Church Discipline: Introduction

grace2.jpgThis is actually a continuation of the series of posts called “Classes on Grace.” And that’s important, because my ideas on church discipline won’t make any sense to someone with a very different understanding of grace. You see, it all fits together. It has to fit together, because it all comes from the same Mind. Now, the New Testament says quite a lot about disfellowshipping or excluding various people from the church. These verses are generally interpreted this way–

* I am right

* You are wrong

* You must leave

Simple enough, I suppose, but completely removed from the heart of God shown through Jesus.

Let’s begin by just thinking–doing what Einstein called a “thought experiment.” Imagine that all these previous lessons we’ve covered on grace are actually true. Reasoning solely from what we’ve learned regarding grace, what sorts of people should the church exclude from its fellowship? Hmm …

There is at least one obvious category–people who are not Christians and who are somehow seeking to do harm to the church. Obviously, non-Christians who are part of our community as seekers, wishing to learn more about Jesus, are welcome. We are delighted to have visitors! As we traditionally say, they are our “honored guests”! And, indeed, they are.

But non-Christians who pretend to be Christians in order to teach dangerous doctrines or non-Christians who try to create trouble for the church from within, well, they’ve just got to go, don’t they? I mean, we might need to properly warn and instruct them, but ultimately, the leaders have to protect the flock against wolves in sheep clothing, as Jesus said.

Another category is the Christian who refuses to repent. Imagine an elder who takes a mistress. He knows it’s wrong, but the sex is good and he’s overcome by temptation and the thrill of conquest.

Such a man presents two problems. First, he is at risk of losing his soul. He no longer is living a penitent life. He’s doing what he knows is wrong and is no longer struggling against it. Indeed, he’s being seduced by sin and being drawn ever-farther from the Lord.

Worse yet, his horrible example tempts others within the church to do the same. People begin to rationalize excuses for indulging in their favorite vices, and pretty soon, the church has forgotten all about its Lord and has become a country club.

In such a case, if the elder is still part of the community, he must be expelled–even though he is likely still saved. Not to damn him, but to implore him to repent.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s consider some key passages.

The member who is struggling to repent

(2 Thes. 3:14-15) If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

Plainly, the disobedient person under consideration is still a brother in Christ. He is impenitent, but not so much so that he is lost–at least, not so far as we can tell.

The goal of the disassociation is to shame him. Now, obviously enough, this means the action must be taken while he still cares what the church thinks. He must still be part of the community–so much so that being expelled will bring him to repentance. The thought of losing the friendship of his brothers and sisters must be unbearable, for this to work.

If the man can simply move his membership to another congregation, then it won’t work. The solution isn’t to insist that other congregation honor the decision (although, as a rule, they should). The solution is for the church to have such a dynamic love that members can’t bear to lose it!

(1 Cor. 5:1-5) It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud!

Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? …

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus … hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

Here’s a more specific example of the same teaching. The problem was, again, a lack of penitence. They knew incest to be wrong. This wasn’t an honest disagreement over doctrine, such as those considered in Romans 14. Here’s an example of a man guilty of known sin making no effort to overcome his sin.

The attitude of the church is to be one of “grief,” literally, mourning. The church isn’t angry–it’s worried. A member is literally at the edge of falling away irredeemably. Just as we are distressed for a family member fighting a fatal illness–and in agony when our loved one seems to give up–the church is desperate for this man to return to his Lord.

The goal, of course, is for the man to repent, as this is the only possible path to Jesus. He is “handed over to Satan” in the sense that he may no longer enjoy the sweet fellowship of the Kingdom and must live as the world–getting a preview of what it will be like if he doesn’t change. It’s “tough love.”

(2 Cor. 2:6-8) The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

And as Paul urges his readers in his next letter to the church in Corinth, the church must be ready–anxious–to forgive and restore fellowship. The penitent man needs to be reassured of the church’s love. He is not to be considered a second-class Christian.

(Matt. 18:15-17) “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

I’ve posted a much more detailed exposition of this passage here. Here’s the short version.

This passage has been horribly interpreted–especially by ministers. Here’s what it DOESN’T mean–

* This is not a lesson on conflict resolution. It closely parallels some very sound conflict resolution principles, but that is not why Jesus said these words. After all, the outcome of a failure is that the sinner is disfellowshipped. Moreover, this is spoken in the context of the parable of the lost sheep. It’s about restoring a Christian caught up in sin.

* This is not a legal structure that allows us to avoid responsibility for our sins. I’ve had ministers very seriously argue that they don’t have to change their bad behavior because the person making the accusation didn’t follow the Matthew 18 process! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!!

Change your behavior because you’ve made Jesus your Lord and love your neighbor. If you lean on legal technicalities to avoid accountability, you are not much of a Christian.

* “Against you” almost certainly is not part of the original text Matthew wrote. The words are absent in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus–two of the very oldest, most complete, ancient manuscripts–as well as in quotations by some of the earliest Christian writings, such as the works of Origen, Basil, and Cyril.

After all, why should the victim be the person who has to deal with this problem? Remember–this is not about conflict resolution so much as rescuing a soul from potential damnation! It’s great when the victim can take this task on, but sometimes the elders or someone else is in a better position. Sometimes the victim isn’t even a member of the church! (Must a beaten wife confront her husband before the church can remove the wife beater from their fellowship? I think not.)

Ultimately, the point of the passage is simple enough. We are confront those who commit sins that they know to be wrong. Impenitence is best dealt with early on–before the Christian is completely seduced by the sin.

Gentle, prayerful, humble confrontation comes long before disfellowshipping, but there may well come a time when the sinner must be disfellowshipped–for his own good. And this time is before the sinner leaves the church on his own. He must still enjoy being a part of the community–so much so that loss of community will shock him into repentance.

Consider 1 Tim. 4:2. A conscience can be “seared as with a hot iron” and no longer capable of being brought to repentance. Consider also Heb. 6:4-6. Don’t wait too long!

Finally, the attitude of the church is of critical importance.

(2 Tim. 4:2) Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.

The leadership is certainly to rebuke sin–but patiently and with instruction. Take the time to teach those who disagree. Give prayer time to work. Don’t give up too soon.

(Gal 6:1) Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.

Take the time to search for “gentle” or “gently” in the New Testament. This word is repeatedly used of the leadership of the church. When a sinner is confront, restoration must be gentle–and humble.

We must restore humbly because it’s easy to feel morally superior when dealing with man whose has fallen into known sin. And as soon as the leadership begins feeling morally superior, it’s in serious danger.

(2 Tim. 2:25-26) Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Paul tells us that the solution is often found in gentle instruction, rather than bombastic condemnation. Imagine how the history of the Churches of Christ would have been different has our leaders actually obeyed this passage?

Repentance comes from God. We can lead the sinner back to his Savior. We can’t scream them into penitence.

“Truth” in the New Testament usually means the truth about Jesus, the gospel. See this post for more detail. As a result, the truth we are return our sinning members to is the truth of the gospel–the same truth that led them to repent in the first place.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Church Discipline: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Amazing Grace: Introduction « One In

  2. Pingback: MDR: Matthew 19, Part 2 (Pastoral concerns) « One In

Leave a Reply