Jay E. Adams: Handbook of Church Discipline – A Right and Privilege of Every Church Member

At church we’ve started a new men’s book study over Jay E. Adams’ Handbook of Church Discipline. The book was on my assigned reading list during my second year of ministerial training, so I have read it once and benefited greatly. Adams’ has three objectives for the book: 1) “to present a clear, concise biblical description of church discipline,” 2) “to provide a ready reference to which you may turn for help in situations requiring church discipline,” and 3) “to convince the dubious that church discipline is not only a biblical requirement (and therefore feasible) but also a right and a privilege of every member of the church of Christ, and therefore, a blessing that should not be withheld” (8).

I believe Adams wonderfully accomplishes his three-fold aim in this important book. Despite the books shelf life (originally published in the 1970s), I had not heard of it until I saw it listed on my syllabus for ministerial training. I find myself, however, wishing that I had been exposed to the book earlier in life. 

I was raised in a United Methodist Church in rural Indiana. Without reservation I believe that it was a wonderful local church, despite the hiccups. On the one hand, as a child I learned both at home and church how to trust in and obey Jesus Christ, but, on the other hand, at times things arose that were very troublesome. For example, when I was in eighth grade I attended my first “abstinence” men’s retreat, which was a retreat put on every other year by our church, which provided a platform for leaders in the church to provide instruction to young men on God’s design for sexual purity and marriage. The retreat had plenary sessions that all of the young men attended together, but they also had breakout groups divided up by age/maturity, that way they could accommodate and be sensitive to the differences between the maturity, experiences, and the differences in the type of questions asked by, for example, a sixth grader instead of a senior in high school. The retreats typically ran Friday through Saturday evening, and at the end of the retreat they had, for lack of a better phrase, an “altar call” for Sexual Abstinence, where each of the boys/young men were given the opportunity to sign an “abstinence card” which stated that they would wait until they were married to have sex. One of the Lay Elders (that is Methodist-speak for someone who is not a pastor but is formally part of the church rule and leadership) was our breakout group leader; each of the breakout group leaders were called “counselors” and they were the ones who oversaw and facilitated the card signing.

Fast-Forward two or three years: the Lay Elder who led/taught the breakout session I attended, the very same man who signed my “abstinence card” as a witness, the very same man who had been my “counselor” for the two day retreat . . . that man abandoned his wife and their children, and he abandoned them so he could shack up with a woman he met on the Internet. I was deeply troubled by this for several reasons, but what troubled me the most, even at such a tender age, was that formal church discipline was never adjudicated. And when I say none, I mean Zip, Zero, Nothing-at-All.

I even went to my parents and asked them why our pastors hadn’t handled the situation in accordance with the instructions provided in Matthew 18. I had attended a two week leadership and worldview camp hosted by David Noebel at Summit Ministries in Colorado, and it was while there that one of our instructors taught how the church had been invested with the power by Jesus Christ to bind and to loose, that is, to execute church discipline. I had never heard about church discipline at church; it was not taught and was not practiced. So, I asked my parents something to the effect of, “After confronting Mr. _____ about his sin, which he then refused to confess, why didn’t the Elders/Pastors bring this situation before the members of the church?” My parents tried to answer to the best of their abilities, but in the aftermath I just kept wondering to myself if the outcome would have been different if the Pastors/Elders of the church had brought the situation before the entire church, as they are clearly instructed to do so in Matthew 18.

Typically I am not much of a proponent for “what if” questions, but I believe in this case, in light of the circumstances, it is valid. To paraphrase Jay Adams, church discipline is a “right and a privilege” of members of a church—it is a blessing! But in the situation I have been describing, that right and privilege, that blessing, it was withheld by the pastors from the Lay Elder that had fallen in to sin when they failed to exercise church discipline. 

In the case of this Lay Elder, even though he was removed from church leadership it left a huge question mark over his head in the minds of a lot of people from the church. Since formal church discipline never occurred, many people at the church were absolutely clueless about his sin. Eventually the church was told Mr. _____ was no longer a Lay Elder, they knew, obviously, that he wasn’t attending church regularly, but all of this coincided with him taking a new job outside of the State so that wouldn’t have raised red flags for a person that wasn’t in the know. And so what you had in effect was this: sometimes he would attend church when he was in town and people who didn’t know any better would interact with him as if everything was fine and dandy. In this case, the Sheep were not being protected from a Wolf.

I now attend a church where the Elders do exercise church discipline, and it has been blessing to my family, as well as a means of protection. As a result of formal church discipline several Wolves have been scattered from our church. I am thankful for the right and privilege of church discipline, first, because I know that it is one of the means by which God oftentimes calls men to repent and turn away from their sins (and no Christian is so holy that he does not have to worry about falling in to sin and needing the mutual support and love of others to encourage and implore them to repentance), and, second, speaking as a husband and father, I am thankful for church discipline because it provides much comfort to know that my wife and our children are being protected from Wolves. Not only does Christ protect us by sending us the Holy Spirit, in order that we might have discernment and be made wise according to the fear of God and knowledge of the Scriptures, but he has also provided Under-Shepherds, the Elders/Pastors, who are ambassadors to us that care for and protect us through teaching, rebuke, and admonishment. Church discipline is a blessing, and that is why I wish I, as well as others, had been introduced to Adams’ “clear, concise biblical description of church discipline” at a much earlier point in my life.

This is the rub. Church discipline not only protects the Sheep from the Wolves, but it honors and glorifies God. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for Christians to attend churches that practice church discipline. Like Adams says, it is a biblical requirement, it is feasible. I would encourage anyone that is a member of a church that does not practice church discipline to talk to the church officers (pastors, elders, etc.) about the biblical requirement, and if you discover that they are not reasonable men, that they do not care to honor and glorify God, that they do not care to gather the sheep and scatter the wolves, then I would recommend that you look for a new church to attend, one which practices church discipline. If you do transition, there must be a dialogue with your current church officers and the officers of the church you intend to transfer your membership to, and in everything you must conduct yourself with gentleness, respect, and the peace of Christ.