Grace, guilt, shame and Discipline

We’ve been talking a lot about the  questions of guilt and shame, grace and forgiveness recently.  This raises questions about church discipline. We’ve said that churches should not be driven by guilt and we’ve also said that if Christ accepts, welcomes and forgives people that what he thinks of someone counts and we need to fall in line with that.

So where does church discipline fit into this, particularly when we talk about the question of grace and restoration.

Here are a few big questions

  1. Doesn’t church discipline itself ue guilt and shame to get someone to conform to an acceptable form of behaviour. Are we publically shaming someone when we exclude them from membership?
  2. When we exclude someone from membership or specific gatherings doesn’t that mean that we say we are ashamed of them?
  3. What about all the practicalities of how you deal with specific sins and roles and responsibilities. For example, if we are seeking to show restoration, should a pastor who falls into sin be restored as a pastor. Also how do you deal with the big issues of safeguarding and protection when sin falls into areas such as abuse (especially sexual) and neglect?

Starting points

The key Bible passages regarding church discipline are 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2. Matthew 18 is also often referred to although it is primarily to do with individual relationships and forgiveness.

From these Bible passages, we can say that discipline is necessary:

  1. To protect the purity of the church and the honour of the Gospel
  2. As a means to facilitate restoration so that a believer who sins is brought back into fellowship.

Discipline includes as its most severe form of sanction exclusion from the body of believers. In other words, someone may be excluded from church membership and with that from participating in the fruits of that fellowship.  There will be some form of visible sign that the person has been removed from membership.

Discipline Guilt and Shame

Note that when we have talked about guilt and shame, we have not been proposing escape to a happy bubble where we can pretend these things don’t exist.  We have seen that objective guilt is a real and we can so easily fail to recognise it. Shame is the natural, subjective response to this and if it drives us to repentance then it can have a positive effect. The problem we have with guilt and shame is where instead of genuine conviction and repentance we try to hide our guilt, we wallow in shame or we allow shame to incapacitate us from Gospel service. Similarly it is not good when guilt and shame are used to manipulate.

Now, when we come to these big Bible passages on church family life, we realise that guilt and shame are not ignored. In fact, in Matthew 18 public shame is a deterrent to encourage people to settle quarrels quickly and with the smallest number of people involved. In 1 Corinthians 5, the church are told that they should feel shame at the horrible sin committed and tolerated in their midst. This is particularly so because perversely they are feeling pride at their liberal attitude.  However, when you get to 2 Corinthians 2. Paul is clear that his intention is not to cause ongoing pain.  Where there is repentance there should be restoration. The repentant brother is not meant to carry on in their shame.

Some practical suggestions

So how do we avoid a situation where exercising discipline leads to inappropriate shame and distress.  Here are a few thoughts

  1. First of all, remember that the purpose of discipline is restoration. This means it is not to be confused with penal retribution. We should guard and challenge our own motives when disciplining a church member.
  2. Secondly, we should distinguish between what is necessary for discipline and what is necessary for safe guarding purposes. It may be necessary to ask someone not to attend specific meetings or when they do attend to be chaperoned. There are contexts where we would do this regardless of church discipline. The obvious example is where the individual has committed criminal offenses.
  3. Linked to the safe guarding side of things, we need to recognise that when someone has committed serious, public and persistent sin then this will have caused severe hurt to others and that the presence of the offender in specific contexts may be harmful to the victim’s recovery. So for example, it may be helpful to insist that an unfaithful husband attends a separate meeting or even alternative church to their wife.
  4. The important thing is to be clear with the individual under discipline as to why specific things are asked of them. For example, if they are being instructed to attend another church so that their wife is given space to recover and find fellowship then this should be explained. It may be that the person is asked to do these things to challenge them about what they are losing out on in terms of fellowship. Again this should be explained to them.
  5. It would be helpful to have agreed as a church in advance what are the particular sanctions that can be used in church discipline and when and how they are enacted. This will also mean that there are opportunities to include sanctions that fall short of full exclusion from membership. For example, a church member may be asked to step down from specific ministries or asked not to take the Lord’s Supper for a period of time.
  6. We need to have a clear view of what restoration should look like for the individual right from the start. This will include an honest assessment of what will not be included. For example, that someone who has been unfaithful should not then go (back) into pastoral leadership and that it may well be likely that someone who has committed adultery will find future fellowship in another local church.

Realism and Hope

I think that the big challenge we have with these things is that we tend to fall into the two extremes of naïve optimism and despair. So on the one hand we can go around in that bubble where we assume that if someone professed faith once then all will be well for them. We can’t guarantee that. It may well, and often will be the case that in the public sin we see strong evidence that the person never was a believer.

At the same time, we can despair and assume that when someone sins publically then all is lost. I think that because restoration is rare, we have come to believe it is impossible. Realism means I recognise it is rare but it should not crush hope.  Can I see the possibility of people who have fallen and failed being restored in fellowship and somehow active in service for Christ again one day. The Gospel says that this is possible.