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Church Discipline in the Digital Age

June 10th, 2024 | 11 min read

By Seth Troutt

Every body gets sick. Most bodies heal themselves naturally most of the time; the white blood cells and kidneys kill and filter a tremendous amount of invasive pathogens. When this system is insufficient, interventions are necessary assistants that enable the body to heal itself.

When someone tears their ACL a more robust process is required. There is a period of immobilization, preemptive physical therapy, surgery, more immobilization, perhaps a second surgery, and then copious amounts of excruciating physical therapy. Considerations for pain management, inflammation, and redistribution of responsibilities are all in order; when a mother of three young children tears her ACL vs when a 16 year old boy tears his ACL, the support structures needed are different.

Church discipline happens in and to a body. Ordinarily, it’s organic and self-reparative, but sometimes robust interventive processes need to be architected to support the body’s ability to repair itself. Sometimes the pain of healing and facilitating the healing exceeds the pain of the injury. For this reason, many understand it to be the hardest part of church leadership. This is why Paul had to write the 1 Corinthians letter—the church in Corinth wasn’t doing the work required to promote the holiness of the church–perhaps the leaders were pain-avoidant.

This resistance to intervention came from somewhere. In medicine, the field of iatrogenics examines and weighs the unintended consequences of interventions. When you tear your ACL and go to the hospital, while there, you might contract COVID-19 or develop a hospital-acquired infection during surgery. There is risk of the surgeon cutting into the wrong flesh or blood clots developing during immobilization. The doctors of the church, the local elders, must be sober to iatrogenic risks when treating sickness in the body.

Iatrogenics are especially concerned with the other variables that will contribute to the outcomes of an intervention; does the patient have diabetes? What are the long-term consequences of this pharmaceutical technology? How does surgery X undermine the outcomes of their prior surgery Y? Changing contexts and broad health outcomes are considered over-and-against narrow benefits.

When we consider the church as a body, the genre of iatrogenics helps make us wise as we consider pastoral interventions. What is on the line if we do or don’t intervene? What preexisting conditions, both in leadership and in the church, that we need to be mindful of as we proceed? What action, based on our limited perspective, will promote the most health in the body?

For life in the church, things aren’t much different today than they were in the days that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians: the unbelieving world looks on and into the church and sees a group of hypocrites in part because we so often fail to discipline the church and in part because, when we do, we are prone to butchering people. If we want to be faithful to our mission as Christ followers, church discipline is simply not optional.

The reformed tradition has long understood the two marks of the true church as being the proper preaching of the word and the proper administration of the sacraments. Underneath the second category (or sometimes understood as the third mark on its own)  would belong the practice of church discipline that culminates in excommunication—literally excommunioning someone, barring them from the Lord’s Table due to high-handed unrepentance.

As crass as it may sound, one of my prayers and dreams for my church as we started to get problematically big was that “we would be a mega church that actually and properly practices church discipline.” This would require real shepherding, presence, and courage at scale.

At that time, about five years ago, I didn’t understand how the evolving digital landscape, especially post-COVID and the accompanying remote-work revolution, would alter the sociological landscape to such a degree that it would radically implicate the practice of church discipline.

In 2015, Carl Trueman argued that the most important date in church history was 1909—when Henry Ford designed the Model-T:

I think the invention of the motor car is probably the most significant event in church history, because it utterly transforms how the church operates. You can have your reformations, you can have your medieval church piety, but once people can jump in a car and drive outside of their community to a church elsewhere, everything changes. Church discipline is almost impossible in the era of the automobile because we live anonymous lives, and we have the ability to run away when our church comes after us.

Thinking along similar lines, I’d like to argue that the true and greater shift of 1909 happened in 2008—the year the iPhone 3G hit the market. The way we understand place, presence, participation, and preaching has been and is being transformed by digitization.

The automobile revolution meant that, when facing discipline, I can just go somewhere else; but the digital revolution made it such that that we don’t really know what it means to be somewhere or go somewhere at all; I’m everywhere and I’m nowhere all the time.

When podcasts replace preaching, influencers replace elders, YouTube Shorts replace announcements, and 5G replaces the Real Presence mediated at the Lord’s Table, how can we expect church discipline to matter? But even if it does matter, how do we expect it to work?

First of all: who cares?

For church discipline to work in the digital age, we need to recover a sacramental vision.

If you told me I was banned from eating salads from Salad and Go, nothing about my life would change because I don’t go to Salad and Go, and even if I did end up at Salad and Go by accident, I would order a breakfast burrito and not a salad.

