Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Preemptive Resignation—A Get Out of Jail Free Card?

Continuing the blogs on Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman at 9 Marks . . .
Church leaders often ask how they should respond when a person who is being disciplined by the church resigns before the process of discipline is complete. Should they accept the resignation or continue moving toward excommunication?
Suppose a man decides to leave his wife for another woman. Other members of the church ask the man to repent and return to his wife. He doesn’t. They ask again, but this time they also warn him about the possibility of excommunication. So he resigns his membership. Case closed. He’s now immune. Or at least that’s what the adulterous man is saying. Is that correct?

A civic case for allowing preemptive resignations would argue that local churches, in the context of a democratic civic society, are “voluntary organizations,” just like the Boy Scouts, a women’s soccer league, or a gardening club. You can choose to join; you can choose to leave. And no one gives a church the right to say otherwise. In a liberal civic context, the individual reigns supreme.
Now add a theological layer to the argument for preemptive resignation. Human beings do not ultimately depend on their families, their churches, their nations, or their parish priests for a relationship with God. They must depend on Christ. He alone is the mediator between God and man. This means that churches must not deny individuals the ability to act according to their consciences, which includes letting them leave church membership whenever they want to leave. Otherwise, the church effectively denies soul competency and wrongly places itself in between the individual and the individual’s Savior. Right?
In fact, both the civic and the theological objections depend on a reductionistic idea about what the church on earth is. The church on earth does not exist just because a number of individuals have freely decided to associate together in an area of common interest to them, as with the Boy Scouts. It does not exist just as an aid to our sanctification as believers, as an over-inflated concept of soul competency would have us believe.
Rather, the church exists because Christ came to establish his kingdom, and he means for a marked off group of people to represent his heavenly rule on earth (see Matt. 3:2; 4:7; 5:3,5; 6:10,19-20; 13:11). The church exists not simply for its own sanctification’s sake or even finally for the world’s sake. It exists to accomplish the task originally given to Adam and Israel but fulfilled finally in Christ, the task of imaging or representing the glorious rule of God on earth.
The problem is, many hypocrites will claim to belong to the kingdom based on family ties or righteous deeds (e.g. Matt. 3:9; 6:1, 2–3, 5–6, 16–17; 8:11-12; 13:47–50), and many will come claiming the name of Christ and saying “Lord, Lord” (Matt. 7:21-23; cf. 24:5). But the kingdom does not belong to any and all professors; it belongs only to those who produce the fruit of the kingdom in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8; 5:3–12; 7:15–20, 7:24–27; 18:3-4). “Watch out that no one deceives you,” said Jesus, anticipating such false professors (Matt. 24:4).
As such, Jesus gave local churches, who are outposts of this kingdom, the authority to bind and loose, which includes the ability to excommunicate (Matt. 16:19; 18:17-19). Excommunication, then, is one aspect of the authority that Christ gives to the local church for the sake of guarding Christ’s name and reputation on earth (Matt. 18:15-20). It’s a way of saying that someone no longer belongs to the kingdom of Christ, but to the kingdom of Satan (1 Cor. 5:5). Just as baptism functions as a church’s way of publicly affirming an individual’s profession of faith (see Matt. 28:19), so excommunication functions as the church’s way of publicly removing its corporate affirmation from an individual’s profession because that profession appears fraudulent.
Keep in mind what church membership is from the church’s side: it’s the church’s formal affirmation of your profession of faith, together with its commitment to oversee your discipleship. Without discipline, that affirmation and oversight is meaningless, which is to say, membership is meaningless. If a church cannot withdraw its affirmation, what good is the affirmation? For that affirmation and oversight to mean anything, the church needs to be able to “correct the record.” Which is what excommunication is: the church saying to the community, “We previously affirmed this person’s profession, but we can no longer do that.” So the individual might not like it, but the church has it’s own public relations problem to resolve when the individual under discipline tries to resign. In fact, an individual attempting to resign while under discipline is trying to coerce the whole church to make a public statement about the individual the church doesn’t believe.
With all this in mind, consider again the example of the man who leaves his wife for another woman. The man continues to profess faith in Christ, but his profession now appears fraudulent, because his life does not produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8). He has been asked to repent, but he will not. Given a choice between his sin and the commands of his so-called Lord, he chooses his sin. Precisely for such occasions, Jesus has given the local church the authority to excommunicate, the authority to remove its public affirmation of the man’s profession. Once upon a time, the church had publicly affirmed the man’s profession by accepting him into membership and by sharing baptism and the Lord’s Supper with him; it had said to the on-looking world, “Yes, we affirm that this man is a Christ-follower.” But now the church does not want the world to be deceived by the man’s apparently false profession. Therefore, it acts through church discipline to clarify this man’s state for its own members and for the watching world.
In so doing, it effectively says, “No, this is not what a Christ-follower looks like. We cannot affirm his profession, and we cannot identify him with us any longer, because to identify him with us is to identify him with our Lord. And our Lord would never abandon his wife.”
Yes, individuals are ultimately accountable to God and not to their churches. Yes, individuals should choose God’s side rather than the church’s side whenever a church requires its members to go against the Word of God. Yes, the church is a “voluntary organization” insofar as the church cannot conscript members as with an army draft, or keep them from leaving, as with a slave. We’re justified by faith alone. Still, Christ has given the corporate gathering of believers an authority he has not given to the lone individual: the authority, we might call it, of guarding the borders of the kingdom by making public statements on behalf of Christ. It’s the authority of the White House press secretary to speak officially for the president, or of an embassy to speak officially for its government. The individual who attempts to preempt this process by resigning before the church enacts formal discipline is guilty of usurping the church’s apostolic authority to speak in this manner. In so doing, he compounds his guilt, like the criminal charged with “resisting arrest.”
Does a church put itself at legal risk by denying a preemptive resignation and proceeding with discipline? It can, but that risk is ameliorated, if not altogether relieved, by taking two practical steps:
  1. Include a statement concerning church discipline in the official church documents, whether a constitution or by-laws.
  2. Clearly teach about the possibility of church discipline to all incoming members, and include this teaching in the standard curriculum for prospective members.
Should churches discipline members who explicitly renounce the faith? I don’t believe so. Rather, the church should do what it does when someone dies—acknowledge the fact and delete the name from the church’s membership directory. That’s all it can do. Christ has not given the church authority over the dead or over those who do not name his name. In each case, the church covenant is simply rendered moot. It’s worth observing that two of the most important passages on church discipline (Matt. 18:15-17 and 1 Cor. 5) both instruct the church in how to respond to someone who claims to be a brother.
To state the argument here in a single paragraph, we can say that ending one’s membership in a church requires the consent of both parties. We join a church by the consent of the church, and we leave a church by the consent of the church, because it’s the local church that has the authority to publicly represent Christ on earth, as an embassy does its home government. Christ gave the church the authority to bind and loose, not the individual Christian. The man who continues to call himself a Christian and yet attempts to avoid the church’s act of discipline is guilty of usurping the power of the keys. Christ has made the church his proxy on earth exactly for such occasions, lest heretics and hypocrites presume to continue speaking for Christ.

Why You Should Make A “To NOT Do” List

Brian Jones is very focused and exerts a lot of self-discipline.  I have gained much from him concerning these two qualities the last few years.  He blogs at Senior Pastor Central . . . 

