Someone sins against you, or their sin becomes apparent to you; what do you do? Should you immediately find his pastor? Should you tell your friend? Should you post it to your prayer list? Should you stand him up in church and point your finger at him declaring his sin to the world?
No, if you do any of that, you are sinning against God and the person whom you are backbiting. God hates backbiters (Proverbs 6:16,19). There is a real danger in the church today of people who refuse to practice the process of church discipline laid out in Matthew 18:15-20. If someone sins against you, you are to go directly to them in private, it is not until step three, taking it to the church, that you are even required to mention this to the person’s pastor.
This is a hard process, it hurts, it hurts emotionally and spiritually, and you may even receive a black eye for it (Proverbs 9:7). Spiritually you may gain your brother, or you may earn yourself an enemy (Proverbs 9:8). But in all of this you are emulating Christ, who sought his greatest enemies, confronted them in their sins, and he received for his efforts spittle, violence, berating, and death, but when these people did turn, he received them as brothers, and the joy that was set before him.
Because it is hard, most churches won’t do it. I learned from a false teacher yesterday that she wanted a pastor who would never confront someone in their sins; of course that’s her desire, it’s so she can walk in every form of sin and commandeering attitude and be free from the fear of earthly rebuke. But if you love the church, you must be willing to call them to repentance, to desire for them to be saved from sin, and for them to love the discipline of God that produces righteousness, and to have an extreme fear of heavenly rebuke that is remedied only in the perfect love of Jesus Christ.
So beloved, will you honestly and sincerely endeavor to hold faithfully to biblical teaching on church discipline? This blog will hopefully encourage you towards that end.
The goal of church discipline is to NOT finish church discipline. We never want to get to excommunicating a member, declaring them an unbeliever, and turning them over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh. WE DO NOT WANT THAT. If you want that, then reader, stop here and examine yourself. The Apostle Paul was willing to give up his own salvation and be condemned himself, if his friends and family could be saved (Romans 9:3); if you cannot say the same, then you have not met Paul’s God, because Paul’s God put on flesh and gave his life not just for friends and family, but for horrible wicked sinners; that’s love demonstrated (Romans 5:6-8).
Our goal is to see sinners saved, both from the effects of bad theology, and if it is bad enough, from the consequence of facing a furious God with no Mediator.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. - James 5:19-20The First Step
The first step is not to go right to your pastor or elder or supervisor or Sunday School teacher or mom or ANYONE else; you must go to the person who has sinned. I’ve seen pastors crushed by the tattle-tale mentality of many churches, where every minor issue is brought to top-tier attention, and often without the sinner even knowing anyone had an issue against him.
I remember years and years ago when I was in elementary school hearing a teacher scold someone by saying, “Don’t tattle.” I was perplexed because I thought the teacher was saying, “Overlook people doing things wrong.” Granted, she didn’t explain herself well at all, but looking back I assume what she meant, and what is biblical, is “Don’t tattle, handle this situation on your own first.”
The “I’m gonna tell” mentality that permeates many people in churches today is a backbiting divisive nasty belief that MUST be crushed. You’ll not only overburden your pastors/elders damaging their shepherding efficiency, but you’ll spread dissention, distrust, and ultimately you might even destroy a church.
Beloved: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matthew 18:15).” I promise if you take this route, you will win many brothers.
The Second Step
The first step in the second step is to ask if the first step has been accomplished. If someone comes to you with a complaint against someone else, and they haven’t gone to that person privately, you must refuse to listen to them or even consider their issue.
