A 49 year old woman in Jacksonville, Florida was in the news recently because she made it known publicly to news outlets that her church is in the process of disciplining her and is going to make her sins known publicly (something she has ironically done for them already). You can read the story for yourself. Rebecca Hancock has been involved in a sexual relationship with her boyfriend that is clearly condemned in Scripture. When her church mentor learned of the sin she too told Hancock that it was sinful and urged her to repent. After refusing to repent of the habitual sin, she was confronted by her mentor and other women. After this meeting, which she thought was an incredible invasion of her privacy, she withdrew from the church but her children remained. She recently received a letter saying that if she refused to repent then the church will publicly identify her sins (and presumably vote her out of the congregation, though the news story does not indicate this).
This is an extremely interesting story, and several observations about it need to be made. First, the church is acting appropriately! They are following a command laid out by King Jesus to restore those who refuse to repent of sin and might be on a path to destruction and judgment (Matt. 18:15-19). Jesus describes the process of church discipline as first lovingly confronting the individual, calling them to repentance and restoration. If the person refuses to repent, then there should be a second confrontation, and this time others should come along so that there are two or three witnesses. If the person again refuses to repent, then the final step is to tell it to the whole congregation and remove the person from the fellowship of the congregation. Jesus says that the congregation now treats the person as if he or she is an unbeliever and lost because the person is not giving any evidence that they are saved.
What is the purpose of church discipline? The purpose of church discipline is ALWAYS redemptive and for the good of the person. Discipline is loving. The Bible says that those who refuse to discipline their children do not really love their children (Prov. 13:24). We discipline our children because we love them and want to keep them from harm. The Bible even says that disciplining children is evangelistic. We discipline our kids to see them come to Jesus as their Savior (cf. Prov. 19:18; 23:13-14). The same is true of church discipline. Churches discipline to keep the offender from harming self or others who might stumble at their sin. This process is undertaken to rescue someone not exclude them. It is just like evangelism. The church is telling the person that if they continue in the path they are choosing then it will mean God’s judgment, so the church lovingly calls the person to repentance and the avoiding of judgment. It is the equivalent of stopping a car that is headed off a cliff. If the person repents, then it gives evidence that he or she might be saved. If the person refuses to repent then it casts doubt on whether or not the person is actually saved.
Why should churches practice church discipline? They practice it for at least three reasons: 1) for the good of the person in sin (see above), 2) for the good of the church (1 Corinthians 5 says unrepentant sin can spread to whole body and affect them. Discipline calls others to repentance and the fear of God’s judgment. It serves as a warning to the whole congregation), 3) for the good of the lost in the community. If a person is allowed to continue in a sin expressly condemned in the Bible and still remain a member in good standing with the church then the lost in the community will think that this is what a Christian (a person saved by King Jesus) looks like. That kind of practice would preach a false gospel that God has no standard and is okay with people who claim to be His living immoral lives. This church in Jacksonville is loving Rebecca, even if she refuses to believe it. This church is loving the other members in the church. And, this church is loving its community because it is preaching a message to them that sinful actions will be judged and if they are not repented of then the outcome will be deadly. This church is preaching the gospel to its community, telling them that the Kingdom of God is made up of sinners just like them who humbly repent and depend upon Jesus.
Why is church discipline necessary in the church? The Chursh is supposed to look now like the Kingdom of God will look when Jesus comes back. That means that there should NOT be any lost people on church roles. However, in a fallen world until Jesus comes back it will be true that the membership of churches will be made up of genuine believers and false professors (though churches should work hard to minimize this). The church discipline process is intended to reveal those who are false and those who are genuine before it is too late. If a person repents then it gives evidence they are saved. If a person refuses to repent of a habitual sin, then it gives evidence that they may not be saved. The church practices this judgment ahead of the final judgment to plead with the person to repent (cf. 1 Cor. 5). If they never come to a state of repentance then there is no good reason to believe they will be saved from the judgment to come.
Second, other churches need to recover the biblical practice of church discipline in the 21st century.
The Pastor of the church in Jacksonville stated that the church is simply doing “nothing more than following the practices of what biblical churches have done through history.” That is true. Discipline has been a mark of the church from the beginning. Unfortunately far too few churches actually practice it today or practice it rightly. So many have shied away from it for one reason or another. Many have stopped practicing church discipline out of cowardice and accomodation to the culture. We live in a culture of political correctness where morality is seen as negotiable and no one has the right to tell another what he or she is doing or believes is wrong. Others have stopped practicing it because they are unaware of what the Bible says. Still others, mainly pastors, refuse to practice church discipline out of fear for their jobs. Sometimes discipline might affect a prominent family in the church, or the congregation might not be on board with it so pastors will refuse to (patiently!!!) lead their congregation through the process. Sometimes it is because discipline would actually decrease the numbers in the church, and that is obviously not a good resume builder for any pastor… I pray that churches in the 21st century, especially the churches of the SBC, will recover this biblical practice because it is right and it is helpful (see above). If what the Bible says is true, and church discipline is loving and evangelistic (seeking to save lives from Hell), then it is clear how important it is for churches to practice discipline and how dangerous it is for them to refuse to practice it. Nothing less than the purity of the church, Christ’s Bride, is at stake here.
The need for recovery is even seen in some of the comments made by Dr. Bock in the news piece. He rightly says that it is not uncommon for churches to focus on discipline, but he also says that discipline is normally reserved for church leaders rather than “a normal member of the church.” This is not what the Bible says. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are two of the key texts on discipline and they do not mention a distinction between the discipline of members and leaders within the church. 1 Corinthians 5 talks simply about “a man” in the congregation. Matthew 18 talks about “your brother.” Dr. Bock also says the actions of the church are unusual because Hancock withdrew from the membership of the church. While it is true that many churches will simply stop the process when a member stops coming, that is NOT what the Bible is talking about when it explains church discipline. In our culture people attend and join churches as consumers. If I at any point don’t like the product any more then I’ll simply “shop” elsewhere. That is why church discipline is so necessary. Even if the offender leaves, the church should still carry out discipline because it has the responsibility before God to do what He calls them to do. Allowing an unrepentant offender to leave the church and potentially go to another one without ever having to face accountability or be publicly disciplined is not right or good for the person, the congregation he or she is leaving, the congregation he or she is going to, or the community. The offender’s disciplining church should notify any future church that the person left under discipline so that any future church could pick up the process of loving accountability.
Part 2 will be posted later this week. It will deal with issues like the authority of Jesus in discipline, practical words of caution, what the future will hold for churches who practice discipline, and the hoped for outcome of the situation in Jacksonville.