(Matt. 18:14-17 ESV) should perish. 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Among the many challenging questions presented by this passage is just how is the decision to disfellowship this sinner to be made? What is the process? Who decides?
And according to this passage, the decision is made by the ekklēsia. Now, as pointed out in yesterday’s post, if we follow the pattern seen in Ezra, the leaders of the people read the Law, announce what they believe to be required, and the congregation — the ekklēsia — declares their intention to honor the Law.
(Neh. 5:7-12 ESV) 7 I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, “You are exacting interest, each from his brother.” And I held a great assembly against them 8 and said to them, “We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!” They were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10 Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. 11 Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” 12 Then they said, “We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say.” And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised.
The Jews were banned from charging interest to a fellow Jews, and evidently they were also foreclosing on pledged properties. Making loans and taking security was plainly permitted by the Torah, but no interest could be charged to the poor or a fellow Jew (Ex 22:25; Deu 23:19-20). The poor could be lent to (Deu 15:7-11), but every seventh year, their debts were to be forgiven (Deu 15:1). The loans were not to be used to deepen the poverty of the poor but to relieve it — even if it meant forgiving the loan.
Worse yet, evidently some Jews had been sold into slavery and then later redeemed by the Jews now in Jerusalem (good), but then these former slaves were sold back into slavery with foreigners — perhaps as foreclosed “property” — so that they could be, once again, redeemed to pay off the debts of the Jew who’d pledged fellow Jews as slave-collateral (Neh 5:8). And this was all strictly forbidden by the Torah (Lev 25:39-42; Deu 15:12-18; Jews could buy a fellow Jew as “slave” for no more than six years in an arrangement we’d call “indentured servitude”). My take is that the wealthy Jews were so willing to redeem a fellow Jew from slavery that Jewish slaves made particularly good collateral, as the foreign lender knew that he could easily turn his Jewish slave into cash. That is, the urgency the Jews felt to free fellow Jews from slavery was being used by other Jews as a way of turning Jews into loan collateral!
Therefore, Nehemiah insists that the loans be forgiven and Jewish slaves be freed and foreclosed properties be restored. And the process was simple: call the people into assembly (ekklēsia), describe the sins to be repented of, explain the Torah violation, and expect the congregation to support the decision — making it a congregational decision by the entire ekklēsia in the city.
To modern ears, this is astonishing. It’s amazing that these Jews so quickly and easily gave up their properties — which they’d acquired in exchange for loans made with real money. And yet they honored the Torah — just as quickly as Nehemiah pointed out the error of their ways (some of which Nehemiah himself was complicit in (Neh 5:10)).
And yet, today, it is the rare eldership who can count on their congregation’s members to support a decision to disfellowship a member for even flagrant, rebellious sin. (And it’s the rare congregation that can count on its leaders to attempt such a thing.) Something is very wrong with how we do church.
I didn’t say that our leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. And in many congregations, the elders are poorly chosen and are not gifted by the Spirit for the roles they’ve been assigned.
Therefore, while the ordinary case should be that the church supports a recommendation made by the elders, there could be cases when the elders are in error and the church needs to refuse. I’m not urging a rubber-stamp process. Rather, the shepherds should know their sheep well enough that they only rarely ask the church to take a step they’re unwilling to support.
In the modern context, it can be difficult to know the heart of a large church unless the church intentionally creates a mechanism for the elders to be in touch with a broad-base. Otherwise, elders just naturally assume that the five or six friends they speak to each week represent the entire congregation — or that the staff is giving them good counsel based on the staff’s personal relationships within the church, which may be based on just as small a sample size. I mean, it’s amazing how many elders and preachers assume that the people who grab them in the hallways to complain speak for the entire church. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.
My congregation assigns elders to particular small groups and Bible classes, and asks the elders to stay in touch with each group and class (they overlap). Hence, at an elders’ meeting, there is someone there that has first-person knowledge of every small group and class — which is a very good thing. Other churches find other ways to associate each member with an elder or other leader.
There’s something to be said for occasionally surveying the congregation on issues of import — how comfortable they are inviting friends, their opinions of the classes, their feelings about the eldership, and so on. Just the fact that you care enough to ask says a lot.
My church has taken countless surveys over the years, beginning with a church growth survey from the Church Growth Institute run by John Ellas some 20 years past. These are almost always anonymous, and it’s been my job for a couple of decades to compile these into Excel spreadsheets — meaning I’ve read every survey taken — and it’s been good for me.
I strongly favor having some open-ended questions, but also having most of the questions in a format that allows for a statistical analysis. One problem with surveys is the elders reading them naturally focus on the long-hand comments complaining while overlooking the very positive scores on the more objective parts of the study. (Our brains weren’t designed to easily tally scores from 1 to 10 on 300 questionnaires. That’s why God gave us computers.) Therefore, I think the elders should not be given the complaints until they’ve been given a synopsis of the objective data so they can put the comments in context — for good or bad.
Surveys are no substitute for actual personal relationships, but especially in a church of 200 or more, personal relationships are also no substitute for the occasional survey.