If the first step has been legitimately taken and the sinner will not listen, then the second step can be accomplished. Now you involve one or two other people. Should it be your pastor/elder now? It can be, but there is no requirement for it to be. Preferably the person or persons you bring to be the second witnesses will know nothing of the details, this way they can not only hear the accusation, but they can see the response as well. A large part in repentance is not necessarily what you say, but your attitude. A believer will respond in love, joy, peace, kindness, but an unbeliever will respond with self-justification and rivalry, and maybe even flee from the conflict. We’re not just looking for repentance, we’re looking for teachability as well, look at what Jesus said,
If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence 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... - Matthew 18:16-17If you’ve never read the vision in Ezekiel 8-9, I’d encourage you to do that today. In that story God sends angels to decimate Jerusalem, while an evangelist precedes them marking any who will mourn over their sins, and these are saved from the angels of war. The call is not for sinlessness, for we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the call is for a recognition of sin and the ability to have sin pointed out to us; then we can work through repentance and reconciliation, and seek a Saviour.
On this point, let me make a radical claim; church discipline can work both ways. It may be that the accused is not the one in error, but the witnesses are. I can give you an example, someone was once accused of rejecting the adage, “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.” Discipline got to step two, at step two the accused approached the group (slightly more than three, but less than seven), and admitted that he was against Southern Baptist tradition, and that he wanted to examine the scriptures, because he did not want to be found misrepresenting God. They did examine the scriptures, some more diligently than others, and at the end of the day one of the accusers, while reading Hosea 9:15, turned to a biblical understanding of God’s hatred towards the practitioners of sin.
The point of that little story is that the accused demonstrated Christian character and fruit, and it was readily apparent to some of the called witnesses that he was not deserving of further discipline because of his teachable and humble spirit. This is one reason why we have two or more (I wouldn’t suggest going over the scriptural three, though some do) witnesses, because the first witness may be wrong. If all witnesses agree, then the goal is to show the accused that scripture and saints stand in opposition to his beliefs and/or actions.
The Third Step
The first step in pursuing the third step is to make sure the first step has been completed. The second step is to make sure the second step has been completed. Once you are certain that one person has personally and privately confronted someone in their sin, they were unresponsive, one or two others witnessed their sin and confronted them, and they were unresponsive, now you take it before the local church body. At this point you have some conscientious decisions to make, how many in the local church? Some churches only bring it before sparsely populated meetings; that is wrong, and not what is in view. Others don’t think it can be done because of the small size of their church; Jesus says this only needs two or three gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). As much as possible the pastor should inform, at the same time, the entire church (1 Corinthians 5:4) of the issues, and with the entire church calling the accused to repent:
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church... - Matthew 18:17The Fourth Step
The fourth step obviously starts with step one, two, and three; step four, except in an exceptional case which I’ll discuss in the next section of this article, cannot occur without those steps being taken. If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).
After these steps, Jesus Christ is in agreement with the church in declaring the person to be outside of the camp. Elsewhere the Bible says this person is turned over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh (1 Corinthians 5:5), again with the goal being that they turn and live. The call is to avoid this person and treat them as an unbeliever (Romans 16:17), let them be ashamed, not out of malice, but out of love and desire to see them saved (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
When the Process Fails
The third step, as evidenced both by Jesus in Matthew 18 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, is to be done in front of the gathering of believers. Some schismatics and sinners will flee from rebuke, they fly from any hint of potential damage to their pride. If you cannot, under any circumstances, get this person to step three, are they safe from chastisement and have they escaped discipline?
By no means. Scripture provides an option for reaching out to a sinning professed believer who is unreachable through step three of prescribed church discipline. In no wise should this be normative and in no wise should it be done brashly. Matthew Henry states, “They are not easily and soon to be given up and cast off, but competent time and means must be tried for their recovery. Upon continued obstinacy and irreclaimableness, the church has power, and is obliged, to preserve its own purity, by severing such a corrupt member which discipline may by God’s blessing become effectual to reform the offender, or if not it will leave him the more inexcusable in his condemnation.”
This is in regards to Titus 3:10-11 concerning divisive people within the church. None is so divisive as one who runs from church discipline while still claiming to be a member of the church universal. Adequate time must be given to attempt to win this person, though the passage does not say it, myself and commentators agree the two warnings must have some degree of separation.
John Calvin put it this way, “neither shall we have a right to pronounce a man to be a heretic, nor shall we be at liberty to reject him, till we have first endeavored to bring him back to sound views.”
