Church discipline is a much-neglected topic in the modern church. However, the Scriptures suggest it is needed for the good of the church and because Christians are called to love people caught in sin.
How do we apply the biblical principles of church discipline to the modern church? What can we do at earlier points to ensure that more drastic church discipline is not required? Furthermore, how does our understanding of the danger of abusing power imbalances change the process of discipline?
In this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, we hear audio from a June event run by our partner centre, the Priscilla & Aquila Centre. Phil Colgan, rector of St George North Anglican Church, and Kara Hartley, Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, discuss the difference between Big “D” discipline and small “d” discipline, and the implications that has for church life.
Links referred to:
- Watch this event and download the talk outline
- Upcoming Priscilla & Aquila Centre events:
- 1 Timothy 5 with Sam Allberry (Monday 1 August 2022)
- Proverbs 31 with Andrew Heard (Wednesday 12 October 2022)
- 2023 annual conference: Lazy Complementarianism: A fresh look at leadership, relationships and church family life with Gary and Fiona Millar (Monday 6 February 2023)
- 2023 inaugural research conference: Household in the Bible and church history with Claire Smith, Ruth Lukabyo, Dani Treweek and Rachel Ciano (Tuesday 7 February 2023)
- Our next event: Commanding the heart: Deception
- Support the work of the Centre
Runtime: 1:17:34 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Karen Beilharz: Church discipline is a much-neglected topic in the modern church. However, the Scriptures suggest it is needed for the good of the church and because Christians are called to love people caught in sin.
How do we apply the biblical principles of church discipline to the modern church? What can we do at earlier points to ensure that more drastic church discipline is not required? Furthermore, how does our understanding of the danger of abusing power imbalances change the process of discipline?
In this episode, we hear audio from a June event run by our partner centre, the Priscilla & Aquila Centre. In this evening seminar, Phil Colgan, rector of St George North Anglican Church, and Kara Hartley, Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, discuss the difference between Big “D” discipline and small “d” discipline, and the implications that has for church life.
I hope you enjoy this episode.
Jane Tooher: Good evening and welcome to Moore College—to those in the room who have braved this very cold evening in Sydney (that’s why I’ve still got my big coat on!) and to those of you watching at home or in churches. It’s great to have people via livestream, watching here in Sydney, other parts of Australia and also overseas.
My name is Jane Tooher and I serve on the faculty. I’m the Director of Moore College’s Priscilla & Aquila Centre. Thank you for coming this evening!
Tonight, our seminar is on the serious and sensitive topic of church discipline. Some of us haven’t had much experience with church discipline, while others of us have been involved in one way or another.
Because of the very sensitive and emotional nature of the topic, our Q&A session won’t be recorded this evening. Only the talk will be available at a later date on the Priscilla & Aquila Centre website.
It is our great privilege to have as our speakers this evening Archdeacon Kara Hartley, who is the Archdeacon for women’s ministry in the Diocese of Sydney, and Canon Phil Colgan, who is the rector of St George North Anglican Church here in Sydney as well.
Both of our speakers are Anglican, but they won’t just be coming from an Anglican perspective. This is a topic, of course, that impacts every Christian and every denomination, so I hope that no matter what denomination you are in, you will find what they say helpful in clarifying what you think and believe about church discipline.
JT: Before we begin, I’d like to just let you know about some other events coming up here at Moore College.
Our next Priscilla & Aquila event is on Monday 1 August. We’ll be looking at the whole chapter of 1 Timothy 5. Our speaker is Sam Allberry: you might have read some of his books or heard him speak before. He’s from England and he’s based in America at the moment. We’re looking forward to hearing him speak.
That’s a really important chapter talking about how, as we relate to people, we really need to consider their gender, their age, their position in church and their situation in life. So please note that date in your diary.
Then later on in the year in October, Andrew Heard, who is the senior pastor of EV Church up in Erina on the Central Coast, is going to speak for us on Proverbs 31: what does Proverbs 31 mean? What is it talking about? It will be great to have Andrew with us. You can sign up for that as well.
Then one of the other centres here at Moore College—our ethics centre, the Centre for Christian Living—is having an evening on deception, looking at Matthew 5. Tony Payne and another speaker (still to be confirmed) are going to speak on that topic. That’s a big topic! Come and listen to that as well.
Also, next year, the Priscilla & Aquila annual conference is taking place. It’s primarily aimed at men and women who are in vocational ministry, but any Christian is welcome to come. Gary and Fiona Millar are going to give the plenary talks. They will be looking at complementarianism: “A fresh look at leadership, relationships and church family life”.
Then the day after that, we’re having the first-ever women’s research conference for women. We want to grow an academic learning community for women who are in academia or research, or who are interested in writing. Claire Smith, Ruth Lukabyo from Anglican Youthworks, Dani Treweek and Rachel Ciano (Rachel is on the faculty at SMBC here in Sydney) are going to speak about household in the Bible and church history. That’s another day to note. That one’s just for women and it’s the day after the annual Priscilla & Aquila conference.
I’m going to pray and then I’m going to hand it over to Kara and Phil. Kara’s going to speak first, but then Phil’s going to get up and then Kara’s going to get up—they’re going to do quite a bit of tag teaming. Then they’re going to interview each other at the end, and then they’re going to take the questions right at the end of that.
Let me pray:
Our great God and heavenly Father,
We thank you for gathering us together tonight. Thank you that you are a good, holy, righteous and just God. Thank you that sin matters to you, and one way we see that is in your plans for church discipline.
We pray for Kara and Phil now—that they will speak wisely. We pray for each of us—that as we listen, we may have a deeper sense of the seriousness of sin, a deeper sense of the wonder of forgiveness and grace, and also a deeper sense of the importance of being Christians together, not just living as Christians individually.
Father, we pray these things for Jesus’ name sake. Amen.
Thank you, Kara.
Not a common or easy topic
Kara Hartley: Thanks Jane and hello everyone! Hello everyone online! It is a privilege to be here, speaking on this topic of church discipline. It’s actually not a topic that I think I’ve ever heard done at a conference—spoken on at a conference. I’m not sure if you have. We don’t talk about it that often in Christian circles. Phil and I can’t quite believe how on earth we got to do this. Sometimes it’s really important that you’re not standing in a certain place at a certain time when Jane might come up to you and make a suggestion. Unfortunately Phil and I hadn’t quite worked that out, and here we are tonight!
But it has been a great privilege to think through this topic, to recognise afresh its importance for us as Christian community and to understand what it means for us. We hope that tonight, you’ll be able to take away some concrete, biblical principles, which in turn will help you think about how you might love people in your church.