Bob Goff says he makes it a habit to quit something every Thursday. I think Senior Pastors would benefit from doing this annually.
There are two things I know for certain about people like you and me:
  1. We routinely do things that self-sabotage our health, emotional well-being, and ministry effectiveness.
  2. We know these things exist, but don’t address them, because we refuse to take time to catch our breath, prayerfully write them down, then drive a stake in the ground and say, “NO MORE.”
Last week I finally made time.
Below is my 2018 “To NOT Do” list.
It’s all the things I’m NOT proud of that I did in 2017.
I’ve asked each of my staff members to create a similar list and bring it to an upcoming staff meeting. We’ll share our lists with each other, then pray for strength to leave our self-sabotaging behaviors behind for good.
I want to encourage you to do this with your staff, and then if you’re willing, share your list on social media. If you do, please tag me.
To make going public easier, I’ll go first…

Brian Jones’ 2018 “To NOT Do” List

  1. I will not allow myself to emotionally eat when I’m under extraordinary amounts of pressure like I did in 2017. I will pre-plan healthy eating options and healthy ways to blow off steam other than eating food, watching television, or surfing the web.
  2. I will not allow myself to view my ministry here as “my” ministry. As the church gets larger, I will work harder to make sure my wife serves alongside me and has ample opportunities to express her giftedness.
  3. I will not allow day-to-day matters to keep me from planning the most compelling sermon series’ possible. Plutarch noted that Spartan mothers used to tell their sons, “Come back with your shield – or on it,” as they went off to war. Because preaching is more important than everything else I do, combined, I will go off-site to engage in advanced study with the same warrior-like intensity and valor.
  4. I will not allow C leaders to pressure me into meeting with them during the week when I have more important priorities to accomplish. I will learn to say no to C leaders so I can say yes to developing the A leaders who will love and lead them.
  5. I will not give out my cell phone number and private email address to people who shouldn’t have them. I will risk looking like I don’t care so I can avoid being pulled in 50 directions.
  6. I will not ignore planning my week’s top 5-6 priorities on Sunday afternoon. I will not allow myself to push them aside when “more important” matters arise. I will make a note of these new issues and incorporate them into next week’s focus.
  7. I will not sacrifice theological integrity to grow this church. I will not play to the theological bottom line, no matter how much pressure I feel as the church grows. I will keep 1 Timothy 4:16 before me at all times.
  8. I will not allow myself to ignore preaching on hard things for fear that people will leave. I will trust that winnowing the presence of people offended by the gospel will only make us stronger. “The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” – King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3.
  9. I will not accept mediocre sermon content from myself when I know I’m capable of preaching excellent sermons every week. I will prepare for each Sunday like it is Christmas Eve or Easterbecause, for someone far from God, it is.
  10. will not work on Fridays and Saturdays. I will trust that consistently working 60 hours a week Sunday through Thursday will be sufficient to ignite long-term kingdom impact.
  11. I will not allow myself to not have a life. I will “pick my head up” from the heat of battle each day and relax, be the kind of friend that others wish they had, and enjoy the journey more.
  12. I will not allow myself to keep unproductive staff on the team because I’m always thinking “I can fix them.” I will remind myself that keeping people who shouldn’t be on the team not only hurts the church, and our staff, but most importantly, them.
  13. I will not allow myself to ignore holding 3-4 Leadership Evangelism meetings a week with the 100 most influential leaders in our region. I will play the long game by investing now in non-Christian leaders who won’t impact our church for 5-15 years. I will remind myself how easy it is to ignore the Saul’s around me, not realizing they are Paul’s in the making.
So, that’s my list.
What’s yours?

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline

The last in a series on chruch discipline from the 9 Marks blog . . .
To some Christians, church discipline seems to contradict the whole shape of the Bible’s story. Isn’t the gospel all about Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners? Aren’t we turning back the clock and putting believers back under the law if we start excluding people from the church for certain sins?
In this piece I want to uproot that intuition as gently and fully as I can, by showing how God’s discipline of his people is an integral part of the Bible’s entire storyline, from Eden to the new creation. We will consider this story in six steps, and close with three conclusions.

