Joel Sarli was Associate Secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association and the second editor of Elder’s Digest when this article was written.

S ince the birth of the church at Pentecost, there has existed a constant struggle with exercising the doctrine of discipline as it is revealed in the Bible. Historically, the church has experienced this frustration and set forth fresh statements of the need for discipline and the spiritual vigor it brings to the body of Christ. When the doctrine has been practiced biblically, it has produced valuable results.

The disciplinary boundaries that once protected the body of Christ from the contamination of sin are suffering visible erosion in the church today. Corrective discipline as a divinely-revealed instrument dedicated to the redemption of the believer and the restoration of these protective boundaries seems to be a forgotten doctrine.

Ellen G. White advises the church concerning this matter.

"If wrongs are apparent among His people, and if the servants of Cod pass on indifferent to them, they virtually sustain and justify the sinner, and are alike guilty and will just as surely receive the displeasure of Cod; for they will be made responsible for the sins of the guilty. In vision I have been pointed to many instances where the displeasure of Cod has been incurred by neglect on the part of His servants to deal with the wrongs and sins existing among them." Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 253, 254.

If the problem is as important as it is presented by the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy for the very existence of the church of Christ, why has such little interest in the subject been shown in modern times?

As a tentative answer to this question I would like to suggest six reasons that may help us understand the causes for that neglect and at the same time to substantiate a need for the revitalization of the discipline process.

Laissez-faire attitude

Firstly, the pronounced laissez-faire attitude of our society to morals in recent decades has contributed to the neglect of discipline.

The relativistic "do your own thing" morality has made a deep impact on our ability to make moral judgments. Some of the sins which automatically led to ecclesiastical censure and possible disfellowshiping in the past (i.e. divorce, fornication, the use of alcoholic beverage) are now being regarded by the church as justifiable or at least understandable within their particular context. Interestingly, in the midst of the great need for spiritual stability, there are those critics who request that the church remain non-intrusive and non-judgmental.

This laissez-faire attitude has developed a brash individualism in the Christian community. The move away from community accountability toward religious individualism is a distressing development which destroys efforts to exercise disciplinary action.

The church needs to maintain its position and refuse to become a cooped church whose patterns of thought are shaped by culture rather than by biblical perspectives.

Anti-establishment Mood

Secondly, the anti-establishment mood of the last forty years has eroded the authority of the church and further aided the decline of church discipline. In contrast to previous generations in which disciplinary actions by the church created a certain amount of spiritual trepidation, such measures have become, in some circles, a comical matter.

So the question arises: What purpose does it serve to set out discipline when there is respect neither for the officers of the church nor for the church itself? The absence of discipline has taken from the church a platform on which authority could be displayed. After forty years of struggle in the anti-establishment debate, today the church seldom exerts authority in any area of religious life; therefore, authority is not respected.

Differing attitudes toward discipline

Thirdly, the process is retarded by the differing attitudes toward discipline among the many congregations. Some congregations have in essence no discipline, and accept virtually anyone who indicates a desire to join; others are very lax in the application of whatever rules they may still embrace. Consequently, anyone who is censured in one church can immediately withdraw from it and without difficulty affiliate with another. This substantially reduces the effectiveness of the censure.

One pastor, frustrated with this situation, puts it this way. "How can we, as a small congregation of Adventist Christians, decide that someone should be disciplined without at least consulting with other congregations as to the wisdom and validity of our proposed act? May we declare that someone is excluded from the Adventist community when it is likely that other congregations will disagree with our decision ?"

Confusion concerning the responsibility and authority

Fourthly, there is much confusion concerning the responsibility and authority of the church today. To belong to the Lord is to belong to His church (1 Cor. 12:13) and to submit to the discipline of His people (Matt.18:15-18; Gal. 6:1-2). Many Christians have a poor understanding of the local church and its authority in their lives. In a fashion, Christians tend to go along with the "anti-organization " attitudes of the world and move away from the authority umbrella of the local church. The loss of the stress on church membership in many congregations supports this contention. Christians do not see the importance of spiritual accountability in their lives.

Ben Patterson in his article "Discipline: The Backbone of the Church" in Leadership magazine issued in the winter of 1983, forcefully warned about the delusions of private religion when he records that "the man who seeks Cod in isolation from his fellows is likely to find, not Cod, but the Devil, who will bear an embarrassing resemblance to himself."

The problem of revenue loss

Fifthly, discipline is often retarded by the pragmatic problem of revenue loss.

Tragically, the church leadership may fear starting a cleansing action that might bring dissatisfaction and revolt in the lives of their congregation. Dissatisfaction can motivate the pocketbook of the parishioners and, therefore, treasuries of the churches.

The risk of litigation

Sixthly, further complicating the problem is the truth that those who infrequently practice this doctrine are not infrequently subjected to litigation.

Because of these barriers today, it is an exception that in some places the church attempts to uphold and practice the New Testament teachings on corrective discipline.

To further complicate the problem, the need for discipline in the spiritually impoverished church today has gone beyond the local fellowship and made a resounding impact on the rest of society, including the Christian families.

Christ's loving care over the church is evidenced in His disciplinary action. Revelation 3:19 portrays Him as the righteous Judge in the midst of His Church dealing actively with sin. Likewise the Church, His bride, surely has the responsibility to deal with the unrepentant sinner in the congregation. Since the church has experienced a loss of authority and influence in the lives of its members as well as in society, this is a pressing need that demands the contemporary church to reassess the practice of church discipline from both the biblical and historical perspective. The search for the marks of a disciplined church and the proper context for discipline are much-needed endeavors for us as representatives of God's ideal in the world.

Joel Sarli is Associate Secretary of the Ministerial Association at the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists.

Joel Sarli was Associate Secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association and the second editor of Elder’s Digest when this article was written.