Isn’t church discipline harsh and unloving?

Q: “Recently a man in our church was punished for divorcing his wife. He has left the church and so has his wife and family. The pastor said everything was done according to our church’s rules (bylaws) but in this day and age I just don’t understand and can’t believe God would want this to happen the way it did. Doesn’t the church need every member it can get? This kind of harsh judgment by church leaders makes me think I may be in the wrong church. How should I decide whether to leave my church?”

A: Church discipline is a critical part of life as a Christian and church member. Jesus told his disciples (and us) in Matthew 16:18-19 that he will build his church on the authority he has given to the church to judge sin and hold accountable those who refuse to repent. Without the practice of accountability for sinful behavior which is inconsistent with a church member’s own profession of faith the church cannot be built according to the plan Jesus gave to us.

The purpose of church discipline is first and foremost to warn a sinner to repent and forsake his or her path of behavior that demonstrates rebellion to the Lord and his commandments. This is so that the person caught up in sin can be forgiven and returned to fellowship in the body of Christ (see Matthew 18:21-35; Peter’s question and the Lord’s response in light of the context of Matthew 18:15-20, the process of church discipline). If your understanding of your church’s practice of church discipline is merely “punishment” as you seem to indicate in your question it is certainly possible your church leaders failed in their responsibility to serve this man and his family as God’s Word indicates. However, if it is just your own subjective evaluation that is leading you to use such words as “punished,” and “harsh judgment,” you should be very careful in calling into question the practice the Lord himself gave to the leaders of churches to impress upon all who call themselves Christians the seriousness of sin and that God will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7) nor the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross diminished by cheap grace.

Secondly, you should not leave your church because your evaluation of a God-ordained practice in your mind doesn’t align with your sense of a culturally relevant practice “in this day and age.” Our modern culture cares little for the church and the standards of maturing holiness its members have been called to. As a church member you have been called to remember that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).” As an eternal citizen of Heaven and merely a temporary pilgrim passing through this world (see Hebrews 11:13-16) you have the privilege of embracing the right practices of holiness that are building the church and God’s eternal kingdom.

-Dave Edling

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About David V. Edling

Dave Edling is an experienced Christian conciliator who has worked with many conflicted churches. During his decade of service on the senior staff of Peacemaker Ministries, he participated in over 200 mediation and arbitration cases and worked with nearly twenty thousand Christians engaged in conflicts affecting churches of almost every denomination. Dave holds several graduate degrees in addition to his Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. They are: Master of Arts in Human Behavior, United States International University (now Alliant International University); Juris Doctor, California Western School of Law; Master of Arts in Religion, Westminster Seminary California; and Master of Arts in Biblical Conflict Resolution, Birmingham Theological Seminary. Dave has served as a trustee on the Board of Directors for Covenant College and Westminster Seminary California and has taught in the Doctor of Ministry programs for Reformed Theological Seminary, Mid-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. In addition, Dave has been a lecturer in practical theology for several other Christian colleges and seminaries.
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