In the beginning, God’s people were right where God wanted them, and were just what God wanted them to be. God created Adam and Eve. He brought her to him and united them. He put them in the garden he had made for them. He walked with them and talked with them face to face (Gen 1:26–28; 2:4–25).
But it didn’t last. Adam and Eve sinned, and God imposed on them a capital sentence and banished them. He drove them away east, out of his garden and away from his presence (Gen 3:1–24).
East of Eden, all of humanity sank so deep into sin that God destroyed the entire race by flood, save only one family (Gen 6–8). After the flood and humanity’s new beginning, humanity’s collective pride vaulted so high that God scrambled their tongues and scattered them over the earth (Gen 10–11).
To begin to set things right, God called Abram. God covenanted to him a nation and a name, promising to bless all nations through him (Gen 12:1–3). And God kept his promises, though not always in the most obvious ways. He did grant Abram offspring and multiply those offspring, warranting Abram’s new name, Abraham (Gen 17:5). But then he sent those offspring famine, and then to Egypt, and finally let them slip into slavery. At this point, they’d been so fruitful and multiplied so greatly that they filled the land (Exod 1:7).
When God freed Abraham’s offspring from slavery, he judged their captors with unremitting strictness. He plagued their land, executed their firstborn, and drowned their army (Exod 3–14). But then God’s people themselves needed discipline. Despite the staggering works God performed before their eyes, they disbelieved and complained. They refused to trust that the God who broke their chains could fill their stomachs (Exod 16–17; Num 11). They refused to trust that the God who bested Pharaoh could handle the enemies before them (Num 14).
So God taught them and rebuked them. He provided for them and punished them. He gave them bread that would spoil if hoarded, so they would learn to trust him for daily bread (Exod 16:13–30). He condemned that generation to die in the wilderness, allowing only their children to enter the Promised Land—the very children the Israelites thought God couldn’t protect from their enemies (Num 14:13–38).
On the cusp of the Promised Land, Moses summed up the lessons they were meant to draw from this divine discipline in the Exodus and the desert:
You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. And consider today (since I am not speaking to your children who have not known or seen it), consider the discipline of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt and to all his land, and what he did to the army of Egypt, to their horses and to their chariots, how he made the water of the Red Sea flow over them as they pursued after you, and how the Lord has destroyed them to this day, and what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, son of Reuben, how the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households, their tents, and every living thing that followed them, in the midst of all Israel. For your eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord that he did. (Deut 11:1–7)
God disciplined both Egypt and Israel, but note the difference: God’s discipline for Egypt resulted in their destruction; his discipline for Israel resulted in their instruction. God punished individuals in Israel to purge evil from Israel. God also punished the whole people, but through that discipline he taught them to trust and obey. God spoke to them his ten commandments to “discipline” them, to conform their lives to his will (Deut 4:36). He tested them in the wilderness, providing for them as only he could, so they would trust only in him (Deut 8:1–4). The lesson? “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (Deut 8:5).
God disciplines his people so that they learn not to rely on themselves and run after other gods, but to seek all and find all in him.
God led his people to the Promised Land, drove out their enemies, and established them there. In the covenant God made with Israel through Moses at Sinai, he made them not only a people but a nation (Exod 19:5–6). He gave them a law that was meant not only to secure their obedience but to govern their society. Under the Mosaic covenant, God held Israel accountable to this law, and he authorized the human government of Israel to inflict fitting sanctions for covenant defection. False prophets were to be put to death (Deut 13:1–5), as were idolaters (Deut 13:6–18; 17:2–7). God’s goal in authorizing the people to execute idolaters was to “purge the evil [or “evil person”] from your midst.” God ordered Israel to surgically remove the cancer of idolatry so that it would not metastasize and prove fatal.
In the Mosaic covenant God also employed other means of discipline. If the people failed to obey, he threatened disease and defeat (Lev 26:14–17). If they failed to repent, God promised the further “discipline” of blighting their land and breaking their strength (Lev 26:18–20). And other, more horrific consequences lay in wait if the people persisted in rebellion (Lev 26:21–39; see “discipline” in vv. 23, 28).
All this discipline was designed to avert the disaster of exile. God disciplined his people in order to offer them a lifeline out of a still greater judgment.
To sum up where Israel stood under the Mosaic covenant: God gathered his people together. He brought them to a place he had prepared for them and planted them there (Exod 15:17). He dwelled among them in his tabernacle, and later in his temple (Exod 29:45–46; 40:34–38; 1 Kgs 8:10–12). He walked among them (Lev 26:12).
Sound familiar? It should. Israel was a new Adam, in a new Eden, with a new shot at obedience and lasting, intimate fellowship with God.
But Israel missed their shot. Over the course of hundreds of years, over the warnings of dozens of prophets, the people persistently rejected God and refused his will. So God eventually enforced the sanctions of the covenant, first on Israel in the north, then Judah in the south (see Lev 26; Deut 28; 2 Kgs 17:1–23; 25:1–21).
Because Israel refused to trust and worship and obey God, God imposed on them a kind of capital sentence (Lev 28:38; Deut 4:27). He banished them. He drove them away east, out of his land and away from his presence.
The prophet Jeremiah describes the punishment of exile as discipline. This punishment is retributive, yes, but it also aims at recovery:
Then fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the Lord, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. For I am with you to save you, declares the Lord; I will make a full end of all the nations among whom I scattered you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished. (Jer 30:10–11; cf. 46:28)
Israel and Judah’s exile is punishment, just and measured (cf. Hos 7:12; 10:10). Yet its aim is not destruction, but restoration. God will devastate the nations that hosted his scattered people, but his own people still have this hope: “I am with you to save you.” Like God cast down Pharaoh yet both redeemed and chastised his people, here God promises destruction for the nations yet deliverance through discipline for his people.
Ephraim cries out in exile, “You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God” (Jer 31:18). And God will answer that prayer.
God promises full and final destruction to the nations that disregard him. Yet God disciplines his people with the devastation of exile in order to restore them again to fellowship with him, to repentance, to holiness. But how?
The Mosaic covenant demanded obedience but did not provide the power to obey. The new covenant would:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31–34; cf. 32:37–41; Isa 54:13; Ezek 11:16–20; 36:22–36; 37:15–28; 39:25–29)
What the law couldn’t do, the new covenant will: ensure the wholehearted obedience of God’s whole people.
How is this new covenant enacted? Through the atoning death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the life-giving gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The new covenant gives new power. God’s people are now a new people, reborn and indwelt by the empowering Holy Spirit. God’s people now genuinely and characteristically, albeit imperfectly, reflect God’s glory to the nations.
This new covenant with new power also comes with new discipline. God still disciplines his people through persecution and hard providences, weaning us from the world and tightening our grip on his promises (Heb 12:5–11). God still chastises his people for sin, even to the point of inflicting death (Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor 11:27–31). The purpose, as before, is that by heeding God’s discipline now we will ultimately escape judgment then: “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor 11:32).
But he also provides new means for preserving his people’s purity. In addition to the internal supply of the Spirit, God provides the external support of the church’s accountability. Now, those who claim to be God’s people but whose lives contradict that claim are warned, entreated, pleaded with, and, if necessary, excluded from membership in the church (Matt 18:15–17; 1 Cor 5:1–13; 2 Cor 2:5–8; Tit 3:10–11).
Under the new covenant, idolaters aren’t executed but excluded. The church wields the power of the keys, not the sword. And, as with God’s discipline of Israel in the desert, in their land, and in the exile, the goal is not destruction but repentance and restoration. Paul does call exclusion from the church a “punishment” (2 Cor 2:6). But this punishment aims at transformation: renewed repentance and therefore renewed fellowship with God and God’s people.
We should not miss the connection between the newness of the covenant and this new form of discipline. The New Testament teaching on church discipline presupposes that the members of the church profess faith in Christ, and that their lives typically bear out that claim. When someone’s life fundamentally undermines their profession, the New Testament answer isn’t, “Well, the church is a mixed body. Believers and unbelievers will be in the church together, like the wheat and the tares, until the final judgment.”
The field in which believers and unbelievers remain together until judgment is not the church but the world (Matt 13:38). Church discipline doesn’t simply protect the purity of the church; it presupposes the purity of the church. That is, the New Testament’s teaching on discipline presupposes that the church is to be composed of those who credibly profess faith in Christ: those who say they trust in Jesus and whose lives, to the best of our ability to discern, confirm rather than contradict that claim.
Until Christ returns, we live in the in-between. God’s people are empowered by his new covenant to trust his promises and obey his commands—but not yet perfectly. God’s churches should be composed of people who credibly confess Christ—and yet some professors prove false (1 John 2:19).
But on that final day, God’s people will need no more discipline. We will see Christ face to face, and we will be like him (1 John 3:1–2). God’s discipline of his people now—whether the formative discipline of teaching and training, the corrective discipline of rebuke or exclusion, or the providential discipline of persecution and hardship—all aims at our conformity to Christ, which will one day be perfected. God’s discipline of his people throughout history has always aimed at their restoration and transformation, and one day that transformation will be complete.
But on that day God will also enact a final division. He will effect an irreversible exclusion. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, just as Israel was exiled from their land, so all who do not trust in and follow Christ, all who persist in sin, will be excluded from God’s new creation, forever:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Rev 22:14–15)
What does this story of God’s disciplinary dealings with his people teach us? Of many lessons that could be drawn I select three.
First, on this side of final judgment, every act of divine discipline is intended to reform and renew his people. This side of final judgment, no judgment is final.
Throughout God’s long and twisting history with his often-wayward people, he has often deployed discipline in an effort to stun us out of sinful stupor. The goal every time was repentance and spiritual renovation. Similarly, when we exclude someone from church membership we are not pronouncing their final fate, but warning them of what it could be. To exclude someone from membership is not to pronounce their final condemnation but to seek to avert it. When we exclude someone, we must continue to work and pray and hope for their repentance, renewal, and restoration.
Second, even in disciplining his people, God distinguishes between them and the world. In Jeremiah God promises the nations a full end; he promises his people a new beginning. That’s a temporal forecast of eternal destinies. All who oppose God will meet the “full end” of eternal punishment; all who trust in Christ will experience the eternal new beginning of the new creation.
Third, God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10). God’s discipline is good for us; it aims at a good far greater than what we often settle for. We constantly need reminding that hard providences do not mean God has a hard heart. If God uses hard measures, we should look to our hard hearts as the targets, not accuse God. Only a jackhammer will split concrete.
Love is not always nice, kindness is not always indulgent, and tolerance is not always a virtue. “No” is often the most loving thing a parent or pastor or church can say. And if that no goes unheeded, then it is not cruel but loving to follow God’s own example, and obey God’s own instructions, by disciplining someone now, in hope that they may be saved on the last day

Friday, January 26, 2018

Church Discipline Starts with You

One aspect of my discipleship group is the confession of sin, prayer and holding each other accountable for these struggles with sin.  Accountability is necessary for overcoming sin.  From the 9 Marks blog . . .
What comes to mind when you think of church discipline? If you’re like me, you immediately go to high-profile cases that necessitate robust measures from church leaders. You think of the “big sins” and how the “big guns” respond (i.e., elders/pastors or church leaders).
Church discipline may involve the whole church and its leaders. But church discipline actually starts, and by God’s grace ends, with you and me. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt.18:15, NIV).

