What Effect Does Church Discipline Have on Evangelism?

I was teaching from Matthew 16:15-20 when a man in the audience asked:

“What effect does such a plan of accountability and church discipline have on evangelism?” 

I was a bit stunned for a moment, especially as he continued to explain his question by stating:

“I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to go to a church that does this.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Hear what it really means:

“Isn’t it true that if we follow Jesus’ teaching (“I will build my church …”), we will actually be deterring  people from entering his church?”

I was stunned, but not surprised. Like so many Christians today, this man was assuming that the practice Jesus teaches, accountability for sin (the second “key” of the “Keys of the Kingdom”), was a barrier to effective evangelism. His comments led to what I think is an even more important question:

What does Jesus expect us to build if we are to be true to his building plan?”

Matthew 16:15-20, you will recall, is where Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus acknowledges that Peter is correct in saying so but quickly adds, “This was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”  Man does not accept or acknowledge the divinity of Jesus in his own wisdom or strength; it is only by faith, that supernatural revelation of God taking place in the heart, that such a belief is established. In this context Jesus then does an amazing thing:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock [the confession of Christ’s identity that he is the long promised Messiah, the Christ and the only Son of God] I will build my church, and the gates on Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

The very first thing Jesus does after Peter’s confession that He, Jesus, is the Christ is to grant an authority that describes His plan for building His church! And what does that plan entail? What authority is given to mere man to accomplish this monumental task? It is all captured in the phrase “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

We know from Matthew 18:18 that the matter of whatever is bound and whatever is loosed refers to the practice of church discipline, the act of the church holding accountable for their sin anyone who hardens their heart and persists in ways inconsistent with their own profession of faith in Christ as the Son of God. That is the second of the two “keys” referred to in the phrase “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” the first being the opening of the kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel, that Jesus is the Christ, just as Peter had done. Theologians (and true believers everywhere) have long accepted that the marks of a true church are the preaching of the Gospel (key #1) and the administration of the signs and seals of entrance and continuing participation in the church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) kept pure through the careful practice of church discipline (key #2). That is why a question concerning whether people would come to a church that practices Christ’s building plan may somehow be a deterrent to evangelism was a shock to me.

That this confusion exists in the church today is not, sadly, a surprise, however.  Too many Christians believe that the faithful practice of corrective church discipline is one way to keep people away from the church. I answered the man in the audience eventually by saying that actually his question was one concerning discipleship rather than evangelism. New believers who have professed Christ as their savior as a result of God’s supernatural heart work don’t know the plan Jesus has stated to be His church “building” plan and they need careful shepherding to come to an appreciation for how he loves them so much he is unwilling to let them remain in rebellion when the Evil One takes them captive (2 Timothy 2:26).

Another person in the audience then told a story of his experience with church discipline. He said that a man had come to his church the day discipline was being announced and the church was acting to place a member outside the body of Christ as called for when there is no evidence of repentance (1 Corinthians 5). The process had been gentle and one aimed at the restoration of the sinner, but despite the best efforts of the church’s elders the church member persisted in his sin. He acted in a manner inconsistent with his profession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. The visitor was amazed but his words told truth:

 “This is the first time I have ever been in a church that takes sin seriously and actually makes that mean something! This is a place where I can find a home and grow in my faith!”

Evangelism was not deterred but enhanced…that was something supernaturally revealed to that visitor.

My we see anew what Jesus says it means to build a Christian church and support our leaders as we encourage their faithful shepherding task by administering corrective church discipline when appropriate to keep the church pure and help God’s people turn from sin.

For the Glory of the Lamb,
Dave Edling


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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