Church Discipline Done Well

In the last couple days, the following blog post about on occasion of church discipline at Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church has gotten a lot of attention.

Mark Driscoll’s Church Discipline Contract

I think a great deal could be said about whether the author has given Driscoll’s church a fair assessment or not. One of my friends mentioned that the author sounds downright gleeful that he has finally caught Driscoll in something so obviously wrong. I’m going to give Mars Hill the benefit of the doubt here and do my best to assume that the author was not generous. I actually hope that the author has exaggerated the case for the sake of this person whom the article is about.

I definitely think that the church made a giant mistake here. The problem is that it is very difficult to explain the ways in which they did it wrong by speaking strictly of the facts. And yet I think I can still say that they got it wrong even from a distance and only having the story from the one who was offended.

I’ll come back to this.

I think the problem is that church discipline is a practice. And, like so many other traditional church practices, it has so fallen into disuse that even when it is picked up again it is usually misused.

I shared this analogy with some students recently. Think about the practices of certain sports. For example, consider the precision required to hit a baseball. Something as small as 1/2 inch different placement of the bat is the difference between a pop-up foul ball and solid contact.  The difference between a ball that simply enters the field of play and one that is well hit (a home run?) is such a small fraction of an inch that I’m certain that I couldn’t explain it. Very minuscule differences exists between baseball swings in which the balls land in very different places. Now a very experienced hitter or coach is able to help a hitter refine what they are doing so that they do in fact make changes of  just fractions of an inch to improve their contact.

Now imagine for a moment what would happen to a baseball player who was trying to hit without help from someone with experience. Maybe you had such an experience the first time that you picked up a baseball bat, tennis racquet, or golf club. The resulting hit was likely no where near where you wanted it to land and you had no idea even what you had done wrong. In fact, if you have truly had no exposure to a golfer who drives a ball several hundred yards down a fairway then you likely will not even know that your rolling the ball 100 feet is not a great accomplishment.

This is the problem with church discipline. The practice has so fallen out of use that we struggle to even recognize when it has been done rightly.

I’ve not been a part of a church when they disciplined someone well, so I can’t give too much advice. But I can confidently name what the proper aims of this practice should be: reconciliation with God and the church.

Now part of the problem with naming this church’s mistake is that at least in word they understand this is the goal, as evidenced by the consistent references to a person returning in repentance.

The best I can do to explain their error is this: if the pattern that you have established provides many ways that you can find your way out of the church and only one way that you can find your way back into good standing, then something has gone awry. And if the pattern that you have established has a big and wide path towards repentance and reconciliation, only continuing in sin and rebellion should be the path to find your way out.

The church further highlighted their malformed practice when they continued to try to control this person, and even more importantly others in the community, after he had left the church. I actually think that a letter telling the church (vaguely) what had happened would be appropriate, as well as explaining the rationale of the leadership.  But to suggest that members of the church would be setting themselves in opposition to their pastoral leadership if they do not respond “as if he were an unbeliever” is a mistake.

How do we treat unbelievers anyway? Do we refuse to eat meals with them unless they will listen to us talk about repentance?  Of course we don’t. Neither should treating a disciplined church member as an unbeliever result in this treatment. Rather, we would refuse to let unbelievers into leadership in the community and may refuse them full membership.  But they must always be welcomed to worship with you and gather with you.

A friend encouraged me that we can’t critique what they did to try to discipline without offering a positive alternative. I would suggest something like this.

The church did the right thing by creating the series of “meetings” that this person went through. Having ongoing conversations and accountability that help a person put safeguards against further moral failure is important.

Some time away from church leadership responsibility is also important. My denomination would require one year away from church leadership for a minister that made similar moral failure. This man was not an ordained minister, but this might be an appropriate discipline in this case.

You cannot discipline this man without similarly disciplining the woman involved. This is an example of the ridiculous sexism present in Driscoll’s church and movement. Women too have the ability to maintain and “lead” a relationship toward holiness.

This man DID in fact repent. Assuming that the sexual sin did not continue after the initial conversations, this issue should never have gone any further. Matthew 18 only applies to those who do not listen to the admonishment. I suppose that Mars Hill could argue that “listening” would mean following their prescriptions. I would suggest that “listening” would mean responding with a heart of repentance.

I don’t think discipline should require more commitment than other members require to be regarded as faithful. Being under discipline may require more accountability. But it should not require any more involvement than is required for membership of others.

Where are my long lists of Bible verses for the above suggestions?  I don’t have any. Like the baseball coach I can only offer what I have and that is a little experience and knowledge. What we really need is a healthy community which disciplines under the leadership of the Holy Spirit in ways that are life-giving and directed toward repentance. That kind of community could “coach” us.

I don’t think Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill is that kind of community.


  1. says

    Jeremiah, great post. I completely agree. Too many times church discipline is done wrong. Love is the main goal of everything we do, especially in providing discipline to a believer. We are to treat unbelievers as though trying to win them to repentnce and Christ. I was not familiar with the Mark Driscoll issue until I read your post. In anything we do, if love is not the main motive, then we should check it at the door. Thanks again!

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