Christianity,  Culture

Church Discipline Gets Chastised in WSJ

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a story about the practice of church discipline in American evangelical churches. On the whole, the story is negative, focusing on cases which are less than exemplary. A church here in Dallas is mentioned in the article, Watermark Community Church, as well as First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Alabama and Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama. The article says,

“[There is] a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.

“The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.”

Dr. Hershael York of Southern Seminary was interviewed for the story, but was not quoted in the final version which appeared in the paper. He did, however, comment on the article on his website. His response is spot on:

“The article is tantamount to being against spanking because some parents abuse their children, or criticizing ‘time out’ because some parents lock their children in the basement.

“I have little doubt that discipline is sometimes abused, but frankly the greater and far more frequent problem in contemporary churches is that discipline isn’t even discussed–regardless of what Jesus taught. What a shame that a publication the stature of the WSJ would countenance so unbalanced a presentation of the facts.”

“Banned From Church: Reviving an ancient practice, churches are exposing sinners and shunning those who won’t repent” – by Alexandra Alter (Wall Street Journal)

(HT: Hershel York)


  • Bryan L

    I’m against church discipline of this type (“privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent”) in most churches. The problem I have is not in the actual discipline it’s that churches are too large. They are impersonal, unconnected, barely communal or accountable and nothing like the smaller communal setting of the early church where this type of discipline was taking place.

    If this was taking place today in small house church type setting then I think it would be more appropriate. But instead we’ve abandoned the setting in which these particularly pastoral forms of discipline first emerged but still want to carry out the same form of discipline.

    My view is either carry out this form of discipline in a setting that is similar and close to the original (still a hard task to accomplish) or modify our forms of discipline to our present settings and situations so that they will still be effective in carrying out the same purpose that the form of discipline that we find in the NT did.

    Bryan L

  • Kevin J

    Bryan L,

    The church in Jerusalem had thousands of “members” (see Acts). Do you think they did it differently than the smaller churches?

    If so, what do you think they did and how should we accomplish this task today in the larger churches (very few of which are larger than the one in Acts in Jerusalem)?

  • jigawatt

    Bryan L,

    Please inform us of an application of Matthew 18:15-20 that is both faithful to the words of our Lord and modified to our present settings and situations (for a large church).

  • Bryan L

    Kevin, where did this thousands of member church meet in Jerusalem? What did the church setting of the Jerusalem church look like? Also I think you are forgetting the church setting of Paul’s instructions for church discipline.

    jigawatt, that’s a tough question because there is still the larger question as to whether our large churches with their Sunday services are really that faithful to the Bible. If you think it is ok to have a large church where there is no real community and relationship (not to mention accountability) among the members that goes beyond the superficial, then maybe that’s the trade off – church discipline like we find in the NT isn’t possible. Maybe we have to settle for superficial uncommunal church discipline.

  • Wade

    “church discipline like we find in the NT isn’t possible”

    Are you crazy? There are serious issues at hand if you think that a New Testament practice is unattainable.


  • Bryan L

    Good job Wade of picking up on one statement at the end of a sentence and ignoring the rest of what I’m saying. I think that shows a more serious issue when you learn to read and quote statments out of context.

    Just curious Lance, what does it matter what experience I have in the church? That’s irrelevant in this conversation. If people who have had no experience in the church can come on here and give their opinions and ideas in favor of church discipline in the form being described in this article then the same kind of people can come on here and give the opposite view. Why don’t you ask the other people who felt the need to comment on here what their experience is in the church?

    Look I understand some of you are concerned with what I’m saying. You should be but I think you are missing the larger concern I am raising. Please turn of your heresy radars and try to read what I am saying and identifying as a problem in the church today.


  • Lance

    I don’t think that experience in church leadership is irrelevant to discussing matters of church discipline, regardless the size of the church.

    (BTW: “most churches” are small churches).

  • mike


    I understand your point, but you have to admit while yes, part of the problem is the size of churches, the lack of dicipline is also a problem. You mention yourself that part of the problem with large churches is the absence of ccoununity and accountability, I ask you what is accountability without dicipline? What is cummunity with out dicipline?

    Without dicipline the church becomes just as dysfunctional as it does when dicipline is used as an excuse to dogmatize minor issues.

  • Barry

    Discipline has fallen on hard times because church membership, on the whole, no longer means anything. When we get back to a high view of what it means to be part of a local covenant community (with its responsibilities and expectations), then we can get back to correctly doing church discipline, as Jesus commanded us to do.


  • Jen

    I have experience, but probably the wrong kind. I was the one Alexandra first came to for this article in that she wanted to tell my story, but I declined. I have told the story of my very unbiblical and unjust excommunication online, after exhausting all possibilities of reconciliation with my very public pastor, Doug Phillips. I did not, however, feel it was right to take it to the secular media.

