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What Is Restorative Church Discipline?

Written by Bob Martin on

One of the ways that Jesus taught believers to care for each other in the local church is through a process called “church discipline.” Although this can sound scary, the goal of church discipline is restoration. Paul encourages us:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted (Gal. 6:1).

This important process comes from Jesus’s outline of spiritual restoration found in Matthew 18:15-20.

Step 1: Go to Them Personally

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matt. 18:15).

The first step in church discipline is to go to the other church member or fellow believer personally to confront them about their sin. This should be happening on a regular basis in the context of personal relationships and groups throughout the church family. We are constantly sinning, and we constantly need others to help us repent and turn back to the Lord and toward restoration with others.

Step 2: Bring Another

But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses (Matt. 18:16).

If they don’t listen, the next step is to take a small number of others who can determine if our claims are true and who can help encourage the person to repent.

If they aren’t listening, then pastors, counseling team members, or the church’s discipline committee can join the effort to encourage this person towards restortation.

What is a discipline committee?

At College Park Church, the discipline committee is a small team of elders and elder-designated key lay leaders who are committed to help members who are working through significant sin issues. They care for these members through multiple conversations with the goal of understanding the situation, assessing repentance, and supporting the next steps toward restoration or removal.

This committee considers instances of sin that involve the following criteria:

  • Outward: The sin must be able to be seen or heard. Suspicion of a person’s heart or motives are not enough to enact church discipline.
  • Serious: The church leadership is not called to pursue every sin in the lives of its members but called to cover a multitude of sins with love (1 Pet. 4:8). Church discipline should be applied to sins that are grievous and patterned in a way that identifies the person more closely with the sin than as a follower of Christ (Gal. 5:21).
  • Clear: The sin should be an apparent violation of a biblical command or its application as determined by the elders (not be a matter of opinion or preference).
  • Unrepentant: A person who has been confronted with God’s commands in Scripture but refuses to let go of the sin should be placed under church discipline because they will not listen to clear warnings from the Bible and God’s people.

Step 3: Tell It To The Church

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church (Matt. 18:17a).

Then, if there is still no confession and repentance, the matter needs to be taken to the church body.

After the discipline committee has joined with others in working with the individual who continues in unrepentance, the committee will then recommend that the person’s name to be brought before the congregation so that the church body can pray for them and join in pursuing them for restoration.

At College Park Church, this happens at a members-only Sunday evening Congregational Meeting and is led by a discipline committee member or elder.

Step 4: Removal

And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (Matt. 18:17b-20).

If the person is unwilling to listen when church leaders and the church body are involved in inviting them to restoration, the last step is to remove them from the church.

If the person is totally unrepentant, they are acting like they do not know Christ, and therefore they shouldn’t be considered a part of Christ’s body and must be removed from church membership.

At College Park Church, this step happens when a discipline committee member brings names of members before the church body at a members-only Sunday evening Congregational Meeting and the members vote to remove them. Although these individuals can still attend College Park, they can’t be considered members in good standing or Christians who are spiritually healthy. Members should continue to invite them to repent and be restored to the Lord and others.

The Beauty & Pain of Discipline

Christians repent. That is foundational to what it means to be a Christian. After all, that’s exactly what Jesus has invited us into in his gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).

When we do repent, God is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”(1 John 1:9). But if we refuse to admit where we’ve sinned and turn back to God and others, we become “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:7-14), and it’s difficult to claim that we are actually Christians who follow Jesus and love his people.

It is so beautiful to see those stuck in sin return to the Lord and be restored. At College Park, that has even happened after an individual had been removed under discipline and they later returned to following Jesus. We must be committed, as Christians and as a church, to that restoration, even when those we care about painfully choose to turn away from the Lord and his church instead.

For the Good of the Church, For the Good of the Person

Restorative church discipline can seem harsh or heavy-handed, and there are real dangers in how a church practices what Jesus commands. Here at College Park, we are deeply committed to practicing the words of Jesus in the spirit of Jesus, seeking to restore others gently and helpfully (Gal 6:1).

Here are some questions to ask to determine if church discipline is being practiced in a healthy way:

  • Is the church gentle or harsh (Gal. 6:1)?
  • Are they modeling humility or being coercive (1 Pet. 5:3)?
  • Do they hear both sides before making judgments (Prov 18:17)?

When church discipline is practiced in a healthy way, a member’s removal brings good to the church, good to the surrounding community, and good to the member  being disciplined.

  • The church is guarded from having a dangerous person in their midst who is causing more destruction than building up the church (1 Cor. 5:6-13). Vulnerable and offended parties are protected, heard, and given freedom from the destructive decisions and patterns of someone who is unwilling to change.
  • The watching community sees Christians uphold their ethics and are committed to love one another—not allowing unhealthy behavior to go unaddressed (John 13:35).
  • The person who is removed is placed outside of the safety of Christ’s flock for “the destruction of the flesh” in the hope that their “spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:1-5). The shocking reality of this dark world and the power of their own flesh should move them to repent.

Jesus has wisely shown us a way to help one another follow him together, even when we fail and sin. This step-by-step process allows fellow believers to help each other listen to God’s voice instead of our own deceitful hearts. And these loving relationships remind us that God’s kindness leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4) and our repentance always leads us back to him.

Bob Martin

Bob first joined staff at College Park as a Pastoral Resident in 2011 and has served in several important roles since that time. He now serves as the Pastor of Membership & Connection. Bob is passionate about seeing men and women enter into community with others to find hope together. He enjoys spending time with his wife, family, and friends.

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