Now you may say that that Titus 3:10-11 is just shortened version of the model of church discipline in Matthew 18, but John Gill, Matthew Henry, Charles Spurgeon, and John Calvin did not see this. John Gill said, “this is not to be understood of private admonition, by a particular person or persons; as in the case of private offences (Matthew 18:15,16) but of public admonition, in the name of the church.”
This is not a job for individuals, Spurgeon said, “When it comes to unbelief of fundamental and vital doctrines, we who are like Titus, set in office over a church, must deal with such deadly evils with a strong hand.” Calvin said similarly, “He does not mean that of a private individual, but an admonition given by a minister, with the public authority of the church.” The note in the Geneva Bible says, "the ministers of the word must at once cast off heretics, that is, such as stubbornly and seditiously disquiet the Church, and will give no ear to Ecclesiastical admonitions."
May Titus 3:10-11 be our last resort, for it concludes by saying, “such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” John Calvin clarifies, “we must not rashly or at random pronounce any man to be a heretic; for he says, ‘Knowing that he who is such is ruined.’ Let the bishop therefore beware lest, by indulging his passionate temper, he treat with excessive harshness, as a heretic, one whom he does not yet know to be such.”
How to Escape Church Discipline
We’ve looked at these passages, and if you’re in sin, a faithful church will see to it that everything possible is done to reclaim your soul. Maybe you thought you could escape by running from the church, but then you realized that there is a contingent for processing those who do such. Scripturally, you can avoid church discipline. Some think it’s through a legal option:
You Should Sue
A church that has set you outside the camp publically has declared that you are not a Christian, do not bear a Christian character, and that no Christian should associate with you. That is most certainly defamation of character. But don’t forget what Charles Spurgeon said, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him. For you are far worse that he thinks you to be.”
But in our modern world there is always the option to take it to the courts. Never mind that you’re completely ignoring 1 Corinthians 6:1-8; that’s probably why you’re in this predicament to start with. Take it to court.
But you may be interested to know that there is already legal precedent, and has been for nearly a millennia, with people who sue churches over being disciplined. In Alabama, in Yates v. El Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, the magistrate there declared that the state has no authority over church governance. Just recently in Texas, Westbrook v. Penley, the state clearly and convincingly articulated their limited jurisdiction and that they had no authority over the church or a pastor in the church. Church discipline stood.
So legally you can’t get out of church discipline. Your only hope, your only true option, is to do it biblically.
Listen and Turn
Should you turn, should you have sorrow, should you demonstrate even the smallest bit of Christian contrition, then the call is to reaffirm love, to welcome back into fellowship, and to rejoice that a brother has been regained, your soul is saved from death and your sins are covered.
Listen to the concerns of brothers who bring charges against you, if you are a believer, then surely you can see some truth in what they say, even if it is not what you want to hear. If discipline were fun, everyone would be constantly confessing their sins so that their brothers and sisters would help them work through them, but we need discipline.
For the Christian we have such a blessing to have a Heavenly Father and his Glorious Son who love us enough to discipline us (Hebrews 12:5-17, Revelation 3:19).
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. - Hebrews 12:11 (Compare Luke 6:40)It is the churches goal to see all of its members obtain the grace of God, and to protect its members from bitterness and disunity; the only way to do this is through faithfully holding to the trustworthy Word as taught.
Oh, why will you die!? God has no delight in the death of the wicked! Turn, and live! (Ezekiel 18:31-32)
Church discipline is a wonderful gift given from Christ to his bride. It provides a solid avenue of correction, and a stated goal of full reconciliation without having to complete the discipline. I pray that you are encouraged to always start at step one and to never jump over this step, I pray that you are discouraged at those who have had to be taken to step four, and more discouraged by those who skip step one; I pray that you are encouraged by godly leaders who are able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).
It is essential that we pray for one another, that we exhort one another, that we be well acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. For all scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). May our first love be Jesus Christ, may we love the body of Christ as much as we love the head. May we strive through church discipline to see to it that no-one among us fails to obtain the grace of God.