Why Not Try This? …Deal With A Church Discipline Issue That Needs Attention

“Pastor, we have a difficult situation.” The first elder and I were out making visits during my first few weeks in the district. “One of our church members brings different men home to go to bed with her and she has her passive husband sleep on the floor at the foot of the bed. What do you think we should do?”

He obviously had my attention. I thought of the verse in 1 Corinthians 5:1 that says the church at Corinth had a case of sexual immorality that even raised eyebrows among the non-Christians.

“How do you know this is true?”

“Her husband has talked with several of the church leaders including me.”

“When did this happen?”

“It has been happening off and on for about six years.”

“Has there been any church discipline?” I asked incredulously.

“Well, her parents were church leaders for years before they moved away. And we hoped we could show her Christian love and win her back. And we’ve been without a pastor for almost a year.”

The first elder was a good and conscientious man. But it was clear that he was fumbling, trying to excuse what hadn’t been done that needed to be done.

Here was another one of those situations that seems to evolve over time. It starts as a little rumor about a church member, but since no one is sure that it’s true, “we wouldn’t want to gossip.” And since the member is still coming to church we assume the problem will take care of itself. After all, “we wouldn’t want to do anything that would keep them from coming to church.” In time, though, the problem becomes more obvious and soon the member isn’t coming to church anymore. “Someone really needs to visit them,” says a concerned church member. “But isn’t that the job of the pastor or the elders,” responds another. But “everyone is busy” and “there are so many other more important things to do.” In time the problem grows bigger, but since the member is disconnected from the church by now, nobody responds. Maybe if the church is “lucky” the member will transfer to another Seventh-day Adventist Church and the problem will be gone.

I had a sick feeling in my gut. I shot a bullet prayer to God asking for wisdom.

“Let’s go visit that home right now,” I said to my first elder.

“I don’t know if they are home.”

“Neither do I, but let’s go see.”

“What if they don’t let us in?”

“We won’t know until we try.”

With hesitancy he agreed.

We made three visits to the apartment over the next couple of months to see if we could help the member have a re-conversion experience and help her husband begin to understand what God’s love was really all about.

When it became clear we were unsuccessful, the first elder and I talked with the other elders. “But shouldn’t we show her God’s grace?” one asked. “Let the one without sin be the first to cast a stone,” another admonished. The others were silent. I began wondering it I should have ever accepted the call to pastor this church. I asked myself “How can we ever change our community for God when we can’t stand up and acknowledge sin for what it is?” I didn’t want to be self-righteous, but I also didn’t want to ignore the importance of God’s righteousness and the role of the church as a witness to the community. And if the church is the body of Christ, how are we to relate to the cancer of sin when it is not forsaken by the sinner?

It seems to me that churches, like parents, often have a hard time knowing how to deal with discipline. They go to one of two extremes- either they are harsh and vindictive, or they ignore virtually every situation that calls for discipline, hoping that is will get better on its own. Sometimes they swing back and forth between the two extremes.

We desperately needed the clarity only God’s word could bring to our situation. “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.” Psalm 119:130.

As elders, we met together several times to look at and listen to God’s counsel on the subject of Church Discipline. We discovered that part of the confusion in this area is over the role of individual church members (Matthew 7:1; James 4:11-12; 1 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 6:1-10) as compared with the role of the church body (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:1-11; 1 Timothy 5:20) or both (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). We found the counsel in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Chapter 14 “Church Discipline” pp. 185-200), outlining the principles, process and options, to be biblical and extremely helpful. The book “Restoring Fellowship: Judgment & Church Discipline,” by Ken & Joy Gage gave a tremendously insightful treatment of the Bible passages. We as elders were finally ready to recommend to the church in business session that we vote to acknowledge that the member, by her continued choices to live a life of violation to God’s law, had made it important for her name to be removed from church membership, praying that in the future there would be repentance and a turning from the sinful lifestyle. The recommendation would not share details.

We informed the member what we were recommending.

When the church met in business session a number of people spoke about how “God wants us to be patient with others,” and how “we are all sinners.” But when the secret ballot vote was finally counted, all but one person present voted for the recommendation.