In love, you confront sin in hopes of growing together in godliness. And you do it over and over again throughout the ordinary course of discipleship, much like a grassroots movement. Plain and simple, right?
Yes and no. It is simple but it feels so scary! I struggle with fear when confronting someone. I question and focus too much on myself (Who am to judge them? Or, what if they reject me). In fact, I’d do almost anything to get out of an uncomfortable and inconvenient conversation.
But Jesus’ teaching is clear—church discipline starts with you. So, we need to take it seriously and work toward cultivating an atmosphere in which discipline is a healthy part of the discipleship process.
I once heard an elder say that we need to put the “disciple” back into discipline. Amen! The emphasis of discipline should always be on growing as disciples of Jesus. As we put the proper weight on discipleship, discipline will become less “scary” and more natural. That said, here are five things I’ve learned in my discipling relationships that can apply broadly to both men and women.
1. Build Meaningful Relationships
You need to be in real relationship with others in your local church, close enough that you come across others’ sin from time to time. You don’t need to be “besties” with everyone or become an extrovert. But you know each other’s stories, lives, and families. You spend time together, share meals, enter into one another’s joys and sorrows. You do all the stuff of life that makes for a meaningful relationship, including fighting sin together. Within this context, a gentle rebuke to or from a friend isn’t so earth-shattering. It’s the norm. But it starts with developing a real relationship with at least one person from your church.
2. Set the Tone
Set a redemptive tone for the entire relationship. Talk about Jesus…a lot! Meditate on his grace together, read the Bible together, talk about how the Spirit is working in your life. Choose to be transparent and vulnerable, confessing your own sin and temptations on a regular basis. Ask for discipline from those close to you. Let them know your chief desire is to become more like Jesus and you need their help to do this. My husband and I set this tone for our marriage over a decade ago. We committed to each other’s sanctification above all else, which means we’re routinely disciplining one another. Just last week I asked Neal about his priorities because I hadn’t seen him in the Word. Yesterday he called me out on wanting accolades for an idea that I didn’t need. Do we always love this? No way! But do we love Jesus more than we did ten years ago? Absolutely. That’s the gift of discipline.
3. Make Frequent Deposits
This is relationship 101. Make ten life-giving deposits for every one withdrawal. Look for evidences of grace and growth in other people’s lives and then go out of your way to share it with them. Have you noticed your friend being softer toward his kids? Or a young mother fighting for time in the Word? If so, tell them! Build relational capital by giving consistent encouragement so when the time comes to make a “discipline withdrawal” it won’t empty their account. I’m much more quick to receive instruction from someone I know is in my corner and unconditionally for me. When that person says, “Whitney, you’ve been too critical lately” I’m all ears. Frequent deposits tell that person you love them and are for them.
4. Ask Good Questions (and LISTEN!)
One good question goes further than ten accusations. Questions help you better understand the situation and disarm the other person’s defense mechanism, making the conversation more fruitful. Better to come alongside a sister and say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been talking about so-and-so lately. Why haven’t you gone to her?” than to sit her down and say, “You are a total gossip and here are the ten times I’ve caught you doing it.” By asking a question you’re not only illuminating the sin of gossip, you’re drawing out reasons why she might be prone to gossip, like insecurity or fear of man, which also needs to be addressed in the context of loving discipleship. It’s like a “twofer.” You confront them but also seek to understand where they are and what they need in this season of life. Leading with questions rather than pre-determined judgments allows for the complexity of life and the layers of a situation.
5. Choose Your Battles
We want to exercise discipline on a regular basis, but let’s not become a community that’s always hunting for sin. I’ve been a part of a sin-hunting church, and it’s disheartening, not to mention weird! I felt like I had to fabricate sin just to fit in. This isn’t the heart of Matthew 18. True discipleship is knowing when to confront sin and when to cover it. Peter reminds us that above all we’re to love each other deeply “because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Some days you’ll see sin and just need to keep quiet until another time. This doesn’t mean we cover up sin (sin is always to be taken seriously); rather, we cover over it to protect and love that person. If you call out every sin you see, it will create a culture of anxiety, as people break beneath the burden of your scrutiny. So, with much prayer and Spirit-led wisdom, choose your battles.
Incorporating these points will go a long way in building a culture where discipline is a natural piece of discipleship. However, because this is a touchy topic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address one more area.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself—And Your Relationships!
The cat’s out of the bag—I’m a hip hop, rap, and R&B junkie. I was raised on it and the funk still runs deep in my veins. So when I think about concluding thoughts on church discipline, I can’t help but hear Ice Cube’s timeless words, “Check yo self before you wreck yo self.” There’s wisdom here. When left to our own devices, humans have a way of wrecking a good thing.
Church discipline is no different. It can become a good thing gone bad if we’re not careful. That’s why we need to put personal “checks” in place so that we don’t end up doing more damage than discipleship. No one will approach discipline “perfectly,” but we can all do it humbly, checking ourselves to make sure we’re loving, serving, and protecting the person(s) involved:
1. Check your life.
You won’t be sinless before you confront someone else’s sin, but don’t ignore the plank in your own eye. Ask yourself, “Is there any hidden or habitual sin in my life I need to confess?” You may have to begin the confrontation by confessing your sin before addressing the other person’s.
2. Check your heart.
Discipline is motivated by genuine love for someone. If you’re more concerned about “winning” the conversation or proving your point, then you don’t have their best interest in mind. There’s no room for personal vendettas or nursed grudges in godly confrontation. If you can’t rebuke someone in love, then let someone who can do the rebuking.
3. Check your emotions.
If you’re particularly heated over an offense, I’d suggest waiting until you calm down before you confront. You don’t need to be emotionless, but you want to be in control of your emotions. Often when we point out sin in the heat of our anger or frustration, we end up sinning ourselves. Better to wait and collect yourself than to say something you can’t take back.
4. Check your words.
Words matter. Careless words spoken, even with good intentions, can cause a world of hurt. Your words should be clear and firm, while also being gentle and restorative. If you need to jot a few things down beforehand to make sure you’re not too casual or too abrasive, by all means, do it!
5. Check your goal.
The goal of discipline is always repentance, restoration, and reconciliation, if necessary. Like Jesus, who laid down his life so you could be reconciled to the Father, you’re seeking the welfare of another, even if it comes at your own expense. Always ask, “Why am I doing this?” If it’s about anything other than repentance and restoration, wait and pray until your goals are in check.
With all of those “helps” in hand, I urge you to be bold in church discipline as it’s a vital means of grace. A loving church will be a disciplining church. And the burden of that discipline rests primarily us “ordinary Christians” who make up the discipleship community. May we love one another enough to confront sin and call each other to repentance so we can move toward Jesus together

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Why Churches Should Excommunicate Longstanding Non-Attenders

This is the reason we have a clause in our membership that if someone has not attended for six months, they are contacted and removed from membership.  From the 9 Marks blog . . .
A few years back, I heard about a church that had grown concerned about their bloated membership. After years of lackadaisical accounting, the number had become unwieldy, even disingenuous. Their “official” membership tallied more than twice the average attendance—doubtlessly inflated by the dead, the derelict, and the well-intentioned-but-never-there.
This discrepancy obscured the church’s identity.

