The Other Side of Church Discipline

“Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.”

(2 Corinthians 2:5-8 ESV)

A few weeks ago, I saw something incredibly encouraging take place at my new church: church discipline that works.

For those who are unfamiliar, church discipline is a process in which a person who claims to be a disciple of Jesus but is engaging in continued, unrepentant sin is confronted humbly and lovingly by another believer, then a few believers, and ultimately a pastor of his church. If the person still refuses to repent of his sin even after being shown his fault using the Scriptures, the church has the responsibility to renounce publicly this person’s membership in that local congregation. The members of that congregation are encouraged to treat him, not as a brother, but as they would treat an outsider, with respect and dignity but not brotherly affection.

The purpose of church discipline is three-fold: for the sake of the sinner, to shock them to their senses and bring them to repentance; for the sake of the other members of the church family, to remind them of the seriousness of unrepentant sin in their lives; and for the sake of the church, to ensure that the outside world doesn’t see a member engaging in defiant sin and associate that with the Church as a whole.

Church discipline seems to be incredibly misunderstood by many people in the Evangelical Church. It’s sometimes conflated with oppressive authoritarian power-mongering and cult-like behavior. It’s seen as being too cruel, too abused, or too toxic to be practiced openly.  Perhaps part of our broken and diseased religious culture of keeping-up-appearances has led to a large-scale abandonment of this practice, in favor of letting “Top Men”(TM) address these issues (sometimes resulting in the disappearance of former church members without a word to the rest of the congregation).

But when it is done rightly, church discipline can be a beautiful thing. Especially when a church body gets to experience the other side of it.

In I Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul commands the church in Corinth to expel so-called “brothers” who engaged in clear, defiant sin. But then in II Corinthians 2, Paul later says that when someone repents after being disciplined in this way, he should be received back with love, comfort, and forgiveness.

It’s not often you hear people discuss the restoration of an excommunicated believer–possibly because as rare as church discipline seems to be, the restoration of one who has been so disciplined is rarer still. But, as I said, I got to see it a few weeks ago.

I don’t know the situation behind the event, and as a recent attendee who is not yet an official member of the church body, it’s none of my business.  The pastor called a man forward and stood with him in front of the congregation. He said something to the effect of, “You know ___ and you remember what happened earlier this summer when we voted to remove him from our church. Well, the elders and I are pleased to tell you that he has repented of his sin and returned to us, and we are happy to recommend him to be restored to membership within this body.”  The members of the church then voted fully in the affirmative to receive him back.

The pastor then said, “What we have here is a picture of the Gospel, as Christ pursues us and reconciles us to Himself. We affirm that this Gospel is true, and so we commit that we will never speak again of those past events. This man’s sin, like our sin, has been covered by the blood of Jesus.”

Then he prayed with and over the man, as the pastor and more than a dozen others laid hands on him, praying for his continued growth and faithfulness and thanking God for his restoration.

And then, after the service, the church family had a party to celebrate the man’s “return.” Like the rejoicing over the prodigal son, this church family rejoiced over the repentance and restoration of their brother. It thrilled my heart to see such a thing. It also reminded me that when you neglect loving discipline in the church, you deny yourself the chance to rejoice when it results in reconciliation.

This is the ultimate goal of church discipline: not judgment, not shaming, not control, but the loving and difficult correction of a sinner that results in forgiveness, restoration, and celebration.

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If you are in a church that practices church discipline well, take a moment and thank your pastors and elders for being faithful to the command of Jesus.

If you are in a church that doesn’t do this well, I would encourage you to pray about it, study the Scriptures, and then try to start the conversation (humbly, gently, respectfully) with your pastor.

If you are a pastor/elder, and you don’t do this as well as you ought, let me encourage you as a lay-person in the Church: this is for the good of your flock. Love them well by being faithful in this practice.

Here are a few good articles from the summer that address this issue, if you want more food for thought.

Watch out, brothers!

[This post is primarily for my male readers, and specifically for my married male readers. This is not to say that you ladies cannot benefit, but for now, you are not my audience. Thank you for your indulgence.]

I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

(1 John 2:14 ESV)

So many stories have been coming across the wire in recent months that speak of broken high-profile Christian marriages, often due to the infidelity of Christian husbands. Too many stories. You’ve heard them, too, I’m sure; but even if you haven’t, you know the stories. The names change, but the tune remains the same.

And to be honest, there’s nothing new that I can add to those particular stories, in terms of insight. Better men have shared wise and prudent thoughts. And let’s be honest: I’m still a rookie husband. In my mere 16 months of marriage, I have learned most about my own selfishness and God’s abundant grace. There is not much about marriage beyond this to which I can testify with any degree of competence.

However, I want to make a brief appeal to my brothers in Christ, and particularly my married brothers–an appeal based not on my wisdom or experience, but on the Word of God: Be on guard, brothers–these stories could easily be about you and I, aside from the grace of God in our lives and the power of His Holy Spirit. 

When I hear such stories, I feel a mix of rage and pity and fear. If a brother came to me and confessed such sin, I would have the simultaneous impulse to embrace him and punch him in the face. Why? Because he has done this to himself, and because he has been ensnared by his own folly.

And just when a feeling of arrogance or self-righteousness rises up in my rebel chest, I have to stop and tell myself, This could have been me. It still could be me. 

So this is my plea to you, brothers: Take heed, if you think you stand, lest you fall. Listen to our brother Solomon, as he warns his sons of the dangers of adultery. Be watchful and vigilant, because our Enemy is prowling. And he seeks to devour Christian marriages, making a spectacle of believers in order to discredit the Gospel.

