Church Discipline: Those No Longer Penitent

grace2.jpgWe generally cannot distinguish someone who is struggling with his penitence from someone who has abandoned Jesus altogether. In such cases, I think we have to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume we’re dealing with a Christian but a Christian who is struggling with sin and needs to be confronted and even to be disfellowshipped.

However, where it’s clear this person has left Jesus altogether and become an enemy of the Kingdom, our response is dictated by several passages–

(2 Tim. 3:2-5) People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.

Does this passage, fairly read, describe those who–

  • Use the instrument in worship?
  • Accept the “Pauline exception” to the prohibition against divorce (or don’t)?
  • Refuse to build a fellowship hall with church money (or do so)?
  • Allow couples who divorced and remarried before baptism to join the church without first divorcing?

Obviously, not. You can disagree on any of these issues and not be described in this passage!  These sinners Paul is discussing are plainly enemies of the faith-they deny the power of God!

(Matt. 10:16) “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

We are instructed not to be stupid–or naive. When evil is present in the church, we must rid the church of the evil.

But sin by a penitent believer, who is trying to obey God but who fails, is not this kind of evil. If there’s any doubt, we treat the sinner as a brother in need of correction, not an enemy to be ejected.

(Matt. 7:15-17) “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.”

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen Matt. 7:15-17 wrongly used of Godly brothers and sisters in Christ. If someone argues for the use of instrumental music, he is characterized as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not so!

A sheep is not a wolf. You cannot be among the saved and be a wolf. If your error is covered by grace, you are still in error and need to be corrected, but you are nonetheless a brother in Christ who must be treated as a brother.

If you and I disagree on one of the countless questions that divide the Churches of Christ, I must consider you wrong (and you must consider me wrong), but if we are both believers (have faith) and yield to Jesus as Lord (repent), then we’re still brothers (as much as either of us might not like it!). And neither is a wolf. Both of us are sheep.

Indeed, many people disagree with me. Some live in my house with me! Disagreeing does not a wolf make. Disagreeing does not make one “ferocious.” Rather, you are not ferocious unless you intend to do harm–that is, what you know to be harm.

I know men to seduce women or to receive undeserved charity or to steal. Any church of any size has had this experience–and few brag about it! These are wolves.

I know men and women who’ve joined a church in hopes of drawing away a portion of the flock to create a preaching job for a man looking for a post. Again, this is evil and must be recognized as such.

Now, it may be that those who do such things are sincerely deluded and can be taught better and brought to repentance. But if this fails, or if the church must immediately expel the evil-doer to protect itself, expulsion is the solution. You don’t let a thief or sexual predator hang around while you pray with and console him and he continues to steal or take advantage of your members! Expel first–and keep counseling if possible.

In such a case, the expulsion isn’t foremost to drive the person to penitence, although this is always a desired outcome. Rather, the primary goal is the protection of the flock.

It’s hard to state absolutely rock-solid, black-line rules for how to make the necessary distinction. It starts with a proper foundation in grace–but not going so far that you put your church or its members in unnecessary risk. Love. Be kind. Don’t be stupid.

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.
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