With an understanding of what church discipline is, when it is needed and the attitude needed to do it well, it’s time to get practical about how to properly do church discipline.
Whether you already think you have someone in mind who may need church discipline, or just want to better understand this function of the church, it is crucial that the process of church discipline is clearly understood and properly implemented. The stakes (the spiritual life or death of a fellow church member) are too high, and the potential for bad communication too evident for us to not take these steps seriously.
I want to lay out five steps for you today:
1. PERSONAL CONSIDERATION
Before even considering confronting another believer in their sin, the first step of church discipline is to honestly examine your own heart.
Only a self-disciplined believer— one who seeks the confrontation of God about their own sin—can have integrity and avoid hypocrisy in examining the sins of others.
So before approaching anyone else with sin, pray with the Psalmist David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). Once that right spirit can be found in you, you can be properly equipped to seek to restore the spirit of another.
2. PRIVATE CONVERSATION
With gentleness and humility, approach the believer you believe to be in sin privately. Jesus commanded this type of private conversation when he told his followers, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15a).
Understand that this conversation will certainly not be easy, and you may not get the response you hoped for. But if the sin can be dealt with in private, and restoration can be accomplished, then a public exposure will only cause more damage.
Here are a few practical wisdoms for this private conversation:
Begin with affirmation. Preface your conversation with your love for this believer and communicate ways you have seen growth and development in their spiritual life. If the one being confronted understands that your intentions are good as you approach them in love, they will be more receptive to your rebukes.
Saturate your rebuke with Scripture. Make sure that you address this person with the Word of God, not your personal opinions or your own moral standards. Let God be the one to tell them they are wrong, not just you.
Commit to stay alongside them. This conversation should not be the end of this process for you; it is the beginning. Commit to pray, encourage, and disciple this person, and be alongside them until they are restored.
3. PRIVATE CORROBORATION
If your private confrontation is met with denial, or refusal to repent, other mature believers must be brought into the process.
Through phone calls, emails, or face-to-face conversations, the facts of the sin need to be corroborated, concerns can be shared and calls for repentance given to the one in sin. The importance of multiple believers involved in this process cannot be overstated. With this step, the unrepentant person will have no excuse to think you are singling them out or judging them personally; they will see that many in the church community are seeing the same problem and are taking it seriously.
4. PUBLIC CONFRONTATION
Notice, this fourth step is the first public step of church discipline. It is only after repeated failed attempts from multiple mature believers to create private repentance and restoration that now the name of the person is stated publicly before the entire congregation.
This public announcement should only come after prayer, discussion, and a unanimous vote from church leadership. This is not something to be taken lightly, the shame and resentment that can come from having your sins publicly announced is not an easy thing to wrestle with. This should be the culmination of a long process, full of prayer, discussion, and seeking the Scriptures.
The purpose of this public announcement is not for judgment, or for every single member of the church to confront this person; it is a call to prayer for the body. The unified body now begins to pray for repentance and restoration for this individual, and the body commits to unconditionally support and welcome this believer back into the fellowship when the repent.
Does this mean that every time church leaders find out someone has sinned, they should say their name in the worship service? Well, if that was the case, there would hardly be time for any preaching or singing!
Every member of the congregation sins every day, and the body will contain hundreds of sins every week; but this sin is being identified publicly because the sinner remains unrepentant.
After the announcement, it is the responsibility of the elders to warn the sinning believer that unless repentance becomes evident, the next step for the body is excommunication.
5. PUBLIC CONDEMNATION
This most extreme step, the “nuclear option” of church discipline, is only used when every other means of reaching this person has been exhausted.
Now, with clarity that this unrepentant sinner has chosen union with sin over fellowship with the body, the church must remove that believer from their fellowship. Jesus said, “If [the unrepentant one] refused to listen to them. . .let him be to you as a Gentile” (Matthew 18:17a).
Most churches refuse to take this final step when it is needed because they fail to see how by trying to be “inclusive” and “loving,” they are harming the entire body.
The church is not in the business of subsidizing sinning saints, continuing to support and welcome unrepentant people into the fellowship.
Like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, sometimes it takes the filth of a pig stye to wake someone up to their plight and give them a desire to be restored.
But while the church may give up on the fellowship with this person, they should never give up on praying for them.
No one is beyond God’s reach, no one is past his mercy, and excommunication from the body is never a permanent decision.