Leading Church Discipline
Revised on 6/13/22
The New Testament clearly teaches that the church is to be a community of support, nurture, service, and also discipline. Admonishing one another is an important component of Christian love as depicted in the Bible, contrary to the view of our postmodern culture. We would agree with our culture that admonition based on nothing more than personal opinion would be presumptuous and arrogant. However, with the Word of God, we have a basis for correcting each other, and such correction, when practiced in a spirit of grace and acceptance, will have life-transforming power. Thus, Paul says, "And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another." (Romans 15:14)
Scripture mentions various types of discipline, but each type is appropriate in in different circumstances. Consider carefully what God would want in any situation.
Types of Discipline
Reproof, rebuke, admonishment
Any errant brother or sister may be reproved by the concerned brother or sister who discovers the error. Leaders should instruct members in appropriate admonition, stressing the redemptive nature of discipline over against legalistic views. In general, leaders should encourage members to reprove those whom they find in sin themselves, rather than "tattling" in order to get leaders to do all the discipline in the church. This leaves members immature and disengaged from others' problems, and contributes to the clergy-laity mentality.
While leaders should urge members to discipline their friends in most cases, we may see exceptions where the issues are too serious to be handled by young Christians. In normal cases we should give basic instruction regarding the elements of successful discipline:
- That initial confrontation should be done privately if possible ("And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother." Matthew 18:15)
- That the one admonishing should prepare before God, discovering
- scripture relevant to the need
- ways to persuade
- steps the one in sin can take to find healing
- positive vision and encouragement for the one being admonished
- That if the person is unresponsive to discipline, others, including leaders may need to become involved. Members should seek counsel on how to proceed at this point.
Leaders and others involved may decide at this point that the issue is not serious enough to pursue further--that the one in sin has heard our message, and God will take the issue up in the future. However, in other cases, we may determine that the issue is too serious to let drop. In such cases, the member who originally admonished the person should return, along with one or more brothers or sisters (not necessarily home church leaders, but an older believer who is respected in the home church) and together they should try again to persuade the person to repent. ("But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that 'By the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed." Mat. 18:16) This could be repeated several times if, in the judgment of the leaders, further admonition is more likely to produce repentance. However, in cases where the leadership no longer believe further admonition will have effect, or where the sin is serious enough to threaten the well-being of the church, it may become necessary to issue an ultimatum before the church. At this point, it becomes a matter of formal church discipline. ("And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer." Matthew 18:17).
Formal church discipline
Formal church discipline is an unusual and extreme response to sin in the church. In some cases, our efforts to do what is best for the one in error, as well as our obligation to guard the atmosphere and holiness of the church requires that we issue an ultimatum of some kind. (See the full biblical case for church discipline in the paper, "The New Testament Pattern of Church Discipline")
As a true replicating house church movement, Dwell entrusts the exercise of church discipline to you, the home church leaders, but under the general oversight and counsel of the elders. Since this area is sensitive and potentially dangerous, be sure you follow fellowship policy, which is for your protection. When disciplining members, try to follow Biblical principles of discipline in a way that best fits both the spirit of New Testament teaching, and the particular situation in your church. You will need a lot of prayer and counsel to seek out God's will in the highly individualized situations in your church. Because we are responding to varying situations, these procedures can and do change. To date we agree that the following procedures should be considered normative.
Removal from Fellowship
Removing someone from fellowship is a grave and serious matter, and should only be undertaken when all else fails. We can expect a backlash from our culture and from the immature within our own church any time we remove someone from fellowship, and you should consider this when weighing what to do. Since church discipline is a matter of serving love, not legalism, we decide how to proceed based on what it best for all, not based on any legal principle. However, when appropriate, we should take the stand God wants, not fearing other's reactions.
We should only threaten to remove someone from fellowship if the person's case meets the following criteria:
- The person's sin problem has to be serious, along the lines described on biblical passages on this subject as outlined below
- The person should be ensnared in sin as a part of a lifestyle of disregard for God's will, rather than an existential fall from grace. In a fall from grace, the person is striving to change, but meeting with occasional failure. Even people who are trying to change may eventually benefit from church discipline, because it can give them strength to resist temptation by underscoring the seriousness of sin.
- The person should have been admonished at least twice, including at least one reproof by more than one person (in accordance with Mat. 18).
- The one in sin is not repentant. An absence of repentance means that the person continues to think that the sin is "all right" or "not my fault," or continues to lie. If the person claims to be repentant, we should give him/her the benefit of the doubt in most cases. The person might commit the sin again later, even though repentant. In other words, recurrence is not in, every case, proof of lack of repentance.
