The Grace of Church Discipline

By Kersley Fitzgerald

And if your brother sins, go and reprove him 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." And 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-gatherer. Matthew 18:15-17
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," I heard Dev say.

"What did he do?" I asked.

Dev was talking to an old friend, trying to get information on a couple we had known for years but had lost touch with. Using that intuitive thing I occasionally have, that one statement told me that Brad and Jane were no longer together. Using the memory of how the couple interacted, I knew it was Brad's fault. They were, and it was. When someone donates their computer to the church, they really ought to think about removing the graphic evidence of infidelity.

Years before, at a church I was working at, computer evidence betrayed an associate pastor. This was the first time I'd ever seen biblical church discipline in practice. He was confronted. His wife, pregnant with their first, was brought in. He was dismissed from ministry and told that he'd have to go through a long, hard mentorship with the pastor and a reconciliation process with his wife.

And then the most amazing thing happened—he said yes. He said, "I'm sorry." He said, "It's my fault and I shouldn't have done it." His situation was explained, in appropriately broad strokes, to the congregation. The couple stayed in the church. He worked through the process. And the last time I saw them, they had three kids and a beautiful marriage.

That was amazing to me, because just two years prior, I'd seen unbiblical church discipline devastate my family. After thirty years watching her husband drink, Marie finally told him it was her or the booze. He looked her in the eye and chose alcohol. She moved in with her parents and filed for divorce. Instead of entering into the situation gently, asking what the church could do to help, and confronting the alcoholic, the pastor stood up on Sunday and publically humiliated Marie and her parents. The confrontation was bad enough, and the pastor was later proven to be a criminal. But the pastor had actually been egged on by an old family friend, a recovering alcoholic, himself. Our family left the church they'd been going to for forty years in shame.

Even when it is done biblically, church discipline doesn't always have the desired outcome. At yet another church, a man found out his wife was unfaithful. Everything was done to the letter of the law: she was confronted, the pastor was brought in, her husband begged for reconciliation. She flatly refused, and then filed for divorce. The pastor stood before the congregation and explained the situation. He outlined the process they'd gone through, and exhorted us to treat her like an unbeliever.

"And how are we to treat unbelievers?" he asked. "What does the Bible say? The Bible says we love them. If you see her at the store or in town, be kind. Like Galatians 6:1 says, '…restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.'"

Brad and Jane's situation didn't turn out as well. Despite the senior pastor's efforts, Brad kicked Jane out of the house, lied about her to members of the church, and refused to let her see the dog. We hadn't a clue. When we came to visit a few months later, Brad was gone, married to someone else. Having been friends with him and knowing his personality, we did the only appropriate thing—we smothered Jane in love. So much it surprised her. And when we heard that some of his lies had convinced others in the church, we defended her fearlessly.

Church discipline is hard enough for the parties that are directly involved. It can become really confusing to those watching from the sidelines. When I explained what was happening with Marie, the people in our small group responded with, "We'll pray they don't get divorced." Our neighbor Bekah, on the other hand, rushed over with cookies. Bekah understood who God had placed in her life to encourage—that she wasn't in a position to judge the actions of a stranger, but she was in a position to support her friend. Similarly, by the time we heard about Brad and Jane, Brad was gone. And the only discipline we were in a mind to bestow involved a baseball bat. But we were happy to stand with Jane as a public witness to her character.

The best church discipline is done with regret, love, gentleness, and hope. The worst is abusive or non-existent. Jesus laid out the guidelines (Matthew 18:15-17), but we're often too afraid to follow them. Which is ironic, because His steps are designed to create healing and restoration (2 Timothy 2:24-26). What they're not designed for is wrongful public humiliation, gossip, or shame. If we'd remember that, and had the courage, we'd see restoration a lot more often.

Image Credit: Alan English CPA; "Historic Strawberry Schoolhouse"; Creative Commons

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Published 5-24-13