The “In’s” and “Out’s” of Church Discipline

Derek Ouellette —  February 1, 2012

One of the elements I found disconcerting around the fiasco involving some leaders at Mars Hill and a guy named Andrew is how some people tended to react not so much against the abuse that resulted from that situation, but against the very idea of church discipline in and of itself.

As one blogger, for instance, insisted that we try and model church governance, not according to the biblical prescription, but after “the world of Alcoholics Anonymous — which I think provides one of the best models for anyone trying to understand what the church could and should be”, he said.

Why? He explains, because with AA “nobody can kick you out”.

Other blogs – if not the bloggers, certainly their readers – expressed similar sentiment. I think this goes back to the growing trend of resisting the very idea of an “in” and “out” when discussing the family of God.

I agree very much that we should resist the soapbox of thinking and declaring that we can know for sure who are in and who are out (though Jesus did say that outsiders will know who his disciples are by their love for each other, John 13:35).

But that doesn’t mean that there is not an “in” and an “out” of God’s family. Paul’s whole discussion of justification by faith is rooted in the very idea of an “in” and “out”; i.e. those who have faith in Christ are justified by Christ’s faithfulness are “in”. That’s what Galatians and Romans teach.

When we talk about “church” (or “Church”) we tend to think in terms of infrastructures like Protestant denominations, the Catholic Magisterium or the like. When the New Testament uses the word “church” (ekklesia), it means something slightly, but significantly, different. It is either referring to the general organic Body of Christ (i.e. all believers everywhere at all times regardless of what communion they fellowship with) or a local gathering of believers.

When Paul writes about putting a person who is engaged in unrelenting sin outside of the “church” (1 Cor 5), he means specifically outside of their fellowship. And two reasons are given for this:

1) So that the person may (i.e. hopefully) be saved (vs. 5).

2) So that the rest of the community does not water down their holy lives as well (vs. 6-8).

One element the church, I think, is neglecting today is an emphasis on holiness. This is probably a reaction to the subculture of the 90’s that insisted on “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Col 2:21) type legalism. In our desire to be accepting, loving and tolerating, we forget that God did not become man merely to make this world better, he came to make this world new. And, of course, God’s new is better, but better is not necessarily God’s new. We can create a better world where death and resurrection are not necessary. But Paul, in this very text, points specifically to “Christ, our Passover Lamb”.

Christ died and rose again in order to be the first fruits of the new creation that we too might participate in that new creation, even now (1 John 4:17). It is all about transformation (2 Cor 3:18). Transformation of person, character, and glory. It’s about reflecting God and being the Body of Christ.

The family of God is not some wishy-washy free for all. Rather it is expensive and radically sacrificial.

Dealing with unrepentant sin, removing it even, is sometimes necessary for the sake of the individual and – perhaps more importantly – for the Body of Christ as a whole. The family of God is not a place where the perfect can join. It is, however, the place where we are called to become perfect (Matt 5:48, 1 Peter 1:16).

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dan Martin

    Derek, you have a point here. I agree that to dispense with the notion of church discipline in its entirety is not biblical…however, I think the key that’s missed by not only Mars Hill, but most churches of which I’ve been a part, is WHO does the disciplining. In my view it should be the work of the collective body, not just the highly-insular and often-ingrown “leadership,” who in my observation frequently demand accountability of their flock but are not, themselves, accountable.

    Further, it has seemed to me that in this case, as well as others I’ve observed, the real sin (as defined by the authorities doing the disciplining) is insubordination…failure to submit without question to the dictates of the authority structure. As I interpret the Andrew case, Andrew was disfellowshipped, not for the actual sexual misconduct which he acknowledged and confessed, but rather for refusing to submit to a highly-punitive plan imposed upon him by the authorities (it seems without dialog).

    Any time a church leader, whether pastor, elder, or other model, says I should simply accept their authority without question or dissent, I know I’m in the wrong place. That’s the very sort of “lording it” over people that Jesus explicitly forbade throughout his ministry.

    • Derek Ouellette

      I cannot agree with you more. My own chastising in the past was primarily based on the ridiculous charge of “insubordination”. This actually goes back to the point I made above but didn’t develop too much, that the “church” in the first century (an organic participatory body) was understood differently than today (with our organizations and CEO structures).

  • Brian MacArevey


    I agree with you that a line must be drawn somewhere, but I find that the difficulty is often in determining where that line is to be drawn. How do we decide which unrepentant sins are worthy of removal from the fellowship? I would guess that we all have unrepentant sin in our lives, why should we deem the unrepentant sins of another more significant than our own?

    I ask these questions in all seriousness and I don’t have a locked in answer to them by any means…

    • Derek Ouellette

      I don’t have a locked in answer either. We all sin, and I believe we all will continue to fall short until we shed this body. But it goes back to that transformation thing. It’s about falling short, repenting and continuing on. In 1 Corinthians 5, Matthew 18 and 2 Thess. 3 one consistent pattern is that the persons sin is brought to the light and they still refuse to repent. If I were to write a post on this, I’d probably start to look for a line somewhere around there.