When we do hear about church discipline, it’s nearly always in a fairly negative context—negative for both the church and the person. Church discipline is often tied to words like “excommunication”, which sounds very big and quite scary; phrases such as “unloving”, “ungracious”, the church not showing forgiveness—they’re the phrases that are often heard. In high-profile cases, the discipline seems to come almost too late and it feels like it exposes that lack of correction that should have happened earlier on.
Even if it is done well, we often hear the final decision. But because we haven’t been involved in the process leading up to that moment, we might feel that, in fact, due process hasn’t been done. Discipline becomes complicated, because while we might think someone is doing the wrong thing, somehow it feels wrong to publicly speak out against them. There can be a lack of trust and a deep suspicion of the process and those involved in it.
It’s true that it can often be done poorly and applied unevenly. I think of the worst cases, where victims of abuse suffer injustice, because abusers are not disciplined. Or perhaps after they speak up, they themselves are disciplined for calling out the abuse.
In the modern world, church discipline is most often associated with sex—sex scandals in the church. That is, we exercise discipline towards somebody who we know is in a sinful sexual relationship by, say, removing them from leadership. That’s entirely appropriate. But other forms of sin—other forms of sinful behaviour that are known to people in the church—appear to go unchecked.
We struggle to do discipline in the church well for a number of reasons. We want to think generously of people, don’t we: “Let’s give them another chance”. We want to avoid conflict: “How can I express my concern about someone’s behaviour without them getting mad at me and us ending in a fight?” We don’t know if we have permission to challenge somebody about their behaviour: “What right do I have to pull somebody up? Who am I to judge them?” We think, perhaps, we ought to just forgive someone’s sin—forgive their inappropriate behaviour, rather than challenge them.
I think another reason for the complexity of church discipline is because we’re just not used to doing it. We rarely see it in practice—particularly in some denominations, perhaps, more than others, and we’ll talk about why that’s the case in a minute. And when we see it, it seems to have negative consequences for everyone involved—for the individual and for the church. In the court of public opinion, discipline can often just seem unloving.
So it’s a complex, complex issue. Phil and I have been thinking and praying a lot about it, and we’re going to attack it in a couple of ways. You’ll see an outline on the PowerPoint and hopefully for those in the room, you were able to get an outline on your way in.
Firstly, we’re going to consider what we’ll call big “D” Discipline—that is, discipline done in a formal way in the context of church life. Then we’re going to consider what we’re calling small “d” discipline: that is the more everyday love and correction, rebuke and care that we ought to have one another in the family of God. Hopefully from this, we’ll have a biblically formed view of how to create healthier church communities as we exercise godly discipline.
I want to make a note, though, at the very beginning that this seminar about it being titled “Men and women and church discipline”. We’ll address the issue of how men and women interact in this area a bit later, but it’s actually not going to be our main focus. At the end of the day, church discipline is actually a family business. It’s brother to brother. It’s sister to sister. It’s spiritual fathers and mothers to spiritual children. It’s church leaders to members of the church family.
As I introduce the topic, I hope you’re getting a sense of how big it might be and some of the complexity around it. I’m going to manage expectations right now and say that we’re not going to cover everything.
Part A: Big “D” Discipline: Excommunication and all that!
KH: So now, we’re going to move on to that big “D” discipline—that idea of excommunication and all that. We’re going to focus on two texts in particular: Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. I’m going to read those two passages and Phil’s going to tease out some of the implications for us. He’ll be making some comments and jumping between the two, and then we’ll get a sense of what the Bible is talking about—what the New Testament is talking about—in relation to church discipline.
1. The principles of church discipline (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-13)
“If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. 17 If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.18 I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.19 Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:15-20)
KH: Matthew 18 is a passage giving general instructions, which Phil will talk about in a minute. Now let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 5:
It is widely reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and the kind of sexual immorality that is not even tolerated among the Gentiles—a man is living with his father’s wife. 2 And you are inflated with pride, instead of filled with grief so that he who has committed this act might be removed from your congregation. 3 For though I am absent in body but present in spirit, I have already decided about the one who has done this thing as though I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough? 7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.10 I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world.11 But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12 For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13 But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1 Cor 5:1-13)
Phil’s going to come and give us some principles out of these passages. Thanks, Phil!
Phil Colgan: Thanks, Kara. G’day everyone and hello to the people at home as well. I’m glad you’re here because this is such an important topic and, as Kara joked before, it’s not one that often gets spoken about. My hope is that it will be helpful for you.
Those two passages that Kara just read are the key texts on church discipline. It would be great if you had Matthew 18 open in front of you, as well as a finger or piece or paper in 1 Corinthians 5. I’m not going to work through each of them systematically just because of time constraints. Instead, what I’m going to do is dip in and out of them and other parts of Scripture, and try to draw together some key principles. That’s the hope!
a) Who is to be disciplined? (1 Cor 5:11)
PC: The first question or principle is who is to be disciplined? What’s very clear in these passages is it’s not all sinners, or there would be no one in church. In Matthew 18, it’s only after repeated attempts to seek repentance that it gets to the point of what we would call excommunication. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is writing because the person is brazen and unrepentant. That’s the core issue—that they’re actually proudly continuing in what they’re doing. So it’s not all sinners; it’s only unrepentant sinners after much warning and much counsel.
This is not talking about a person with an ongoing struggle with sin where it grieves them, but they just can’t beat it. That’s not what this is about. That person needs the encouragement of seventy times seven forgiveness and passages like that (Matt 18:21-22). It’s really important to get this—that these passages are not encouraging us to search for specks in one another’s eyes.
More than that, I would also say, it’s not referring to unbelievers or even new Christians. Again, I think this is really important pastorally. Of course, when people come to hear the gospel, they have all sorts of unrepentant sin in their lives, and even when they’ve been a Christian for a while, they still have lots of things to work out and they are not the type of person that passages like these are meant to be applied to.
What Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are talking about are people who call themselves Christians, who are part of the church, who are aware that what they are doing is sinful, but who refuse to repent. These passages are talking about high-handed unrepentant sin from someone who calls themselves a believer.
The key verse, I think, is 1 Corinthians 5:11:
But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. [emphasis mine]
Such people are claiming to be Christians, but are persisting in ongoing, unrepentant sin.
b) What type of sin?
PC: Second principle or question: what type of sin? Often the focus is sexual sin and that’s understandable, because that is often the sort of public unrepentant sin that brings things to a head. It’s easier to see sin when someone leaves their spouse and moves in with another person than what goes on in the privacy of someone’s lounge room.
But these passages are actually talking about all sin. If you flick back to Matthew 18, it says, “If your brother sins against you” (v. 15), which seems to limit it to when you are the aggrieved party and you’ve actually been sinned against. But I think that when you look at the textual evidence, it seems that those words are likely a later addition. I think this is talking about loving your brother or sister enough that you care about any unrepentant sin in their lives. Even if I’m wrong on the textual issue, other passages make that point clear anyway: 1 Corinthians 5:11 makes it clear it includes greed, it includes verbal abuse—all sorts of sinful behaviour that may not directly impact you as a person sinned against.
