By Mike Willis
This special issue of Guardian of Truth has been prepared to help Christians deal with a difficult problem-what to do when a Christian departs from the faith and returns to the world. The difficulty in getting brethren to act in discharging their responsibilities toward unfaithful Christians was serious enough prior to the Collinsville, Oklahoma lawsuit which awarded $390,000 to an admitted fornicator who had been withdrawn from by a local church. Now the problem of church discipline is compounded by the threat of lawsuits.
Problems With Church Discipline
Many churches have had problems with disciplining wayward members. I think that describing some of these problems will be helpful in making us aware of what some are going wrong in hopes that some will correct those problems. This will be the case if the problems stem from lack of knowledge or forethought.
1. Some churches simply do not exercise church discipline. There are churches which have never withdrawn from any wayward, unfaithful member. Because the local church has never before practiced church discipline, these brethren are content to continue as they are.
One of the reasons that we should practice church discipline is that Christ commanded it. Paul wrote, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Thess. 3:6). The instructions to exercise church discipline are emphatic and imperative. We remind our denominational friends that Christ “commanded” baptism and emphasize that they do what Christ said. In a similar manner, we need to be reminded that Christ commanded that a church withdraw from disorderly members. The church which neglects or refuses to practice church discipline toward disorderly members stands in disobedience to the word of God.
The churches at Corinth, Pergamos and Thyatira were condemned because of their toleration of wicked men in their midst (1 Cor. 5; Rev. 2:14,20). Brethren must realize and accept the conclusion that a church which does not practice church discipline stands in disobedience to the word of God.
I have never gotten any pleasure in confronting a sinner with his sins. When a Christian goes to the door of his brother’s house with the intention of discussing his sin with him, he does not know how he will be received. Will he be hated, thrown out of the house, or loved? Despite the fear of rejection, a faithful Christian goes because of his love for the soul of the lost brother (Gal. 6: 1; Jas. 5:19,20). Confronting the sinner with this sin is a God-given obligation; it is not pleasant and enjoyable. Nevertheless, we must do what God says because He commanded it; it is a final effort to win back the erring brother.
2. Some churches are inconsistent in their application of church discipline. Trouble will come to any congregation which tolerates sin in some of its members, and then tries to discipline others for committing the same sins. Those who are influential, rich, or highly respected do not obtain special privileges from the Lord; His judgment is without respect of persons (Rom. 2:11). The church should imitate the Lord with respect to its disciplinary action.
When a church shows partiality in its administration of disciplinary action, discipline will be viewed as a tool to be used against those whom the leaders dislike. Resentment, bitterness, and strife will be caused by this sort of practice. The friends of the “victim” will feel forced to rise up in defense of a known sinner because of the inconsistent manner in which discipline has been administered.
Sometimes churches are faced with this problem as a result of their failures in administering any discipline at all. The church may have gone for years without administering discipline and then realize that they have been violating God’s word by their action. After they repent of their neglect, the first case of discipline will likely charge that partiality has been practiced in regard to the administration of church discipline. The only thing that the church can do in such a case is to admit its previous failures and begin from that point to practice church discipline without partiality.
3. Some churches use poor judgment in administering church discipline. I have known of churches waiting for long periods of time after the sinner has fallen away before doing anything to help save the soul of the fallen man. If a weak Christian returns to sin, he should be helped immediately. Those who are spiritual should seek to help the brother who is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6: 1). Men should pray with and for him. They should do everything possible to restore him as quickly as possible. If all of this fails, the church should take action.
To wait for months (or even a year or more) before reading a formal announcement of withdrawal destroys the good which can be accomplished in church discipline. By that time, the sinner has already become used to having no fellowship with the saints and has become comfortable with the scornful. The discipline should be administered in such a period of time that the break in fellowship with the saints will have some impact on causing him to consider repentance.
Reading a letter months after a sinner has quit attending worship and has become involved in sin appears to have the effect of the church washing its hands of the matter. Some brethren reason something like this: The man was once on the church rolls. He does not come here any more. He never moved his membership anywhere else. What are we going to do with him? We will read a letter announcing that we are withdrawing fellowship from him.
The question is not whether or not the man should be disciplined. The question is whether or not the manner in which the disciplined was administered did what the Lord designed church discipline to do. Such poor use of judgment probably does neither the church nor the sinner any good. The sinner is not urged to repent; the church has made no genuine effort in the use of its discipline to call the man to repentance.
