then, is neither to shame nor condemn—but to restore. Even in the case of the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul urges that he be removed from the fellowship and cast out into the world “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). The man’s salvation and restoration is the aim.

Though painful and uncomfortable in our context, which would be worse? a) To allow openly unrepentant members in grave sin to remain on the church roll for years, thereby assuring them they’re safe with God—even though they will likely come to the day of the Lord and hear, “Depart from me, I never knew you”? Or b) to lovingly urge them to repent of their ongoing sins and suggest that persistent, unrepentant sin in their lives may well suggest they are not genuine followers of Christ? Option b) surely stings and may stir up trouble, but the very eternity of souls is at stake! In the end, restorative discipline exists for the good of the saints because it urges them to fight their sin—even when they don’t feel like it.

(2) It preserves the internal health of the local church.

The upshot of Paul’s analogy to leaven in 1 Corinthians 5:6–8 is that uncorrected, unrepentant sin in the life of a local church can soon undermine the health of the fellowship. Just as a little leaven leavens the whole lump, so too when outward, significant sins are ignored by the body, soon the entire church’s vitality will suffer. The church is either a repentant community of recovering sinners or it is nothing. We are new creations in Christ—pure, unleavened bread (1 Cor 5:7)—and we must live like it. But if we overlook sin, not only is the church’s purity compromised, but it’s very life. As though it were overtaken by multiplying cancer cells, the undisciplined church will soon die spiritually—and its physical death will eventually follow.

(3) It promotes the integrity of the church’s witness.

The secular culture does not have fond feelings for the church; to most outsiders the church is a group of hypocrites who preach one thing and live another. The question is, are they right? Are we serious about being a community of repenting sinners who actively fights sin? Will we demand that the moral character of our members’ far exceeds that in the culture? Will we speak corrective truth in love to one another when one of us becomes ensnared in various sins? In the decision to practice restorative discipline, the very integrity of the church’s witness is at stake, as is the reputation of the God we serve. We need not give the culture one more excuse to write us off. Let them be offended by the stumbling block of Christ, but never by our moral witness.

(4) It proclaims the identity of the church.

One of the most basic marks of the church is that we are a community of repenting sinners. To join our fellowship, a person must acknowledge that they have broken God’s law and rebelled against him, but are now seeking to live differently, faithfully, obediently. The glory of the gospel is that “such were some of us, but we were washed, we were sanctified, we were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 6:11). The practice of restorative church discipline underscores this, and highlights one of the prime reasons God places us in community: to help us fight our sin and to guard our doctrine. What this means is that our personal holiness is a community project. Of course, this doesn’t sit well in an individualistic culture that conditions us to mind our own business. But within the church, because of our covenant commitments, we are a family of faith—we are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper. The details of our lives and our personal walks are no private matter. Restorative discipline reminds us of this identity even as it promotes accountability.

In the wisdom of God, restorative discipline serves as a powerful means by which the one who began the good work in us will carry it through to completion. “He who call us is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess 5:24).

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[1] Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785–1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 9, 22.

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