This post is a supplement to the “church discipline process” document/training posted earlier. The goal of this series is to equip churches to conduct church discipline with restorative excellence.

In this article we examine the conclusion of a church discipline case. Preferably, church discipline ends in restoration; sometimes, however, it concludes with removing a friend from church membership.

After discussing the two possible outcomes for church discipline, this post provides guidance on how to discern if “adequate opportunity” has been given to change.

Two Possible Outcomes

There are two possible outcomes for church discipline. The first, and most desirable, outcome is restoration. Restoration happens when the members agree with God about the nature of their sin, turn from their sin emotionally (remorse) and volitionally (choices), embrace the support of fellow believers offering accountability and encouragement, and are grateful for the way their church family pursued them during a season of waywardness.

When restoration is the outcome of church discipline, then the guidelines from the church discipline document become a way of life that no longer require the monitoring of a church elder. The restoration plan becomes a highly intentional discipleship plan. An indicator that restoration has adequately occurred is when the member is grateful for and desirous of the discipleship efforts of their church.

The second possible outcome is removal from membership. This is a statement by the church that the fruit of conversion cannot be found in the church member. This step is intended as a warning and “tough love” call to change. The question we will discuss in the remainder of this post is, “When should the step of removing someone from membership be taken?”

When to Conclude with Removal

There are three desired outcomes for the church discipline process document that prompted this series of blogs:

  1. Greater intentionality in the restoration process so that more church discipline cases would end in restoration.
  2. Greater involvement by the church body in restoration so that restorative discipline more naturally flows into the normal discipleship practices of the local church for ongoing care.
  3. Greater clarity and unity about when church discipline needs to end in removal to limit the disruptive influence of sin.

We are now discussing the third of these intended goals. The first thing to be clarified about the “when” question, is that it is not a function of time. There is no chart which can denote that abuse gets 3 months, adultery gets 6 months, and addiction gets 12 months. Instinctively we want to measure things like this in terms of time and when we are weary in a process that has stalled out, we are prone to ask, “It’s been 9 months; isn’t that long enough? We’re exhausted.”

In the absence of a well-developed plan, we tend to fall back on time as the key variable. This is also what prevents pastors and churches from concluding church discipline. When time is the key variable we also ask, “Shouldn’t we give them a few more weeks? After all, how patient has Jesus been with us?”

If not time, then what variable would provide a good indication that discipline needs to end in removal from membership? Effort. The purpose of developing a restoration plan is to be able to answer the question, “Is this person giving good-faith effort and cooperation with a biblically-faithful, friend-supported plan that points them to reliance on Christ for freedom from sin?”

Without a documented plan “effort” becomes a subjective term that can only be qualitatively assessed (i.e., “I think they’re trying more/less than I would in the same situation.”). With a documented plan, “effort” can be quantified as a function of cooperation (i.e., “In a moment of temptation you were to reach out to one of these three people,” or “If you received an email from your mistress you were to immediately forward it to [name] and not respond.”).

If the plan is inadequate, it can be amended. If the plan is unused, then no amount of amendment, prayer, Bible study, or accountability support is going to make a difference. In pivotal moments of change, different choices must be made. Church discipline is about making those moments clear and the “ways of escape” (I Cor. 10:13) clearer. Even in a passage that most appeals to support from fellow believers (Gal. 6:1-5), it concludes by emphasizing personal responsibility for our choices (v. 5).

When the individual under discipline demonstrates a prolonged unwillingness to cooperate with the restoration plan provided – revised when/as needed – this is when discipline concludes in removal from membership. This prolonged unwillingness may be demonstrated by:

  • No longer responding to communication from the elder or other members of the restoration team.
  • Blame-shifting and reassigning responsibility for their sinful, destructive choices on others after a recurrence of the sinful behavior.
  • Vilifying and assigning malicious motives to those who are trying to influence them towards a holy life; this can also be expressed by trying to pit members of the restoration team against one another (a.k.a., “triangulation”).
  • Overt expression that they no longer believe the restoration plan is needed (for reasons other than it being completed) or that they are no longer willing to participate in the process.

In these instances, the elders of the church should conclude discipline with a removal from membership as a warning that there are significant concerns about their salvation. This information should be communicated to the restoration team prior to communicating with the church at large, because of their heightened involvement with their friend and to ensure that those who have worked most closely with the member are in agreement about their friend’s non-cooperation with the restoration process.

While removal from membership is not the desired outcome of church discipline, the stewardship of Christ’s reputation in a community and of the church leaders’ time sometimes requires it. The purpose of the church discipline document/training provided in this series is to make the fruit of repentance clear to everyone near the person under discipline so that either (a) the individual will produce the holy life God desires for them or (b) their refusal to cooperate (give effort in well-defined, pivotal moments of change) will serve as a warning about the condition of their soul.