Discipline or Personal Vendetta?
Author's Preface: Please make sure to read the end notes in this article as they are an integral part of it. In them you will find the Scriptural references and passages which are the foundation of this work.
The Bible clearly teaches that the church is to exercise discipline.1 The purpose of church discipline is to maintain the purity of the church, with a focus on the truth. While most churches pay lip-service to the commands of Scriptures in this regard, that's all it is; lip-service. These churches are willingly filled with professed brothers and sisters in Christ who are living in wanton and unrepentant immorality.6 Speak to the offender about this? Perhaps other than a few oblique references in a message, not a chance! They might just leave the church and, heaven forbid, they might stop giving.2
Other churches spend all their time judging non-believers, expecting them to act and speak as regenerate people without cause.3 Ostracizing and keeping these people out of the church and away from Christians (with intent or by result) is a favorite pastime. By no means should this be construed as Biblical church discipline, rather it is proof that the church does not understand its role in the world.
Lastly, and equally wrong, there are those who use church discipline as a weapon. How do you recognize this? Take a church from the first example, one who has turned a blind-eye on hosts of abuses for years and find them suddenly taking up the mantel. Of course, their change of heart is not to truly exercise their God-given and God-required role universally, exampling fairness and justice. In fact, they will look past the hosts of candidates to take aim at the one who has personally affronted them. It really doesn't matter what the affront is, whether true or false, the mere fact that it is an offense against them becomes the determining factor for this selective justice. Be certain of this, selective justice is injustice.4
True church discipline is done with impartiality 5 and, as said earlier, with a focus on the truth.10 The vague reason given, in a majority of cases where church discipline is being used as weapon, is that the individual is being divisive.16 This reason cannot be lightly utilized as it carries a burden with it. The onus is on the church to establish if the division is legitimate or not. Legitimate division?! Yes, there is such a thing.11 When the church or its leadership has strayed from the truth, there are legitimate times for division to arise. Using an example from the Old Testament, even if the king himself was to lead you astray, each believer is responsible to uphold and live out the truth. The one, or few, holding to the truth will always appear to be divisive, and will always be accused of such by the majority. To be expelled with a charge of being divisive, the burden is on those carrying out the discipline to establish that it is for the sake of the truth. If the church makes this claim without establishing the facts and revealing their basis, it is a cover-up and not church discipline. When church leadership makes the claim that no one needs to know the details, just "trust us," question all the more. The truth is not afraid of the light; it's a lie or deception that wants to hide in darkness.15
If the church is carrying out true discipline, based in truth, then the church will also be concerned that it be executed in a Biblical manner. How can the church carry out it's obligation to talk to the wayward individual, to try and persuade them to repent of their deeds, when they don't even known what those deeds are?14 The entirety of the requirement of the church to speak to the individual rests in their understanding of what the sin is and its' gravity. Scripture, nowhere, demands blind trust of church leadership - God's leaders work in the open, trusted because of their calling and experience, but visibly accountable to the whole body. Discipline serves as a deterrent, with a warning to all to not think themselves better than the one who has fallen, or to delude themselves into thinking that they too could not fall likewise.9
Speak the truth in love. Stand for the truth no matter what. Follow the means God established for confronting any who have sinned, especially an elder (leader) of the church. Remember that the elder, who has a greater responsibility, has accepted that role with a greater burden.7 When it's someone who isn't an elder; only the unrepentant are to have their sin revealed to the church. As for the elder, the command is that their sin is to be rebuked publicly no matter what.8 Not only is their responsibility greater, so too the need for the public deterrent. The elder unwilling to accept the burden of this level of accountability has shown himself to be unwilling to accept the responsibility of being an elder.
Should your church decide that it's time to start following God's commands, and begin carrying out its responsibility of church discipline, you can be sure that, initially, numbers will fall. People will be offended for the sake of the truth - and that's okay. It's all the more important that each reason be established and all is seen to be done with impartiality from that time forward. There's never a bad time to start doing what is right. God will bless. What's more important? Numbers? Finances? Prestige in the world's eyes? Or doing what is right solely because He commanded?!13 How your church answers will tell you how much concern they really have for the truth.
Love without discipline is no love at all.12
Author's Postscript: As some read this they may feel it is their church, or a particular circumstance, that this was written to address. Good! Scripture has current and necessary application. Having been a traveling evangelist and speaker, an elder in a church, and pastor, this has been written in view of first and second-hand knowledge derived from a multitude of circumstances. With all para-church ministries I am involved with, and as a pastor, I hold myself to the level of accountability called for in this article. God forbid, but should I fall into sin, I understand that there are consequences. Public accountability to the church is one of them. All the more it leads me to cling to the Lord - "To Him who is able to keep [me] from falling..." (Jude 24)
2. The other excuse, often raised for not confronting an unrepentant sinner, is "Who are we to do so? Everyone sins." The answer to the "Who are we?" is clearly, by Scriptures, the ones whom God has commanded to do so. It is not necessary to feel worthy to do something God has demanded. Our feelings do not determine doctrine or practice - this is established solely by Scriptures. Additionally, the "Everyone sins" truism is a copout. Do you think that God didn't know this fact when He established the requirement for church discipline? Are you not mocking God in making such a claim? In reality, there is a big difference (or there should be) between the church (especially its leadership) and the one in need of church discipline. While all believers are "saints who sin" they are more specifically "saints who struggle to not sin." This is why God convicts of sin by His word and Spirit, sometimes using other individuals to remind us what is pleasing to Him. Sure we stumble and fall down, but God gets us on our feet and keeps us heading the right direction (which appears as repentance and Spirit led guidance).
