The High Cost of Neglecting Church Discipline

by Alex Zenk

In today’s culture (and church), the word discipline carries a negative connotation. Our culture at large has lost the meaning and process of healthy corrective action and instead has chosen to adopt more therapeutic practices that highlight emotions, personal beliefs, and secular psychology. As a result, both children and adults carry on in their behaviors how they “feel” fit. From acting out in the home, playground, school, or office the art of loving discipline has been widely abandoned.

However, this moral incapacity is not limited to toddlers on the playground or immature adults at the office—it is far more integrated than we might imagine. In fact, this soft-sided, egg-shell-walking, therapy-driven approach to addressing defiant behavior has deeply incorporated itself into the church. 

Pastors have allowed this practice to influence their church’s culture and, in turn, have produced a flock of uncorrected, emotionally-validating sheep. Is this the goal? Does God want our behavior to find its approval in our emotions and personal perspectives?

In Scripture, Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”. That is to say, Scripture is God’s gift to His church—a tool to discipline His children who are walking in unrepentant, habitual, and repetitive sin. So the answer to my previous question is no!.

No, we are not to find our validation in our emotions. We are to find our validation in our Bibles. We do not follow our hearts. We follow the Scriptures.

However, the church often fails to address those living in sin within their congregations. Unfortunately, through their silence and neglect, they have fostered a community of both fearless sinning and aggression toward correction. Consequently, their omission has birthed exactly what the church is called to avoid—a Christian community that lacks the holiness, self-control, and proper representation of Christ. 

When John Calvin came to preach in Geneva in 1541, one of the first moves he made was to establish the church with the authority to discipline those claiming membership in the local church. In no other reformed city had this type of order been constructed. History confirms, exhorting the church to walk in the power of discipline was a critical turning point in the spiritual strength of the reformation church. But while Calvin moved to establish discipline back in the church, we seemed to have drifted away from it. The church today has mostly removed the discussion of sin altogether in favor of inclusivism—the unbiblical strategy to make visitors feel welcomed and comfortable in their sin.

The truth is, from the time of Creation, order, rules, and discipline have been given to God’s people. From our first instruction in Genesis 2:17 to our first correction in Genesis 3:13-19, discipline has been woven into the human story. This theme of instruction, disobedience, and discipline continue on without reprieve throughout the narrative of the Scriptures. The Torah commands it, the historical literature displays it, the wisdom books affirm it, and the Prophets deliver it. The book of Proverbs even speaks of discipline this way, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights…” (Proverbs 3:11-12). 

But this biblical theme does not end on the left side of your Bible. It continues on in great degree in the New Testament. Starting with the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20 and continuing with the almost endless admonitions of Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude. For the curious student, they can be seen in 1 Corinthians 5:11, Titus 3:9-11, Galatians 6:1, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Romans 16:17-18, James 5:19-20, and 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15 to name a few. Hebrews 12:11 actually goes on to say, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

The lesson we learn from this all is: Discipline is good, beneficial and healthy for God’s people. Any ongoing sin that goes unchecked can tarnish the church, the congregation, the pastor, and ultimately, the name of Christ. Loving, wise, and compassionate church discipline is the great winnowing fork of the Body of Christ—it is the purifier His Bride and we must not neglect it.

But do not expect this to be an easy transition. We live in a time and a culture that likes to diminish the jurisdiction of the Scriptures through modernity. That is, people will say, “Wake up! It’s 2020. Why are you still practicing these ancient and oppressive rituals in Scripture?” But to be frank, church discipline is just as important today as it was when Paul wrote those letters nearly 2,000 years ago. Christians still have biblical instructions to follow. Christians still choose to walk in sin. Therefore, in love and gentleness, Christians should still be willing to help, correct, and discipline those who have fallen.

The renowned puritan writer, Richard Baxter, wrote in his book, The Reformed Pastor, “I confess, if I had my will, that man should be ejected as a negligent pastor, that will not rule his people by discipline, as well as he is ejected as a negligent preacher that will not preach; for ruling I am sure is as essential a part of the pastor’s office as preaching.” 

Baxter does not hold back in his assessment to discipline the pastor who is negligent in their role as a disciplining shepherd. In other words, a pastor who is tolerant or silent of ongoing sin in a parishioner’s life does not love their parishioner. What kind of shepherd would allow his sheep to feed in a wolf’s den? What kind of father would allow a young child to play with a knife? Sin is our enemy. It is Satan’s tool hurt God’s people. We then, as pastors, are to be willing and ready to protect them from it. 

An old pastor once told me, “The difficulty of obedience doesn’t remove the duty of obedience.” May God give you the patience, humility, softness and wisdom required to fulfill your pastoral duty in the eyes of God.

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Alex Zenk is the podcast host of Undying Light and the co-host of A Matter of Truth. He is currently completing his graduate studies at Sioux Falls Seminary and is a guest preacher at various churches. His passion is for the health of the church through sound doctrine. He and his wife and daughter live in South Dakota.

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