- In normal admonition, we usually allow the person time to make a sober decision about whether to repent, rather than trying to force a decision on the spot. This allows the Holy Spirit time to work on the person. However, in extreme cases where the person has been brought before the church, the time for thinking about it is over, and a decision is due on the spot.
- The leaders of the home church agree, and have consulted with the elders, who also agree that the case warrants a formal ultimatum.
What kinds of sin are serious enough to merit removal from fellowship?
Although we have no proof that the lists of sins calling for removal from fellowship (I Cor. 5:11; II Thess. 3:6-15; I Tim. 1:20; Titus 3:10) are exhaustive, we think we should generally reserve this kind of discipline for the kinds of serious sin mentioned in these passages.
Sins listed scripturally as serious enough to remove someone include:
- Sexual immorality 1 Corinthians 5:11
- Covetous 1 Corinthians 5:11 - apparently excessive materialism and/or advocating and promoting materialism
- Idolatry 1 Corinthians 5:11 - Since idolatry was the major rival religious system of the day, it corresponds to adherence to contemporary false religious systems. Thus, persistent practicing of occult, mystical, or pantheistic systems could eventually result in removal.
- Reviling 1 Corinthians 5:11 - slander. This may be the same as the schismatic (see below). Clear evidence of a trouble-making life style should evident.
- Drunkard 1 Corinthians 5:11 - includes habitual use of other intoxicating drugs
- Swindling 1 Corinthians 5:11 - business cheaters - borrowing without repayment, or other kinds of stealing or cheating, including, in some cases, breaking marriage commitment for no good reason.
- Unruly life 2 Thessalonians 3:6 - refusal to work or go to school, even though the ability and the opportunity to work are clearly present.
- Division of the local church Titus 3:10,11 - collecting followers in opposition to the established leadership. Note the difference between division and dissent.
- False teaching 1 Timothy 1:20 - The examples we have of this involve a central area of doctrine. There is no Biblical justification for applying this kind of discipline in a nonessential area.
In addition, we believe that other sins not specifically mentioned may call for removal as well. Examples include:
- Various types of social violence such as rape, assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and premeditated murder (which could include, in some cases, abortion if not done out of ignorance).
- Drug abuse, which is implied in the term "drunkard" (1 Corinthians 5:11).
- Certain kinds of unrighteous divorce.
Things that do not justify removal from fellowship include:
- Ungodly marriages with non-Christians or with uncommitted or sinful Christians
- Ungodly dating
- Disobedience to church authority
- Disagreement with, or criticism of, church authority
- Any sin committed before conversion, even if still having effect
- Any sin (even though serious) for which the person has repented.
- Sins of omission
- Other sins also [we put this here to make clear that our list isn't exhaustive]
"Telling it to the church" (Matthew 18:17)
If the case meets the criteria mentioned above, the home church leaders should call their overseer and explain the case. After counseling together, the elders will be asked for approval before anything else is done. If they approve, the home church leaders should gather a good sampling of their home church members to discuss the matter with the person in sin. If, in the judgment of the group assembled, the person is not repentant, they are empowered to remove the errant member from further attendance at any fellowship meetings.
The errant member should be told that a meeting is being called in accordance with Jesus' instructions, and that he or she will be expected to attend. Tell the person when the meeting is, picking a time when you know they will be able to attend. Point out that attendance is not optional and that the meeting will go forward with, or without them. Explain that refusal to attend will be viewed as "refusing to hear" the church as mentioned by Christ in Mat. 18, and will result in their removal from fellowship. If the person has a schedule problem, but really wants to come, you should be willing to change the meeting time.
Key points to remember when leading a disciplinary meeting
- Be sure to talk to your members before the meeting to explain what is happening and why. Younger Christians may need to have the biblical material explained to them. Avoid having anyone at the meeting who doesn't understand what church discipline is, or why it is happening.
- Together with members of the church, pray in advance that the meeting will be successful in restoring the errant brother or sister.
- Point out to members that they don't need to go soft with the errant one, or to express sympathy in a way that excuses their way of life. The point of the meeting is to point out the seriousness of the sinful way of life, not to minimize it. Encourage members to confess their own sins to God beforehand, but to show up ready to do the right thing in standing for righteous living, or at least for trying to follow God. The one being disciplined needs our strength, not our weakness in this situation.
- Encourage selected members who have been affected by the sin, either directly or indirectly, to speak up at the meeting, urging the one in sin to see the seriousness of such an evil way of life. At a good disciplinary meeting, the leaders are not the only ones to speak in admonition. This is an opportunity for the whole community, like a family, to plead with the errant person for change. But the leaders normally have to encourage this in advance because young believers may be too upset or worried to speak otherwise.