    For those interested, this was done in a small home church, but there can be more problems there than in a big church when most of the church members work for and earn their living from the sole elder who excommunicated me for voting for Bush for president.

    Click on my name if you’re interested in church discipline gone disastrously. BTW, after all this, I still strongly believe in church discipline — done God’s way.

  • Bryan L

    Lance would you say that most churches are about the size of the churches that Paul was writing to (from our best estimate)? If I were a pastor of a 20,000 member church would it make any difference to you? What about if I were the pastor of a 50 member church? Lance how big is the church you pastor?

    Mike, yes the lack of discipline is a problem. My question is what are some of the factors that contribute to that being a problem?

    “What is community without discipline?”

    What is discipline without community? What is discipline without relationship? It’s like the principal spanking your kid. It’s painful and embarrasing but ultimately it does’t mean much or change anything.

    I agree with you Barry that we need to get back to a higher view of the church. The problem is though that are view of the church is a place where service takes place and people spend a day or 2 a week being an audience. We practice communion, not by communing together over a meal, but by drinking a thimble of grape juice and eating a small cracker. We don’t share all things in common. We don’t know what’s going on in peoples lives. Our interaction with others is mostly minimal and the pastor sure doesn’t know all the people that well.

    To kick someone out of a church (excommunication) means nothing. All your saying is you can’t come to Sunday service to sing songs and listen to a sermon and give us your money. Wow, what’s punishment. The other church down the street won’t know that I was kicked out of my last church and this time I just have to be a bit more secretive about my sins (which are probably sexual or something) meanwhile the person in the church who is obviously greedy and serves mammon gets to go to church unbothered and undisciplined because their sin is not as obvious as mine and they give a large chunk of money to the church.

    Do y’all see what I’m getting at?

  • Brett

    I looked in my Bible, church membership is not in there (the way we do it). Bryan, I totally understand where you’re coming from and agree with you.

  • John


    I can sympathize with where you are coming from, as I’m apart of a church that is close knit and has no formal church membership. However I’ve been to First Baptist Muscle Shoals on several occasions and whereas I wouldn’t do everything quite the way they do it, I can at least say that they definitely are a group of believers that is close knit and well capable of practicing church discipline.

    If what I said above is true, would that be enough to remove your fears about a large church and church discipline?

  • mike


    You didn’t answer my questions.
    What is Community without dicipline, it is anarchy. There must me rules and consequences or there can be no community. Barry has a fantastic point that we must revive the importance of being a part in the local community of believers, and dicipline is essential because it shows that we’re serious about what we claim, and we’re serious about the standards and commands of our Lord. You point out the fact that dicipine without community is also wrong, I agree, but we already have a group of believers gathered together, we have the community (the group) it just so happens that, at large, it is dysfunctional. This is due in large to the tolerance of those people who openly sin and also profess to be Christian. Like the “christian” who steals at work or cheats on his wife. There is no dicipline so the world accepts these people as the generic, sterotype….A Hypocrite. And thus we lose creedibility with the world. Who will believe our message, and accept the standards we use to measure sin IF we have that reputation?

    Also, accountability with out dicipline is meaningless. Without a consequence, there is no reason to consider myself accountable is there? You seem to want to have community and accountability to spring up in the church while rejecting one of the basic tenents that make such a thing possible.

    Yes, the amount of believers in a local congregation is considerably different, yes we have our fellowships with different settings, your points however are meaningless. The Church in Acts does not set forth a command on specified ways of having worship, however we have very direct instructions on dicipline. It seems Lord isn’t very particular on what style we use, or when, or how many people are present, only that we worship Him regularly with a group as well as individualy everyday; but, dicipline is essential to that community in any form it takes thus, we have specific instruction.

    And yes, there have been a great deal of men who’ve exploited this system to thier own selfish motives, but that means we have to be all the more dilligent to practice dicipline in a way that is honoring to Christ, NOT that we toss it out.

  • Bryan L

    Please read what I’m saying carefully. You are representing what I am saying as if I am setting up false dichotomies. Ask yourself where I said you don’t need discipline or where I said we can have accountability or community without discipline?
    My point is that in a large church (which can be anywhere from 100 to 25,000 depending on the ratio of leaders to people) the church discipline that has been laid out here is largely useless because it is ineffective, hypocritical and only focuses on sins that are completely obvious while ignoring or overlooking other more deeply ingrained sins (like greed and the love of money). Not to mention the fact that the person can just go down the street to another big revolving door church (at least if the Catholic church kicks you out you know you don’t have salvation).
    If you want to continue church discipline in this manner and atmosphere go ahead. I could care less really. My point is that it is largely a facade. It looks like it is faithful to the Bible, but really it’s not.

