By Chuck Lawless
Some years ago, I conducted a study and wrote a book on membership classes in local churches. Many of those churches included teaching church covenants in their membership class, but they talked very little about church discipline. That is, they established expectations but did not always talk about accountability. Since then, I’ve conducted an ongoing informal survey to see why churches don’t do discipline. Here are the primary findings, in no particular order.
- They don’t know the Bible’s teaching on discipline. I can only guess what percentage of regular attenders in evangelical churches even know that the Bible teaches the necessity of church discipline. This topic is one that some pastors choose to avoid.
- They have never seen it done before. Some of the reticence to do church discipline is the result of ignorance. Frankly, I admit my own ignorance when I began serving as a pastor 30+ years ago. If you’ve never been part of a church that carried out discipline, it’s easy to let any of these following reasons halt the process.
- They don’t want to appear judgmental. “Judge not, lest you be judged” takes precedence over any scripture that calls for discipline, especially in a culture where political correctness rules the day. Judging, it seems, is deemed an unchristian act.
- The church has a wide-open front door. Church discipline is challenging to do if membership expectations are few; that is, it’s difficult to hold someone accountable to standards never stated in the first place. The easier it is to join the church, the harder it is to discipline people when necessary.
- They have had a bad experience with discipline in the past. For those churches that have done discipline, the memories of poorly done discipline seem to last long. They remember confrontation, judgment, heartache, and division – with apparently no attempt to produce repentance and reconciliation.
- The church is afraid to open “Pandora’s box.” If they discipline one church member, they fear establishing a pattern that can’t be halted as long as human beings comprise their congregation. To put it another way, they wonder how many members will remain if they discipline every member with unrepentant sin.
- They have no guidelines for discipline. For what sins is discipline necessary? At what point does church leadership choose to make public a private sin? Rather than wrestle with tough questions, many churches just ignore the topic.
- They fear losing members (or dollars). We hope no congregation makes decisions based solely on attendance and income, but we know otherwise. Sometimes churches tolerate sin rather than risk decline.
- Their Christianity is individualistic and privatized. Particularly in North America, believers often fail to understand the corporate nature of the church. We gather together on Sunday, but we do so while sharing life with no other believers. Discipline seldom happens if accountability doesn’t matter.
- They fear being “legalistic.” Legalism can quickly become rules-centered bondage marked by joylessness. Church discipline assumes some standard to which believers are held accountable—and that standard can become legalistic if unchecked.
- They hope transfer growth will fix the problem. Most churches are accustomed to members coming and going as congregations “swap sheep.” At times, a church is willing to confront a member in his sin – but only enough to encourage him to move his membership to the church down the road.
- Leaders are sometimes dealing with their own sin. When church leaders are hiding their own sin, they’re less likely to engage others about their failures. To discipline others would be to bring conviction on oneself.
What have you seen? Why do churches not practice church discipline?