- Ask members if they are in agreement when talking to them before the meeting. If some members don't agree with the move to discipline, this should be resolved before the meeting. Disunity at the meeting on the issue of whether the church should be taking disciplinary action could shift attention away from the real issue, and therefore should be avoided if at all possible.
- If, after talking to members, the church remains disunited (in that some members feel the one being disciplined is being treated unfairly or unlovingly) be prepared to argue this point on the spot. Do not forbid anyone to share their opinion, but simply take your stand on what the Bible says, and demand that members show why they don't think the passages should be followed. Interpretation is involved in such a decision, so it is possible for well-intentioned believers to disagree over what should be done. Since the elders have agreed that formal discipline is warranted, this should be mentioned as a factor to consider. If the church is still not unanimous after debating the issue, you should take a vote at the meeting on which course of action should be taken, explaining that the majority will rule, and those in the minority are obligated to accept the decision. According to 2 Cor. 2:6, the majority at such a meeting should decide what action to take. Be sure to report any disagreement to your supervisor.
- If you know in advance that some members are not in agreement with taking disciplinary action, be sure to inform your supervisor so that an elder or other representative of the leadership has the opportunity to attend the meeting as well, to explain their position.
- Have your senior leader chair the meeting, explaining publicly that you have come together along the lines prescribed in Scripture to address a member who is in sin, and that you have called on the person to hear the admonition of the church. You may need to read relevant passages, reminding people of the basis for church discipline. The tone should be sober, firm, but not self-righteous or harsh. The overriding point should be concern for the well-being of the one being disciplined and of the church. Then have people in the church tell why they are disappointed, grieved, worried, and angry about how the person has been living, speaking directly to the person in the presence of all. Include the positive with the negative--why the person is important and has great potential, and how this is being ruined by their way of life. If the person wants to answer, let them, but feel free to argue. Disciplinary meetings are not neat, tidy affairs, but try to keep the tone civil and respectful.
- If the group decides to remove the person from fellowship, you should ask them to leave then and there, immediately. Make it clear that the errant one must contact one of the home church leaders before returning to any meeting, including Central Teachings. Then, after the person has left, discuss the situation with the church, reassuring them that by doing the right thing, they have honored God and his word, and have given the one disciplined the best chance for repentance. In all likelihood, they have raised the church up to a new level spiritually. Pray together for the one disciplined and for yourselves, "lest you, too, be tempted" (Gal. 6:1)
- Even if the person is not removed at the meeting, the church may issue a warning that continuing in sin will result in removal. It is up to the discernment of the Home Church leaders and elders to determine what subsequent sin would constitute a willful sin pattern, rather than a fall from grace. Chronic wrongdoers should be warned at the disciplinary meeting that simply saying they agree with the church and continuing to sneak their serious sin is not good enough. If someone lies to the church at a disciplinary meeting, and continues in sin, home church leaders can remove such a one even without holding another meeting, but subject to elders' approval.
- If the person disagrees with the ethical position the church is taking, or thinks that the church has no right to speak to the issue, or demands the freedom to continue with the immoral behavior, we would consider them as "not listening to the church," and they would be removed from fellowship. The person could also make other equivocating statements that suggest lack of repentance. The church must assess the person's attitude when determining repentance.
- Finally, the elders and home church leaders also have to agree that the offender is capable of terminating the sin with the provision presently available (i.e., an alcoholic or drug addict has been offered help and support). In cases where the errant one needs help, he should be called upon to avail himself this help. Refusal to do this could result in removal from fellowship,
- In case the church judges a person to be unrepentant, but the person still wants to return to fellowship as soon as possible, have a plan of restoration ready. This plan will clarify whether the person is serious, or only wants to return to fellowship as a "love-taker." At the same time, it should provide the errant believer with important counsel and help in overcoming sin.
In some cases, people might be removed from fellowship even though they never met with the church. Cases where this could happen include:
- The person refuses to come to the meeting of the church. If this happens, have the meeting as scheduled anyway, and discuss with the members why you are removing the person. Refusal to come to the meeting of the church is considered "refusing to listen to the church" (Mat. 18:17) and is grounds for removal.
- The person doesn't belong to a home church because they never joined one. In some cases, the elders or other staff leaders may remove a person like this who is not affiliated with a home church. Such cases are handled on a case-by-case basis.
- The person is flagrantly disruptive of meetings, or too physically dangerous to risk allowing him/her to attend even one more meeting. This last case is very unusual, but could occur with mentally unbalanced people who go berserk in a meeting or other gathering of the church, or who make threats of violence toward members or their children. If the leaders of a home church decide they must summarily exclude a person, they should advise their supervisor as soon as possible afterward.
- You should let members who didn't come to the meeting know that the church has disciplined the errant member. The method used for disseminating the information should be selected by the leadership of the group, but usually should be handled through cell groups or one-on-one. Initiation with someone removed from fellowship is ultimately up to the conscience of the individual Christian. However, leaders should teach relevant biblical passages to lead members in this area. Every person is different, and therefore, we should engage with each person on a case-by-case basis. A number of biblical principles are important: To begin, the Bible teaches that continuing in casual friendship with a person formally removed from fellowship is at odds with NT teaching (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-5). Therefore, initiation on our part should be for the purpose of restoration—not merely socialization. Restoration might involve checking in, discussing their relationship with God, praying together, or maybe offering some suggestions or advice for growth. This implies that we should “admonish” the person like a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:15) with the desire of seeing them brought to repentance (2 Corinthians 2:7). At the same time, we also need to recognize that we should allow the person the freedom to choose their way of life apart from fellowship.
- The elders should be informed of the steps taken and the outcome through your supervisor. The person under discipline will not be allowed to attend other Dwell meetings.
- If the person leaves fellowship during the process of discipline, but before a meeting of the church is scheduled, we should not pursue the issue further. In this case, no formal church discipline has occurred. Removal from fellowship is only for those who want to remain in fellowship while pursuing a lifestyle of flagrant sin. People in sin leave fellowship all the time after receiving various warnings or reproof, and no special stand need be taken by the church. Such people have removed themselves. If such a person returns, of course, the issues which caused them to leave in the first place should be resolved. Also, by "leaving fellowship," we mean they leave central meetings and all other meetings as well. We do not allow people to transfer to a different home group, or to attend Central Teachings in order to avoid church discipline.
Returning to fellowship after removal
We have only one passage on this subject (2 Corinthians 2:5-11) and even that tells us very little about the criteria for reinstatement. Paul says the punishment has been "sufficient" although we do not know exactly how he reached this conclusion. Apparently, a clue is that the offender was in danger of being "overwhelmed by excessive grief." This seems to mean that he has clearly seen the error of his ways and wanted to return to fellowship in "sorrow" (which suggests humility). An attitude that blames others for the sin, or excuses it in some other way, suggests that repentance has not occurred. These issues should be carefully examined before reinstatement, lest the discipline be insufficient and accomplish nothing. The following are the criteria for returning to fellowship:
- Home church leaders must agree to reinstate a person under discipline, normally in consultation with their supervisor. No action is required by the elders. Members do not have the authority to act without agreement of the home church leaders.
- Normally, the sin involved has been successfully terminated, or at least the person agrees to try to terminate it with the help of God and the Church, and has agreed to the leaders' plan of restoration.
- You should also consult your supervisor(s), and if they feel it necessary, they have also interviewed the person.
- If anyone suffered material loss, they may need to be restituted, or a plan of restoration could be agreed.
Removing someone from home church, but not from other meetings
Under certain unusual circumstances, a member of a Home Church may be denied permission to attend Home Church, while still allowed to attend the Central Meeting. This form of discipline is not excommunication, and the offender may still attend other meetings and fellowship with believers. Removal from Home Church amounts to a denial of privilege within the fellowship, whereas removal from fellowship refers to all involvement in the local Church.
This form of discipline is very unusual, and requires certain criteria:
- The person is guilty of sins which are harmful to the Home Church, but which do not qualify for removal from fellowship (e.g. disrupting the meeting; a brother who harasses sisters, youth group members given a temporary suspension from attendance privileges because of fighting, etc.)
- If the sin involved is serious enough to require removal from fellowship, this kind of discipline would be unbiblical and is not permitted in our church. If we remove someone from the home group, we are saying that we cannot benefit them there. Why then, would we leave them in Central Meetings? The large meeting is not going to be able to do anything that the home group is unable to do. Such people should be disciplined in the normal scriptural way, where the home church takes responsibility for discipline in love.
- You should consult your supervisor beforehand unless the discipline is in a youth group, or the exclusion was an emergency measure, such as a person menacing people in the group, or disrupting meetings. Whether before or after removal, your consultant must agree that this kind of discipline is appropriate.
- No series of meetings is necessary for this discipline. The home group leaders may inform the offender that he is unwelcome for the time being, and be sure to make clear that they may not go to a different home church. In most cases you should have reproved the person before applying this discipline. A plan for restitution should also be discussed at this time or as soon as possible.