So they came up with an idea: let’s just zero out the membership and, over the course of time, let those who are still around re-up their commitment and re-join the church.
This approach, they thought, would slay two giants with one smooth stone: first, it would enable the church to reach out to everyone on their list and hopefully reanimate for some the desire to gather with God and God’s people. Second, they’d finally know the souls over which they were to keep watch, the individuals for whom they would one day be held accountable.
So over the course of a few months, they reached out to everyone and let them know of a date in the future when all who were willing would re-dedicate their spiritual oversight to this specific church. For many, this was a no-brainer; they’d never stopped attending. For others, God used the correspondence to pry them out of their apathy and into the pew.
But for some, the letters were returned to sender (or were ignored), the emails bounced (or were ignored), and the pleas for reunion fell on deaf ears, if they fell on any ears at all.
And so, before long, their covenant with this church was deleted with a keystroke.
Though full of good intentions, I submit that what happened at the church above is pastoral malpractice. It flips Jesus’ “Lost Sheep” parable in Matthew 18 upside-down: “If a man has 100 sheep, and 99 of them have come back, does he not stay with the 99 and leave the one alone?”
It’s good to have a more accurate membership roll. But it’s best to pursue these non-attenders toward a specific end: removal if they’re attending another gospel-preaching church, restoration if they’re happy to return, and excommunication if they’re either unwilling to attend church anywhere or unable to be found.
In fact, I want to up the ante a bit: pursuing longstanding non-attenders—I don’t mean inconsistent attenders, but those who have been wholly absent for several months or even years—and excommunicating those they can’t find is a mark of a healthy church. Of course such pursuits can be done poorly and with a heavy hand. But this abuse should make us cautious and careful, not convinced the better choice is to do nothing.
This practice is entirely in accord with the Bible’s teaching on what a church is, what a pastor is, and what biblical love is. Even if the non-attender has no idea any pursuit or eventual discipline is happening, the church’s act appropriately warns those who are present about the dangers of pursuing the Christian life outside a local church.
With feathers sufficiently ruffled, let me provide a biblical rationale.
Text #1: Matthew 18:10–35
It’s crucial to understand the context of Jesus’ foundational teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18:15–20. As one pastor put it , “In the Bible, church discipline is a rescue operation.”
What precedes this bulk of teaching is the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus wants to put us in the sandals of a shepherd with 100 sheep in order to illustrate God’s pursuing love for his people. And yet, the parable raises a question: what do we do if a stubborn sheep refuses to come back?
The answer to this question comes in the next block of teaching: we pursue him, and if he persists in his departure, then we cast him out, treating him like a pagan and a tax collector. In other words, our relationship to the departing sheep essentially changes.
Excommunicating someone who has completely stopped attending is, in effect, giving them what they’ve asked for. It’s letting go of the rope they’re trying to pull out of our hands. It’s not forcing them to remain bound when they don’t want to be. At the same time, it’s also refusing to let them force us to declare them a “Christian in good standing” when, in good conscience, we don’t feel like we can.
For those reading closely, this raises another question: what if the sheep comes back? Jesus seems to answer that question with another parable, this one concerning an unforgiving servant (18:21–35). The point here is simple: we forgive those who have sinned against us. Why? Because we’ve been forgiven by the God whom we’ve sinned against, an offense far more severe than whatever slights we’ve endured.
In other words, pastors—no, in other words, churches—we quickly and gladly and wholly forgive returning and repentant sheep because we know we ourselves have strayed and, if not for God’s tether on us, we’d stray again and again, farther and farther. Mirroring David in Psalm 23, this hymn describes the lot of us:
Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.
—“The King of Love My Shepherd Is” (Henry Williams Baker, 1868)
In summary, Matthew 18 teaches us both the foundation and trajectory of church discipline: we pursue straying church members because God pursues his lost sheep, even if it’s “just” 1 of 99. Sadly, this will occasionally result in exclusion because some lost sheep intend to stay lost. We will give them what they ask for and let them go, but we will insist on speaking honestly as they do.
Happily, however, lost sheep have a way of coming back—and when they do, we should forgive them swiftly and completely because God in Christ has forgiven us swiftly and completely.
Text #2: Hebrews 10:23–25 [1]
Here are the verses in question:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The author of Hebrews has two commands for us. The first is in verse 23: hold fast to the confession of our hope, a confession he’s just spelled out for us by extolling what Christ accomplished for us as our high priest. This command is rooted in the faithfulness of God (verse 23).
Thankfully, the second command—stir up one another to love and good words—is accompanied by an immediate application. How do we do this? Simple: we keep on meeting together. Why? Because we can’t encourage someone we never see. Again, the author roots this command and its application in a promise: we gather and encourage and spur on because we see Judgment Day drawing near, when our faithful, promise-keeping God will return and we will gather with him, forever.
Though he wrote nearly two millennia ago, the author of Hebrews seems familiar with our modern predicament. Did you notice? “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”
It is indeed the habit of some Christians to neglect meeting together. In doing so, they miss out on encouragement; they miss out on being spurred on to love and good works. But that’s not all: their vantage point on God’s work in the Christian life shrinks, their confidence in their confession of hope wanes, their memory of God keeping his promises fades, and their once clear-eyed vision of the coming Day of the Lord blurs to black.
Speaking of, did you notice how severe this warning is? The Day of Judgment? Explain to me, then, how removing someone from membership is too severe. Imagine a non-attending “church member” arrives at Judgment Day and is told eternal judgment awaits. At this moment, how “loving” will that church seem who did nothing, or who quietly deleted his name from a computer? Will he not be right to be angry at that church: “Why didn’t you warn me?”
In fact, our small, two-dimensional pictures of removal now may be the most loving thing we can do because they warn people of the potential permanent reality of removal to come.
These verses in Hebrews let us pursue non-attending members with our Bibles open to a chapter and verse, rather than a list of well-intentioned, thought-through suggestions. We can point not only to a violation of a biblical command, but also to the God-ordained benefits they’re missing.
Text #3: Hebrews 13:17 (Acts 20:28)
As he approaches the coda of his correspondence, the author of Hebrews exhorts his audience:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
A few verses earlier, in verse 7, these leaders are described as those who “spoke to you the word of God.” There, we’re told to imitate these leaders’ faith, and consider the outcome of their way of life.
One implication of these verses is that church leaders (pastors, elders, etc.) are to live amidst their people such that the ways and outcomes of their lives can be considered and therefore imitated. Any elder who lives in an ivory tower, above and away from his people, is living below his station. Thundering commands and exhortations from the clouds, this so-called elder doesn’t realize his people can’t even hear him. He’s talking to himself.
This should be instructive. A church member who only hears from their pastors when they’ve done something wrong—like, say, not attend church for a year—offers a reasonable (though not foolproof) objection when they ask, “Well, where were you when the stuff that caused me to leave happened?” It’s simultaneously easier andmore effective to pastor someone on their way out the door rather than someone who’s already left.