In fact, one of the most common areas of sin that the New Testament focuses on and seems to be then referring to church discipline is someone who encourages false doctrine and, in particular, encourages dissension and disunity in the church. See also Romans 16:17, 2 Thessalonians 3:14 and 1 Timothy 6:3-4: they make it clear that divisive people and, in particular, doctrinally divisive people, need to be avoided. But the point is, it’s not just sexual sin.
c) What is the process?
PC: Thirdly: what is the process? At this point, I want to say Matthew 18 is our best guide, but I think sometimes people use Matthew 18 like a checklist: “I’ve done #1, I’ve done #2, now I get to #3”—something you move through. It’s sort of like the checklist for locking up the church on a Sunday or something like that.
It’s not meant to be like that. It’s a guide for principles. There’s an overriding principle before the ones on your outline, and if you get nothing else out of tonight, I hope you get this sentence: our focus should be pastoral before it’s disciplinary. We’re not working through these initial steps in Matthew 18 so that we’ve ticked the box to sign off before we get to the drastic step of discipline. We’re working with the goal of seeing someone repent and turn back. Everything is driven by love for the person.
With that in mind, here are the principles from Matthew 18:
i) A slow process
PC: Firstly, it is generally a slow process. You do not rush to discipline. It’s only after a long process of gentle warning and challenge that you move anywhere towards anything we would call “discipline”.
ii) Starts private (and tries to remain as private as long as possible)
PC: Secondly, it starts private and tries to remain as private as it can be for as long as possible. Even when it goes to two or three people, that’s only enough to show the person the seriousness of the issue. In fact, that step of moving from one person to moving to two or three people going and speaking to the person is as much a check on the rebuker as it is on the sinner. Is this actually an issue, or is it me who’s got the issue? Do others agree that this person should be challenged about this? Well, perhaps, I’ve got it out of proportion. So those two or three other witnesses are as much a help to the rebuker as they are to the sinner.
iii) Always seeking repentance and forgiveness
PC: Third step: it is always seeking repentance and forgiveness. At each step of the way, repentance ends the process and leads to forgiveness and, where appropriate, restoration. There may still be consequences of the penitent’s sin, but a lack of forgiveness is not one of those consequences.
iv) Only as last resort ends in public removal from fellowship (Matt 18:17, Titus 3:10, 1 Cor 5:11-13)
PC: Fourthly, it’s only as an absolute last resort that it is public and the person is removed from fellowship (Matt 18:17). At this point, I want to say that is what Jesus envisages in that final step—that a person be excluded from fellowship. Often when people talk about the end point of church discipline—what you might call the Matthew 18:17 or the 1 Corinthians 5:11 point in those passages—they often tie it to exclusion from the Lord’s Supper. If you’ve read any Mark Dever’s books, like The Deliberate Church and that sort of thing, it’s often tied to exclusion from the Lord’s Supper. The idea/argument is anyone can come to church; church is open to non-believer and believer alike. But the Lord’s Supper is just for believers.
My problem is that just doesn’t seem to be what the New Testament is saying. The New Testament doesn’t seem to tie it specifically to the Lord’s Supper. It seems to be talking about exclusion from fellowship. Titus 3:10 says, “Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning”. Matthew 18:17 talks about exclusion from the fellowship: the person should be treated like a tax collector or unbeliever.
At that point, sometimes people say, “Ah, but we love tax collectors and unbelievers. We’re the people who include them.” I think Jesus is meaning how you would normally treat a tax collector or unbeliever.
1 Corinthians 5 says don’t associate with them; don’t even eat with them (v. 11). I think it’s a long bow to draw to say that is just the Lord’s Supper—that you can share chips and Coke after church, but not the Lord’s Supper. It seems to be calling for a wider exclusion from Christian fellowship. We’ll see why that is in a moment.
Of course, this is why this all seems so hard and unloving. This is why, almost by definition, many well-meaning Christians will struggle with this. Many well-meaning Christians will say, “Aren’t we on about forgiveness? This doesn’t seem very forgiving. Aren’t we on about love? This doesn’t seem very loving.” Of course, the world will never understand it. The world will say, “Jesus says, ‘Love people,’ but there the church is judging people again.”
Just before I hand over to Kara again, it’s important to see who does the excluding in these passages. In Matthew 18, it’s the congregation that does it: the church. I don’t think that demands that everyone always must be told everything. Calvin suggests it’s the joint eldership of the church who represent the body at that point (Institutes, IV.12.2). In fact, it seems that the more public and notorious the sin, the greater the need for it to be public. Where the sin is notorious and public, so must the challenge be, if you like. 1 Timothy 5:20 talks about those in leadership, and there, the rebuke needs to be public because it’s a leader of the church who has committed the sin, and so it is a warning to others that it’s made public because of the greater impact of the sin and because of the public nature of the sin.
Now Kara is going to add a little note before I go on.
A note about the public calling out of sin
KH: I am going add a little note, just picking up on what Phil said and those principles he talked about: going slow and remaining private, seeking repentance and forgiveness always, but that, at the absolute last resort, it’s public. If a public figure, such as a leader of the church, has committed a sin, there needs to be a public calling out of that and public repentance demonstrated. While restoration to church is open, it may not always be open for the person to come back into ministry. You might like to think about that.
The second area I want to highlight may be a short-circuiting of that Matthew 18 process. It’s is when a person’s sin is endangering another person—in cases like abuse, for example. We must be ready to act straight away; we mustn’t say, “Oh, we’ll go through this process slowly.” No: there is a time for action and a time when we need to limit danger for people. So whether it’s abuse of children or adult-to-adult abuse, these actions are never tolerated.
In the church, action must be swift for the protection and safety of the vulnerable. It must be swift for the good of the abuser—to show them their sin and to call them to stop. The action is not necessarily done privately. Let’s take an extreme example: somebody hits somebody in the church service. As it’s public violence, that must be called out publicly.
So while Matthew 18 would be the normal way, there will be occasions—particularly with cases of abuse—where we must halt that process and do things quite quickly and quite publicly.
d) Given the cost, why is this necessary?
PC: Thanks Kara! Let’s move on.
Given the cost, why is this necessary? Why do we do this, given the cost to the person and the way it will nearly always be publicly misunderstood? There’s two reasons.
i) For the person’s good! It’s out of love.
PC: Firstly, we do it for the person’s good. It’s out of love. Ultimately, this is a matter of doing what is best for the person. It’s the same as disciplining a child who’s engaging in dangerous behaviour: you’re doing it for their good.