For many Christians in the digital era, church (the creedally formative space) is a podcast or a YouTube video and the sacraments (means of grace) are pixels and AirPods. Even if someone shows up to church, the substance is the sermon, perhaps some of the singing, but the sacraments are an accident (“because I am already here, I’ll have the snack”). The “real thing” is content, not presence.

This digitized, gnostic water we swim in reduces participation in the One Holy Universal Church to ingestion of information rather than ingestion of Body and Blood. The gathering of the saints is merely attending a live podcast recording.

Barring someone from the Lord’s Table in this epistemological environment is like telling the Liver King he’s barred from Salad and Go. Who cares?

Barring someone from the Lord’s Table? Binding on Earth such that things will be bound in Heaven? What’s that? You mean, I need to get my weekend spiritual content dump somewhere else? I can’t listen to your podcast anymore? Are you psycho?

Second of all: how dare you?

The Big Bad “They” exists in most institutions. The nameless, faceless “they.” The heartless, cold “they.” The will-do-the-wrong-but-convenient-thing-to-keep-up-appearances “they.” Big Pharma. Big Tech. The Deep State. The Mainstream Media. Your church’s Elder team.

In a cultural moment where institutional trust is incredibly low, how can churches hope to rightly exercise authority? In the mind of many, church discipline is simply a synonym for spiritual abuse. Dozens and dozens of stories are recorded and posted online about the failures of church leadership. Why is your church any different? There is a trust deficit that exists even in the hearts of faithful congregants.

It is simply not enough to presume on the trust of congregants; we must demonstrate that we are worthy of it. Part of how pastors disciple their people is by teaching them to trust their leaders not by merely exhorting them to trust but by healing their trust wounds by being trustworthy.

This authority problem is compounded by the atomization of the person that digital technology is exacerbating. Church discipline simply feels ridiculous to the digitally-shaped self. It feels like banning someone from listening to your podcast, blocking them from your live stream, or not letting someone stream your album on Spotify.

This technological self is self-determinative; what I want to be, I can make myself to be. Even for those who have not bought into the Leftist vision of actualized “I think therefore I am” as far as sexuality goes, we still are subconsciously buying into it when we treat the church and her products as commodities to be consumed; we join churches that are “on brand” for who we think of ourselves to be.

So, church discipline feels like Nike saying, “you can’t buy our products anymore.” The libertarian consumer in all of us rages against being controlled by the market rather than being an agent in the market of religious goods and services.

If proper teaching on the Lord’s Table is the first task needed to recover the practice of discipline in the digital age, then the second task is recovering the thick community that sets and gathers around the table itself.

Organic Precedes Organized

Once the sacraments and the fellowship are recovered, then a discussion about the process of discipline itself can be had. Sometimes we assume that “church discipline” only describes the final step of church discipline—that is like believing that taking the final exam is the equivalent of taking a class. If discipleship happens in a church then church discipline happens all of the time.

The white blood cells need to be operational for surgery to have a chance. Surgery without properly functioning white blood cells leads to death by hospital-acquired infection.

Discipline and discipleship go hand-in-hand—this is about educating students in the broadest sense. Sermons are church discipline. Telling your friend he was harsh with his kids is church discipline. Asking someone in your small group about how they are praying through their financial stress is church discipline. This is why some have preferred the term “Christian discipline” to “church discipline” for the purpose of emphasizing the importance of the whole process, not just the culmination of the process.

Matthew 18:15ff describes church discipline as a purposefully escalating process. If the priesthood of believers isn’t equipped and empowered to have basic conversations about sin, repentance, and grace, then, even if elders are courageously disfellowshipping people, the church isn’t faithfully practicing discipline.

This gets to a core misconception: escalation in the church discipline process is not about the severity of the sin, but about the hardness of the heart. We don’t bar people from the Lord’s Table for sinning, otherwise nobody would ever partake; we bar people from the Lord’s Table for unrepentantly sinning, for refusing to engage in the work of restoration, and walking in a way that actively resists the shepherding of God’s church.

As sin is confronted and addressed in the preaching, counseling, and community life of a church, high-handedness (Numbers 15:30) will bubble up to the surface.

Even when this is the case, rarely are these matters urgent, though they are incredibly important. At each phase of escalation, you want to exhaust all of your possible options unless there is someone who is in physical danger.

View, Voice, Vote

For church discipline to work in the digital age, we need a process and a plan. A plan for discipline begins by answering the “who” question. As you gain clarity around who is involved at what level, the how of the discipline process begins to develop naturally.

What is your plan for when terrible, nearly unspeakable things happen in your church? Or, what’s your plan when low-grade-but-still-disqualifying sin is committed by a volunteer leader or staff member?

Like cancer, war, and a leak in your roof, we like to believe that bad things happen to other people and not to us. It's tempting to believe that headline-worthy scandals and jaw-dropping sinfulness happen at other churches, not at ours. This is foolishness.

