The important link between pastoral care and church discipline

We’ve been working through a teaching series called “Believing and Belonging” at Bearwood Chapel.  It’s based on some studies we put together for potential new church members. We’ve looked at questions including “What is a healthy church?” and “Who should be a member of a church?” We’ve also talked about leadership, baptism, communion, gifts and giving. The last talk is all about “Church Discipline.” In fact, going back to the original studies it is about pastoral care and church discipline.

This is important because, church discipline gets a bad press at times. We don’t like the word “discipline” it sounds harsh and authoritarian, Yet, discipline is a very Biblical concept.

This is Hebrews 12: 4-9 quoting Proverbs 3:11-12:

“And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children?[d] He said,

‘My child,[e] don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and don’t give up when he corrects you.
For the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.’

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever?”

Discipline is something that God does.  It is not about penal punishment but about correction and teaching for our care. I want to suggest that this is vital to our understanding of church discipline and will help us to think about it correctly.

When we think about church discipline, we usually think about two Bible passages. Matthew 18:15-20 deals with how to resolve disputes when a believer sins against another believer. It starts with a private warning but when the person still refuses to put things right, the matter is brought to the church and the church has the authority to exclude them.  In 1 Corinthians 5 we are told about a man who has been involved in shocking public sin. This matter is to be dealt with publicly by the church and once again the church has the authority to remove fellowship from them.

When we talk about church discipline we tend to focus on this last aspect of things because it is the most visible and the most emotive.  However, it is helpful if we look at the whole nature and process of church discipline. You see, when we describe everything that is involved.

  1. We realise that “discipline” is really another way of talking about pastoral care and “excommunication” is one reactive element of pastoral care. An element which we prefer not to have to use.
  2. We realise that “excommunication” is an appropriate sign of what is happening.

Let me explain why. To understand what pastoral care is really about, we need to go to another Bible passage in 1 Corinthians.  We came across this passage when looking at Gifts.  1 Corinthians 12:12 says:

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. 13 Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles,[e] some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.”

This leads Paul to conclude that:

“So, God has put the body together such that extra honour and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. 25 This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honoured, all the parts are glad.”[1]

Pastoral Care and Church Discipline start from the understanding that we are united together in the same body. We are joined to one another. We have been loved and saved by God in Christ Jesus and so we are united by our love for him and for each other. We are called to abide in Christ. Our life is dependent on connection to our head.  This flows out into connection with one another. This is why 1 Corinthians 11 tells us that at communion we are meant to discern/honour/care for the body because we are meant to be united together, loving one another, sharing one another’s burdens. It is also why leaders are given to us in order to equip us for works of service so that we grow together in unity (Ephesians 4:11).

Pastoral care is about helping the church to grow together and into Christ. It isn’t about paying one church member to visit the sick and the elderly. It is about equipping every member to look out for each other both practically as we look out for those in need, those who are lonely and those who are sick but also and even more importantly looking out for how we are doing in our relationship with Christ. Pastoral care within the church family means we are accountable to one another, challenging each other, encouraging each other and working together in partnership to share the Gospel.

That’s why church membership is so important. My point here is not about “how you do church membership.” Some churches have very formal processes with interviews, votes by members to accept and forms to sign. Others are more informal. Indeed they may not talk about “membership as such.” However, there needs to be a way and a sense in which those who belong to Christ demonstrate that they belong to each other and are committed to each other, that they are not just passing through like ships in the night.

This also helps us to understand why “excommunication” is such a serious thing and why the church has the authority to do this – literally to remove someone from communion or fellowship.

We’ve learnt that external signs symbolise heart reality. Adam and Eve eat fruit from a tree in the garden not because the tree has magical properties but because their outward action of eating shows what is happening in their hearts. New Christians are baptised not because the water does something special but because Christ has washed their heart clean from sin. We share communion not because the bread and the wine turn into the body and blood of Jesus but because we are spiritually feeding on Christ as we depend upon him and His word for eternal life. So, this tells us what happens when someone is excommunicated.

The excommunicated person may have been attending church, participating in a small group, taking communion, speaking up at members meetings. However, their sin, be it a public and persistent immoral act or a persistent refusal to restore fellowship with another brother or sister betrays their heart. They have in some way disconnected themselves from the body and from Christ.  They are saying that they are not accountable to each other and that their own needs and preferences go ahead of the needs of others. They are being selfish.

Time and time again, we have seen that it is those who get disconnected and isolated who are vulnerable to temptation and to harm. Pastoral care is about encouraging them to get back and stay close to Christ to His word and to each other.

Removing someone from fellowship is a way of stating “externally” what has already happened internally. They are disconnected and they are in danger.  In that sense, we don’t remove them, they remove themselves as we recognise the reality of this.

Why do we do this? We do it in order to make clear what is happening. We do it for their good as well as for the good of the wider body. We do it to warn them that they are disconnected and in danger. We do it to say that sin is ugly, horrible and deadly (note, adultery is ugly, horrible and destructive says Paul in Corinthians 5 but so too is gossip, slander, name calling and resentment when people choose to hold onto these things and not be reconciled says Jesus in Matthew 18). We do it because we seek their restoration. We are looking for heart change and for the person to  be clearly united to Christ, clearly obedient to His Word and clearly united with their brothers and sisters.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:24-26.