A brief biblical study on sin, correction and exclusion from membership.
Church discipline, in the context of a modern congregation, is one of the most difficult things Christians can face. But every church does have to occasionally deal with difficult toxic issues that will poison and radically alter the culture of a congregation. If not dealt with, certain issues can split, divide or even end a church and it’s mission.
In our anti-authoritarian day, when some Christians want to attend churches led by people who are more like chaplains and counsellors, the words of the Bible, instructing leaders to “rule, teach, command, reprove, correct, rebuke” seem utterly alien. Of course, I have every sympathy with anyone fearful of abusive, heavy handed leadership – and I have always found it deeply unpleasant when I have worked under such leaders. (Even then, God used their imperfections to work wonders for my humility!)
Even though abusive, over-entitled, self-absorbed leadership is not what God (or we) want, a church family without honour, boundaries, correction or kind feedback is utterly weak. It is not loved or loving, but is actually unloving, sinful, man-fearing and will not produce godliness or Christ-like disciples.
The only ultimate power available to church leadership is simply inclusion or exclusion. Church leaders have no real power, other than that given them by their followers (anyone can, after all, simply walk away from a local church family at will!). So, leaders allow members in, or politely ask them to leave. They give opportunities for service and ministry, or they remove them.
The bible is very clear as to when these most extreme powers are to be gently used. They are to be used 1) to protect the rest of the church and 2) as a last resort to bring restoration to the sinner, if all other means of correction have been ignored. Jesus himself put it this way:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV)
Probably the most well known scripture highlighting church protocol in dealing with severe unrepentant sin is 1 Corinthians 5:11 “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” It goes on “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:13 NIV)
I however love the fact that Paul writes his next letter to the Corinthians and encourages them to restore the now repentant sinner – thus revealing that even in the most severe cases of discipline, God is always in pursuit of administering restorative grace. For this to happen though, sin cannot be ignored, but needs to be admitted, for the same reasons that an alcoholic has to admit he has an addiction, before healing can occur.
And so, kind correction, and as a last resort, exclusion, does play a part in the process of Gods grace finding and healing our lives. Hebrews is clear “If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.” (Hebrews 12:8 NIV)
Let’s mention the areas of sin the bible considers to be important enough to warrant this most severe course of action:
Sexual immorality I Cor. 5:11 All unrepentant sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.
Covetous I Cor.5:11 – Excessive materialism, greed, desiring things that belong to other – whether things or positions.
Idolatry I Cor. 5:11 – Since idolatry was the major rival religious system of the day, it corresponds to adherence to contemporary false religious systems. Thus, persistent practicing of occult, mystical, or pantheistic systems could eventually result in removal.
Slander I Cor. 5:11 – Trouble-making through divisive defaming of another’s character, particularly harmful to leadership as it hinders the harmony between leaders and congregation.
Drunkard I Cor. 5:11 – includes habitual use of other intoxicating drugs
Swindling I Cor. 5:11 – business cheaters – borrowing without repayment, or other kinds of stealing, cheating, scamming.
Unruly life II Thes.3:6 – refusal to work even though the ability and the opportunity to work are clearly present.
Divisiveness Titus 3:10 says “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” A divisive person is someone who causes hostility and disagreement in the church through accusation, slander and gossiping.
False teaching I Tim. 1:20 – Vocal divisiveness over issues of central theology.
In 44 years of church life, and 25 years of full-time ministry, I have been involved in correction for all of the above, but I can only recall exclusion being used as a last resort for issues relating to sexual immorality, swindling and divisiveness through slander, and even then, perhaps only half a dozen times in 4 decades. Thankfully I have been involved in many stories of Gods grace at work to completely restore a life caught in deep, self and church harming sin. God is good!
Repentance changes everything
We should remember repentance from sin utterly changes the course of any action, as grace is alway extended to the humble. It is only prideful denial or a lack of repentance that leads to this course of most severe action. After all it says “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (James 4:6 NIV) Arrogant refusal to even try to walk away from sin means exclusion is the only option left for church leaders, as whatever is tolerated in a community, is assumed to be approved of and will thus grow.
Appropriate to a persons maturity in God
Of course, we must also keep in mind the spiritual maturity of anyone we are dealing with. In every instance of correction leading to exclusion, the member disciplined was of experience and considered a mature believer in years, well aware of the scriptures. Exclusion also only came after long periods of gentle conversation, biblical counsel and attempts at correction. And so, much grace should be extended in the slow process of getting right with God and each other in our early years of Christian life.
Finally, let’s remember that mercy, grace and honour need to live powerfully at the heart and intention of any church discipline. Leaders are not to “punish” anyone, but to correct and restore in mercy and grace. They are always to be gentle.
Gods view of church leaders
As a final part of this study then, what is the Biblical opinion of leaders, their role, and our attitude to them? Here’s some great verses that sum up God’s views:
1 Thes. 5:12,13
Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.
[Speaking to a leader] These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.