The first elder and I went to visit the now former member with a letter documenting the action taken. In addition, the letter stated…

“As a church family we are very sorry we have not been able to provide you with the spiritual encouragement and ministry that would help you in your personal walk with God and commitment to living the Seventh-day Adventist lifestyle. In the future we hope we have another opportunity to do better.

“You are still welcome to attend any of the worship services, Bible study groups or other activities of the church. We hope you will find these to be a blessing and encouragement in your relationship with Jesus and your preparation for His soon return.

“The time may come in the future when you would like to reunite with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Enclosed is a list of baptismal vows and fundamental beliefs. We would be happy to review these with you and help in any way we can, if you would like us to.”

Many times in the process it would have been easier to just forget the whole thing. Did we handle everything perfectly? I don’t think so. Could we have stated things in a better way? Probably. Did the ex-member ever repent and come back? Not to my knowledge, but I would be thrilled to learn otherwise. Were there other church discipline situations to deal with later on in that district? Certainly, but not as dramatic as that one. Did the church leaders and members grow in their understanding of what the church body is called to do in Church Discipline situations? Definitely. Was I glad I accepted the call to that district? Of course! Why? Because we were all learning to “grow in grace and in a knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:17) through humbly submitting ourselves to His word. And over the next few years we saw dozens and dozens of people added to the church, the ones who were being saved (Acts 2:47).

Church Discipline is rarely easy. But it is absolutely essential if we are to be faithful to our calling and to lead the church to be faithful to hers. Consider this inspired counsel. “Sin and sinners in the church must be promptly dealt with, that others may not be contaminated. Truth and purity require that we make more thorough work to cleanse the camp from Achans. Let those in responsible positions not suffer sin in a brother. Show him that he must either put away his sins or be separated from the church.”—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 147

There is a serious danger for the one needing to receive discipline if it is not given. “Many do not realize the sacredness of church relationship and are loath to submit to restraint and discipline. Their course of action shows that they exalt their own judgment above that of the united church, and they are not careful to guard themselves lest they encourage a spirit of opposition to its voice. Those who hold responsible positions in the church may have faults in common with other people and may err in their decisions; but notwithstanding this, the church of Christ on earth has given to them an authority that cannot be lightly esteemed.”—Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 17.

There is also a serious danger for the church leaders needing to see that the discipline is extended. “To hate and reprove sin, and at the same time to show pity and tenderness for the sinner, is a difficult attainment. The more earnest our own efforts to attain to holiness of heart and life, the more acute will be our perception of sin and the more decided our disapproval of any deviation from the right. We must guard against undue severity toward the wrongdoer, but we must also be careful not to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. There is need of showing Christlike patience and love for the erring one, but there is also danger of showing so great toleration for his error that he will look upon himself as undeserving of reproof, and will reject it as uncalled for and unjust. {Acts of the Apostles p. 503.3}

Ministers of the gospel sometimes do great harm by allowing their forbearance toward the erring to degenerate into toleration of sins and even participation in them. Thus they are led to excuse and palliate that which God condemns, and after a time they become so blinded as to commend the very ones whom God commands them to reprove. He who has blunted his spiritual perceptions by sinful leniency toward those whom God condemns, will erelong commit a greater sin by severity and harshness toward those whom God approves. {Acts of the Apostles p. 504.1}

Do you have a Church Discipline situation that needs attention? Deal with it today, in Christ-like love, in cooperation with God’s word and God’s leaders. Postponing it is disastrous spiritually, but dealing with it in the spirit and clarity of Christ brings strength, health and growth to you as a spiritual leader and to the church body you have been called to lead.

Blessings to you,

Dan Serns

Related Links—

· Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, Chapter 14, Church Discipline

· Bring Back Church Discipline, by Nathan Brown (Adventist Review)

· The Disappearance of Church Discipline, by Albert Mohler (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

· Church Discipline on the Rise, by David Roach (Baptist Press)

· Church Discipline Really Works, Interview with Ken Sande (Peacemaker Ministries)

· Church Discipline: The ‘Outdated’ Practice Believers Desperately Need, by Lee Webb (CBN)

· Restoring Fellowship: Judgment & Church Discipline, by Ken & Joy Gage (Moody Press)

· Shaping Holy Disciples, by Mark Dever (Christianity Today)

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