Church discipline focus of new survey

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By Bob Smietana

NASHVILLE (BP) — More than 8 in 10 Protestant senior pastors say their church has not disciplined a member in the past year, says a new study released April 5 by LifeWay Research.

More than half say they don’t know of a case when someone has been disciplined, which can include being asked to leave the church for misconduct, according to the study conducted Aug. 30-Sept. 18.

“It’s one of the topics that churches rarely talk about,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

Church reprimands few and far between

Two Bible passages in particular deal with the question of church discipline and how to respond to misconduct by church members. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his followers to go to offenders in private and ask them to mend their ways. If that fails, the passage says to bring one or two witnesses and, if that fails, then bring the matter to the whole church for discipline. The hope is that wrongdoers would repent and be restored.

A similar passage in 1 Corinthians tells readers not to associate with someone who claims to be a Christian but “is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler.”

McConnell says in general, church discipline would apply when offenders refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing, persist in it, or are no longer qualified for leadership.

According to the phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors, 16 percent of pastors say their church has disciplined a member in the last year. That includes 3 percent in the last month, 5 percent in the last six months, and 8 percent in the last year.

More than half (55 percent) say no member has been disciplined during their time as pastor or before their tenure. Twenty-one percent say a member was disciplined three or more years ago. Five percent say there was a case of discipline in the last two years.

Pentecostal (29 percent), Holiness (23 percent), and Baptist pastors (19 percent) are most likely to say a church member was disciplined in the past year. Methodist (4 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (9 percent) pastors are less likely.

Overall, about half of evangelical pastors (49 percent) and two-thirds of mainline pastors (67 percent) say they don’t know of a case where someone was disciplined at their church.

Who’s to judge?

LifeWay Research also asked pastors about the process of discipline. Few churches say the responsibility for discipline lies solely with the pastor (8 percent), church elders (14 percent), trustees or board members (4 percent), or church deacons (1 percent).

Half (51 percent) say two or more groups must agree. Eighteen percent say there is no formal discipline process.

Pastors of churches of 100 or more attenders (17 percent) are more likely to say elders alone handle discipline than churches with 99 or fewer attenders (11 percent). African American pastors (21 percent) are more likely than white pastors (6 percent) to say the pastor alone is responsible for church discipline.

Mainline pastors (24 percent) are more likely than evangelical pastors (15 percent) to say their church has no formal discipline policy.

McConnell noted some churches may have informal discipline processes. And some church members may leave rather than going through church discipline.

Where there is formal discipline, a group of church leaders often must agree for formal discipline to take place. The process is rarely arbitrary.

“There’s some red tape involved for churches,” he said. “It is not easy to be kicked out of a church.”

For more information on this study, visit LifeWayResearch.com or view the complete survey report PDF.

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