Is Church Discipline Really Possible Anymore?

By John Drury

Thursday, August 04, 2005

My thoughts this week have converged on the issue of church discipline. First I had an e-mail conversation about discipline as the third mark of the church. Next the latest Christianity Today came with church discipline as its theme. Then my daily reading for today just happened to be I Corinthians 5, the Pauline locus classicus for church discipline.

As a Wesleyan with both Anabaptist and Catholic influences, I have every reason to emphasize church discipline and have done so for many years. I count myself among those who believe in three marks of the church: word, sacrament, and discipline (roughly corresponding to the prophetic, priestly, and royal offices of the church). The question of the marks of the church was brought to the fore by the Reformation. Without a unified church, the reformers needed a criterion by which to identify the true church. Luther had seven so-called marks, many of which could be combined into larger categories. The preaching of the pure word of God and the right administration of the sacraments were quickly received as the two basic marks. The addition of discipline as a distinct mark comes first from Bucer in Strausborg, but it was quickly dropped by the magisterial reformers (cf. Calvin's Institutes IV.1.10) in reaction to its perceived over-emphasis in the radical reformation. It was picked back up by the Puritans in their conflict with the Church of England. It was through the Puritans that discipline was passed on to Wesley and the Methodists. The Wesleyan Church mentions it as a mark of the church in its Discipline. Just the distinctive name "Discipline" (as opposed to "Book of Order" or "Canon Law") used in a number of Wesleyan/Methodist/Holiness denominations points to this emphasis.

Enough of the history lesson. The question on my mind is whether church discipline is really possible anymore. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the man who was getting kicked out of the church did not have the option of walking down the street to the next Christian community. There was not the smorgasbord of Christian options now on offer. The same went for the Reformers, who contrary to popular belief were certainly not setting up "Protestant" churches down the street from "Catholic" churches. It was whole duchies and cantons that were reforming, and the formerly catholic parish church became a protestant church, leaving just one church per parish and not the multiplicity we see today, especially in the states. Even as the denominational splitting began centuries later, people were quite troubled over which christian community was the true church. It wasn't always a matter of taste or even needs. For many, eternity was on the line. So church discipline held serious weight for those who took their church membership seriously.

But these days are gone. Nowadays excommunication merely means switching to the church down the road (or to none at all). So the threat of excommunication is rendered empty. Thus all forms of church discipline, which must necessarily have the possibility of excommunication backing them up as their gold standard, have lost their bite. And although I have no desire to reinstate Christendom, I doubt whether the church's mission can be sustained without some kind of formative discipline. Yet it seems like an impossibility.

Now I would love to call for church leaders to reinstill in their people a sense of the cruciality of united christian community. I have done this and I will do this again. But that is for a different setting. Here I simply want to ask whether church discipline has any hope at all. Is it gone for good? Is that a good thing? If not, does it have any chance of return? If so, where is it to be found? Is it found only in visible church unity? Is it found in an increased sectarianism? Is it found through spiritual renewal? Is it found only in missional communities in hostile contexts? Is it a problem with our culture that we have to fix first? Is it merely taking new forms that I am missing?


At 10:14 PM, August 04, 2005, Brian Russell said...

Hi John,
Great thoughts. My sense is that church discipline truly depends on the establishment of deep faith communities. For the most part, the institutional chuch has failed to instill deep community as a core value (regardless of the talk). When I read Matthew 18 and some of Paul's writings, I think that underlying these disciplinary texts is a small community of believers who truly know one another. Apart from this sort of deep community, church discipline can simply become a political power play or at worst a literal "witch hunt" rather than a process that seeks redemption and reconciliation for and with the fallen brother or sister.


At 4:04 PM, August 05, 2005, David Drury said...

I am highly interested in this subject matter but havne't developed many defensible opinions on it yet. Yesterday I read the article on church dicipline in CT that you cited - and it brought the issue to mind again.

I wonder if part of my abiguity about the issue is that denominational stratification and the progressive side of the church both seem to be counteractive to effective church dicipline (the first of which you infer about "moving down the street"

I'm continuing to learn on this one. Listening.


At 9:05 PM, August 05, 2005, Kevin K. Wright said...

Good post John. I liked the way you outlined the issue with a little history lesson. I'm not quite sure that a church discipline can be achieved if the emerging movement within the Christianity ultimately becomes the dominating modus operandi. Simply put, I think that the emerging movement, while professing to have a strong ecclesiology, in all reality has a weak one. This perhaps can be seen in the seemingly strong aversion emerging churches have towards denominations and authority. In fact, I would go as far to say that any church that rejects the idea of church discipline or structure operating on the macro level has a rather weak ecclesiology. This goes for any church so that it doesn't seem like I'm just picking on the emerging church.


At 9:06 PM, August 05, 2005, Kevin K. Wright said...

One more thing, it should be noted that without a strong ecclesiology, church discipline becomes very hard if not almost impossible.


At 9:31 AM, August 06, 2005, millinerd said...

Clearly the only way forward in church discipline is to recover practices such as the Rosary of Shame


At 11:27 AM, August 06, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


Thanks for the clear comments. Your post has pushed me to deepen my original questions. Although I share your concerns, I'd love to see a more concrete definition of a "strong" ecclesiology in contrast to a "weak" one. These are evaluative terms and therefore meaningless without definition. I suspect there is something like a "high" versus "low" ecclesiology hiding behind them, but even these terms are prescriptively suggestive. Who's to say that a "low" ecclesiology is not a strong ecclesiology? Or could a "weak" ecclesiology be appropriate upon the right conditions? Thus, in regards to the question of discipline, one might ask what concretely is the apt ecclesiology for a robust practice of church discipline? I am sure whatever it may be we would name it "strong." But what does that look like concretely (in terms of polity, structure, leadership, membership, etc.)?


At 11:32 AM, August 06, 2005, JohnLDrury said...


Ha! As your pic exclaims, "That was a joke."

Or was it????


At 10:25 PM, August 06, 2005, Ken Schenck said...

I've thought about institution the WWJD of shame at IWU for students who fall asleep in class.


At 7:27 PM, August 10, 2005, christin said...

The first time I heard about church discipline in a present day context was through a friend's church who was threatening to "discipline" an adulterous man. It was such a strange thought to me, because I couldn't image what sort of sting they could deliver.
Plus, isn't the ultimate goal of church discipline not punishment, but changed behavior and reintegration into the body? Just like you said, most people will just go to the church next door, and then that would defeat the purpose.
--The Rosary of Shame isn't a bad idea. Big accessories are in right now. People could be stylish while being disciplined.