Though important, let’s ignore the command to obey our leaders and instead focus on why we’re told to do this. We’re to obey our leaders—assuming they’re joyful and not grumbling, qualified and amidst their people—because one day they will give an account for us.
This is an elder’s unique calling. On the Last Day, they will give an account for every member placed under their care. To state the specifics of everything this means would state too much; we just don’t know. But at the very least, if you’re an elder at a church whose membership roll has no bearing in the reality, then you should wonder what this means for you. If you’re leading a church that has assured, through baptism and/or membership, hundreds or even thousands of people that they’ll spend eternity with Jesus, but you’ve absolutely no idea where they are, then you should at least wonder what this means for you. Perhaps you should also start to worry.
Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders come to mind: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
There’s never a moment when an elder can say about a church member: oh, he’s not my responsibility anymore. Why? Because our Lord charges them with paying careful attention to all the flock—whether they’re there or not, whether they want to be cared for or not.
Every single member of any local church should be precious to its leaders because it’s precious to its God. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, look at her purchase price.
The biblical case is clear. We pursue absent church members for at least three reasons:
  • God pursues straying sheep.
  • We’re told not to forsake gathering with our brothers in sisters. This is not an optional command.
  • Our elders will give account to God for every single person placed under their care. There are no exceptions.
But who cares what the Bible says if there’s nothing in the life of a church to make this course of action plausible? In an effort to fix this, I’ve listed a few plausibility-building steps below.
1. In your church covenant, add a line or two that mentions what members should do when they leave.
My former church used this line: “We will, when we move from this place, as soon as possible, unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.” Brief, general, and to-the-point—that should be the goal.
Of course, the words in your church covenant won’t matter if it just gathers dust. So use it: in membership classes, when you take the Lord’s Supper, before you begin members’ meetings, periodically in your sermon application.
2. Teach your members about their God-given authority and responsibility .
Church discipline both begins and ends with individual members exercising their God-given authority and responsibility. Thankfully, the process usually stops after Step #1, when Member A gently confronts Member B and Member B responds in gratitude and repentance.
But on those unfortunate occasions when a sinning member remains unrepentant, it’s important to underscore the whole church’s involvement. A steady diet of teaching on this will help people see that here’s also no reason for them to ever say a church member is no longer their concern. The reclamation of an absent member is a congregational project, not just for those who are paid or elected to care.
3. Don’t be territorial .
I’ve often heard that excommunicating non-attending members is spiritually abusive, that it’s evidence of a territorial ungodliness and a lust for market control. This is perhaps true in some cases, but not necessarily so.
In fact, a charge like this simply won’t stick to churches and pastors that are known for their big-heartedness.[2] So, regularly send members to help other churches. Share your pulpit. Plant churches without your particular branding or ecclesiological imprimatur. Pray for other churches publicly. Don’t be a denominational shill. Build cooperative friendships across racial and theological lines.
4. Forget good intentions; depend on specific policies and processes.
As Don Carson once said, “No one drifts toward holiness.” Similarly, no church drifts toward health. This is why we need extra-biblical structures and processes that attempt to reflect and enact biblical teaching.
Membership classes, lists of members, a defined length of absence before someone is pursued—none of this is in the Bible. Instead, they’re attempts to distill the wisdom of the Bible into prudential processes.
It doesn’t matter how much you care about this in your heart of hearts if there aren’t any practices to back your conviction up. In pastoral ministry, there will always be something more pressing than, “Reach out to Member X whom we haven’t seen in six months.”
These issues are categorically non-urgent, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. So think through policies and best practices that will aid in this endeavor. Modify them to fit your context, and trust the Lord will bless your preparation.
5. Teach on the derivative authority of the church.
Your church and its members have real, God-given authority, which means we must exercise it soberly and carefully. Passages like Matthew 18:15–20 and 1 Corinthians 5 are clear: the decisions we make when we gather mean something.
But we must never forget: our authority, though derived from the Lord, is not analogous to his. To miss this is to make the mistake of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, when we teach on the church’s authority, we must stress that it’s real, but it’s also derivative and limited and errant.
Perhaps that member you can’t find and haven’t heard from moved last-minute and, as we all do, forgot to tell anyone. Perhaps they’re gladly serving in another church across the country. I’d guess these situations will be the minority, but they will happen, which is why we must constantly teach both ourselves and our people that an excommunication for non-attendance is not a declaration that Member X has been cut off from the Lord. It’s simply a declaration that, despite our best efforts, we don’t know where he or she is, and therefore must withdraw our affirmation.
I’ve never met a growing and mature Christian who doesn’t regularly attend a gospel-preaching church.
On the other hand, I’ve met dozens and dozens of professing Christians who never (or sparingly) attend church. Their lives are an experiment in spiritual subsistence farming. They’re not living in open immorality, but their confidence in their own profession of faith wavers by the day, as their last time regularly in communion with God and under the preaching of the Word floats further and further away. They’d probably never admit it, but they’re becoming incredulous even at themselves.
I suppose I could have said this earlier, but I used to be a member of the church I mentioned at the beginning. Years later, I remain deeply grateful for it, as God saved me there and discipled me under its faithful ministry.
And yet, I struggle not to be frustrated. As I type this, so many faces flicker in my mind, faces of friends who attended church with me. We went to youth group together, to summer camp together, to accountability group together. We were young and mischievous and stupid, but we were also trying to become serious, mindful, and genuine Christians.
Then college came, and our lives meandered. Some went here; others went there; still others went nowhere. Sure, they started at one church, and then another, and then another. But after a while, their erratic commitment became non-commitment, and their non-commitment became lethargy, and their lethargy became paralysis, and their paralysis eventually started to look like death—that flicker of mindfulness snuffed out through well-intentioned inattention. As the years have passed, I wish I’d said more about this to them.
Once upon a time, all these friends’ names were on a list that said they’d spend eternity with Jesus. More than a decade later, this fact might seem incidental, detached from any substantive evidence, dismissible on a technicality or the statute of limitations.
But that’s wrong. Every name was written down on purpose—the result of a sober-minded decision that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God, their Lord and Savior. This decision preceded a baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I don’t know if any of these guys got a letter or an email, and if they did I don’t know if they ignored it. But I do know what happened next: their covenant was deleted with a keystroke.
Oh, how I wish someone had warned them what that meant