The first purpose of church discipline is to show the person the reality of their spiritual peril if they continue on the path they are set upon. The key question to ask before you get to this is, “Where does a person stand who claims to be a Christian but refuses to repent of ongoing, wilful sin in their life?” Remember, we’re not talking about a person struggling with sin, like in the Romans 7 sense; this is someone who says, “I’m a Christian and I am brazenly unrepentantly continuing in sin in a high-handed, ‘I don’t care’ manner.” That person is in spiritual peril. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says,
Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.
So if we believe that unrepentant sinners are outside the kingdom of God, then we need to make sure that they understand that. It is unloving to not make clear to a person the reality of their spiritual peril. Excluding people from fellowship is how we do that.
This is the point that Matthew 18:18 is making: “I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” What is the point that Jesus is making there? This is an application of what Jesus said to Peter about having the keys to the kingdom back in Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.” The point in this reference is that it is the job of the church to express the heavenly reality about a person. The church binds and loosens people as it preaches the gospel. So as we preach the gospel, and then as people respond in repentance and faith, they are included in the church, which expresses the reality that they have been included in the kingdom of heaven. That’s how that works. So who the church binds or looses reflects the reality in the heavens. It reflects the reality that someone is already bound or loosed there.
This is not in that infallible way it’s been taken in Roman Catholicism: the church can be wrong in its judgements. It’s not saying that if the church says someone is in, they’re in; if the church is someone is out, they’re out. It’s not meant to be read in that way. Instead, the church is meant to seek to reflect the kingdom reality.
So in Matthew 18, applied to discipline, the church looses people to show them that they are outside the kingdom of heaven. That’s why exclusion is so important. To be included in the church is to say to a person, “You are accepted in the kingdom of heaven” and that is a dangerous thing to let a person believe when they are standing under judgement.
The same idea can be found in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5:
When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus, turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.
I think that sounds much more dramatic than it is. It sounds like you’re doing some strange, occult ceremony or something. But what it’s saying is “Send the person outside the church, because the world outside the church is the domain of Satan”. The hope is that by removing the person from the church, their sinful nature—that is, the flesh—might be destroyed so that they might ultimately be saved. That’s why this must not be done lightly. That’s why this is a collective action: in doing this, we are making a comment—well, more than a comment—on a person’s salvation. This is as serious as it gets.
Now, how does it work? How does this achieve the good of the person—to loose them from the church, to put them out into the domain of Satan? The hope is the seriousness of the action leads them to re-evaluate, see their spiritual danger and repent—at which point, they are offered forgiveness and appropriate restoration.
But please note: the purpose is always restoration, rather than punishment. It’s so important to see that. It’s never meant to be a vindictive judgement. It is in order that the person might be saved. That is the purpose of church discipline. The purpose is always love for the person, rather than a desire to condemn.
That means that needs to be articulated in the way it’s done. Even if it’s not heard, it needs to be articulated. It needs to be done with clarity. The expression that repentance would lead to forgiveness needs to be made clear.
That’s why I love 2 Corinthians 2:5-8: there, in a letter written a couple of years after 1 Corinthians to the same church, Paul talks about forgiving and comforting the one he wrote about previously. You have to wonder if that’s the same person. Is that the evidence that 1 Corinthians 5 worked? It seems to me it might just be the case and it might just be the same person.
But the point to grasp is that we do this for the good of the person out of love for them. The purpose is that they might see their spiritual reality, come to repentance and be saved. The purpose is ultimately their salvation.
ii) For the good of the church!
PC: But just as important as that, we do it for the good of the church. We do it for the good for the person, but just as importantly, we do it for the good of the church.
We do it for two reasons. Firstly, God’s church is meant to be pure. We cannot tolerate unrepentant sin in the household of God: “Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch” (1 Cor 5:6-7a). Bad yeast infects the dough. God’s church is meant to be a new batch, so we cannot allow the old yeast of the world to contaminate the new batch.
Anyone who has been a part of a church for any longer than a month knows this is true. The reality is that sin is often contagious, and sin begets sin. If other people in the church know that a person is sinning and that that sin is tolerated, or we just don’t talk about it, or we just don’t deal with it and there is no consequence, then other people—especially young believers—will think that that sin is not that bad, that it’s acceptable, or that that is how we deal with sin—by just putting on a Pharisaical mask. We deal with unrepentant sin in people’s lives for their own good—that is right. But just as importantly, we do it for the good of the whole body.
I’ve been trying to think of an example of this. My difficulty is because I’ve been in one church for 20 years, all my examples are real people at St George North. So I’ve avoided examples.
But to show that point about how bad yeast spreads through the batch, I remember a friend of mine from another church bemoaning to me that he didn’t know what to do with a person he’d just led to Christ. I said, “Isn’t it obvious? Take him to church with you.” He said to me, “But the culture of the men in my church is not very good. They’re not very committed to church. They don’t talk about spiritual things. There just seems to be a worldly culture.” He says, “I don’t want this new Christian thinking that’s normal.” For me, that’s really sad and I’d encourage that person to consider finding another church. But it’s the principle, isn’t it: by not challenging those issues in the men in that church, it says to other people, “That is acceptable. That’s the normal Christian life.” We do church discipline for the good of the church.
Also, related to that and something that I must admit I couldn’t find in any books on this topic, but I think it’s there in the Scriptures, is we do it so that God does not judge the church and does not judge the leadership of the church. Our culture makes us think very individually, but in the New Testament, there is a much greater sense of communal responsibility where, together, we are responsible for the sin we allow to happen in our community. God judges churches for what they tolerate within them. I won’t focus long on this, but in 1 Corinthians 11, God judges that church for the way they have conducted their fellowship meals. Where you see it really clearly is in Revelation 2-3 in the letters to the seven churches: God doesn’t say, “I’m going to remove the people who’ve lost their first love”; he says, “No, I’m going to remove your lampstand. I’m going to remove the whole church plural. Because you have tolerated this happening in the life of your church, you will cease to be called my church.” I won’t go further on that, but that’s a warning to us: we cannot tolerate unrepentant sin in the life of a church. It’s not just about individuals; it’s actually for the good of the whole body.
I hope that’s been a helpful overview. I’ve covered a lot of ground. We’re going to come back to applying it in practice near to the end. But I’m going to hand over to Kara for the next part.
2. Why is this so hard to apply?
KH: Thank you, Phil! You’re getting a sense of why we won’t cover everything tonight. It’s a huge topic.
Regarding that last little section there about why we’re doing it—for the good of the person, but also for the purity of the church—that’s so significant for our understanding of this topic of what’s happening when we gather. We are a family and we gather in Christ’s name. That brings significant responsibility and concern that we ought to have for one another, and the kind of fellowship of believers that we ought to be.