Here are some core categories for questions to ask as you build out your plan:

Who gets a vote?

Who gets a voice?

Who gets a view?

The vote question is usually clear, given churches tend to at least have a polity for good or for bad, usually a mix of both.

The voice question is often less clear and is rapidly changing given our litigious and digital society. Who gets to speak into the process? Who are the consultants? Especially in marital or sexual situations, it's vital that the perspective of women involved with or affected by the situation is taken seriously and given adequate voice. Have we spoken to the spouse or the children of the accused? Have we done so in a way that promotes their safety, agency, and well-being?

Another dynamic in the voice category is legal counsel. Churches across the country have been losing defamation cases, not because churches have exercised church discipline, but because of how they’ve gone about it. Overcommunicating the details of how someone has violated the covenant is a great way to open yourself up to a lawsuit.

A significant factor at the voice level is law enforcement. If the disciplinary issue at hand is criminal or potentially criminal, the police should be involved. Churches are not equipped to investigate or arbitrate issues of criminality. If this is the case, then the church should see law enforcement as partners in protecting and teaching the flock. Consequences are teachers.

Finally, the view category is contextually driven. In a church of 100 versus 1000, it will vary substantially. Who actually knows the person being disciplined and could apply holy pressure to encourage them to submit to a restorative process? Depending on tenure, station, and breadth of influence, church discipline may require letting 6 people know what’s going on or letting 1000 people know what is going on.

The primary question in view is: who actually needs to know what in order to function well in their calling as church members? There may be a dozen people who need the five-paragraph version, fifty people who need the one-paragraph version, and 250 people who need the two-sentence version of the story.

The goal of discipline is not to shame, but to teach and to protect. Sometimes appropriate fear of losing a defamation case actually forces us to be clear about who we are telling what to and why. At least as the laws currently stand, it is absolutely possible to discipline without engaging in defamation.

Reenacting and Not Reenacting the Sin of Adam

Third, for church discipline to work in the digital age, we need to set our expectations correctly. I think about restoring someone who is in severe sin with church discipline like batting in baseball: if a third of the time you get on base, you are elite.

In my experience, 80% of the time a man is placed under church discipline he will position himself as a victim, blame God-given accountability structures, and high-handedly take the Lord's name in vain.

Why does he play the victim? Generally, because he is like his Father Adam. Specifically, because he has bought into a Cartesian anthropology and a Libertarian sociology: I think therefore I am and your interference with my self-actualization violates my assumed social contract. Anger happens when something we love is threatened or taken; threatening his sub-Christian individualism and libertarianism thus begets rage.

Coddling this tantrum that is downstream from bad theology is not the way. Courageous church leaders must sometimes hand unrepentant church members "over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:20), but often those under discipline, sadly, merely increase their blaspheming.

Like Adam, blameshifting and responsibility avoidance are instinctive moves that sinners make. “That woman you gave me” recapitulates as “that counselor you sent me to,” “that pastor who I met with,” or “that small group leader who welcomed me into his home.”

This is important to be aware of for a few key reasons.

First, the primary motive for church discipline is the protection of the church, her holiness, and her witness (1 Corinthians 5). Even if the unrepentant person isn’t restored, that doesn’t mean the process failed. Too much time spent trying to win over wolves leads to many sheep being harmed.

When we prayerfully and deliberately attempt to restore a person who is walking outside of the bounds of the faith, their horrible and slanderous reaction to shepherding should serve as validation; this person does, in fact, have a hard heart.

Second, leaders who are initiating church discipline need a soft heart and a steel spine. In the modern era, armed with email addresses, group chats, and social media, blasphemers tend to go down swinging. You’ll likely open yourself up to slander and bad Google Reviews; do you honestly have what it takes to turn the other cheek?

Third, just like those under discipline reenact the sin of Adam with their blame shifting, church leaders are likewise tempted to reenact the sin of Adam with their passivity and silence in the face of the work of Satan in their midst. Notice, name, and then resist this temptation.

Finally, good process doesn’t replace exasperated prayerfulness. Some of the most humiliating times as a church leader are when you are exercising church discipline because it forces you to come to grips with the fact that your strategy, skill, songs, and sermons are insufficient to fix or change this person who is self-destructing. Getting up close and personal with our powerlessness is the best way to develop a rich prayer life.

Come, Lord Jesus, your church is a mess.

Seth Troutt

Seth is the Teaching Pastor at Ironwood Church in Arizona. His doctoral studies focused on Gen Z, digitization, and bodily self-concept. He writes about emotions, gender, parenting, and the intersection of theology and culture. He and his wife Taylor have two young children.