Pastors often emphasize that the goal of church discipline is restoration of the believer. There is truth in this statement. Yet, it is incomplete and can quickly lead to practical problems in a local church.
To be sure, a prayer is that the wandering church member will be brought back into the fold (see James 5:19-20, Matthew 18:15-17). It is fair and necessary to speak of restoration of the believer as one of the purposes or goals of church discipline. One of the greatest things I have experienced as a pastor is seeing people respond to church discipline and come back into fellowship.
But the central goal of church discipline is the purity of the bride of Christ for the sake of His glory. In 1 Corinthians 5:13, when Paul says, “Purge the evil person from among you,” he demonstrates that his primary goal is the purity of the local church and the glory of Christ.”
Someone may counter, “But isn’t the person expelled with the hope that he or she will come to repentance?” Absolutely! But sometimes the person who has wandered from the faith will not come to repentance. This does not mean that the process of church discipline failed. After all, there came a time in Jesus’s ministry when many disciples turned back and no longer followed him (John 6:65-70). Jesus never failed.
Others will respond, “This is just a needless exercise in semantics regarding the definite or indefinite article. I say the goal of church discipline is restoration; you say it is a goal.” True. It is an exercise in semantics. But it is an important exercise. As a pastor, who has worked through issues with membership rolls many times, I assure those who object that how we teach congregations about church membership is an area where precision is imperative. If we do not teach the goal of church discipline very carefully, several practical problems quickly surface in situations that are difficult in the first place. Below I list four.
4 Practical Problems with Saying the Foremost Goal of Church Discipline is Restoration
- It frames the identity of the local church in a people centered way, rather than a Christ-centered way.
- It engenders a reluctance to ever follow through in removing someone from the membership rolls because that move will seem in opposition to the expressed goal.
- If the church does follow through on church discipline in removing someone from the membership rolls, it will feel as though it failed because it did not meet the express goal.
- The church will fail to keep the wandering brother (or sister) accountable. Indeed, church discipline may have been precisely what God would have used to turn him from the error of his ways and save him from death. Bonhoeffer showed penetrating insight when he wrote, “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin”