The dawn of a new day pulls you out of your much-needed sleep. Your mind immediately replays the various conversations and teaching associated with a jam-packed Sunday of ministry. Against your better judgment, but out of habit, you reach for your phone and click on the e-mail icon.
Your eyes quickly spot an e-mail from a trusted ministry leader in your church informing you a husband has left his wife despite repeated exhortations to entrust his troubled marriage to Jesus and allow their close friends to journey with them in love. Lord, not another marriage crisis! Your mind races through the possible scenarios, anticipating the energy needed to shepherd this couple standing at the brink of divorce.
Then you see another e-mail from another ministry leader expressing how her life is falling apart. She admits she's struggling to trust God and is questioning everything about Christianity.
Church leaders often grow weary dealing with constant waves of suffering and sin. The challenges of ministry are overwhelming, demanding, and relentless. You battle guilt and shame as you experience schedule overload, fear of not knowing how to deal with a certain situation, dislike of conflict, procrastination, and even "compassion fatigue." However, God makes it clear what he expects from those he places in leadership. He holds them accountable for their pastoral responsibilities (Ezek. 34; 1 Pet. 5:1-11; Heb. 13:17). By his grace, pastors can look to and follow Jesus, their Great Shepherd, as he empowers them by his Spirit to accomplish his purposes in and through his church.
Stepping Back to Step Forward
Given your overwhelming ministry load, and perhaps your understanding of church discipline, you may think: No way! I don't have time to fit another thing into my schedule, let alone think about church discipline. But here's the thing: you can't afford not to participate in God's discipline within his church.
Regularly we must step back, take a deep breath, and reflect on the ministry God has entrusted to us. It's all too easy to drift not only from God's mission but also from seeking and following his Spirit, instead defaulting to merely reactive and pragmatic ministry.
We should rejoice whenever we feel overwhelmed by the demands of ministry, for God uses such times of desperation and exhaustion to humble us, to make us more dependent on him, and to remind us that gospel ministry is all about him—not us or "our ministry." We're also reminded that God-glorifying ministry is impossible apart from relying on his means and his power. This is where church discipline enters the picture.
God's Mission and Church Discipline
As we look at church discipline, we're reminded God is continually bringing about redemption within his church while he advances his kingdom in the world. That's why it's so critical we see God's discipline as a primary means by which he's redeeming his bride and bringing glory to himself. The following definition may offer a sense of relief and direction as you try to navigate the chaos of ministry:
Church discipline is God's ongoing, redeeming work through his living Word and people as they fight the good fight of faith together to exalt Christ and protect the purity of his bride.
This definition highlights how God disciplines us through his church for the purposes of restoring relationships, removing wickedness, renewing his people, and revealing his glorious love. It helps us to view church discipline not from our perspective, but from God's. It also helps us to see God's discipline through his church as his ongoing work through his living Word and people. Inherent in the definition, too, is an understanding that church discipline involves a continuum that includes both expanding (involving an increasing number of people) and also escalating (involving elders and more formal warnings) efforts over time to fight for those who relentlessly refuse to turn back to their living God.
This definition also recognizes that God disciplines us in everyday gospel community as we struggle with not believing—perhaps as a result of our intense suffering or chronic sin—who he is or what he's done through Christ. This is where giving the church a vision of living out the gospel in community—while equipping them to continuously encourage one another toward enjoying, trusting, and obeying Jesus—will yield disciples and eternal fruit. In other words, church discipline isn't meant to be just another thing to add to the plate but rather, by God's design, life-giving for everyone involved.
A much-needed look at church discipline also reminds us that God's ways and thoughts aren't like ours. No measure of rebellion disrupts or blinds God's redemptive gaze upon his people; he will complete the redemption he began in each of his children. Moreover, God uses his church to pursue, call back, and even remove the unrepentant person not only to redeem him or her, but also to redeem his bride as a whole. God is in the business of transforming what we mean for evil and leveraging it for his glory. Such is the nature of his gospel mission. Such is the nature of church discipline.
Whether we're fighting for tottering marriages or hearts ensnared by unbelief, God's discipline is meant to have a ripple effect on the entire congregation. Such difficult yet rewarding ministry enables us to experience God's radical life of mission, to see more clearly the glory of Christ amid suffering and sin, and to love one another in ways that image the gospel. These are the up-close, personal, and messy means through which God is redeeming his bride.
Editors' note: This article has been adapted from Robert Cheong's new book God Redeeming His Bride: A Handbook for Church Discipline (Christian Focus, 2013).
Robert Cheong is the pastor responsible for Care and Counseling at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is married to Karen and they have three adult children.