Another kind of sinful action in administering church discipline is that which is done without prior efforts to restore the brother. Some elders make little or no effort to visit the erring before “leading” the church in administering church discipline. Elders should be examples to the rest of the flock (1 Pet. 5:3) in the kind of effort which should be made to restore the lost brother. Elders should personally talk to the erring brother-reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with meekness and love. The eldership should seek the opportunity to sit down with the wayward brother and bring him to repentance.
When little or no effort has been made to reclaim the lost brother, the discipline which has been administered will be viewed as that which comes from lack of love. He may believe that the church was glad to get rid of him. He may think that the members did not care about him (and he may be right). Instead of feeling this way, the erring brother should understand that the disciplinary action was taken because concerned Christians were seeking to save him from sin.
4. Sometimes the church rebels against church discipline which has been impartially and fairly administered. Not even in New Testament times did all of the congregation unite in administering church discipline (2 Cor. 2:6-“the many”). Sometimes individual members may not back the church in its disciplinary action because of one reason or another. However, on some occasions, the congregation rebels against the elders who led the congregation in administering church discipline.
I have known of some congregations which had to remove a preacher from the pulpit. His subsequent action was factious. In an effort to keep this preacher from dividing the local church, the elders announced to the congregation that the man was seeking to divide the congregation by gathering sympathizers who would go with him to start a new congregation. They warned brethren to avoid the man and withdrew from him. On some occasions, the church has split anyway. Rather than supporting the eldership in their disciplinary action, the church rebelled against it.
There are, no doubt, occasions when the eldership errs in how to administer church discipline; perhaps they even err in withdrawing from someone whom they should not discipline. In such cases, the last thing which the church needs to do is to compound its problem by adding a division to the list of problems. God-fearing Christians need to work together to solve their problems. Work with the elders to show them wherein they have erred; pray with them and for them, seeking to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
5. Some problems are caused between churches as a result of one church withdrawing for a brother and another church receiving him. In some towns, one church will not announce another church’s meetings, call on any of its members for prayer, or otherwise recognize another church because one church withdrew from a man and the other church received him. The result is that one church withdraws from another church.
There seems to be several things which can be said about this problem. One is that the receiving church should investigate a member who is seeking to identify with them. A church sometimes thinks that it has done this by simply talking to the individual seeking membership. The wise man writes, “He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbor cometh and searcheth him” (Prov. 18:17). Hearing only one side of the disagreement makes one believe every word the individual told. When a congregation hears that q man had trouble at another congregation, the very least that the congregation could do was to seek to find out the other side of the matter.
We have developed such a concept of congregational autonomy that one eldership cannot even ask another eldership why it acted in a certain way without someone thinking that some kind of inter-congregational organization has been created. When a brother seeks to identify with a congregation from another congregation in the city, wisdom would recommend that the receiving church at least contact the church from which they are leaving to make sure that the members are not trying to circumvent some kind f disciplinary action by moving their membership.
The other side of this coin is that a church which withdraws from a member who is received by another church sometimes tries to persuade that church to also withdraw from the erring member. If the receiving church does not do so, they withdraw fellowship from the receiving church. Suppose the receiving church has totally erred in the matter. Are we to conclude that because they erred in this one matter at the present time (if the member is as wicked as the other church imagined, the receiving church will soon find that out), that the other church should cut off all contact with them? Would any of us suggest withdrawing from another church which made one other error? I am afraid that some strong-willed people have attempted to dominate, not only one local congregation, but an entire city in such situations.
A little common sense and common courtesy toward one another would go a long way toward easing tensions of this nature. If a receiving congregation in the same city heard that there were problems at another congregation, the elders could call to inquire about them when a member from that troubled congregation sought to identify with their congregation. This could be done without seeking to enter into the affairs of another congregation. They could suggest that any members who moved their membership at the time of this trouble would first be sure that whatever problems they had with the other church were corrected or that effort had been made to correct them before receiving these members. On the other hand, if a congregation were in the process of withdrawing from a member, and he ran off to another congregation, the elders of that congregation could contact the receiving church and explain to them what had occurred in a spirit of meekness and gentleness-not in a spirit of demanding that the receiving church act in any particular fashion. Brotherly relations could be enhanced by such common sense and common courtesy.
These and many other problems face local congregations in exercising church discipline. Because the problems are serious and a threat to God’s people, this special issue has been prepared. The writers hope that everyone will be encouraged by this material to follow God’s word in working to restore those who have turned back into the world.
Guardian of Truth XXIII: 19, pp. 578, 596-597
October 4, 1984