Another article from the 9 Marks blog. This is a series on church discipline that I am posting. I am starting with a testimony . . .
Many years ago, I was excommunicated from my church, and I’m thankful to God for it.
You probably wouldn’t expect to hear that reaction. But if the church had not honored God’s Word, I’m afraid to even wonder what the state of my life—and more importantly, my soul—might be in today. My removal from church membership directly led to God’s restorative work in my life. So now, I’m a cheerleader for church discipline. As you consider my testimony, be encouraged to appropriately exercise loving, biblical church discipline when a fellow church member is no longer walking in step with his confession.
My story is like so many others. I grew up in a faithful Christian home. I attended a gospel-preaching church. In every way, I looked and acted the part of a good Christian kid. I confessed my faith in Christ at an early age and was baptized a few years later. I was a popular member of our youth group and played on the worship team. I even would have affirmed the gospel and my own conversion.
But in a state of cognitive dissonance that only the deception of sin can explain, I was simultaneously pursuing pleasures of the world. What started as an obsession with pornography and masturbation led to increasing degrees of immorality and fornication. But the double life was exhausting, and eventually my transgressions were exposed. At first, I manufactured remorse when I was confronted by other Christians in an attempt to convince them that I was repentant. But as I continued to pursue my lusts, my heart became more hardened, and I no longer bothered to cover my sin. My hypocritical life was known to many members of my church, and I didn’t want or know how to change.
Here I was, claiming to be a Christian, faithfully attending church, and continually fornicating with little hope of repentance. The elders, many of whom had known me for most of my life, patiently loved and pleaded with me. But I continued to embrace my sin, and my church made the hard, biblical decision purge the evil person from their flock (1 Cr 5:13).
The next six or seven years were sad. I tried to find my satisfaction in the approval of others and physical pleasure. However, after my father died, I accepted an invitation to attend a gospel-centered church where membership and discipline were practiced with fidelity.
When I started attending this new church I was quick to disclose the fact that I was still technically under discipline at my old church. The elders of both churches conferred and my new church agreed to take on the stewardship of my soul. Both churches modeled Paul’s exhortation in 2 Corinthians 13 to aim for restoration. I was reading my Bible, attending service, and trying to pray. I moved in with two brothers from the church.
Still, I never thought I would be able to say no to the sin that had ruled my thoughts and body for so long. Even when it had been months since my last dalliance, I was terrified. I thought it was inevitable that I would return to my sins of the past. I’ve never been addicted to drugs or drink, but the compelling urge to be intimate with a woman, any woman, was a cruel master. And yet, for the first time in a decade, I didn’t have sex. Weeks of celibacy turned into months—and I trudged ahead. As though against my will, I stayed on track. That narrow path was hedged by loving friends and elders. Even after 10 months of outward repentance, I wasn’t convinced my heart had actually changed. I claimed that I wanted to love Christ more than my sin but years of falling taught me to doubt myself.
My eventual membership interview was a turning point. The presiding elder listened to my rambling, defeatist story and then had a simple observation that still rings in my ears: “Brother, what you’re describing is called repentance. I’m going to recommend you for membership.” These words fell with the effect of a grace bomb. Doubts diminished, and hope flooded my heart. I could see so clearly my efforts that would never save me. In fact, God had been at work in spite of me.
By God’s grace, I continued to turn from my sin and my new church affirmed fruit in keeping with repentance. I was voted into membership and began to serve and thrive. A few months later, I was invited to my old church to share on a Sunday morning. I’ll never forget the moment that I was publicly invited to share the Lord’s Supper with them. This was a picture of the restoration Paul celebrates in 2 Corinthians.
My experience of church discipline leaves me with a few observations and exhortations:
For Church Leaders
Church leaders, honor God’s Word. Expel the immoral brother. You have to give an account (Heb. 13:17) and you do not want to be a shepherd who allows a wolf to live and feed among your flock. Teach your congregation to regard God’s Word as holy, regardless of how uncomfortable or unpopular church discipline is. Show them that in order to have gospel unity, we must also be willing to part with those who are walking in ways that bring dishonor to Christ.
For Church Members
Church members, honor God’s Word. Expel the immoral brother. But don’t wash your hands of them.
I remember a moment not long after my excommunication. I ran into my friend Rebecca in the middle of the student union. We had been friends in church for years. Youth group, retreats, college ministry, we were old pals. But this time was different. Instead of a typically familiar conversation, she asked me about my soul. Somehow, she graciously and quickly broached questions about my belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. About repenting of my sin. It was strange. But it was loving and biblical. I felt loved by her even as I recognized the nature of our friendship was fundamentally different because I was no longer her “brother.”
Briefly, here’s how to love someone under discipline:
Looking back, it strikes me how church discipline benefits not only the unrepentant believer, but also the faithful church. It’s good for Christians when the Word of God is revered and obeyed, even when it’s hard and unpopular.
By nature, Christ’s true church is for blood-bought followers of Christ. Even though church discipline has been painted as heartless and divisive, it actually cultivates unity because it clarifies who’s on what “team.”
To this day, I don’t know if I was a backslidden convert or if I was a deceived non-Christian. Either way, church discipline served to expose my hypocrisy. It forced me to deal with the claims of Christ. God used membership and exclusion to show me that life in the world without God is miserable, and my only hope is Christ