Most church members have, at one time or another, “thunk” the seemingly unthinkable: This church would be so much better off without “so-and-so”!

Now, before judging statements such as this too harshly, please recognize that sometimes this conclusion is accurate.

It is obviously true that the church suffers when any of its members engage in visible sin. By behaving badly, these church members can ruin the health of the body. I am not suggesting haste or harshness in discipline, nor am I suggesting that the practice of discipline is not first and foremost an attempt at restoration. But I am saying that churches should practice discipline in a disciplined way.

The reluctance to discipline

Many churches are reluctant to pursue discipline. If they are willing to do so, it often comes much too late. Church leaders seldom take action until some rogue has already inflicted considerable damage. Still, a measured dose of hesitation is good. After all, discipline ought to be a church’s tool of last resort, and never should it be taken up in anger.

Other actions should be taken first, such as admonishing and encouraging one another, and praying, both for the offender and about the attendant circumstances. However, reluctance turns to neglect all too easily, and normally to the church’s peril. For example, a  member of a church has begun to stir things up. Frustrated and not knowing quite what to do, the pastor wonders when that person will finally go too far and commit an impeachable offense.

But consider this: That member has already gone too far.

Why do I say that? Well, for one thing, most pastors and churches have enough information to make the call. The guideline is the church covenant, to which members subscribe. Here in Panama, N.Y., ours reads in part, “We will safeguard the unity of our church by conforming to its doctrines and practices.” That’s a Scriptural principle: “Let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Romans 14:19). And last time I checked, “stirring the pot” wasn’t one of the acceptable “things.”

God places a high price on church unity, and not just unity of the spiritual-mystical kind. Rather, He wants visible, demonstrable unity—the kind we actually see. It stands to reason, therefore, that whatever serves to undermine that unity is actually impeachable. At the top of any church’s list of “criminal” offenses should be factious or divisive behavior.

Of course, other sins belong on that list. In fact, every sin belongs on the list. Does that surprise anyone? Pastors are often asked whether a sin is “big enough” to be handled through the disciplinary process. But that’s really the wrong question, and wrong questions yield wrong answers. Any sin is potential grounds for discipline, not just “big” sins. After all, sin is sin. Someone says, “Well, then perhaps we should all be disciplined—last one to leave, turn out the lights.” Of course, that can’t be right. Nor is it right to suggest, on the ground that all of us sin, that none should be disciplined.

The rationale for discipline

Let’s go ahead and consider this line of thinking a bit more. It’s true enough that we all sin and therefore need to confess our failings to God, no matter what the sin. And when a sin remains a private matter of the heart, that is where it ends—in quiet repentance toward God. He knows about it, so we confess it to Him. No one else knows about it, and no one else needs to know.

But consider a sin that involves another person. Say, for example, I’ve said some harsh words to my wife in our home. In that case, I seek forgiveness not only from God but from my wife and perhaps even from my children if they know about it. Likewise, when a member of the church goes public with his or her sin, whether it be sexual sin or gossip, it becomes a sin against both God and the church if it affects the church’s health or testimony. That believer should then seek forgiveness from the church as well as from God.

So the question isn’t really How big a sin is big enough? but How many people know about the sin and are affected by it? A sin is big when it is widely known or experienced.

Say that a person who has sinned in this way does not seek forgiveness and therefore remains unreconciled. When the church learns of this, some kind of intervention is required, which really is the start of discipline. In other words, discipline should begin when an offender has not repented of known sin. It’s never the original sin that brings discipline; rather, it is the refusal to repent and be reconciled. Jesus said that “if your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). In another place He said, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault” (Matthew 18:15). It’s never the loving thing to knowingly allow a person to persist in destructive behavior, and all sin is destructive.

The follow-through in church discipline is this: If the offender does not repent and seek to reconcile, we break fellowship with him or her. Or, in the words of 1 Corinthians 5:13, we “put away from [ourselves] the evil person.” The person is put out and made to ponder, and the church is made to persist.

The danger to us is the temptation to run with this idea and become ecclesial witch-hunters. However, a church is not a kind of “God Squad,” tasked with flushing out sin for prosecution. So, for example, when gossip is in the air, we don’t launch an investigation to determine “who dunnit.” That kind of distrustful, combative atmosphere is poisonous to any church. But by the same token, when we do have credible information leading to the source of malicious gossip, we are duty bound to confront the source to solicit repentance and restoration. Barring that response, we proceed with disciplinary action—for the growth of the one who sins, for the good of the church, and for the glory of God.

The reward for discipline

I suspect that another reason so many churches are reluctant to practice church discipline is that they are unwilling to lose anyone. The basis of my suspicion is as near as my own heart. After all, most churches don’t need any help in being small. That impulse is not all bad. In fact, I think it is good that we force ourselves to jump through a few mental hoops before acting out our inclinations, however Biblically informed they may be. I would like to think that all of us agonize before deciding on discipline. But even if the size of our churches is what drives our thinking, who’s to say that removing the bad apple doesn’t cause more (and better) apples to be added in? And besides, it’s self-evident that “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” As my associate pastor, Andy Cook, once remarked, “People are going to leave the church. It’s our job to make sure the right ones leave.”

I believe that newcomers to our churches can sense a discordant spirit. It’s evident in the way we tiptoe around certain people or avoid others. It’s apparent as much in what we don’t talk about as in what we do. Basically it’s visible in the way we treat each other. A church marked by a spirit of openness and freedom is a church in harmony. A disciplined church is a desirable church, and desirable churches grow.

Is church discipline for your church? Absolutely.

I have to ask, How has your congregation gotten along without it? As a pastor, I’m not sure how I’d have survived this long here had certain people we’ve “put out” still been here. It can be terribly frustrating to keep focused on the sheep when there are dragons to contend with. So take a risk on God’s prescription for church discipline. You risk far more without it. We’ll probably never know how many church splits could have been avoided had churches not allowed the dragons to stir things up. And a church split won’t grow a church. Titus 3:10 says, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (NIV). That’s still good advice.

Charles J. Colton (DMin, Baptist Bible Seminary) is pastor of Panama Baptist Church, Panama, N.Y., and adjunct professor of organizational leadership at Davis College, Johnson City, N.Y. He is the author of Core Christianity—The Tie That Binds.