If you are struggling with lust and are tempted to break your covenant, I plead with you for the sake of your soul and your marriage, repent. Seek the Lord. Pray. Remember our Savior, Jesus, the Ultimate Man, who lived a life of perfect holiness and sexual purity as a single man. [Single brothers, stop right now and consider that statement again: Jesus our Lord lived a holy and sinless life as a single man.] His perfect righteousness has been imputed to us, if we are in Christ, and His Spirit is given to us in order to empower us to follow in His example.

Are you being pummeled with temptation? Dive back into the Scriptures. Find a godly man or two, men who truly believe the Gospel, and confess your sins to them so that they can pray for you and encourage you and challenge you and ask you difficult and embarrassing questions on a regular basis.  If you need encouragement, please feel free to email me as well, at “the4thdave at gmail dot com” and I’ll do my best to encourage you in the battle.

Do not play with sin as if it were a harmless diversion. Do not indulge lustful thoughts or fantasies. Do not keep such poisonous serpents in your coat pockets. When you find it creeping about your life and skittering around the corners of your mind, you must destroy it by the power of the Spirit of God. Kill it. Crucify it. Crush it. Don’t walk slowly past open doors of temptation, you fools–run from it! Run for your life! Flee as if a pride of hungry lions is chasing you, because it’s true–you are being pursued!  Run as fast and as hard as you can from the collapsing wreckage of moral and spiritual and relational self-destruction!

I cannot think of strong enough words with which to plead with you, brothers. Our culture, our entire species of men seem to be drinking the poison of lust and adultery, walking zombie-like in addiction and enslavement, embracing the very thing that kills them.  Do not follow after them. Do not mimic them.

If you have already fallen prey to this temptation, it’s not too late. I’m not condemning you, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Rather, I am pleading with you to remember who you are! Remember that you have been born again, and are no longer a slave to sin, to obey its desires. Repent and believe the Gospel, brother, and break free from your chains!

My brothers, I write this to you, and I write this to me.  Let us remain vigilant. Let us respond to these stories of fallen pastors and teachers and leaders with prayers for them and prayers for us. Stay on your guard, men. The war is raging. 

That Morning. [REPOST]

[The following was written on a previous blog, on September 11, 2004. It’s been a while since I’ve reposted it. But it’s worth doing once in a while. Our stories need to be pulled out, dusted off, and retold. So here’s mine.]

It was fall, and school was just getting into full swing. My senior year of college, full of 400-level classes and theatre and a girl who I loved dearly.

We, she and I, were getting lunch. Walking from the ARA food lines to the beverage island in the cafeteria. Two small cups of Dr. Pepper, one of chocolate milk. Trying not to spill.

We were talking about the death of Aaliyah, the R&B star, who died in a plane crash just a few weeks before. We commented on the tributes and the memorial services on the music networks.

She mentioned that she heard one announcer say that Aaliyah’s death would be our generation’s “where were you when” moment. How our parents would have the Kennedy assasination, and our grandparents would have Pearl Harbor. I mentioned that, no offense to the dead, I thought that was a bit of an overstatement, and that it would be pretty pathetic if the death of a mildly popular vocalist would be the landmark moment of our lives.

She agreed. “I was more impacted when Kurt Cobain died. There were girls at school who cried all day, when they found out.”

I didn’t share that memory; my upbringing was devoid of pop music. But I understood and agreed, “Yeah, clearly Cobain had more of an impact.”

We sat at the table, watching the large-screen TV in the caff, and the topic shifted to homework and other things.

That was Monday.

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The next morning, my roommate Josh and I were getting ready for the 9:30 class we both had in the Theatre Building. I was sitting in my desk chair, getting ready to put my socks and shoes on, when Josh uncharacteristically turned on the TV (something we never did in the morning). And I saw it. I saw the world change in an instant.

I saw a mighty city in flames. I saw the great towers shudder. I saw the smoke and debris.

Then the image of the second plane vanishing into the side of the second tower. I sat, jaw open, one sock in my hand and the other on my foot. My roommate sat on the bed, stunned. I heard him gasp. We sat silent, in our dorm room, in a small private college in Oklahoma, and we watched in horror.

After about ten minutes, I awoke from my shocked state. “I…guess…we need to get to class.” Josh nodded. I finished getting dressed, and we walked together from the dorm to Sarkey’s. On our way, we met Dr. A coming toward us, walking past. She said only, “Meeting in the black box.”

We walked into the small theater, and saw the other students huddled in the seats, in twos and threes, some crying, some consoling, all speaking in hushed tones. We sat. I could think of nothing to say. I was numb. Hollow. As if my spirit had been pulled from me. Mrs. B, the other theatre prof, stood and said a few words. She said that now was a time to pray for our country, and for the families of the victims. We didn’t know how many, but we knew that countless were affected. We didn’t know what would happen next. We were afraid. Dr. A said that class was cancelled, and that we should spend the day praying. We prayed together as a group, and then dispersed. Some were wondering aloud if this was the beginning of a war. How many more cities would be attacked? Would there be a retaliation? Would there be a draft?

Most of us ended up in the G.C., the “student union”-type building. There were a few hundred, all huddled around a large-screen TV, watching in silence. Many faces were tear-stained and puffy, drawn with horror.

I stayed there for most of the day, watching the same images over and over. Then the first tower fell. Later, its sister followed.

We could forget about Aaliyah and Kurt Cobain. We have our “moment.” Every one of us has our story.

So many things we felt. So many things we wanted to say.

Now, three years after, we’re still trying to find the words.

I was in a small town in Oklahoma when the planes crashed and the towers fell. But the attack wasn’t just on New York or D.C. or Pennsylvania. It was on Shawnee. It was on Houston. It was on Jackson. It was on Phoenix, and Atlanta, and San Diego, and Chicago, and Nashville.

It was on you. It was on me. The American family was attacked.

And I will never forget.