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Step-by-Step Primer for Church Discipline

Church discipline is often From Geoff Chang at the 9 MArks blog . . . .

Church discipline makes sense when you understand what the church is. If the church were a building, then discipline might involve better property management. If the church were just an institution, then discipline might be about organizational restructuring. If the church were merely a weekly show, then discipline might require better event planning.
While those things play into our experience of church, the New Testament is clear that the church people. It’s the process by which members of a church guard one another from the deceitfulness of sin and uphold the truth of the gospel.
is fundamentally a people, a congregation marked by their commitment to Christ and to one another. Therefore, when the Bible talks about church discipline, it involves the spiritual care of 

Church discipline largely takes place informally, as Christians speak the truth in love to one another and point each other to the grace of the gospel. However, in this fallen world, there will be times when informal discipline will not be enough; there will be times when those who belong to the church refuse to repent and continue down the path of sin. It’s for these situations that Jesus provides instructions for church discipline:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matt. 18:15–17)
Every single step of this process is an expression of Christ’s loving and wise rule over his church, and therefore every step ought to be followed.
Step #1: Have a private conversation.
It all begins with private confrontation (Matt. 18:15). As mentioned above, this happens regularly in the life of the church in all kinds of contexts. The member who knows of unrepentant sin is to go to the one who has sinned and, in love, call him to repentance. Rather than fostering gossip and division, Jesus commands his people to speak privately first, “just between the two of [them].” And in God’s grace, so often this is the means by which God works repentance among his people.
But what happens if that initial confrontation is rejected? What does it look like once we get beyond that informal step? Though details will vary depending on the church and the circumstances, below are five steps that church leaders should generally take in the process of church discipline:
Step #2: Take one or two others along (Matt. 18:16).
The next step widens the circle of involvement, while not yet involving the church as a whole. Jesus instructs the members to take one or two others along to confront the one caught in sin. If the elders have already been notified, it might be appropriate for one of the elders to go along with the member making the charge. It’s also worth considering whether there might be another member of the church—perhaps a trusted friend—to speak into his life. Ideally, this step would happen in a personal meeting, but in certain situations, a phone call, voicemail, or perhaps even written correspondence may have to suffice.
Those involved up to this point should evaluate the response of the one caught in sin and determine if there’s evidence of genuine, lasting repentance. Of course, the goal isn’t perfection but rather a heart that’s broken over sin and clinging to Christ, evidenced by humility and a willingness to follow wise counsel. In many cases, this step may take weeks, or months, or even longer. Often, it’s here that God brings about repentance and reconciliation. But in some cases, it will become evident to those involved that there’s no genuine repentance and, in obedience to Christ’s instructions, the church should proceed to the next step.
Step #3: Involve leaders or elders by informing them of the situation.
Somewhere around step 2, maybe before, maybe after, a Christian should consider involving a few elders or other leaders of the church (like a small group leader). This might begin with a conversation, but eventually the elders should have a way of formally receiving charges (for example, the elders might require that the charges be made in writing or they might invite the person to meet with one or two of them). Jesus does not speak of the involvement of elders in Matthew 18, but given the responsibility over the church that the apostles assign to them in other passages, it makes sense that elders would be involved in the process of church discipline at some point. In more difficult situations, the elders will need to be involved sooner rather than later.
Here, the leadership has the responsibility to consider the nature of the charges. Is the sin concrete and serious enough to warrant taking the next steps of church discipline? Are there extenuating circumstances that the member might not know? Are there other members who might better speak to the one caught in sin? How do we care for those who have been wronged? The leaders of the church will need to think through these and other important questions, and prayerfully shepherd those involved in the following steps.
Step #4: Give adequate notice to the one caught in sin.
Before making the matter public, the elders will want to make formal contact with the one caught in sin. This is especially in cases where there has been minimal contact with the elders, as when communication has been rejected or most of the information has been communicated secondhand. The goal of this contact is to explain the charges and express their love and concern. If the person remains unrepentant, then it’s necessary to notify them of when this will be shared with the congregation. Given the need for clarity and precision in communication, the initial contact should probably be some form of written communication, followed up by a phone call or a personal meeting.
If none of the elders have met with the one being confronted, they should make clear that they want a chance to hear his side of the story. If meeting with all the elders is too intimidating, they can offer to send a smaller group of the elders. The goal in this step is to give the unrepentant member a chance to meet with the leaders personally and make sure there is no misunderstanding.
If after this step it’s clear there’s no misunderstanding and there’s still no repentance, then the elders should proceed to the next step.
Step #5: Tell it to the church (Matt. 18:17).
At this point, Jesus commands the member to “tell it to the church.” Though “church” has been interpreted in many different ways, Jesus seems to understand the church to be a gathering of disciples in his name (Matt. 18:20, see 1 Cor. 5:4). The church is the congregation. In this step, the elders will communicate what’s taken place to the congregation.
Given the sensitive nature, it makes sense that the elders would present this at a regularly scheduled members’ meeting, rather than a public worship service. The elders need to think through carefully what and how much to communicate about to the congregation. They want to communicate enough so that the congregation understands what has taken place and the need for church discipline. However, they should not communicate so much that it makes returning upon repentance difficult because of public shame, embarrasses family members, or causes weaker sheep to stumble.
Given the need for carefulness and precision, it’s generally wise for the elders to craft a letter to be read at the meeting, rather than trying to explain it extemporaneously. In some cases, the elders may want to involve the member who initially brought the charges in crafting the letter. After the elders read the letter, they should allow for questions from the congregation, and invite people to talk to them privately if they have further questions. In more difficult cases, the elders might consider holding a forum for members of the church to bring questions.
Having been apprised of the situation, the congregation should be instructed to pray. Those in the church who have a personal relationship with the one caught in sin should be encouraged to reach out prayerfully. The elders will want to give the congregation enough time to participate in the process of confrontation.
This period may be the time until the next members’ meeting, or longer if needed. However, in certain cases, the church may need to act more quickly, perhaps even right away, if the church feels confident about a lack of repentance (1 Cor. 5:1-5).
Step #6: Remove the unrepentant person from membership (Matt. 18:17).
After following all the previous steps, if the individual continues to refuse to listen “even to the church,” then the elders should update the congregation on the situation, and bring a formal motion for the congregation to remove him from the membership of the church. If the vote passes, then the church needs to understand that they no longer affirm this person’s profession of faith. They are to relate to him no longer as one who belongs to the church but to the world, like “a pagan or tax collector.”
Following the removal, the elders should instruct the congregation on how to interact with the individual. As someone under discipline, the goal is not to shun him or to cut off all relationship. Rather, members should relate to him as someone in need of the gospel, yet who is self-deceived. In that sense, interactions are more complex than relating with non-Christian friends who know they are non-Christians. Any interactions should be used to call the person to repentance and to remind him of the hope of the gospel. Members should encourage him to attend the services of the church and to sit under the preaching of the Word. And yet, at the same time, they must avoid relating to him casually as if nothing has changed.
After the meeting, the elders should send a written communication to the individual, informing him of the act of discipline, and expressing their love for him and their desire for his repentance and restoration. The elders should also continue to follow up with the congregation in different settings (Sunday School classes, small groups, etc) to see if there are any concerns or questions about what has taken place. Church discipline can be a difficult time in the life of a church, and yet it can also be used by God to bring about maturity and growth. Elders should shepherd the congregation wisely both throughout the process and after.
Church discipline would be easier if the church wasn’t made up of people. But Jesus didn’t come for buildings or institutions or events. He came to save a people for himself, sinners like you and me.
It’s this reality that makes church discipline a wonderful gift. The church is a gathering of those who through repentance and faith have received the hope of Christ’s salvation and are helping each other persevere in that hope. To neglect church discipline is to fail to love one another in that way. So, as we labor to follow Christ’s instructions for the purity of the church, we cling to the hope of the gospel both for ourselves and for those around us.
Author’s Note: For more detail on these questions, consult Jonathan Leeman’s Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus .

Friday, January 19, 2018

“Don’t do it!!” Why You Shouldn’t Practice Church Discipline

By Mark Devers from the 9 Marks blog . . .

“Don’t do it.” That’s the first thing I tell pastors when they discover church discipline is in the Bible. I say, “Don’t do it, at least not yet.” Why this advice?
Let’s think about what happens in the process of discovery. When pastors first hear of church discipline, they often think the idea is ridiculous. It sounds unloving, counter-evangelistic, weird, controlling, legalistic, and judgmental. It certainly seems unworkable. They even wonder if it’s illegal.

Then, when no one is looking, they look back at their Bible. They come across passages like 2 Thessalonians 3:6, or Galatians 6:1, or the classic text on discipline—1 Corinthians 5. They consider the Old Testament background of excommunication, and they recall that God has always purposed for his people to be a picture of his own holiness (Deut. 17:7; Lev. 19:2; Isa. 52:11; 1 Peter 1:16).
Then, somehow, they turn to Jesus’ own teaching, and discover that, in the same chapter in which Jesus condemns judgmentalism (see Matt. 7:1), he also warns the disciples to be on their guard against false prophets and against those who claim to follow him but do not obey his Word (Matt. 7:15-20; 21-23). Finally, Matthew 18 comes up, where Jesus instructs his followers to exclude the unrepentant sinner in certain situations (Matt. 18:17). Maybe churches should practice discipline?
What finally sends these otherwise nice, normal, well-adjusted, previously popular pastors over the edge is their discovery that some churches do, in fact, practice church discipline. Not strange, maladjusted churches, but happy, growing, large, grace-oriented churches like Grace Community in Sun Valley, California, or Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, or First Baptist in Durham, North Carolina, or the Village Church near Dallas.
Now these pastors are in trouble. They realize they need to be obedient. They feel compelled by the biblical picture of a holy, loving, united church, a church that reflects the one, holy, loving God. They understand their failure to practice discipline hurts their church and its witness to the world.
It’s at this point that a sullen resolve often seems to set in. “I will lead this congregation to be biblical at this point if it’s the last thing I do!” And, too often, it is.
Into the peaceful, well-meaning life of an innocent, Bible-believing congregation, the lightning bolt of church discipline strikes! It may be in a sermon. It may be in a conversation between the pastor and a deacon. It may be in a hastily arranged motion at a members meeting. But somewhere it hits, usually accompanied by great earnestness and a torrent of Scriptural citations.
Then, the sincere action is taken.
Then, the response comes: misunderstanding and hurt feelings result. Counter charges are made. Sin is attacked and defended. Names are called. Acrimony abounds! The symphony of the local congregation transposes into a cacophony of arguments and accusations. People cry out, “Where will this stop?!” and “So do you think you’re perfect?”
What’s the pastor to do? My advice would be, “Don’t get yourself into this situation in the first place. Once you’ve discovered that corrective church discipline is biblical, hold off on practicing it for a while.” (Church discipline is both corrective and formative, the latter referring to the church’s work of teaching or forming Christians.)
Now at this point maybe you’re thinking, “Mark, are you telling us to disobey the Bible?!”
In fact, I’m not. I’m trying to help you do what Jesus instructed his disciples to do (see Luke 14:25-33): count the cost before you begin. Make sure your congregation sufficiently understands and accepts this biblical teaching. Your goal is not immediate compliance followed by an explosion, but rather a congregation being reformed by the Word of God. You want them going in the right direction. And that requires patient shepherding.
First, encourage humility. Help people to see that they may be mistaken about their own spiritual state. Consider the example of the man in 1 Corinthians 5 as well as Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian Christians more broadly in 2 Corinthians 13:5. Paul charges us to examine ourselves to see if we’re in the faith. Do your church members recognize that they are to help one another do that?
Second, make sure that your congregation has a biblical understanding of church membership. People don’t understand discipline because they don’t understand membership. Membership is a congregational relationship. It is not created, sustained, or ended merely by the act of an individual; an individual cannot join a church unilaterally without the congregation’s consent. Likewise, an individual cannot continue in membership, or leave the membership of a particular congregation without the congregation’s explicit or implicit approval (except by death). That’s a mouthful, but what I’m basically saying is that it is a church’s business to decide who its members are. And members cannot simply leave when they’re in unrepentant sin. (See Jonathan Leeman’s article, “The Preemptive Resignation—A Get Out of Jail Free Card?” for a fuller discussion of this matter.)
Such a vision of membership, however, must first be positively presented. Understand what the Bible teaches about church membership. Make sure that you’ve familiarized yourself with several crucial points and passages that you can remind members of when they ask. Look for opportunities in your sermons to teach on the distinction between the church and the world, and how that distinction is important for the nature and mission of the church. Help your congregation to assemble such a picture of God’s plan for his church that the outlines of discipline begin to become conspicuous by their absence from your church’s practice. Remember that the members must understand membership and discipline because they’re the ones who must carry it out.
Third, pray that God would help you to model ministry to other Christians in your church by your public teaching and your private work with families and individuals. Work toward creating a “culture of discipleship” and accountability in your church, where Christians understand that a basic part of their following Jesus is helping others to follow Jesus (both through evangelism and discipling other Christians). Help them to understand the special responsibilities they have toward other members of their particular congregation. Teach them that the Christian life is personal, but not private.
Fourth, prepare your congregation’s written constitution and covenant. Consult Ken Sande’s article on the 9Marks website, for some general legal advice. Begin teaching pre-membership classes in which matters touching membership and discipline are explicitly taught.
Fifth, and finally, in your pulpit ministry, never tire of teaching what a Christian is. Regularly define the gospel and conversion. Explicitly teach that a church is intended to be composed of repenting sinners who are trusting in Christ alone, and who give credible professions of that trust. Pray that you would be centered on the gospel. Resolve that, with God’s help, you will slowly but steadily lead your congregation to change. Pray that, rather than being a church where it’s strange to ask people how they’re doing spiritually, you would become a church where it would begin to seem strange if someone didn’t ask about your life.
You know your congregation is ready to practice church discipline when:
  • Your leaders understand it, agree with it, and perceive its importance (mature leadership shared among several elders is the most consistent with Scripture and very helpful for leading a church through potentially volatile discussions);
  • Your congregation is united in understanding that such discipline is biblical;
  • Your membership consists largely of people who regularly hear your sermons;
  • A particularly clear case comes along in which your members would fairly unitedly perceive that excommunication is the correct action (for example, excommunication for adultery is more likely to yield agreement among your members than excommunication for non-attendance.)
So, my pastor friend, though you may have once thought that the idea of church discipline is ridiculous, I pray that God will help you to lead your congregation to see that it is a loving, provocative, attractive, distinct, respectful, gracious act of obedience and mercy, and that it helps to build a church that brings glory to God.
But remember, when you first become convinced of the biblical case for church discipline, your first step in an established congregation is probably to begin by not practicing discipline, so that someday you ca