I think churches deal with church discipline in one of 2 ways. (I’m sure there are those in the middle ground but I’ve never met them.) Churches either do it regularly and consistently or ignore it completely and utterly. Church discipline isn’t usually fun, but I’ve personally experienced some beautiful moments from it. I’ve also had some tough moments, and over the years I’ve heard some horror stories from people. Why did something so biblical go so awry? Well, as usual, I have some ideas.
Let’s first look at the verses that started it all: Matthew 18:15-17, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. ” So, let’s break this down into Steps and Missteps.
When your brother or sister in Christ sins, go talk to them in private.
Confronting non-believers, not confronting, or doing it publically.
~ Confronting a non-believer on sin. They need the Gospel, which does deal with sin, but they don’t need to confess that specific sin to be saved. Salvation is what they need.
~ Not confronting them because they didn’t sin against you in particular. Their sin had nothing to do with you so you figured it wasn’t your responsibility. However, God made you aware of their sin one way or another. God is calling you to confront them.
~Not doing this privately at first. Whether you “prayed” with half a dozen people first or starting talking to them with people walking in and out of the room the principle of privacy doesn’t seem to be upheld.
If they listen to you, then you have deepened your relationship.
Not following up, not giving any time, or not caring.
~ This is the dream for them to really hear what you are saying and admit their sin, but be sure to actually follow up on accountability and not neglect this vital action. Otherwise they might be just admitting with their mouth that they are sinning, but not changing their actions.
~ Sometimes, in confronting, you never even give the other person a chance to respond. Not listening to their response can just stall the proceedings. You thought so long and hard on what you were going to say that you never actually listened for their response.
~ Perhaps there was even a “coldness” that didn’t even care about the deepening of the relationship. This should never be.
But if they don’t listen, take 2 or 3 more to confront them.
Not listening, going too fast, not moving to this step.
~ Make sure it’s them not listening and not you. Sometimes you confronted on something you thought was sin but on closer inspection you were either mistaken, or their offense wasn’t truly “sin” but rather a “meat sacrificed to idols” issue.
~ Other times, we are too quick in bringing in these reinforcements. Giving people a moment to process can be valuable. Perhaps it might be appropriate to follow up with them to see if they’ve thought about what you said.
~ Not listening carefully: if they are arguing that what they are doing isn’t a sin, reveal the proper scriptures to them. If they disagree with your interpretation of the Scriptures then bring in 2 or 3 more people to confirm the truth. If they instead start arguing that they know it’s a sin and don’t care then the 2 or 3 more are going to help make an emergency course correction.
If they don’t listen to the 2 or 3 more, then bring the issue before the whole church.
Not involving the pastor by this point, losing focus, or bringing them before the church too soon.
~ Neglecting the involvement of the pastor is a mistake. He, at bare minimum, must be aware of what’s going on. It’s in this step that there’s going to be a major reaction. The one-on-one can be calm and subdued. The 3-on-1 is going to be either an intense repentance which will need substantial support or near violent rebellion that can cause issues in the family and church.
~ Don’t tell people you are doing this out of some kind of vague concept of “purity” or “churchly duties” but rather be sure to emphasize that you all are doing this out of love and concern for them. Reminding them that if you didn’t love them it would be much easier to just watch them march into darkness and despair.
~ Moving too quickly can once again be a problem. God sets no timetable here, nor does He limit the encounters. Meeting numerous times over a several week period might be what’s needed. They didn’t get entrenched in this sin overnight and it might be a process to overcome it. The consistency of the small group might be what helps as opposed to meeting 1 time and calling a special members-only meeting the next week.
Bring the issue to the rest of the church family, but if they still don’t listen, treat them like a pariah.
Misstep 5 (Oh, so many potential missteps)
Not calling them to repent, not being clear with them or the church, and not following through.
~ If this isn’t done with the most earnest love and concern for the individual then you failed in this step. The person being confronted must hear the sincere pleas for them to repent. That must be seen as the only desire.
~ Although most situations don’t get this far, handling this appropriately is vital – when, where, and how matters. Here are my recommendations: do it after a worship service and ask for only church members to be there. Ask the person in question to be there, and tell them exactly what it’s for. Prep people as much as possible so they can be praying.
~ But at the end of the day, you have to follow through. If the person caught in sin won’t attend, you may need to conduct this meeting without them, but again, give them time to make that ultimate decision. Even after telling the whole church, give them time to reach out and offer their encouragement. Someone unexpected might hold the key to their repentance. But when everything has been exhausted, you need to kick the unrepentant sinner out of your church. You have spent months confronting them and they are either saying they don’t agree with what the Bible says about their sin, or they know what it says and they just don’t care. I don’t know why such a person is sticking around church, maybe there’s some sort of ulterior motive, but whatever the reason, they do not get to be there and infect the rest of their congregation (especially the next generation) with their rebellious ways.
Some final thoughts
Hopefully if you ever have to go all the way through that perhaps eventually the truth will sink in and they will repent, and just like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, we should certainly welcome that wayward brother or sister home. Conversely, if they try to attend another church instead, you absolutely should reach out to the pastor of their new church. Hopefully they too will follow the biblical model and perhaps get a better result. Other issues I’ve come across over the years. If you ever come across an actual crime, the law of the land supersedes church discipline. For instance, if someone abuses a child, you need to call the police. Church discipline is about handling sin that can bring more sin into a church, not criminality that can create more victims. Speaking of victims be sure to not treat victims like sinners. And finally (until I throw in more things I thought of in the comment section) don’t treat unwed pregnancy like a sin. Pre-marital sex is a sin. Pregnancy is a beautiful gift from God. I’ve heard of girls getting the Scarlet Letter treatment and the boy just sliding into the background. I’ve heard of girls having to stand up in front of their church to ask forgiveness of their sin, because their sin just became “obvious.” That’s not what Matthew 18 says. If they are repentant over their sin, then that’s the end of the discussion. There should be nothing but love and support after that point. There is no complication to it. Many “religious girls” get abortions because they can’t even imagine what their religious parents and friends will think of them. Maybe the goal was to put fear in them not to sleep with their boyfriends to begin with, but when the result is an abortion or quickie marriage to “fix” the “problem” then the whole point of church discipline is totally lost. Discipline is about restoration. I contend it’s not about the purity of the church, but the restoration of the sinner. The purity of the church is a distant second in importance and should never be confused with the importance of the first.