Church discipline the redemptive way

The challenge to care enough to administer redemptive church discipline.

Tim Crosby is pastor of the Wiliowbrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Boonsboro, Maryland.

Imagine a group of people at a picnic watching a man walk blindfolded toward the edge of a steep cliff. A brief debate ensues as to whether someone should intervene, but the consensus is that it's nobody's business, and so the unfortunate man falls over the cliff. There's only one word for the onlooking crowd: cruel.

Now imagine a church in which the members hold a similar theory of church discipline. Don't confront. Don't interfere. Don't embarrass. Don't censure. Don't upset. Don't meddle. The same term applies: cruel. But sadly, that's not unusual.

For most churches today, church discipline is a forgotten art. Many pastors find it an uphill battle, because church members tend to think of discipline as unloving.

Linda (not her real name) was the daughter of an officer of a church I pastored. She decided to live with her boyfriend without the benefit of marriage. This young woman was well liked in the church. She was not promiscuous or wanton; her sin was much less serious than sins I have seen tolerated in some churches. After talking with her father, I asked one of our more compassionate deaconesses to visit her. Later I took one of the elders to visit her. She expressed her determination to continue in her present course, but said she could understand what we had to do. When the church, in a business meeting of this conservative congregation, moved to disfellowship her, roughly one-third of those present voted against the motion.

Disciplinary excesses

Perhaps our reluctance to discipline is in part a reaction to certain excesses of the past, in which overly zealous leaders, eager to "clean up the church" and unwilling to expend the necessary energy to go through the proper steps, wreaked havoc on some of the weaker members.

For the most part, however, disciplinary excesses are a thing of the past. Few churches today are willing to endure the pain of confrontation. Scandalous behavior tends to be the subject of private gossip, but corporately it tends to be swept under the ecclesiastical rug.

Ironically, the sports world often does a better job of disciplining than the church. Sports officials understand that the integrity of the sport is undermined by athletes who take drags, gamble on the game, or merely stay out too late, and such infractions bring swift penalties. We are not nearly as careful about the integrity of the body of Christ.

I believe our reticence to discipline results from misconceptions that have been repeated so often as to become conventional wisdom on the subject. The whole topic deserves some demythologizing.

Myth 1: "Leave the tares with the wheat"

In His parable of the tares, Jesus was not talking about the church, for He explicitly says that the field represents the world (Matt. 13:38). The parable does not speak about unconverted sinners in the church, but addresses the issue of why God allows evil in the world.

If one wishes to apply this parable to the church homiletically, as Ellen White does, then remember that Jesus said to leave the tares (plants that look just like wheat), not the briars. Ellen White never understood this pas sage to require the church to retain those who "persist in open sin."1

Myth 2: "The church is a hospital for sinners"

This adage suggests that the church is a rehabilitation unit for sinners rather than a museum for saints. Of course, if the church were not a place where sick people find healing, you and I could not belong. Christ said, "'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners'" (Mark 2:17).* But the metaphor has limits. A hospital works like this: The sicker you are, the quicker you are admitted. When you get well, you leave. Does the church work the same way? Hopefully not.

The museum metaphor (the church as God's showcase of grace) has greater scriptural support. "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).

"You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. . . . Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:9-12).

What people see in the church when they look in from the outside should cause them to glorify God. The church should be a place where one can find not perfection, but ample evidence of God's redeeming grace.

Maybe we need a new metaphor. Perhaps the church is more like an auto shop where battered cars are taken. Although there may be grease on the floor and beat-up wrecks all around, there are some beautifully restored cars coming out of that shop to take their place in auto exhibits.

Myth 3: "Christians should not judge others"

What is true individually is not true corporately. As individuals Christians are commanded to judge not (Matt. 7:1, 2). But the corporate church body is commanded to pass judgment upon its members (1 Cor. 5:12) while, refraining from judging outsiders. The church has a duty, an obligation, to deal with sinners with in its ranks.

When there is no corporate expression of rebuke, some members will turn a cold shoulder toward the offender, feeling obligated to express disapproval in some way. But a corporate response frees individual members to befriend the fallen with out feeling that the standards of the church have been compromised. Since outsiders are exempt from church judgment, giving the offender the status of an outsider frees the members to treat them as they would any other interested prospect and woo them back again.

Myth 4: "The church shoots its wounded"

Church discipline is not shooting the wounded; it is treating the wounded. And like many medical treatments, sometimes it involves pain. The tragedy is when no treatment no discipline is administered; the wounds fester and poison the system. We should not expect the one being disciplined to like it. All discipline is painful at first (Heb. 12:11).

Actually, it is misleading to speak of those who willfully and flagrantly violate church standards as "the wounded." In fact, they may actually be the wounders of the church; for a little yeast soon leavens the whole batch of dough (1 Cor. 5:6).

A friend tells of one of the first churches he pastored, in which prodigious amounts of hard work produced no results. The pastor and his members were praying, visiting, and giving Bible studies, but God's blessing did not rest upon the church, and there were no baptisms. After several years of this, it was discovered that the head elder was living in adultery. After the matter was dealt with in a loving way and the elder's name was removed from the books, the church began to grow.

A time comes when spiritual negligence so leavens the whole lump that the group itself falls into apostasy. God's blessing cannot rest on a church that tolerates blatant sin in its members, and particularly in its leaders Gangrene will kill a body if necrotic tissue is not quickly removed by surgery. And surgery is not a pleasant process, but in many cases it is essential before healing can begin.

No, the church should never shoot its wounded. Outlaws, however, are another story. The rules for dealing with outlaws are given in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5.

Counsel on church discipline

Matthew 18 prescribes a graduated response to those who have offended a church member. First, the offended member is to approach the offender privately. If this doesn't solve the problem, then progressively larger delegations confront the offender. If there is no repentance, the final sanction is exclusion from the group.

The other passage is not so well known; it applies in situations where the offense is not against any one particular member. First Corinthians 5 was prompted by an incident of open sexual immorality in the church. The sin was so offensive that even outsiders found it scandalous. Paul asks, Why haven't you disfellowshipped this person yet? Paul does not limit his counsel to this particular situation, but lays down the general rule to follow in similar cases: church members are not to associate with "anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler" (verse 11). He reminds the church of their duty to judge its members, and concludes, "'Expel the wicked man from among you'" (verses 12, 13).

Although this may sound harsh and unloving, it is the most loving thing to do! When a parent indulges willful disobedience in children, we do not call it love. Likewise, when a church allows a member to continue in open sin with no corporate expression of reproof and grief, it cannot be construed as love.

I know of no clearer way to say "We simply don't care" than to leave on the church membership lists people who are in open violation of Christian standards. Such indifference gives them a false sense of security that could prevent their realizing their need for conversion. True love cares enough to confront and to discipline in a loving way. This is crucial both to the survival of the church and the salvation of the individual.

One traveling pastor/evangelist who specializes in working with former members refuses to visit dropouts who have never been disfellowshipped. He knows by experience that it is a waste of time. Church discipline, when properly and lovingly administered, makes it possible to "close the books" on the past and begin afresh. But those who have never left cannot come back. Their membership is a continuation of the old unhealthy and dishonest relationship with the group. Church discipline maintains the integrity of the group and the dignity of the offenders by letting them know that their actions make a difference.

Discipline with a loving touch

Two women, both members of the same church, lived with partners out side of wedlock. One of them was never disciplined in any way. The second was disfellowshipped. Both of them later married the men they were living with. The first woman is still on the books but has never returned to church. The second one Linda, who was mentioned earlier in this article is an active member once again.

When the church wrote Linda of its decision to remove her name from its records, the letter also said some thing like this: "Please forgive us for not being closer to you when it might have made a difference. If we had been more faithful friends, this action might not have been necessary. Forgive us for being too busy with our own affairs to take time to nurture your faith. And please don't stop coming to church. We want you here. Your friends need you. While we can not approve your actions, we want you to know that you are loved, and we want only the best for your future." A few years later she was rebaptized.

The church must discipline with tears in its eyes. The purpose of church discipline is always redemptive, never retributive. A church that lacks the compassion to care and the courage to confront is a tragedy in the making. One of the marks of a dying church is that it is so desperate to retain members that it refuses to do anything that might antagonize them.

If I should ever fall into sin, this is what I hope will happen to me. I hope my friends will ask me "Tim, how is it with your soul?" the most politically incorrect speech I know of. If that has no effect, then I hope that fellow members will care enough to confront me and remind me of my privileges and my danger, and if necessary, publicly call me to account. As a last resort, I hope my church will have the courage to remove me lovingly from its membership until such time as I am willing to manifest public repentance, because that is how a healthy church disciplines.

God, deliver me from churches that simply don't care.

* Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.

1 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 71.


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Tim Crosby is pastor of the Wiliowbrook Seventh-day Adventist Church in Boonsboro, Maryland.

October 2002

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