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Book Review: Handbook of Church Discipline

By Jay E. Adams

Handbook of Church Discipline: A Right and Privilege of Every Church Member
Zondervan, 1974. 120 pages. $14.99

BookThe first sentence of Jay Adam's Handbook of Church Discipline says it all: "This book in your hand is just what it calls itself—a handbook."  Indeed, the book is as straightforward and helpful as that sentence. It's short, easy to read, and nicely divided so that the "busy pastor" and "Christian worker" can almost use it as a reference guide, if need be.


I don't agree with every jot and tittle, but Adams' 1974 work remains one of the most even-handed introductions to the topic. Church discipline has had a bad name historically, in part because many churches never got what Adams gets, namely, that discipline is largely about education, and that education has both a preventive and corrective element. Don't do corrective discipline, in other words, until you teach a congregation about all the things for which they might be corrected. That would be like handing out grades before you ever teach the class.

The great strength of Adams' book is that he sets corrective church discipline into this larger educative context. When done well, church discipline is a blessing, he says. A blessing? Yes, a blessing. He even calls it—look up at the book's subtitle—a right and privilege for every member. It's a right for every member because Jesus has commanded it. No leader should deny it. It's a privilege because discipline is a means of peace and righteousness for the individual and the church (see Heb. 12:11). At the same time, Adams could have done a better job of setting discipline in the larger context of the gospel, as Mark Lauterbach's book on discipline, The Transforming Community (click here for a review), does so well.

The bulk of the book is spent walking the reader through the stages of corrective church discipline, which he divides into five steps based partially on Matthew 18:15-17: self-discipline, one-on-one, one or two others, telling it to the church, and then removal from the midst. That first step isn't mentioned in Matthew 18, of course, but Adams makes a strong case for us to think of it as the first step nonetheless.

Throughout these steps, Adams offers the kind of balanced and practical advice one would expect of a long-time pastor and counselor.

  • Should we go through every step always? Well, no, different circumstances call for different solutions (see 1 Cor. 5).
  • What should the church leaders tell the whole congregation in a situation of discipline? As little as necessary, but enough for the church to do its job.
  • Should we confront every unconfessed sin? Hardly. Love covers a multitude of sins (Prov. 10:12; 19:11).

Adam's wisdom and experience, in other words, show through in his ability to see that multiple principles should inform how we handle any given situation.

More than Lauterbach's or McQuoid's book on church discipline (click here for a review of McQuoid's book), Adams takes care  to step around questions of polity, so that congregational, presbyterian, and episcopalian church leaders alike won't be put off. This means he avoids saying what a church should do in order to remove someone from its midst. Instead he tells us to check our denomination's or our church's own book of order.

At other moments, however, he can't hide his Presbyterianism, as when the elders make declarations on behalf of the church without the congregation's explicit consent. As a Baptist, of course, I would differ a little here.


I also differ from Adam in that he equates "telling it to the church" with "excommunication" (step 4), which he then distinguishes from "removal from its midst" (step 5). I'm happy to separate "telling it to the church" and "removal from its midst," based on the Matthew 18, but I would equate excommunication with the latter, not the former. He says he once made this equation as well, but now he knows better. That may be the case, but he didn't say anything to help me know better.

The heavy reliance on word studies feels like evangelicalism circa 1974, and his chapter on "cross-congregational" discipline, which provides steps for disciplining entire congregations (?!) and allowing you to then sue them (?!!!), is a mixed bag. Still, his chapter on restoring repentant members is practical and very good, and his final chapter on trusting in Jesus' presence through the processes of discipline is hope-giving (see Matt. 18:19-20).


All in all, Adams' Handbook of Church Discipline is a trusty primer and guide on this difficult matter. His final two pages present six steps for how pastors can go about initiating discipline in their churches. Step two includes passing out this book to your elders. I'd agree.

Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, is the director of communications for 9Marks and is the author of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Crossway, Jan. 2010).


September/October 2009
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