We believe that the practice of discipline in the church is a sign of God’s offer of forgiveness and transforming grace to believers who are moving away from faithful discipleship or who have been overtaken by sin. Discipline is intended to liberate erring brothers and sisters from sin, to enable them to return to a right relationship with God, and to restore them to fellowship in the church. It also gives integrity to the church’s witness and contributes to the credibility of the gospel message in the world.
According to the teaching of Jesus Christ and the apostles, all believers participate in the church’s mutual care and discipline as appropriate. Jesus gave the church authority to discern right and wrong and to forgive sins when there is repentance or to retain sins when there is no repentance.1 When becoming members of the church, believers therefore commit themselves to give and receive counsel within the faith community on important matters of doctrine and conduct.
Mutual encouragement, pastoral care, and discipline should normally lead to confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Corrective discipline in the church should be exercised in a redemptive manner. The basic pattern begins with “speaking the truth in love,” in direct conversation between the erring person and another member.2 Depending on the person’s response, admonition may continue within a broader circle. This usually includes a pastor or congregational leader. If necessary, the matter may finally be brought to the congregation. A brother or sister who repents is to be forgiven and encouraged in making the needed change.
If the erring member persists in sin without repentance and rejects even the admonition of the congregation, membership may be suspended. Suspension of membership is the recognition that persons have separated themselves from the body of Christ.3 When this occurs, the church continues to pray for them and seeks to restore them to its fellowship.4
We acknowledge that discipline, rightly understood and practiced, undergirds the integrity of the church’s witness in word and deed. Persistent and uncorrected false teaching and sinful conduct among Christians undermine the proclamation and credibility of the gospel in the world.5 As a sign of forgiveness and transforming grace, discipline exemplifies the message of forgiveness and new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As a means of strengthening good teaching and sustaining moral conduct, it helps to build faithfulness in understanding and practice.
Matt. 18:15-22; John 20:21-23; Gal. 6:1-2; Deut. 19:15.
Eph. 4:15; Matt. 18:15.
1 Cor. 5:3-5.
2 Cor. 2:5-11.
Matt. 5:14-18; Rom. 2:21ff.
- Anabaptists and Mennonites in sixteenth-century Europe saw discipline as vital for pastoral care and for the well-being of the church. Indeed, they considered discipline to be as important for church renewal as believers baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper.Mennonites have traditionally emphasized church discipline. Discipline has sometimes been neglected in many Mennonite congregations, in part because of some misuses, in part because of cultural and social influences.Both the misuse and the neglect of discipline undermine the church’s life and witness. Both misuse and neglect work against the important correcting, renewing, and redemptive purposes of church discipline in pastoral care, nurture, and congregational life.
- In some church traditions, responsibility for church discipline has been limited to particular ministerial offices, such as pastor or bishop. From a Mennonite perspective, discipline is related, first of all, to the mutual care of members for one another. According to the rule of Christ (Matt. 18:15-18), all believers are to offer mutual encouragement, correction, and forgiveness to each other. For that reason, it is good to include a promise to give and receive counsel when persons are received into church membership.Pastors and other church leaders have a special responsibility to give guidance and to carry out discipline in the life of the church (Acts 20:28-31; Tit. 1:5-11; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Heb. 13:17). They are to exercise their responsibility lovingly, in gentleness of spirit, and without partiality.
- Pastors and other church leaders who move away from faithful discipleship or are overtaken by sin are not exempt from discipline in the church. Because of their representative ministries, their teaching and conduct can greatly help or hurt members of the church and the church’s witness in the world. They are therefore accountable to the congregation which they serve and to the broader church.Pastors, teachers, and other church leaders may sometimes be victims of gossip and unjust accusations. Allegations against them should be tested carefully (1 Tim. 5:19). Not only do the failures of ministerial leaders damage the church’s life and witness; unfounded accusations against them also do injury to them and the church.
- The New Testament gives several reasons for suspending fellowship or for excommunication: denying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, persisting in sinful conduct without repentance, and causing divisions in the church by opposing apostolic teaching (for example, 1 John 4:1-6; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; Rom. 16:17-18).
- For more discussion related to church discipline, see also “Discipleship and the Christian Life” (Article 17) and “Christian Spirituality” (Article 18).