    Bryan L

  • Jeff Lash

    I think Bryan brings up several great points. When thinking about the structure and health of today’s church, I am often concerned about the implications of the mega-church mentality. Though there are no restrictions on the size of a community of believers, it is pretty easy to reason that the larger the group gets the more complicated things become practically. As a pastor, how much harder is it to oversee 20,000 as opposed to 200? So, as Bryan mentioned, the problem begins with the “structure” of the church. How should this community be set up? What should it look like to believers and non-believers? How can it be most faithful to the words of Christ?

    I am a firm believer in church discipline. And I have seen it go awry many times. However, I think that many people speak boldly of the concept without understanding the difficulty in carrying out especially as it relates to each particular case. To discipline is to love. It actually shows you care and are involved in a person’s life. You can see it well illustrated in parenting and the difference in children who are disciplined and those who are let to do what they want without consequence. And of course, there are extreme examples for everything.

    So I agree with Bryan…we should be concerned that our idea of “church” may not be fostering and creating the very meaning of the word itself. What we need is less of an institution and more of a community. And if you have community, you’ll better be able to practice accountability and discipline.

  • Greg G

    As practiced, church membership turns out to be a bad deal for the member. When you’re a visitor, you may get a special parking space. When you’re a visitor and not a member, you received lots of attention and encouragement to become a member. After you become a member, you get less attention and gain no new benefits. If the leadership becomes oppressive and unjust, it becomes difficult to extract yourself and your household. There’s no upside to church membership.

    In the NT, there are many examples of baptisms and entry into the visible church without a tie to a particular local church.

    Examples include:

    1) Devout Jews out of every nation under heaven who were gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost when 3000 were baptized (Acts 2)
    2) The Ethiopian Eunuch baptized and joined to no particular local church (Acts 8:38)
    3) Household of Cornelius (Acts 10) – Baptized and joined to no particular local church
    4) Crowds baptized by John the Baptist and disciples of Jesus Christ

  • Barry

    Greg G,
    Perhaps I have misunderstood what you wrote in #20. I don’t think that your examples prove what you seem to suggest: That church membership does not really matter. Do you see it as optional for the believer? I hope that is not what you are saying.

    Examples 1, 2, and 3 are arguments from silence and are not conclusive for your point. True, that they don’t prove that they DID become part of a recognized church, either, but the normal practice of the NT points away from what you want 1, 2, and 3 to say. Example 4 is anachronistic: there was no organized local church in existence during the ministry of John the B’s and Jesus’ earthly ministry. The normal pattern we see in Acts etc. is for believers to be part of an organized community of believers (hence the epistles), hence there are church offices, as well as accountability within the local body. Hence all of the “Let us” exhortations as well as the practice of discipline in 1 Cor 5 and other places.

    I have written on this at, in case you are curious.


  • Benjamin A


    Your story is truly amazing. I’m finding it hard to believe that a vote for Bush would lead to excommunication though.

    Are you suggesting that your pastor informed/instructed his church members how to vote? And for disobedience to his mandate you were disciplined?

    Do I understand you correctly???

  • Greg G

    Well, I firmly support regular church attendance and participation. I’ve just become a little less inclined to high levels of formalization of a membership role and more inclined towards recognizing membership by who shows up regularly. Yes, church membership is a means of grace and yes the “one other” verses, Hebrews 10:24-25, and more command regular church attendance.

    As practiced, USA churches often favor the visitor over the member. The visitor gets special parking in some cases and more attention and care in many cases. As a member, there are often no benefits available that are not available to the long-term visitor or adherent. Although the Scriptures command that we love especially those of the household of faith, in practice, it’s often the visitor that gets more love.

    False prophets, false teachers, hypocrites, and other undesirables have led churches. Paul, Silas, Luke, Acquilla, Priscilla, and others have been itinerant Christians. The over-formalization of church membership can restrict mobility and opportunities for service.

    Church discipline is necessary but injustices have also taken place. In some cases, expediency has prevailed over biblical principles.

  • Greg G

    If new formalized members become committed to the local church and accountable to it but the local church and its leaders carry no commitment to its members and no accountability, then the potential for abuse is strong.

    Regular atteding visitors are largely included in all the benefits of church membership. Members become immediately vulnerable to being falsely accused and threatened with punitive discipline. One solution: pray for your elders and those in authority over you so that those under them may live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and honesty (1 Timothy 2)

  • Greg G

    Congregations with closed communion (communicant members only) have existed but have become extremely rare. This would be a case where members have a privilege that non-members do not have. I do not necessarily endorse the practice of closed communion. However, I do think that sacramental communion is enhanced when piety (vertical relationship with God) is strong and where koinonia (horizontal fellowship) with other communicants there is strong.

