When I came to serve Grace Baptist Church 23 years ago it was like many contemporary evangelical churches in that it was completely unfamiliar with biblical church discipline. There were many serious problems in the church, some of which called for corrective discipline, but the church was in no shape to administer it. I could have tried to "take the bull by the horns" and forced the issue, but even if I had been successful, the result would not have been church discipline but only pastor discipline--something that does not have the authority of the New Testament behind it.
Teaching on church order and what constitutes a healthy church was one of the top priorities of my early years at Grace. By the time we were called on to address the situation with Steve, the church was biblically equipped and had already come to understand the wisdom of God and the blessings of both formative and corrective discipline.
God has put His great grace and mercies on display for us and others through this whole process. The reason that I asked Steve if I could put his story on this blog is because I believe it can encourage lots of other people as much as it has the family of Grace. I know that there are pastors and others who are in churches that have neglected the practice of biblical church discipline. They want to see their congregations led to recover this teaching and begin to obey our Savior's instructions. It can happen, and the benefits are worth the efforts.
Steve's story serves as a warning to every Christian. The sin that remains in us is not of a lower-grade quality from the sin that formerly reigned in us. It is deadly and if left unmortified, will take a person to hell. "For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:13; cf. Matthew 5:27-30). If this seems inconsistent with perseverance of the saints then I suggest that you get John Owen's Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers and read it before next week. If you can't do that then read chapter 27 of John Piper's Future Grace before tomorrow night.
Steve's story also can give incredible hope for both those who have loved ones who have turned away from the gospel they once professed to believe and those who are themselves prodigals. Sometimes we are tempted to give up on people who have walked away from Christ. Steve is a reminder of the truth I like to rehearse often with our church: "As long as there is breath, there is hope." Had you taken a snap shot of Steve's life at nearly any point over a 15 year period it would have looked hopeless. Yet, all things are possible with God and He is able to rescue anyone by His sovereign grace and power. Therefore, we must keep praying and persuading, confident that nothing is too difficult for our God.
Sin brings devastating consequences. The sorrows that Steve has lived through and the pain that he has inflicted on people he loves as a result of his choices have left scars that will not be healed completely until heaven. There is no need to go into detail in order for this lesson to be recognized. Scripture has many illustrations of this (David and Samson, to name just two) and most of us know of modern examples that underscore this point. God has shown great mercy to Steve but those mercies have been very severe. Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and no discipline is joyful at the present, but grievous (Hebrews 12:5-11).
The practice of church discipline is designed by Christ for the honor of His Name, the welfare of His people and the advance of His kingdom. We have seen these purposes fulfilled to some degree in this process with Steve. One dear brother in the church was converted as a direct of Steve being removed from the church 14 years ago. Several members have already expressed to me that Steve's testimony has humbled them and led them to take more specific steps to put sin to death in their lives and to make no provision for the flesh.
There is no easy way to lead a church to understand, embrace and practice church discipline. It is hard work and pastors must not allow themselves to become paralyzed by the myth that "there's got to be an easier way." There isn't. If we are going to be faithful shepherds then we must roll up our sleeves, dig in our heels and do the hard work of lovingly, prayerfully and persistently leading our churches to obey Christ at this point. It is not easy, but it is worth it because God will be glorified, the church will be strengthened in holiness and mission and individual believers will be helped. Fortunately, there are many resources readily available today that can assist in recovering biblical church discipline in a local church. I will list a few at the end of this post.
Many of the good things in ministry occur over long periods of time. Though God may well lead a pastor not to spend the better part of his life in one church, there are wonderful blessings that come from doing so.
If you have been at your God-assigned task for a long time, be encouraged. There still blessings ahead that the Lord will show you that you would not be able to see if you had not stayed the course for the long haul.
Resources on Church Discipline
James Leo Garrett, Jr., Church Discipline: Lost, But Recoverable
This is an revision of an article Dr. Garrett first published in 1959
A Summary of Church Discipline from the Charleston Association
Instructions for Baptist churches in the South from 1774
James P. Boyce, Church Discipline—It’s Importance
The founder of Southern Seminary published this article in 1852
Mark Dever, Editor, Polity: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents
An excellent resource from ancient Baptist wisdom on discipline and related issues
Don Whitney, Reforming through Discipline (mp3)
A very helpful message from one who has done it
Wyman Richardson, Walking Together Ministries
A website with a wealth of resources, including workbooks, on church discipline and heath
A few articles that I have written that touch on the subject:
Robert Murray M'Cheyne on Church Discipline
A Plea for Church Discipline
Bill Clinton and the Discipline of our Churches