Actually, the complete question which I was asked was, “Why doesn’t the church practice church discipline like it once did?” What a thought-provoking inquiry this is. You cannot find the expression “church discipline” in a Bible concordance because that specific wording is not used in the Bible. The concept, though, is.

Let us define a couple of terms. First of all, when I speak about “the church,” I have reference to the one-and-only church which Jesus built and bought with His blood. While we might often associate “discipline” solely with “treatment that corrects or punishes,” the concept of discipline also includes the “training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency,” as well as efforts which “enforce obedience” []. Based on the teaching of the New Testament, I personally think of “church discipline” in three aspects: preventative, corrective, and last-resort.

Preventative discipline – This involves teaching the saints God’s word (Acts 20:32), exhorting and encouraging them to remain faithful (Hebrews 3:12-14), and training them to practice self-control (Galatians 5:23). This approach is “going to work” before disaster occurs, preparing the minds of church members to make the right choices.

Corrective discipline – When Christians sin, by God’s grace they can have their transgressions forgiven by confessing their sins in prayer and repenting of those sins (1 John 1:9; Acts 8:21,22). There are times, however, when a child of God slips into sin or intentionally violates God’s will and does not take the necessary steps of repentance and confession to remedy the problem. What is the responsibility of the church to such a member? If a person is “overtaken in any trespass,” faithful disciples are to reach out to him in an effort to restore him (Galatians 6:1). When one “wanders from the truth,” other brethren are to make every effort to help turn him back and get him out of sin (James 5:19,20). In some instances, saints are in sin and unwilling to heed the teaching and loving exhortation which come from other brothers and sisters. In those cases, heart-to-heart appeals must reach the level of warning about the consequences of staying in sin. It is written, “warn those who are unruly” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Words of strong rebuke are certainly in order for those who rebel against the Lord (Titus 1:13).

Last-resort discipline – In a number of cases, when a Christian falls into sin, the loving efforts of his brethren to restore him are successful. Thank God for such great, life-saving occasions! In other instances, however, the attempts put forth to teach, admonish, warn, and rebuke are met by unresponsive, impenitent hearts. That is when the church is charged to take “last-resort” action – action which is appropriate when all other, scriptural, compassionate appeals have not resulted in the restoration of the lost soul(s).

Jesus spoke to the church in Thyatira about a woman who was in sin, saying, “I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent.” He warned that He would take drastic action to punish her if she failed to repent (Revelation 2:21,22). She was given a chance to correct her wrongs but had not done so, so now it was time for last-resort discipline. The church in Corinth was commanded “not to keep company with” a fornicator among them (1 Corinthians 5:11,9). Again, we read in 2 Thessalonians 3:14: “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, not that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.” That is the equivalent instruction of “withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly,” which is given in the same context (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Do modern-day congregations practice church discipline? In general, the answer is “Yes.” Surely every local church practices a certain level of preventative discipline. We would like to think that almost all congregations also make some type of effort that would classify as corrective discipline. What about the last-resort type of discipline? What percentage of 21st-century churches of Christ practice what the New Testament teaches about this form of discipline? I do not know the answer to that question. However, I know for a fact that many do not practice it at all. Never have. Do not. Never will.

Why not? [Look again at the title of this article]. It may be the case that some local churches do not withhold its fellowship from any erring members because, well, they do not have such people. Super! There may be other congregations which are not aware of the New Testament teaching on the subject. If so, they need to learn what the word of God says.

It could be that in the past, a church never practiced withholding fellowship from the rebels within it, so the present-day leaders do not want to begin now. It could be “messy,” and they might somehow be accused of being inconsistent, so they feel that the safe course of action is just “not bother with it.” Since when do we have the right to disregard a command of the Lord?! Do we do that with God’s instruction to take the Lord’s Supper?

Line up every excuse you can find for a local church not practicing last-resort discipline when there are cases which call for it, and the bottom line is this: an excuse is an effort to cover up a failure to do what God said. Let us prepare our hearts to submit to God in all matters – even in “church discipline.”

Roger D. Campbell

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