By God's grace, the church I shepherd has experienced phenomenal growth over the last 15 years. I am often asked what has brought the growth? I am hesitant to answer that question because only God really knows why He has provided this season of growth. I am also reluctant because numerical growth is no validation of any ministry faithfulness. I usually say I do not really know, but I do know some of the things God has used as a catalyst for growth in our congregation. Then one of the things I mention is church discipline. The response is usually a confused look on the face of the person to whom I am speaking. For many, that answer does not make sense. What is less user-friendly than church discipline?
It is even possible that some reading this article may have never even heard of church discipline since the practice of discipline is largely absent today in evangelical churches. I would define church discipline as a vital aspect of Christian discipleship (disciple and discipline have a common Latin source) whereby the congregation lovingly acts help, heal, restore, and liberate wayward members of the body whose actions or teaching subverts the gospel and destroys the witness of the church. The goals of discipline are the good of the one being disciplined, the honor of God, the restoration of the disciplined member, and the gospel integrity of the church. If pleading, prayers, and correction over a long period of time does not lead to repentance, then the church rightly affirms exclusion of the unrepentant from the membership of the church. Most cases of discipline never make it to the congregation because there is genuine repentance in the process (see, Matt 16:19, 18:15-20, Rom 16:17-18, 1 Cor 5:1-13, 2 Cor 7:8-11, Gal 6:1, James 5:20, 2 Thess 3:6, 14-15, 1 Tim 5:19-20, Titus 3:10-11).
Church discipline, rightly done, is a positive, loving, and necessary action of the church for discipleship. Church discipline is done for the purpose of restoration, not exclusion. Church discipline is never carried to its conclusion because someone sins. Exclusion from the membership only happens because the wayward member scorns the corrective love of the church and persists in unrepentant sin. The church determines repentance of the one under discipline and not the individual. The church must reject an unloving false leniency which excuses all behavior under the banner of "All have sinned" (Rom 3:23) and "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7). The church must also reject unloving severity in discipline that stops seeking the good of the offender and simply wants vengeance. As Andrew Fuller wrote, "Love is the grand secret of discipline, and will do more than all other things put together towards ensuring success."
Let me give one example of how church discipline has been a catalyst for growth at the church I have the privilege to shepherd. Many years ago, we found out one of our young adult members was pregnant out of wedlock. If the young man had been a church member, we would have called him to repentance as well, but he was not. We immediately connected with her to see how she was doing and to pray for her. We assured her of our support during the pregnancy and also talked to her about repentance regarding her sin. She balked at the idea of needing to repent and definitely at the notion of public confession, which we suggested since her pregnancy was going to be a public matter in the church community. We all continued to pray for her and women from the church reached out to her in love. As time went on, she softened and eventually called us to say she wanted to confess her sin publicly and ask the congregation for forgiveness.
She did so on a Sunday morning at the end of the service. People stood up, wept for joy, and applauded the gospel courage of this young woman. A forgiven people are eager to forgive. After her confession, I said to the congregation that the matter had been dealt with and we would do nothing but support her and celebrate the child in her womb. I added that if anyone from this point forward gossiped about the situation or otherwise treated her in an unloving manner, then we would come to them and call for their repentance. She was loved as she had never been loved before by the congregation with support, help, and encouragement. Some ladies provided a baby shower and many consistently asked her how she was doing.
Consider what would have happened if we would have handled that situation the way many churches respond. Everyone talking about it in hushed tones in the corner, smiling when she walks by, and then continuing the gossip when she is out of sight. The young lady would have lived in shame and isolation if we had done that. Few would have reached out to her for fear of seemingly condoning her sinful choices. In fact, that kind of shame, hidden sin culture, often creates a context that tragically pushes young women in the direction of the abortion clinic. How much better it is to lovingly have honest conversations and create an opportunity to celebrate the power and triumph of the gospel.
After that Sunday, and others like it, I have countless church members say how powerful a moment like that is and how it causes them to delight all the more in the gospel and challenges them to honestly own up to their own sins. On the occasion of the young ladies public repentance a visitor told me they knew at that moment Ashland was the church for them because it was a place where "Jesus changes everything" is not just a slogan but a living gospel culture. As one lady said to me, "This place is real. Nominal Christianity had lulled me into lethargy as if it was all there was out there." The young lady who repented wrote me a letter a couple of years later after she had moved away that said, "Before, I believed the gospel message, but I had never felt and experienced gospel love like that before. All I can say is thank you." Of course, not all situations end as beautifully as that one, but all of them are an indispensable aspect of Christian discipleship.
Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" and is often quoted as if it merely suggests that Christ shows up when we gather together for worship. The verse is actually more specific. It is a beautiful promise of the presence of Christ in the hard work of church discipline when it is properly done as an expression of Jesus' authority. What an encouragement! Also, it should cause us to ponder what it say about churches that refuse to practice discipline? In Matthew 18:20, Jesus makes a direct promise of his presence regarding church discipline, "there I am among them," and at the end of Matthew he does the same after giving the Great Commission he says, "I am with you always" (Matt 28:20). One promise seems to anticipate the other as indispensable acts of faithfulness in His churches. Yes, church discipline can help your church grow.