Accountability vs. Discipline

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Church Discipline is not something that the unchurched understand. This may be partially because they perceive church like a social club or a charity organization and the aspect of discipline of members seems very cultish. They may also not understand the relationship of accountability that is formed between disciple and discipler. I had no idea about church discipline before I was a member of a church and watched one of my fellow members undergo such a proceding.

Perhaps the most widely known form of church discipline comes in the form of ex-communication as implemented by the Roman Catholic Church. While the unchurched may perceive this as “being thrown out of the club”, a Catholic perceives that they are denied communion with God. It is not that they lose their standing among the church, but that they lose their relational standing with God. They cannot partake of the sacraments.

Other churches implement similar forms of discipline, most stemming from Jesus instructions (Matthew 18:15-17) and from the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 5:11-13) :

  • Confront them individually, then in the presence of wittnesses, then in front of the whole assembly (church)
  • If they refuse to “hear” or “listen” or “respond” then:
    • treat them as you would an unbeliever
    • remove them from fellowship

Of course, this is only to happen after bringing the issue to their attention, giving them a chance to repent or admit that their actions, words, attitudes or opinions were incorrect (sinful). And of course the decision is made with unity by the church community as a whole.

The notion of discipline is not like being convicted of a crime where the discipline is the punishment – nor is it three strikes and you are out. It is about accountability and understanding. It is about being part of a community, and being accountable to that community. It is about breaking a vow of accountability.

I am not sure that churches that admit members at a young age really communicate the force of that accountability in their membership process. In many churches when you become a member, you are required to submit to the authority of the church leadership, to be accountable to them in matters of behavior and of doctrine. It is over this accountability that discipline occurrs. When a member is no longer willing to submit to the authority of the leadership, he has declared that he is no longer accountable to them – of what benefit then is membership to him?

In a way, it is like a company, who has an employee who has decided that he will no longer be accountable to his manager, in fact, he goes to work and does whatever he wants. Should he expect to retain the benefits of employment? No, probably not.

So how do we prevent this from happening? How do we prevent a member of our congregation, our local assembly from becoming estranged, and disconnected, and unaccountable? Many churches leave this up to the individual. Some churches have created specific accountability relationships for people who are tempted, or who have stumbled. But they are voluntary, as an aid to the individual in resisting temptation. How do we have an overall understanding and implementation of accountability in a way that allows members to assess themselves, and each other in a mutual accountability?

How can a church explain to its members what that accountability is for, and help them to “make themselves accountable” – rather than being “held accountable” in the form of discipline. What is the benefit to the member of being accountable? Is it not that we have an external, trusted, objective advisor, who has our eternal best interest at heart? Is not the body we are accountable to, informed and prompted by the Holy Spirit? Are we not intended to be accountable to one another, so that we can help each other when we stumble, and so that we can encourage each other along the straight and narrow road.

Discipline is for those who have already decided not to be accountable. It is the formality of the last step in allowing the natural consequences of their behavior. It is not about us (the church) being better than them. It is not done with judgement, or condemnation – it is done with the hope of future restoration and reconciliation. It should be accompanied by prayer for those eventualities, and a petition that God’s will be done in that life and our own.

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