Note: This is an edited extract from a recent talk given by Kara Hartley and Phil Colgan for the Priscilla and Aquila Centre on ‘Men and Women and Church Discipline’.
No one likes to be told they are in the wrong. And most of us fear being seen as Pharisees, judging others for their behaviour when we have so many failings ourselves.
So it’s no wonder that we avoid thinking about and discussing church discipline. The idea of confronting someone about how they live, what they’re doing wrong, and sinful behaviour that needs to stop is, well, confronting.
The very idea of church discipline can sound unloving or ungracious. After all, who am I to call out the behaviour of a fellow sinner? Yet the Scriptures challenge us that sometimes we need to do this for the good of the person and for the good of the wider church.
Needless to say, getting involved in church discipline is messy. For this reason, it’s important to be clear about what we’re doing when we exercise church discipline.
‘Big D’ discipline vs ‘little d’ discipline.
Searching through the pages of the New Testament, it’s possible to categorise discipline into two different kinds: ‘Big D’ discipline and ‘little d’ discipline.
So what’s the difference between the two, and how do we do both well?
‘Big D’ discipline.
This is the kind of discipline Jesus speaks of in Matthew 18:15-20, and Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. It’s the discipline required when there is continuous, unrepentant sin (Matt 18:16-18). It’s given only after much warning and counsel (Matt 18:17). It’s not for unbelievers (1 Cor 5:12-13) or even new Christians. (New Christians are only beginning to understand what it means to follow Jesus and the implications for their lives.)
It’s not just about sexual sin, but any sin that someone continues to indulge in without repentance (1 Cor 5:11). It entails a slow process, begins privately, seeking repentance and forgiveness, and as a last resort, may be public (Matt 18:16-18). If the person remains unrepentant, they will be excluded from the church fellowship (Matt 18:17, 1 Cor 5:2,5).
What does ‘Big D’ discipline achieve?
Big D discipline does two things.
First, it communicates to the person that they are outside the church and thus outside the Kingdom unless they repent. And second, it communicates to others that such sin is not to be tolerated in a Christian. Big D discipline is done for the good of the person and the good of the church.
But there are reasons why Big D discipline isn’t always straightforward. It’s never been easy; ask the Corinthians!
In our context, however, some things make it even harder. Here are three we might struggle with:
It’s so counter-cultural: does anyone have a right to call another person a sinner?
Issues of power imbalance: when leaders without accountability call out others’ behaviour and call people to repentance.
The nature of modern churches: what does it mean to belong to a church? When someone is excluded from one church, they can simply go to another up the road.
Yet despite these difficulties, the principles of Big D discipline help us to address sin within our fellowship and provide a guide, a process, for calling someone to repent of their sin.
‘Little d’ Discipline
But what about little d discipline?
One thing to remember when we consider church discipline is that the Bible’s teaching comes in the context of all the other teaching of what the church should be—a Christian community.
The dominant motifs of the New Testament for the church are of a family and of a body—where Christians are defined not just as individuals but as part of the whole. To be a part of the church is to be a part of this body, where we share each other’s lives (e.g. Acts 4:2).
So as a family, we help one another live the godly life. The principles remain the same for little d discipline as for Big D discipline: little d discipline is a ministry of love of the other through correction and rebuke. Little d discipline says that to love people is to help them put off sin in their life so they might grow to be more like Jesus. Little d discipline tells us that sin matters.
This ministry of little d discipline helps us to avoid reaching a point where we need to do Big D discipline.
So how might we ensure we do little d discipline well and save ourselves from situations of Big D discipline?
Here are several things we can and should do:
- Cultivate a culture where confession of small sins and struggles is routine.
- Create an environment where people can confess sin to one another without fear of judgment, like in that 1 John 1 sense where we all agree that we are sinners.
- Create a Titus 2 church where older men encourage younger men, and older women encourage younger women.
- Create a 1 Timothy 5 church where men can exhort older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters.
- Create a culture of genuine sharing of lives.
- Create a culture where it is normal for people to encourage but also challenge one another gently.
- Create a culture where we are interested enough in one another and committed enough to one another to allow this kind of community to exist.
So, how can you be good at church discipline? Here are things to keep in mind:
Love people enough to call them back from sin. Love God’s church and be a good family member by caring about their discipleship and godliness. Recognise that discipline always aims to restore the person—that they love Jesus and follow him with their whole heart, soul and mind.
We’re to discipline, not to belittle, shame or crush another person, but to help them live the life Jesus calls them to: a life of holiness and godliness, bringing glory to him.
Yes, there will still be times when we might need to consider Big D discipline. But before we get there, it’s better to work together to create connected and loving churches, doing the little d discipline regularly and lovingly with one another so that Big D discipline remains our last resort.
Kara Hartley is the Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Sydney Diocese. Phil Colgan is the Senior Minister at St George North Anglican Church. Both are graduates of Moore College.
Below is the full talk: