Church Discipline (2)
Now we take the second division of our study: Obstacles or hindrances to church discipline. In many cases where church discipline is needed, elders or members take the attitude of "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." This idea is that every member sins, and so no members are in any position to discipline others. Of course, if every member is guilty of the sins which require disfellowship then the whole lump is leavened already and the idea of discipline within the congregation is defeated. But one reason for discipline is that the congregation will not get into such a condition.
Now when Jesus said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," he was not talking of church discipline. And, he knew that the woman was no worse than her accusers. This passage in John 8 certainly does not cancel out what is said by Christ in Matt. 18 and by the apostles in the epistles. One who quotes this passage in attempts to thwart church discipline is wrestling the scripture (2 Pet. 3:16).
Now it is true that no member of the church is perfect. We all will be guilty of shortcomings. We will occasionally speak evil words, we will transgress civil laws, we may deliberately miss services, we may fall short of good examples in many ways. Of these sins we must all repent. But church discipline is reserved for those who persist in a manner of life which identifies them with the devil's cause. The everyday shortcomings of Christians do not necessarily identify them with Satan's cause. The New Testament anticipates the weaknesses of Christians and instructs us to confess our faults one to another (Jas. 5:16 . John says, "If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves" (I John 1:8) . He tells us to confess our sins, and God will forgive. So Christians will not be perfect. But their imperfections do not bring them under the necessity of church discipline unless their attitudes and persistence in sin are of such enormity as to identify them with Satan's cause.
The passages we have studied, clearly show that church discipline is to be exercised on those who openly refuse Christian counsel and publicly reject the commands of the Bible to repent.
Imperfections in a church's application of discipline may exist, but this does not change the fact that we must exercise discipline on the evil doer. A man in jail was visited by a friend who asked, "What are YOU doing in jail?" The man in jail replied, "What are YOU doing out of jail?" It may well be that we fail to discipline some who need it, while disciplining others who do need it. Yet, we must try to do what the New Testament commands.
Another hindrance to church discipline is seen in the idea that when one withdraws himself from the church, the church need not withdraw from him. It is reasoned that if a man "quits" the church, the church has no obligation to discipline him. But have you ever considered the fact that "quitting" the church is a public slam against Christ and His cause? Peter said, "For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning" (2 Pet. 1:20). In Heb. 10:25-29, we have this matter of "quitting" the church discussed. Some who "forsake" the assembling with the church commit the sins of "trodding under the foot the Son of God" and of doing "despite unto the Spirit of grace." Even though the attitude of the "quitter" may not be this severe, he has indeed publicly turned way from the leadership of Christ, and the world wonders why.
Inasmuch as discipline is designed to save the guilty individual, can the church rightfully neglect to discipline the "quitter"? It seems that the church should make every effort to bring the "quitter" to his senses, including proper discipline. This is especially true when a member quits the church in favor of open immorality, such as liquor, drinking, and gambling. A man "quits" the church, gambles, gets drunk and speaks evil of the church or the members. Can such a public disgrace go undisciplined? Surely we should make some sort of a public disavowal of the person's conduct so that all may know he is not considered a member of the local congregation.
Sometimes church discipline is neglected because the shepherds of the flock, the elders, fail to fulfill their responsibility. Elders are instructed to take heed to the flock, to watch, and to oversee. The local flock is in their charge. Suppose Christ returns to find that the flock has become corrupt, or has corrupt sheep in it due to the mismanagement of the local shepherds? We read in Heb. 13:17 that those who have the rule over us "watch for our souls, as they must give account . . . . "
It is not the preacher's business to shepherd the flock. He is not the pastor. The extent of his work in church discipline is to teach the truth, admonish the guilty, and cooperate with the elders in their work of discipline.
Another hindrance to church discipline is the lack of cooperation of the members of the church. Sometimes they are untaught and fail to avoid company with those from whom the church has withdrawn. The Bible tells us not to keep company with the disciplined party. If members of the church violate these commands they threaten their own standing with the Lord and with the church. The association we can have with those who have been disciplined is that which is designed to restore the erring brother to the fold. We must not let sentiment and sorrow lead us to disobey the commands of the New Testament.
Someone may ask, "What about the family of one who has been withdrawn from. Must they sever relations with the guilty party?" The New Testament does not command the breaking of family relations in the matter of church discipline. A person's family is usually the closest earthly thing to his heart. If the family will insist on doing the right thing and continue faithfully in service to the church, this may have more good effect on the wayfaring member than anything else.
Our final division in this lesson has to do with the results of church discipline. When church discipline is properly administered, good is bound to result. Very often church discipline is administered out of the wrong motive or attitude. When we expedite discipline out of contempt, or desire "to get a person," or with an arbitrary or dictatorial manner, the results will be sad for the church and for the individual who is disciplined. But, when we manifest sincere love and concern for the welfare of the church and the souls of guilty members, the church will be edified. If the guilty party has not lost his moral sensitivity he will be restored. The results of scriptural discipline will be scriptural ones. Either the church or the guilty party, or both, will be saved.
Sometimes churches get "trigger-happy" with discipline and threaten every member who may be lax in attendance, or weak in some moral or doctrinal matter. I think if this is to be the application or discipline, we all must walk down the aisle in a continual flow. I do not mean to say we cannot live right; I mean to say that John said: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves." I feel sure that we have shown in last month's study the kind of sins which require church discipline.
We can lose our souls because of our sins which are not of such nature as to require church discipline. The sins which require church discipline can cause the congregation to lose its identity.
Church discipline is a form of teaching. As we "teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs," so we are taught and admonished in church discipline. The results of proper church discipline are a better congregation, and the restoring of lost members.
In conclusion we consider the question of procedure in church discipline. The New Testament leaves incidentals of formal action to the judgment of the leaders. Once a person has made himself a subject of church discipline, it is necessary for us to attempt to restore the person without resorting to discipline. When our personal efforts fail, the individual should be told of the disciplinary action which is necessary if he does not repent. The actual withdrawal notice, whether written or oral, should be presented before the church, and the individual involved if he is not present. Whether or not the withdrawal notice should be made public through church bulletins, gospel papers or newspapers, depends upon the circumstances and the judgment of the elders.
There may be some reading this study in need of making public confession of public wrongs, having shamed the name of Christ and hurt the good name of the church. Our prayer is that steps of correction will be taken that God will forgive you and the church welcome you back into its local fellowship.
Truth Magazine, V:12, pp. 10-12