Church Discipline: A Mark of a True Church #2
Previously we presented four essential concepts to help us frame the necessity for self discipline in the church. They were:
God expects holiness from his people.
Unfortunately, the description “holy church” is almost an oxymoron
Christ requires that his churches confront their own sin
Christians are part of a family
Now we must add some essential practices.
Practicing self discipline in the church
We must get these four bedrock principles. Nonetheless, in the highly volatile area of church discipline it is equally crucial to get the practice right. Disaster awaits the church which has the theory down but botches the real life application! So, I would like to offer some suggestions designed to shape the practice of church discipline in such a way as to help keep the church out of the ditch and at the same time reflect the doctrinal underpinnings.
We will adhere as closely as possible to the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-17
Obviously, the precise procedures followed by the church in Corinth are not given to us. Paul may have exercised an apostolic prerogative in the matter. None-the-less, he demanded that the church take decisive action. Since New Testament apostles are not present in churches today, it seems wise that the church follow the step directive of the Lord in discipline matters. A clear thinking church will adopt a written document which clearly establishes the course of action the congregation will take in dealing with a matter of discipline. Such a document must clarify where the process is heading and how the congregation gets there as well as lay out the responsibilities of the various persons involved. Here is what this might look like in actual application:
The erring member shall be confronted privately in a loving manner with the intent of clarification and, if warranted, repentance of his errant way.
Should the member acknowledge his sin and repent, the matter is dropped at this point or similarly at any subsequent point in this procedure.
Should the erring member refuse to repent, the confronting member shall meet with the erring member in the presence of one or two witnesses from the congregation in order to further establish the facts and urge repentance. Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, the additional witnesses should include a church officer.
Should the erring member continue in his unrepentant state, the confronting member shall make the matter known to the board of elders. The elders will proceed as they deem appropriate.
Should the erring member still refuse to repent, the elders will make the matter known to the congregation in order to urge individual members to appeal to the erring member. At this time the congregation shall use official correspondence to urge the erring member to repent.
Should the erring member remain in an unrepentant state, the congregation will vote to exercise appropriate disciplinary action as recommended by the board of elders.
We will employ reasonable measures to insure that all members are aware of the church’s practice of self discipline
The policy statement described above should merely be the logical product of conceptual statements appearing in the basic governing documents of the local congregation; such as the church covenant, the constitution, and the articles of faith. In short, there should be no doubt to anyone who examines the documents of the church that the congregation is committed to a biblical practice of church discipline.
The subject of church discipline should be part of the new and prospective members class. Applicants for membership will be asked to affirm their intent to abide by the governing documents of the church and willing submit themselves to the self discipline of the church.
We will discipline only for lack of repentance
Though sinful conduct initiates the discipline process, the only sin for which one is disciplined by the church is failure to repent. This principle is absolutely essential to successfully exercising biblical discipline. I maintain fuzziness on this issue is often what topples many well-meaning attempts at discipline. People must never be disciplined for conduct such as rebellion, lying, gossiping, or immorality. Only those who refuse to repent after being confronted with Christ’s demands are proper candidates for the corporate discipline of His church. In exercising discipline, the church thereby recognizes the offender as a functioning non-believer because he refuses to respond to the Word.
We will not allow one man or a select group to exercise discipline
I am personally committed to the authority of a godly body of elders in the local congregation in contrast to both the rule of the majority or the dictatorship of the pastor. However, regardless of one’s convictions regarding church government, I maintain that the congregation plays a direct and final role in matters of church discipline. To exegetically remove the congregation from the discipline process, in my mind, is to play hermeneutic gymnastics with both the Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Church discipline must be exercised directly by the corporate whole, not by proxy. No one individual or group should be able to exercise this authority.
We will strive to create an atmosphere of compassionate and impartial care for one another
Nearly every-time our church has been forced to exercise church discipline to the point of exclusion the cry has gone up from some quarter, “you are a harsh, cold, unloving congregation.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. We take such action precisely because we do care. But this charge always serves as a reminder that we need to constantly cultivate a background of compassion in the church. To this end great care should be taken to avoid any unguarded private or public statements which would unnecessarily injure the erring party. A helpful question to pose might be, “will this statement make it more difficult for the erring party to repent and be restored to fellowship?” Therefore, I have found that details of the erring member’s conduct, as a rule, should be kept to the essential minimum. Normally, no one is helped by sharing gory details.
The event of public discipline should prompt brutal self-evaluation by every member of the congregation. Paul assumes this in giving his advice in such situations, “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Spiritual arrogance must be avoided at all cost. An “it could be me” tension should be on the mind of every believer. And it should strike terror into the heart. Hence, patience should be graciously extended whenever possible.
Church discipline must be consistently applied regardless of an individual’s position in the church or community. Having the same last name as one of the church officers, teaching in the Sunday School for half a life time, or being a generous donor must have no bearing per se on the application of discipline. Yet, each situation is unique and must be dealt with individually. Lamentably, there is not a one-size-fits-all discipline garment. Consequently not all cases will be handled with exactly the same procedures or at the same pace. The church may not be able to avoid charges of partially, but they must never be justified.
We will elevate the spiritual well-being of the congregation as a whole over that of individuals in the congregation
The description of the Corinthian discipline case alludes to the notion of leaven (1 Corinthian 5: 6-13). A contrast in size is drawn between a little leaven and its effect on the entire lump. The implication is clear that the stench of immorality of one individual pervaded the whole church. So it became necessary to remove the erring party for his own benefit as well as for the benefit of the church itself. In effect, the church needed to be willing to sacrifice the unrepentant member in favor of the health of the whole body.
We will implement the last-resort step of exclusion if necessary
Sadly, the erring party may not repent of his sinful way, even after being lovingly confronted by the church. The New Testament process now requires exclusion. The force of the following phrases in Matt 18 and 1 Cor 5 clearly means the church must withdraw fellowship from the unrepentant member:
“…let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.” (Matthew 18:17),
“…the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst.” (1 Corinthians 5:2),
“…deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh…” (1 Corinthians 5:5)
“…REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.” (1 Corinthians 5:13)
The church is collectively no longer recognizing him as a fellow believer and is therefore excommunicating him to the realm of Satan so that per chance, he might be restored as a result of his sensual desires having free, but destructive, reign in his life. He will no longer enjoy the protective and redemptive umbrella of Christ’s church.
I have found that it is at the point of exclusion that confusion often pervades a congregation. It is essential that people understand that the discipline process is not over simply because a member has been excluded. The congregation must realize that it bears ongoing responsibilities. We could easily cite the need for prayer, Christian courtesy, compassion, or continued self confrontation. However, insight into the holy mind of God is culled when we see that I Corinthians 5: 11 states our responsibility to restrict association with the unrepentant individual.
But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one (1 Corinthians 5:11)
What is the Lord saying about how the excluded member is to be treated? I do not believe the passage teaches that individuals in the church are to have nothing to do with the individual in the absolute sense. Yet, God wants to send him His message which is, “I deplore what you are doing; change!” And the vehicle for communicating this message is the church. So, it is not the act of eating with the unrepentant person that is forbidden per se, but eating as a common social interchange which denotes fellowship and recognition as a Christian. Therefore the Christian can accept a dinner invitation from non-believing neighbor, but not from an unrepentant professing believer! The broader principle must be that any contact with the excluded person must be without acknowledgment of him as a brother in Christ and must be undertaken with a view to his restoration.
We will always focus on restoration
The ultimate goal in any church discipline action, of course, is the glorification God through obedience to His Word. Immediately however, a congregation ought to exercise discipline for the purpose of overthrowing sin and restoring the sinner (1 Corinthians 5:5). The church must always be ready to extend full restoration upon genuine repentance. The fact that churches today are sometimes reluctant to grant restoration should not surprise us in light of Paul’s need to pointedly admonish the Corinthian church to forgive the sinning brother.
…so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For to this end also I wrote that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. 11 in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes. (2 Corinthians 2:7-9, 11)
It is also helpful to demarcate a difference between forgiveness and restoration. Whereas forgiveness is granted immediately as the conversation between Peter and the Lord implies (Matthew 18:21-22), restoration is conditioned on evidences of genuine repentance. Unfortunately much repentance is of the showcase variety. In stark contrast is the Baptist’s bombastic demand of those who claimed repentance, “…You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance…” (Luke 3:1-14). Similarly, Paul’s testimony before Agrippa was that he implored men everywhere to “…repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” (Acts 26:20). The church must be prepared to discern between real and pseudo repentance and demand the former. This obviously requires divine wisdom and usually necessitates time.
We will reaffirm our commitment to the centrality and authority of the Word whatever the cost
Our mission statement makes clear what I mean here. We are committed to learn the Word, to love the word, and to live the Word.
I am suggesting a fairly simple line of thought. When people come to believe that the church is committed to a journey of teaching the Scripture wherever it takes them; and when people see its teachers actually tackling tough issues head on rather than skirting them; and when people realize that the leaders do this because they love God, His Word, and His people; then they are more apt to accept the painful doctrines such as church discipline. Candidly, I have noticed a remarkable corollary between strong teaching in churches and practicing discipline in churches.
Somehow, the church must embrace afresh a simple notion contained in nearly every doctrinal statement. Namely, that it is committed to mining the Scripture for it corporate beliefs and also is committed to following the Scripture in its corporate practice. If this is the underlying explanation for other matters of life in the church, people will more readily sign on to discipline when convinced of its biblical mandate.
Illust: I sat in the highly respected pastor’s office hoping to receive some helpful guidance regarding how to teach a particular emotionally charged doctrine in a way so as to avoid as many pitfalls as possible. When I finished my story I asked him how he had managed to teach this truth throughout his ministry. “I don’t”, he replied. “People would leave my church.” I left his office that day dumbfounded and nearly devastated. I had been expecting some advice in the vein the Apostle’s famous confession, “…I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.” (Acts 20:26-27).
I must offer this caution however. In our well-founded rush to turn loose the Word in the affairs of the church it is easy to ignore the ministry of the Spirit. We may subconsciously think that if we are persuasive enough people surely will see the light. We may tend to focus solely on objective truth at the exclusion of legitimate subjective reality. We may exalt the intellect at the expense of the heart. We, just like market driven ministry, may function as if the Holy Spirit is not needed for success. Only too late will we realize that if the Holy Spirit is dismissed from the church then we cannot deal with sin. Sanctification is not possible. Discipline is doomed to fail.
I want to be clear about something. I recognize that what I am advocating is considered by some to be “prying into a person’s private life”. I also recognize that the average Christian is repulsed by this teaching. If a church is not absolutely committed to doing what is right regardless of the potential impact on the corporate vital statistics, the chances are remote that it will practice biblical discipline. Let’s admit to what I consider to be a tragic reality: the evangelical church is wildly enamored with a consumer market driven approach to nearly everything it attempts. “The survey says” is right up there with “Thus says the Lord.” As you might guess, church discipline will never play well in this kind of environment!
Let’s put all this in perspective. As I mentioned last week, I don’t especially enjoy confronting people over blatant sin. In fact, I have become physically sick at the prospect of doing so. I have even become angered that I have had to do this – why would God give me such a lousy job description. And I confess that I have breathed a sigh of relief when the erring person didn’t answer the phone or come to the door. But at some point, by God’s grace, I come to my senses and remember that there are no losers when obedience is in play. As a matter of fact, there are great benefits to following the Scripture in this vital area of church life. Think about it. The name of Christ is protected, the reputation of the church is guarded, gossip is squelched, the way is paved for obedience in other areas of church life, unity is ultimately promoted, others are deterred from sin, the opportunity for self examination is afforded to all members, the erring person may be rescued from the clutches of sin, real hope for biblical change is encountered, the congregation is strengthened, the leaders of the church possess a clear conscience, ultimately the church is viewed as a caring body, and Christ’s continued presence is assured. These are a few of the tangible benefits of biblical discipline.
Illust: I hardly had time to reflect on the letter when its author phoned. Alternating between breathlessness and tears she spilled out, “Oh Pastor, how could I have been so blind? Thank you so much for caring for me. I know the church loved me then and loves me now.” She spoke of a sad saga of immorality and church discipline which had occurred seven years previously! When she hung up I shouted, “Hallelujah!” Do all cases of church discipline end on such a high note of restoration? Of course not; in fact, most do not. Howeve, there is always cause for hope because we are dealing with the awesome power of the Word as mediated by the Holy Spirit. And who knows what God may have in mind!
But the real issue is much more fundamental. Bluntly put, it is whether churches are willing to do what is right regardless of the cost. I cannot help but think that genuine renewal in the church is tied in some way to her willingness to confront sin.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2017. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.