The following is a based on a portion of Pastor Carl Robbins’ lecture “15 Lessons on Church Discipline,” and can be found in that video, beginning at the 16:02 timestamp.
If you are committed to the Bible’s model for church discipline, then you better be prepared to answer objections because you will most certainly hear them. Here are the seven that we have most frequently heard from church officers and members. Yes, we have heard every one of these objections right here.
1. “Discipline doesn’t work.” Let me define what people actually mean by this, because I always tell them that in fact, discipline works perfectly. But when people say, “discipline doesn’t work,” they mean “I’ve never seen someone repent.” It is undeniably true that in many cases, the disciplined person does not repent. But I would argue that despite the tragically frequent result of persisting unrepentance, discipline always works, and it has worked even in these cases. This result proves that the person was never regenerate. This result shows the hardness of the unrepentant sinner’s heart. It demonstrates that he is fundamentally unrepentant. However, it is crucially important to note that we have had several people who underwent church discipline, repented, and were restored. We have had people who were excommunicated, but who repented, returned, and were received back into the congregation, sometimes years later.
2. “My church is too large to enact church discipline.” What does that mean? These are people saying, “there are so many people in our congregation, we cannot know what is happening in their lives,” or “we are not set up for shepherding or discipline by our elders.” So, these are people who say that there is a size of church that renders discipline impossible. I do not think that such is the case. The church at Jerusalem was huge in the book of Acts, with several thousand members. In fact, I think that it would have been the largest church in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). No one can deny that the leaders of this Church practiced discipline. They certainly did.
3. “Discipline is not enacted equitably.” This is a serious objection. You must carefully listen to and consider this objection. You cannot refuse to pursue discipline with a particular person on the basis of partiality. You cannot excuse someone because he is young or old, rich or poor, from a certain ethnic background, or related to an officer in your church. If your elders or you have been respecters of persons when it comes to church discipline, then the session needs to do some serious soul-searching and repentance.
4. “We don’t need to do discipline. We’re all family here.” Well, do families not discipline their wayward children? Such discipline by a father in a family setting is exactly what Hebrews 12:4-11 describes as an illustration of church discipline.
5. “God, will take care of purifying His church, and He doesn’t need human help.” This is a theologically sophisticated objection, so you have to be very careful in responding to it. It is the Hyper-Calvinist objection. In essence, this objection is a denial of God’s ordaining of means. We firmly believe in the use of means; we are not Hyper-Calvinists. I hope you are quick to correct people when they make this argument in other areas of church life. For example, how would you respond to this objection if it was levied against evangelism efforts? We would not let the objection stand for a moment if somebody said, “we don’t do evangelism. If God wants to save somebody, He will save them when and how He wants.” This is what the great missionary William Carey (1761-1834) was told in the 1790s. He was told at a ministers’ meeting, “young man, sit down. If God wants to convert the heathen, He will do it without you or me.” So Carey went home and wrote the now-classic document, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens” (text available online here). He presented it the next month to a missionary meeting of 14 people in 1792. William Carey was right! We believe that God will save people, but He will do it through the means He has appointed, namely, the means of our evangelism. We rightly apply the same principle to prayer. Why pray? Dr. Doug Kelly has published an excellent book responding to this question (available for purchase here). Dr. Kelly puts to rest the objection and shows how God has ordained to use you and your prayers in His purposes. Churches who know and believe this will have vibrant and vital prayer meetings. The principle carries over into the proper exercise of church discipline. Can God purify His church without me? Sure. Of course He can. The demise of Ananias and Sapphira clearly demonstrates the supernatural power of God for the purification of His church. The people to whom Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 11 who unworthily partook of the Lord’s Supper likewise proves God’s ability to intervene directly in the lives of His people for their correction. Nevertheless, the ordinary means of promoting the maturity of erring believers is the obedient and patient practice of church discipline by the elders of the church. God is pleased to work through His appointed means.
6. “Church discipline is harsh and mean.” On the contrary, church discipline is taught by Jesus who is gentle beyond compare. The Apostle Paul clearly taught church discipline and practiced it. When you say that biblical church discipline is harsh and mean, what you are really saying is that you are more gracious than Christ and Paul.
7. “Christians aren’t supposed to judge.” This is the objection that you are most likely to hear in today’s culture. If unbelievers know any one text of Scripture, it is Matthew 7:1, “Judge not.” This is arguably the most quoted verse by our postmodern friends. But they conveniently ignore the fact that Jesus commands all kinds of judging. For example, civil magistrates are supposed to judge according to Romans 13. Lawfully ordained elders of the church are supposed to judge, for Christ has entrusted to them the power of the keys of the Kingdom according to Matthew 16. Believers are to judge false prophets in Matthew 7, in the same sermon as Christ’s oft-abused “Judge not” statement. Jesus commands righteous judgement in John 7, and Jesus practices judgment in Luke 20.
There are more objections that we could handle, but these seven are by far the most frequent we have encountered in the ministry. Be encouraged that the Lord indeed has appointed means that He will not permit to fail. No matter the opposition you encounter as a pastor, elder, or faithful follower of Christ, He has promised to help, comfort, and bless you in your labors. Remember that Christ’s encouragement in Matthew 18:20 is set in the context of His teaching on church discipline, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”