John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, says something that captures the essence of what Phil was saying:
For since the church itself is the body of Christ, it cannot be corrupted by such foul and decaying members without some disgrace falling upon its head. Therefore, that there may be no such thing in the church to brand its most sacred name with disgrace, they from whom whose wickedness infamy redounds to the Christian name must be banished from its family. (IV.12.5)
In other words, there is to be nothing within our church family that will bring disgrace to the name of Christ, and those who continue in unrepentant sin must be called to account and, if necessary, banished from the family. Again, it sounds so harsh, but for the sake of the person and for the sake of the church, it becomes the most loving thing we can do.
So with all that in mind, we’re going to keep going and plough on, and think about the principles and why it’s so hard to apply them in our context. Just remember what we’re doing: as we discipline, we communicate to the person they’re outside the church and so outside the kingdom, unless they repent, and we communicate to others that sin is not tolerated in the church or in a Christian.
It’s not easy to apply, but I don’t think it’s ever been easy. 1 Corinthians 5 shows you that the Corinthian church didn’t want to do it at all. It seemed to go against this gospel of grace and forgiveness. They always had a genuine concern about how will the outsiders perceive this? How will they understand it? It’s easier to be Pharisees than to just deal genuinely with the heart. It’s easier to go to extremes: the idea of overbearing, stickybeak people, sticking their noses into people’s lives, versus just ignoring someone’s sin; it’s no one else’s business is a very modern church way to approach it.
So even though it’s hard, I think there are things about our own culture that make it difficult. I’m just going to mention them briefly, but we’ll come back to them later.
a) So countercultural
KH: Firstly, I think there is that sense that it’s very countercultural. The idea of “No judgement here; that’s not my job. I’m not here to judge you” is very common. We say it in a laughing way, but it permeates our churches. The idea that anyone has the right to call someone else a sinner is a bit of an anathema.
b) The issue of power imbalance
KH: Secondly, there’s the issue of power balance (which we’ll come back to): someone in a position of power is calling another person a sinner—for example, a male leader of a church. But he doesn’t have any accountability himself in these areas.
c) The nature of modern churches
KH: Thirdly, there’s the nature of the modern church: for those who belonged to the early church, it was very easy to identify who was in and who was out—whether they were in Corinth or Ephesus or somewhere else. But in today’s church, people often have a loose affiliation with a church, and it remains just that. The Baptists, of course, have quite strong membership. But as an Anglican, you can turn up a couple of times a year and we’ll call you an Anglican. Affiliation is quite loose, and there’s not as many boundaries about who’s in the church and who’s out.
Even so, if we want to discipline somebody, well, that’s fine. But they can just go to the other ten churches down the road and no one would be any the wiser.
So it’s all quite hard: the countercultural nature of judgement, the issue of power imbalance and the nature of the modern church are just some of the reasons that we find applying this idea of big “D” discipline so hard.
We’re going to think through a bit more about how to apply these principles. Phil’s going to come back up again and do a bit more work in Matthew 18 and how we apply big “D” discipline in our church.
3. Seeking to apply the principles
PC: So how do you in the modern church apply these principles? For me, one of the biggest things is just the reality that Kara said at the end there: generally speaking, the first-century church was one local congregation in one location, so it was fairly clear when you were excluded from the church in Corinth, the church in Jerusalem or the church in wherever. Just within 200 metres of each of our church buildings at St George North, there’s multiple other churches—and even St George North churches, as I think about it! There’s churches everywhere. How do you apply this? What does it look like in a church that has 600 members spread across six different congregations? How do you apply this in the modern church?
When I was at Moore College, I used to scoff a little when people would come to our Issues in Theology class and they would have a title for their thing that read, “Towards a theology of …” I’d say, “Come on! Back yourself and give us what you really think. Don’t tell us ‘Towards’.” But tonight, I’m sort of doing “Towards applying the principles”, because how you actually apply this in practice in the modern church is just really hard.
Firstly, I think the key for applying this is not, as I said before, to treat Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 as a prooftext or flow diagram to be religiously followed. I don’t think either passage was written with that intent. 1 Corinthians 5 was written as a real-life example of a very specific situation that we’ve then got to glean lessons from, and Matthew 18 was trying to give us those general principles I drew before, rather than, as I say, a flow diagram to tick off.
Instead, what we want to do is draw out the principles and then apply them to the particular situation in our local church. That will include all sorts of factors, like your church polity, your understanding of who the elders are in your denomination in your church, how you express church membership, the size of the church, the make-up of the church—all sorts of other factors. So in that light, what I’m going to do is make a few points seeking to apply the principles in the modern context in the light of those difficulties.
a) Apply the earlier steps and rarely necessary
PC: The first thing I want to say is that when you apply the first parts of Matthew 18 well, the need for the drastic action rarely arrives. In my experience, when people are confronted about the seriousness of unrepentant sin, one of two things usually happen: either they express repentance, or ultimately, they make the decision for you and choose to leave themselves.
There’s a temptation, at that point, to be relieved and to think, “Oh good.” But actually, we shouldn’t be relieved. We should be sad when a person does that, because it means they’ve not repented of their sin and they are in that perilous state. So just by the by, this shows you why it is so important, if you’re in ministry, to call the minister of the church anyone comes from when they transfer to your church. I’m amazed how rarely I hear from the ministers of other churches to where people from St George North have transferred. I’m talking about good transfer, where they’ve moved to another city or moved halfway across Sydney and changed churches. My point is ministers have to be serious about pastoral handovers, or else church discipline is meaningless, in many senses.
Expanding on this point, that’s why this should be a slow process. I want to come back to that point I said before: remember, this is about pastoring the person, not administering justice. Matthew 18 is not a checklist to be run through and ticked off. Remember, you are seeking the good of this person entrusted to your care. So I want to say you may have 15 steps, not just the two steps that are there set out for you in Matthew 18:15-16. You may have 15 steps of private, careful challenge before you ever get to taking it to what we call big “D” discipline. You want to give people time to dwell on it and consider the challenge. Wisdom says give people time to think about things, rather than demanding repentance on the spot. Just because when a person is confronted, they don’t respond and drop to their knees and say, “I repent! I seek forgiveness” doesn’t mean that that hasn’t worked. Give them time before you move forward through the process.
But the point is, big “D” discipline is rarely needed if the earlier parts of Matthew 18 are happening. (I want to expand on that later.)
b) Apply the key principles
PC: However, how do you apply big “D” discipline in the modern world? What do you do if you get to that awful situation of a high-handed, unrepentant sinner who calls themselves a Christian?
As I said before, that will depend on your church polity and especially on your ecclesiology and your understanding of church membership. So if you have a different understanding of church membership, how you express this will probably be different.