  • Jen

    Benjamin, yes, we were informed on how to vote, every week for several weeks before the elections. However, it was a bit more complicated than that. You see, it involved a blog. Doug Phillips has a blog which does not allow comments, but for this particular election, he set up a scenario of candidates A and B and asked people to email him with their answers to his scenario. He was also conducting a voting debate at that time. So I wrote him my thoughts on how his scenario was full of logical fallacies and designed to mislead others and I wrote my perspective on the voting debate. As a lawyer, Doug often used logic to counter other people’s arguments, so this was only fair play. My husband signed my letter and said that it was sent with his blessings.

    I sent my response to his personal email so that no one else would need to see it, but he brought it to church that Sunday and preached against it point by point. This had to do with WHO to vote for. He then asked me if I was going to apologize for writing it, but I told him that I didn’t see that I had sinned in doing so. He told me that if my husband had written it, it would have been fine, but since I was a woman, he stated, “You’ll pay for this,” and he excommunicated me.

    Bryan says that excommunication means nothing and that you can just go down the street to the next church. Not always so. I have attempted to find a church that will take me for the last 3 years now and have been totally unsuccessful. If you are excommunicated by a strong-armed, powerful bully, there’s not much you can do. Church after church after church has said they will stand up to Doug Phillips, but when it comes right down to it, all the Reformed elders in this mega-city of 1 ½ million cower in fear of man.

  • MatthewS

    Mike #17,

    I’m a little late on this one but a quick comment to your statement, “Like the “christian” who steals at work or cheats on his wife. There is no discipline so the world accepts these people as the generic, stereotype….A Hypocrite.”

    That does not necessarily reflect my experience. For every seemingly active member in the church that I have known that has lived in sexual sin such as you describe, I have known at least ten that are angry or rude or stab others in the back. At the secular jobs I have had, the Christians who give us all a bad name are the latter crowd, not the former that you describe. But both sets of sins, namely, the moral sins and the anger sins, both represent fruit of the flesh and sins that need to be removed (Gal 5, Col 3).

    Some churches seem interested in quickly disciplining someone who has fallen into moral failure and thus create a climate where the members are afraid to be honest about any struggles in that area. Yet, the same churches sometimes allow various other sins to prosper. For example, the stereotypical grumpy old church lady that criticizes and gossips and snaps at the kids, etc. etc. I have known such people to create damage for years yet never be in danger of church discipline. This represents a double standard and inconsistent discipline.

  • Greg G

    There is an upside to commitment when it flows in both directions.

    The expected outcome for a faithful man when giving commitment without getting the same in return is nothing at best and paying the cost at worst.

    There is an upside to commitment when it flows in both directions.

  • patricia

    To Jen: Its interesting that your pastor said that if your hubby had written it it would be fine – that is an admission that the arugument was sound and contained valid points as well as an inadvertent admission that the real problem is his ego.

    When a person’s worth is rooted in their walk with Christ, they don’t need to force others down into an inadequate or inferior position in order to be “taller”. That represents a warped idea of what qualifies one for leadership, for one thing. It sounds like this man is an insecure controller – sadly, spiritual and emotional ill health is no respecter of persons and can be found in the pew or the pulpit. I think its noteworthy that you showed him respect by communicating privately, which is what the bible tells us to do before it ever gets to the public level. Too bad he failed to obey the scripture he wss twisting to justify his treatment of you.

    The final step of public rebuke and excommuiication is not for those who show that they cannot be reasoned with, are unteachable and, by virture of a refusal to honor God’s word and persistence to continue in willful sin, show that they have no serious commitment to God or his word. If conducted in the right spirit, this is something that is approached with grief and mercy, never rushed to with eager pharisaical self righteousness. It is intended to bring about repentance and restoration, not to destroy all possiblity of fellowship ever again.

    General thoughts on the church

    That being said, I beleive the loosey goosey individualistic form of godliness we have today is due in part to the fact that we pick and choose what scriptures we are going to obey. The church is weakened and lacking in authority and power because we don’t obey God’s word; we often act is if that is optional, and worse we judge God’s word by the world’s point of view instead of the other way around. Where is our fear of God? This is evidence that often the church is really the kingdom of self and of ego, otherwise we would be deeply concerned about offending God by mishandling somemone he died for, or misrepresenting his word and besmirching his reputation amongst unbelievers.

    There is an expectation, I think that discpline be carried out by elders who are mature in God’s word and in love, which is why there sre such stringent qualifciations for leaders. Again, lack of respect for God’s word may mean that a man is chosen because he is not a threat to the pastor or because he is a yes man, not because his walk is an inspiration to all and an example of godliness, or because he can be trusted to speak the truth in love without giving in to spiritual intimidation. Bottom line, its still an essential safegaurd to have church dsicpline.

  • patricia

    oops, somehow a not got in where it should be, it should read:
    The final step of public rebuke and excommuiication is for those who show they cannot be reasoned with, please feel free to correct 🙂

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