I believe the true reason many use the excuse of "Everyone sins" is that they fear submitting themselves to God's standard of accountability and discipline.
4. God's requirement that justice be impartial, and that all who are guilty be convicted, was established as a principle going back to the Law of Moses. The fellowship who does not administer church discipline, for fear of losing people, prestige, or finances, has by definition accepted a bribe to pervert justice. The receipt of any benefits, directly or indirectly, is the payoff.
5. As already established, in end note 4, those who are entrusted with making judgments must act impartially. This is not only a command to the nation of Israel, or one that could be construed as only being for governmental or civil purposes. It is an apostolic command of God to church leadership.
6. Sexual immorality is one of the most clearly defined Biblical reasons to exercise church discipline. In spite of this obvious command, it is the number one reason for a church to be in sin. How can a church be in sin? When a church willfully ignores, for its own reasons, any command of God.
The apostle John, likewise, recorded a warning for any church that would tolerate (accept by silence and lack of action) those who are sexually immoral. Again, the emphasis is not on the unbeliever who is acting according to their nature, but the professed brother or sister in the church.
The leadership of a church that does not discipline sexual immorality becomes like Jezebel. Their teaching (words without action) becomes that which misleads God's people. Needless to say, they are in danger of God's judgment.
7. Many churches lightly elevate people to the position of teacher, without doctrinal examination or true concern for the flock. Elders of the fellowship are responsible for maintaining doctrinal purity in the church. These days, the greatest qualification has become not what they believe or know, but their willingness to serve. Far better that there be fewer teachers than an abundance who teach error, intentionally or out of ignorance.
Likewise the primary qualification for many pastors has become their degrees or school attended. Few churches directly examine the doctrine of pastoral candidates. When was the last time a pastoral candidate was asked if he accepted the burden of public rebuke if he was subsequently found to be in sin? Unless he would agree to this, he should not be considered as he takes lightly the office of teacher. Also see end note 8.
8. Care needs to be taken when anyone confronts an elder (which is all leadership of the church, not only the ones given the modern title of pastor). The Bible requires two or three witnesses as a burden of proof. This not only sets a legal threshold of evidence against the elder, it also provides protection for the accuser should a corrupt elder use his position to harm a legitimate accuser.
The two or three witnesses can be more than people, as well. Photographs, writings, recordings, etc., all are legitimate witnesses. Civil judgments serve as the witness of another God-ordained authority. All these become important, especially in regards to sexual misconduct, which is typically done in secret without other human witnesses. It does not matter that all witnesses come together at the same time, only that their testimony be in agreement, for the accusation to be considered legitimate.
The need of public rebuke is a requirement of the office of elder, both for those called pastor, and equally all other leadership (in some churches called elders, in others, deacons who act as elders). All who will not accept both the potential for such discipline, or the need of such discipline, have disqualified themselves from the office. It is important that this applies equally, without partiality, to all elders. Exempting anyone because of their preeminent status (i.e. as senior pastor), or because of their secular credentials (i.e. degrees held), or for any other reason, is to pervert justice.
Don't miss the last part of 1 Timothy 5:20. The need to do this publicly is a God-established need of public deterrence.
9. Church discipline is a step in what will hopefully be restoration. At all times the church should pray and hope that the disciplined individual will repent and be restored to the fellowship. The clear warning given, to all those helping to restore someone, is that they need to be personally careful. The implication is to never think themselves better than another and incapable of yielding to temptation as well.
The key to "watch yourself" is to keep focused on the only one who can keep you from falling. When the focus becomes yourself, or another person, you will fall.
10. Unity is the desired goal of the church. The consistent message of Scriptures is that unity cannot be based on a lie or less than the whole truth. With far too many churches, their unity is not rooted in the diligently sought, learned and taught message of Scriptures, but in a watering down of the message - removing the offence so everyone will agree (see Galatians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 1:18). For example, merely reducing the basis of your unity to "we all love Jesus" is a dangerous proposition. Apart from doctrine, established by Scriptures, answering necessary questions (i.e. "Who is this Jesus?", "What does it mean to love?"), such a slogan-based church readily will welcome a lie and call it unity. Such a low understanding of unity readily welcomes Mormons, Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a potential host of other cults and heretics who will all readily pay lip service to the same platitude.
Unity must be rooted in the revelation of God (i.e. John 17:20-23). When unity is forced in any church, perhaps rooted in a person (i.e. a pastor), it is a unity on a shaky and soon-to-fall foundation. When the pastor leaves, or stumbles, the unity is quickly seen for what it is, as those within scatter or turn on each other. In contrast, if the unity of a church is the bond of a common knowledge and love for our Lord, the unity of the family will not be shaken though anyone falls or departs (or is expelled). In fact, the family will work together to help such a one.
Paul's later writing to Titus, telling him to warn and expel a divisive person (Titus 3:10), is obviously not in regards to the "divisive" person who is standing firm in the truth, rather it focuses on the one who creates division in opposition to what is right and true. To determine who to support carries an obligation of searching out the truth and then standing with the one who is right (not necessarily the one who is popular or powerful).
If we are to love as He does (and we are!), then our love must include discipline. Love without discipline is a useless counterfeit.
13. Obedience to the commands of our Lord is a Biblical test of our love. While it is easy to profess to love God, the evidence is always in our actions. This is true both for the individual and the church.
14. "Tell it to the church" cannot be construed to mean only telling them that church leadership has decided something is wrong. When the sin is known to the church it not only serves as a deterrent but it also enables the church to talk intelligibly to the individual who is in sin. Lastly, it also enables specific prayer and curtails gossip (...ignorance of the truth is fuel for gossip).
Written by Brent
of Lion Tracks Ministries. (c) 2007