I can’t go through every different expression of church membership tonight. But for some, it will involve being removed from the church roll, and as I said before, barred from the Lord’s Table. As I said before, I don’t think that’s adequate. I think at the very least, there needs to be an expression to the person that they are excluded from attendance at the main gathering that they call their church.
But it’s hard to then work out how far to go with that. 1 Corinthians 5 says, “Do not even eat with such a person” (v. 11). The point of that is they must understand by what you do that they are not a part of the fellowship. They must understand that they cannot continue to enjoy the aspects of the fellowship they associate with being a part of God’s people.
Now, the extent that public sharing is required, I think, as I said before, depends on the notoriety of the situation, the notoriety of the sin, whether they’re in leadership and other things like that, because you want to be very careful to do that well, and it should always be done with careful thought and the support of, in my context, your local bishop, but in a different context, the combined eldership of your church. Remember, it needs to be a collective action of the eldership of the church, not an individual action of one minister.
I want to go back to the idea of applying the principles. Where I get to is whatever we do has to do two things, and these are the key: firstly, it must communicate to the person that they are outside the church and so outside the kingdom, unless they repent. So whatever we do has to communicate the seriousness of the situation to the person. Then, secondly, it must communicate to others who are aware of the sin that such sin is not to be tolerated in a Christian. I think the key is to get those two principles right and then say, “What is the action we need to take in our circumstance that will make sure those two things are communicated?”
So if you are a church that shares the Lord’s Supper every week, actually excluding a person from the Lord’s Supper might be a powerful statement that applies those principles well. If you share it six times a year, I don’t think excluding a person from the Lord’s Supper achieves that first principle. See how I’m saying how your other issues with church—your other views on church—will change what you do? If you run two other services a week that don’t have the Lord’s Supper that they can attend, again, it doesn’t communicate that principle. If you are a church where church membership is heavily focused on small groups, then excluding the person from their small group might be a really powerful statement.
I could go on and on. My point is, it’s not as simple as just rolling out Matthew 18 and expelling the person from the church. It’s not as simple as that. We need to apply these principles as best we can in the realities of our church situation.
But I want to come back to those two key principles:
- Does it make clear to a person that they are outside the church and so in spiritual peril?
- Does it communicate to others that such sin must be repented of and leaves a person in spiritual peril?
Part B: Little “d” discipline: Being a truly Christian community
KH: So that is big “D” discipline in a nutshell: sorted, done, tick, good. It’s huge! This idea particularly of excluding somebody from the fellowship is so, so serious. As I said earlier, it’s something we’re not used to. It feels unloving and scary to do that. Are we being judgemental? All of those questions rise up in us.
But one of the things that occurred to us as Phil and I were preparing and helped us in our thinking is that there are actually about ten steps before the first two steps of Matthew 18. This is where we’re going to turn to what we’ve called little “d” discipline.
We think that one of the reasons that big “D” discipline is so confronting is because our churches miss these earlier steps. We’re just going to explore little “d” discipline for a while, thinking about what it means to be truly a Christian community.
Phil’s going to start off. I’m going to come back in a minute.
The foundations beneath church discipline
PC: So we’ve called this little “d” discipline: “Being a truly Christian community”. Church discipline in that big sense we were talking about doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s in a context of a whole picture of what the church should be. It’s in a context of a whole picture of what the individual Christian life should be, according to the Scriptures.
I always think that if you’re a member of a soccer club or the local RSL (Returned and Services League) club and you were called before the board and told, “You are not welcome here. You are being excluded because of some aspect of your personal life”, you would rightfully be up in arms. You would rightfully think, “That is not appropriate!” Even if they did it in a Matthew 18 way where they sent one person and then they sent two people, and then they did it with gentleness, the issue is your relationship with that organisation doesn’t give them that right.
Sadly, it seems to me, the reality of many modern Christians’ relationship with their church means that their church does not have that right. They are a consumer who sometimes benefits from their loose affiliation with this body, like a RSL or a sporting club. So then it’s no wonder that church discipline seems incongruous and outlandish. We need to remember and understand the Bible’s teaching on church discipline comes in the context of all the other teaching of what a church should be. In addition, if a church is not being what the New Testament calls on it to be, then church discipline will always be incongruous and will always be out of place.
The Bible’s picture of the church is of people truly sharing their lives, intertwined with one another. It’s that picture in Acts:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers … Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42, 46-47)
Now even if those wonderful pictures like that in the Book of Acts aren’t prescriptive, they are descriptive of a picture of a healthy church and what a church relationship is meant to look like. The dominant motifs of the New Testament for the church are of a family and of a body, where the individual is not defined by their individuality, but is effectively defined as a part of the whole. To be a part of the church is to be a part of the body, where we share each other’s lives. So the most wonderful picture of that is Ephesians 4: the idea is that every church member is intertwined with every other church member, and everyone is an integral part of the body, using their gifts to build each other up. But what I love is the way every part of the body has a mouth in Ephesians 4, so every person is speaking the word of truth in love to one another so that we might grow together to be like Christ.
My point is if we jump to disciplining someone when that Ephesians 4 reality is not even imperfectly what our churches are, it’s like smacking a kid for talking with their mouth full when you’ve never actually shared a meal with them. It’s the healthy church life that provides the context for Matthew 18.
I hope that makes sense. The point I’m trying to make is if our churches are just places we attend where people come to be served and receive their dose of the Scriptures or the Lord’s Supper, then Matthew 18 will never make sense. 1 Corinthians 5 will never make sense. But where we are a family—where we are a body intertwined—it makes absolute sense.
KH: So picking up on that with the little “d” discipline and the big “D” discipline, the principles or the foundations are exactly the same: sin matters and if someone remains unrepentant, it damages them and the church, and to love people, we need to help them put off sin in their lives so that they grow to be more like Jesus. Those are the foundations.
Cultivating the right culture in our churches
KH: Rather than worrying about what exactly we might do when we’re faced with that unrepentant sinner, way before that, we want to address what we need to be doing in our churches to live out those principles of calling out sin and loving the other person. Are we creating an environment where the level of life-sharing precedes the conversations of Matthew 18? Is that level of life-sharing rich and deep and honest? Is that level of life-sharing true?
That’s the kind of thing we need to consider as we think about little “d” discipline and then big “D” discipline. What are we putting in place earlier that might actually stop us from even getting there?
