Church Discipline – Defining True Spiritual Leadership During Difficult Decisions
Administrating church discipline may be among the most difficult duties associated with spiritual leadership. Herein are some of my thoughts on matters associated with the when, why and how of church disciplinary matters and concerns. I also take time to address the complex nature of the issue, and why incorrect Scripture interpretation is often misapplied to the problem..
I have seen this question brought up in various churches. Sometimes it deals with broken trust between true Christians and earnest church leaders. If handled incorrectly, it reflects poorly against the local spiritual leadership, the Christian faith, and the Lord who formulated the process. If handled correctly but too rashly, church discipline can also result in spiritual damage to a weaker brother. But somewhere in the balance resides the Holy Spirit and the thoughts, purposes and intentions of God.
Note: I am not herein taking sides in any given issue. However, I do have a few words to offer. Furthermore, I am aware that these words can fuel or defuse depending upon the nature and the spiritual alertness of the reader. I write in the hopes that I am dealing with godly people, earnest spiritual leaders, and Christians in all walks of life who desire above all to walk in the will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Church Discipline: Determining the Purpose and Need For Bold Action
The cost of incorrectly applying church disciplinary action to any church member is often greater than what any of the parties suspect possible. Therefore, if an error is made let it be made on the side of grace and love rather than legalistic assumptions or personal demands for physical and emotional satisfaction. As you read the following comments, consider that Jesus was taken to the cross by a group of “church” members hell-bound to protect their “religious” beliefs. Don’t let yourself become guilty of such a bold miscarriage of justice.
Throughout this letter, I also leave off discussing Scripture that pertains to charges against an elder. I do this purposefully so that your mind does not become bias during this presentation of Scripture. All men are capable of error and sometimes even fall very hard. So for the moment, set your focus upon Christian brothers and the bold action associated with church discipline without regards to whether that brother be an elder, a layman or even someone such as the pastor’s wife. Until you have finished reading, consider all as merely your brother or sister in Christ.
Five Questions of Major Importance To Church Disciplinary Decisions
When dealing with any charge against a brother or a sister, let us seek answers to the following five questions:
1) Are we seeking retaliation, justice, closure or the will of God?
2) Are we acting in self-defense and anger or are we protecting the church assembly?
3) Are we acting as a judge or as a brother?
4) Have we applied every measure of Scripture?
5) And on what grounds do we have a right to ask a brother to leave the church?
Move Now Into The Scriptures That Establish Reliable Spiritual Leadership
Suffer the Fault
Consider the words in 1 Cor 1-8 which end in this manner: “Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren.”
Perhaps silence is the best way to help a brother recognize a fault. We see from the love of Jesus that enduring the flames of trial can at times produce the greatest value for all. Too many Christians perceive the term “submit” as a word that implies weakness. Yet:
- A child is urged to submit to his or her parents
- A wife is told to submit to her husband
- All Christians are urged to submit to authority, the bad as well as the good
- Church leaders are told to submit to the Church
- AND all are to do this even as Christ submitted to the Father,
Isn’t it strange that men who expect everyone to submit to their authority reject the authority of a unified church body? This mark of pride is the core of most denominational division and argument.
Settle the Issue
Consider also the words in Matthew 5:21-26 which include the following: “23Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”
Sometimes reconciliation is not possible. But if you have made an effort, even if the offender refuses to reconcile, your way to peace is clear and you can trust that God will deal with the offender. Why do we so often seek to take matters into our own hands? Where is your faith, oh bold administrator of church discipline?
Treat Your Enemy With Kindness and Prayer
Think also on the words in Prob. 25: “21If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: 22For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.”
Why are we so quick to label a Christian brother or sister with the shadow of enemy about their name. Could it be that giving your adversary water to drink also represents giving him or her time to mature. I have found that life is brief yet long, and most things pass away with time. Pushing someone away from the church increases the bitterness and the emptiness. that has created the original problem. In matters concerning personal verbal assaults, it may be better to wait until God deals with the issue – unless your faith is not sufficient to support long-term grace. For life is indeed brief yet long.
Determine the Cause of the Problem and Judge With Great Care
Look also into 1-Cor 1:10 wherein it is written: “10Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. ”
Is this a command or a plead? Does it concern matters of slander toward individuals or is it restricted to matters pertaining to church unity and sound doctrine? How do these verses relate to Romans 16:17-18 wherein Paul writes, “17Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 18For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.”
Consider also how this applies to Phil. 4:2 wherein Paul seeks that the church leadership should “2I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.” This seems to suggest a measure of patience that far exceeds the rash desire for immediate and swift church discipline. Make sure your actions are not aroused due to a perceived threat to your position in spiritual leadership or to your favoritism within the body or to resistance to a harsh word of truth. As evidenced by the Gospel, the words of an honorable man will stand long after any trial is finished and done.
Core Verses Associated With Spiritual Leadership and Church Discipline.
Now we reach Matthew 18 wherein these words are recorded: “15 But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. 16 And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. 17 And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.”
Moving into step two of this disciplinary instruction sheet involves serious consequences for all parties. We must be right in the matter. We must know beyond all doubt that the will of God is being served. To incorrectly treat a fellow Christian as a heathen and publican is to cast a future judgement upon yourself. Let not your emotions guild your choices in this matter.
A Closing Look At What It Means To Expel the Immoral Brother
In following the letter of Matthew 18:17 we end up with what happens in 1-Cor 5 wherein the Scriptures detail a demand to Expel the Immoral Brother. It is recorded in this manner:
“9I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: 10Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. 11But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. 12For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? 13But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”
Here, oh man in a position of spiritual leadership, you must ask yourself a critical question: Is the brother who is on the verge of church discipline a wicked person or is that brother merely a confused person? Perhaps long-suffering, love, meekness and gentleness is the correct response to a particular act of rebellion that rises mostly from confusion, inner struggles and fear. Being a railer does not always make one wicked. If it did, there are times when I too am wicked, as are you, and as is every other Christian. Rebellion can only be labeled willful if the person refuses to accept that God has identified a particular deed as wicked.
Talking with someone who is confused can evoke greater anger and greater confusion. Yet casting them out of the church without applying a love that includes great sacrifice stands itself in rebellion of the finished work of Christ who came not to destroy men’s souls but rather to save men’s souls.
Oh how dangerous it is when men chose to take this last step. Be careful, dear Christian leader, be very, very careful. Church discipline should never accompany a rash decision.
I know that many more scriptures address this issue. And I have not all the answers any more than does any other Christian. I have however seen the masses of earnest Christians who are searching for a Church that is not confounded by misguided spiritual leadership or incorrectly applied church discipline.