Practicing Church Discipline: Wisdom From The Field
Published by Jul Medenblik
Practically speaking, what does it look like for a person to be faithfully discipled, especially when Belgic Confession Article 29 teaches that the third mark of a true church is one who “practices church discipline”? We solicited input from the CRC Pastors Facebook group and connected directly with a cross-section of ministers serving in a variety of contexts throughout the United States and Canada. What follows is a summary of the wisdom these pastors shared with us.
Discipleship and discipline go hand- in-hand. Relationships are vital for the practice of church discipline. Pastors noted that the best encouragement and admonishment happens in small groups and ongoing relationships with mentors or elders. One pastor compared these established relationships and regular interactions to weed- pulling, a task much easier than trying to uproot sin that has grown into trees with strong roots. For example, someone described a time when a small group came to a chapter in their book study on personal finance. The conversation brought up an issue that needed to be addressed in one member’s life, and the book study was the first time the church leadership became aware of this need. Because the group had established trust with one another, it was easier to give and receive hard truths about what it means to be a Christian in the area of stewardship. Before the situation snowballed out of control, this person had a supportive community in place for encouragement and accountability.
Many pastors also stressed the need for a slow pace and cautioned against overreacting. A deliberate yet patient course of action we read about was for a consistory to offer a course or discipleship group that focused on a certain area of life (e.g., finances, parenting, or marriage). In one case, the leadership made very direct invitations to the group, based on the known needs of some members. It turns out that others who joined the group either had similar needs or a specific passion or strength in this area. Many benefited besides the few who were targeted to participate.
Church discipline is not only for sexual sins. We must not be arbitrary or inconsistent in our discipline. One pastor mentioned how we have a functional hierarchy of sins and “only seem to apply discipline to certain things that fit our hierarchy— even if it doesn’t match God’s.” The pastor said that sins such as racism, selfishness, or exploiting the poor are rarely addressed by the consistory. On the other hand, a sexual sin is often treated more publicly. Several pastors emphasized that we must be accountable to one another in all areas of life. We were glad to hear positive stories of successful care and discipline in cases of greed, slander, and conflict besides sexual sins.
Confidentiality may be more important than making a public announcement or confession. In the Christian Reformed Church, we have liturgical forms and announcements for admonition and discipline. The Church Order Supplements says these “may be used if the consistory judges that these will further the purposes of discipline and will serve the welfare of the congregation” (Supplement f., Articles 78-81; emphasis added). Many of the pastors we contacted shared that their consistories have chosen not to use these forms, for a variety of reasons. In these cases, confidentiality was a more important concern (see the confidentiality guidelines in the Church Order Supplements to Articles 78-84). One pastor spoke about the consistory’s desire to protect victims, especially when minors are involved. Another pastor said that they do not make public announcements because their congregation has multiple services or sites.
However, other pastors noted times when a public announcement or letter to the congregation is necessary. This might be the case if a staff person or office-bearer is involved, or if the situation would appear in the local news.
A few pastors shared stories of incredibly powerful public testimonies when a person was repentant and receptive to the discipleship of the church, or formally readmitted to membership. These testimonies were voluntary, and tears were shared all around. One pastor described how a member publicly asked for ongoing help: “This almost instantaneously rallied the congregation to shower [the person] with grace and squelched any judgment. This all happened rather quickly and within a month [the person] had a completely different outlook on life, their faith, and the church. In fact, [the person] had declared, ‘I could never be anywhere else.’” The pastor concluded, “I wish all cases of discipline were like this.”
Finally, we can have hope for the difficult task.
“I wish all cases of discipline were like this.” All our respondents acknowledged how very difficult and messy church discipline usually is. Not often is there such visible transformation or a clear sense of resolution. Pastors lamented that when things get hard, people tend to go elsewhere—either to another church or no church at all. One pastor identified this as a misunderstanding of the church as a voluntary association, instead of a covenant community.
Nevertheless, these pastors also expressed hope. Their approach to discipline keeps in mind a clear view of who we are as sinners and who God is as mighty to save. The proclamation of the good news of the gospel was identified as foundational to the ongoing discipleship and discipline in the church. We share their trust that God is active among us. As one pastor said, “a member’s good standing doesn’t require perfection, but it does require a desire to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their sanctification.” Another shared, “The grace of God is the seed of change in a soul.”
Our sincere thanks to the ministry leaders who contributed to this article.
By Jul Medenblik + Sarah Schreiber
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