PC: We want to raise some questions at this point that I think are actually the far more important than the big “D” discipline question. Are we cultivating a culture where confession of (if I might call it this) “small” sin—where confession of struggles is normal in that 1 John 1-2 sense, where people confess their sin? Are we creating an environment in our churches where people are able to confess sin to one another without fear of judgement? Is our church a Titus 2 church, where older women are encouraging younger women, and older men are encouraging younger men to enable the relationships to develop in which small “d” discipline can occur? We’re going to hear from Sam Allberry on 1 Timothy 5 later in the year, but is our church a 1 Timothy 5 church where men are able to exhort older men as fathers and younger men as brothers, and older women as mothers and younger women as sisters? Are we cultivating a culture of that genuine sharing of lives in which the conversations that precede Matthew 18 occur naturally?
KH: It’s coming back to those realities: we often talk about asking one another the hard questions. But do we give one another permission to do that? Who does that to us? Have we invited people to do that with us? Are we bold enough to do that with one another? Are we cultivating a culture where people, as we’ve said, are open about their struggles, rather than having to put on a mask? Are we cultivating a culture where it’s normal for people to be gently encouraged, but also challenging one another?
If you see a brother or a sister boasting about something or doing something that you know is sinful, have we got the culture to call them up on it—pick them up on it—challenge them gently about that? Are we interested enough in one another and committed enough to one another to allow this kind of community to exist? I think that’s a really significant question. Are we interested and committed enough to one another?
So these are more important questions than the very extreme cases of what church discipline is. How can we work to be the sort of church culture that we’ve just been talking about? We don’t have all the answers. That may shock you. So we’re going to consider a few more examples now.
PC: As Kara said, we don’t have all the answers. But we want to think about how you encourage that sort of church culture we’ve been talking about. I think in most of our churches (at least in the circles I move in), small groups or whatever you call them are the key. That is where we attempt to create an environment where those sorts of conversations can happen.
But more than that, I think actually modelling genuine confession and repentance is the key. As ministers of the gospel, do we model the fact that we are sinners who make mistakes, who sin, who confess and who need repentance ourselves?
In addition, I think we need to think about our teaching. Do we teach enough about the importance of godliness in the Christian life? Do people in our churches understand the seriousness of sin? Does our teaching call for and model an expectation of godliness? Does our teaching normalise, as I said before, a process of sin and repentance, rather than encouraging Pharisaical piety?
I think there’s something about our church cultures that we need to think about. Do we make it clear that there are expectations of what it is to be a part of the body of Christ? Do we explain what it means to be a member of our church? I don’t mean going down the Dever line of having a membership roll and so forth. But do we explain that to be a member of the people of God is to be someone who is repentant of sin? Do we explain the place of holiness in the Christian life?
I think sometimes we’re so keen to have people on our church roll and not lose them that what we then do is lower the bar of what we expect in terms of godliness. Instead, we need to disciple people and challenge them to be what God wants them to be.
They’re just a few thoughts, for what it’s worth. Now Kara and I are going to ask each other some questions, because we thought we’d be nicer than other people.
Part C: Specific issues and questions
Church discipline and complementarianism
PC: How does our complementarian theology, where our eldership is male, impact how we apply these principles to women under our care?
KH: As I’ve thought about this question, I wanted to put it first in the context of family. We’ve been talking about that quite a lot tonight: church as family. As family, we keep encouraging one another to the godly life. Yet we must always do this wisely and sensitively, kindly and lovingly.
Part of that wisdom is living out Titus 2: there is a right place for a woman to train and correct other women. But the reality is that sometimes a male elder may need to address issues in a woman’s life, and this is the responsibility of the church leader, at that point.
So how does he do it? How does he do this with a woman? Well, Matthew 18 leaves open the possibility that it could be, first of all, a female who meets with her. If that doesn’t work, it goes to another and that’s when a male leader could come in. When a male leader does come in, his role, again, as we’ve talked about through the foundations, is love—to love her and restore. So he’ll never meet her with the intention of crushing her or shaming her or belittling her. I mean, he should never do that to anyone, really, male or female. He recognises the power he does have and he uses that in a way that seeks her good.
We must remember that power and the use of that power doesn’t necessarily entail an unjust process or outcome. Nor does it mean that a leader will automatically use his power unhelpfully. A leader recognises the power he has in his office and he exercises it in a loving way, driven by grace and a desire for restoration.
I also think a wise leader, at that point, recognises his own physicality—recognises that he might be a taller person, a larger person or a person with a bigger voice—and remembers his own physicality, his own authority, his own power as he brings and calls a woman and a man, but a woman in this case, back to following Jesus with her whole life, driven by a love for her. I think if he has those principles in mind, that ought to come through in the way that he deals with that woman. Do you want to add to that?
PC: I think that’s helpful. I think there’s always that thing of what you are able to do and what is wise to do. This comes back to what I said before about Matthew 18 not being a checklist where the first meeting must be one-to-one. If ever I’m having a difficult conversation with a woman, I will ensure that there is another woman present—whether it’s my wife Victoria or another female leader. I think that is wise and loving—wisdom for myself and loving to the person I’m speaking to. It can be a scary thing, having a big guy who is, in people’s eyes, the leader of the church, saying something, so that’s just wisdom.
But it’s an interesting point about the whole power imbalance thing: our world’s answer to power imbalances is get rid of them: remove power imbalances. The Bible’s answer is there will be power imbalances, so make sure you do not abuse them. Make sure you show grace. Make sure you show love, and so on. It’s interesting: our world’s answer is just try and remove such things, and I don’t think that actually works, because the human heart is sinful. The Bible’s answer is be wise, loving, gracious and gentle.
Church discipline and teens
KH: That’s one area of church life. Another area is teenagers. How do we love, care for and discipline teenagers? I don’t have teenagers in my life regularly. Phil does around his breakfast table. So what about teenagers in the church as church leaders? What do you think about that?
PC: I hope they’re not watching! But there you go. We have to be very, very careful in applying any of these principles to young people. Remember what I said at the start about how we’re talking about someone who claims to be a Christian and who is in high-handed sin? By definition, teenagers in general are young believers. We treat young believers differently. Someone who has just become a Christian and is still swearing all the time or struggling with drunkenness is very different to a person who’s been a Christian for 25 years and is going in that direction. Sanctification takes time for a new believer, and teenagers have that plus a 15-year-old brain. So I want to say be very, very quick to gently encourage, but very, very slow to discipline, if you’re involved in youth ministry.
If rebuking is necessary, you really need to think through parental involvement, I think. That makes it very, very difficult where their parents are non-believers. That’s what we’re finding harder and harder in our church life: we (praise God!) have lots of kids who are a part of our youth ministry who are from non-Christian families. But how do you talk to them about godliness issues when their parents think what you’re talking about is not just unimportant, but not good—especially in areas of human sexuality? I don’t have the answers on that other than to work slowly and remember not to treat them as adult believers.
But remember the principles: whatever you do, you’re driven by “What is for the good of this young person and what is for the good of the rest of the flock?” Which means sometimes it is necessary even to exclude teenagers for the good of the wider youth group. So I’m not saying church discipline never applies in that setting.
Church discipline and ministry staff
PC: I’ll ask Kara the next question. How is this different when we need to discipline ordained workers or staff in our church?
KH: The principles still apply, but we might need to think, again, about the more public action. In the Anglican denomination, we have lines and means for accountability. But it is scary to make an accusation or to speak up against an ordained minister, and we recognise that.
Ordained workers and other ministry workers are held to a higher account and rightly so. If the issue sits within a team, it’s right for the senior minister to pastor that team, and if others speak to a senior minister about one of the other staff workers, it’s right for that senior minister to listen carefully, and again, have processes of how he would deal with that person, remembering those principles we’ve talked about.
I think for every church, no matter what denomination or kind of church you are, you need to have clearly articulated processes for dealing with complaints about ministry staff. A complaints process is a very serious thing to enter into. It’s very important that there are clearly articulated processes, whether you’re an independent church or whether you’re a part of a denomination. It’s important that you know how that will be treated. Also, again, a lot of burden can be placed on the senior minister at that point, especially if it’s against one of his staff.
So we want to put the principles in place, but recognise there may be a place for more public action. In addition, we need elders and wardens and everyone to understand and deal with these issues with a good foundation—a good understanding of what the outcome can and ought to look like.
There’s some thoughts on that. What about for you?
PC: I want to just think about small “d” discipline of staff in our churches. I think sometimes ministry teams struggle and senior ministers struggle to raise issues with their staff. It then becomes bigger and ends in big “D” discipline when it could have been dealt with more easily at an earlier level. Part of the thing to remember there is that thing I keep saying: remember you are the pastor before you are the boss. My job is to pastor my team before it is to be the boss of the team. So we actually want to be creating an environment of love and concern for one another within staff teams that provides the context where correction and sometimes even small “d” discipline can occur.
In terms of men and women on staff teams, I very much involve Victoria, my wife, in the way we care for the staff team. That’s a blessing where we are able to do that together. But I think it’s really important to ensure that all women—even women who are in paid ministry in a church—are cared for by other older, mature women and finding that sometimes outside the parish is necessary to create that environment, if it’s not there within the parish.
Church discipline and other people involved in ministry
KH: People in ministry—other non-staff: how do we ensure that our leaders are cared for and supportive? What happens when we need to discipline them? How do we ensure that they understand what the expectations are? Do you put together expectations for ministry leaders/youth leaders? What happens if a youth leader does something really dumb one night? Do they get stood down for six months, twelve months, forever? How does it work?
PC: I think there is always a higher standard for people who are serving and we need to make expectations clear. It’s sometimes best, as Kara alluded, to have written expectations with what might need to happen in certain situations.
I want to go back to the thing I’ve said over and over again: always remember that the person needs to be pastored themselves before you worry about their ministry. Often we have quite young people leading children’s ministry or youth ministry in our church. They might fall into sin in some way. It’s amazing how the temptation is to jump straight to “Well, we’re going to have to drop them as a youth leader”. Before you get to that point, you want to treat them as a young Christian who needs to be loved and cared for and responded to. So I want to say while there is that need to sometimes stand people down from lay ministries, I don’t think we should ever jump straight to standing down. We need to talk to them about what’s happening, pastor them, and the best case is,together, work out what that means for their ministry—together, work out what is the appropriate step for them to do.
I keep coming back to this. Discipline is a last, last, last resort. Did I say “last” enough? A last resort. Pastor before we discipline. Love before we discipline, because it is about what’s best for the person and what’s best for the church. So I think with people in ministry, yes, have clear expectations so people know, “Oh, there’s an expectation that I’ll be godly! Okay. Now I get that.” It’s amazing how many people don’t understand that. Have an expectation that if a person is unable to meet these expectations, they will need to stand down. But again, they are to be pastored before they are to be disciplined.
KH: I think that also goes to the point, Phil, that we were talking about earlier: creating the right culture. If they know they’re going to be pastored and they do something that’s irresponsible or ungodly or sinful, having the opportunity to confess that and talk that through in a way that they know will be loving, kind and generous, rather than crushing, is helpful. I think that’s such an important point, and really, exactly what we’ve been speaking about all night.
KH: We have come to the end. Thinking back to our foundations, we want to love people enough that we’re going to call them back from sin. We don’t want them to keep going down a path and a life of sin. We want to love God’s church and be good family members by caring about their discipleship and their godliness. We want to recognise that discipline always has the goal of the restoration of the person—that they will love Jesus with all their heart, soul and mind. We mustn’t ever discipline in a way that intends to belittle or crush or shame another person. But we want to discipline in a way that causes them to know that the life Jesus is calling them to is one of holiness and godliness, to bring glory to him.
So with those principles and thoughts in our minds, I want to encourage us to do this little “d” discipline regularly. But even before that, to work hard at creating that culture in our church where we care enough about one another and we care enough about God’s church that we’ll correct one another. We’ll gently rebuke one another. We’ll speak into one another’s lives. We’ll know one another deeply enough that we can love one another deeply enough so that we may never need to do even little “d” discipline or especially the big “D” discipline. Recognise that we are family and that’s part of being in the family and part of family business.
JT: It’s obvious that Kara and Phil have put a lot of preparation into tonight. I hope you found it extremely helpful. I know I did.
Please thank Kara and Phil and then, after that, Phil will close in prayer for us. [Applause]
It would be great to see you at another Moore College event: remember, there’s the Centre for Christian Living event on deception and there’s also two more Priscilla & Aquila events in the year on 1 Timothy 5 and Proverbs 31. You can find all those details on the Priscilla & Aquila website.
Our heavenly Father, we thank you for the wonderful news of your gospel—that even though we are all sinners, you sent your Son into the world to die for our sin in our place so that we might know your forgiveness.
Father, we pray, before we ever begin to think about applying these things to others, that we would be people who do not continue in unrepentant sin. Help us to be people who are open to discipline. Help us to be people who are open to gentle words of correction and rebuke where necessary. Help us to create environments in our churches where people can speak the word of truth in love to one another and have those conversations that need to be had.
But Father, give us wisdom if we come to a situation like that we’ve talked about tonight, where discipline needs to occur. We pray we might seek to apply well the principles we’ve seen in the Scriptures. And we especially pray that we might always be driven by what is best, both for any one person, but also for your church.
We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
On our website, we also have an opportunity for you to make a tax deductible donation to support the ongoing work of the Centre.
We always benefit from receiving questions and feedback from our listeners, so if you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at email@example.com.
As always, I would like to thank Moore College for its support of the Centre for Christian Living, and to thank to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for her work in editing and transcribing the episodes. The music for our podcast was generously provided by James West.