- The Home Church leaders should agree on such a major decision.
- In emergency cases, a disrupter or dangerous person can be turned out immediately and told that he/she will have to meet with the leaders before returning. Of course, the leaders should make real provision for such a meeting if the person wants it.
Criteria for returning to Home Church
- The offender must return to the same Home Church he/she left, unless the new home group agrees with full knowledge of past history, to receive him/her back. Your supervisor should also agree if the person is to be received into a different home church.
- The Home Church leaders are satisfied that the problem has been resolved.
- It is not necessary to consult with anyone before reinstating the person to your own group.
Enforcing Church Discipline
Note: When exclusion from a meeting is used as discipline, the enforcement of this discipline should be left to the police. We do not threaten violence or commit violent acts in order to turn someone out of a meeting. At most, if a person is violent or dangerous, church members may physically restrain the person without violence, either ushering them out, or waiting until the police arrive. Home Church leaders should obtain the agreement of any host (i.e., home owner) where they meet, that a trespassing complaint will be filed against any undesirables who come to a meeting which they are forbidden to attend. In the case of meetings in property leased by Dwell, the right to control those who attend is already established.
Removal from cell group or other special activities
A person may be removed from cell group, worker's meeting, personal discipleship, ministry house, ministry team, or other special activity for failing to comply with any of the rules or standards laid down for that activity. This should be done in consultation with the home group leaders or supervisor, especially if the group is led by a single leader or couple. Be sure to show regard for the dignity of the one disciplined by offering a chance to change the objectionable behavior, or in other ways addressing the problem.
Also, any standard broken should have been delineated beforehand. We should never need to surprise someone with a rule they didn't know about, as that could be construed as a bait-and-switch tactic or "changing the rules in the middle of the game."
Removal from leadership position
Discipline of leaders sometimes involves removal from their position of leadership. This is true of cell group leaders, home group leaders, worship leaders, ministry team leaders, teachers, and elders.
Criteria for such discipline may include a wide range of failures which would tend to discredit the ministry including:
- Failure to meet requirements for deacons or elders - especially if such failure is chronic.
- Slackness, laziness, or ineffectuality stemming from wrong attitudes. Notice that for leaders, sins of omission could result in discipline, signaling a higher level of accountability than that of members.
- Over-strictness, or bossiness, including misuse of church discipline.
- Leaders may also be removed for non-disciplinary reasons such as unwillingness to continue as a leader, inability to continue through no direct fault of their own, spiritual, emotional, or physical need for rest or decreased pressure. Therefore, we cannot conclude that anyone who leaves leadership has done so because of discipline.
- Home group leaders - Home church leaders can only be removed from their position by the elders, not by their fellow leaders. If the other leaders feel one of their team should be removed, they must consult with the elders who will make the decision. Usually, the elders will agree with the leadership of the home church, but don't take this for granted--check with the elders first.
- Cell group leaders, ministry house leaders, and other leaders in the home church - These can be removed by agreement of the home church leaders in that home church. There is no need to consult with the Elders. Be sure to demonstrate restraint. Any perception that home church leaders are capricious would harm the motivation in your home church.
- Ministry Team Leaders - Ministry team leaders can be removed by the senior leader of the team in accordance with the rules of the ministry team. Your supervisor should be informed, and in most cases should be consulted in advance.
- Elders - Complaints against an elder should be addressed to another elder or to the grievance board. Unless there are two or three witnesses, or unless the elder admits the truth of the accusation, or unless there is additional evidence of wrongdoing, complaints may not result in discipline, although they will always be investigated (I Tim. 5:19). If an elder is found to be in sin, and the sin is not corrected within a reasonable time, and if it bears on the qualifications for eldership, the elder should be rebuked publicly at the servant team meeting by the other elders and/or leaders. If the problem is not corrected at this point the elder will be removed by a vote of the majority of the other elders. The servant team meeting will be informed of the removal and the reasons for it. Elders can also be voted out of office by the servant team after any of their 3 year terms of office.
When home churches have to come together to discipline one of their own, everyone feels the pain. But don't worry about your home church being messed up or losing heart because of church discipline. The opposite is usually the case. Home groups who pay the price of love for disciplining their own members usually find themselves encouraged and built up afterward. The church usually takes on a new sense of seriousness and vision for living for God. Those struggling with sin usually report that they were strengthened by the experience. Those being disciplined are often the ones most blessed by the experience. Many of our leaders today, even at the highest levels in our church, point to the time when they were disciplined as the key turning point in their lives, and the event God used to rescue them from a destructive sin habit.