Why We Fail at Church Discipline

Most of us who have been in church leadership for some time understand the frustration of failed efforts in church discipline. Here’s how it goes. We learn that a member has left his wife. We reach out to him to see what the circumstances are. We are rebuffed. Then we send him a letter asking him to come to a Session meeting to explain himself. Does he show up? Not a chance. We send him a letter accusing him of being “contumacious.” Sadly, we never see him again. Wouldn't it have been much better to have been in a position to be aware of difficulties in his marriage early on?

This, dear friends, is another wonderful benefit of having a proactive shepherding ministry among your flock. Just a reminder that Matthew 18 instructs us what to do when someone sins against us. We are to: 1) speak to him personally (18:15); 2) take one or two along with us as witnesses (18:16); tell it to the church (18:17). In simple terms the objective is to bring the sinner the repentance. But did you notice what precedes these verses in Matthew 18?

It is the parable of the good shepherd and the lost sheep (18:12-14). Do you remember? The shepherd has 100 sheep. How many have to stray before he notices? Twenty? Ten? Five? No, just one. The good shepherd is in a position to notice when one sheep has strayed. Are you?

If we are truly getting to know our sheep through the regular proactive contact of an effective shepherding ministry we will be in a much better position to be aware of and to help them when problems begin rather than when it is too late. Hopefully, we will have such a relationship with that hypothetical couple earlier in this post to help them when problems begin rather than getting involved when it is too late.

Notice that I used the word “relationship.” Our likelihood of success in helping our people when they struggle dramatically increases when we have relational capital with them. The sheep know their shepherd and the shepherd knows his sheep. If they do not know and trust us where is our credibility? Why should they listen to us?

Sadly, as I did research for The Shepherd Leader the majority of people said that they were only contacted personally by their elders when “there was a problem,” or when the church needed money for something. Leaders who are proactive in caring for their people will be in a much better position to see success when sheep begin to stray. They will certainly be in a better position to notice. As John Murray reminded us:

How much of purity and peace would have been maintained in the church of Christ and will be maintained if elders are sensitive to the first steps of delinquency on the part of the people and bring the word of tender admonition and reproof to bear upon them before they reach the by-paths of open and censurable sin! A shepherd when he sees a sheep wandering does not wait until it reaches the well-nigh inaccessible precipices.

This will also increase the likelihood that we will share the joy of the good shepherd (Matthew 18:13) when the lost sheep is found!

—Tim Witmer - visit TheShepherdLeader.com for more shepherding resources.