2003 Shepherd's Conference, A Ministry of Grace Community Church 818.909.5530. © 2003 All Rights Reserved. Grace Community Church. A CD, MP3, or tape cassette copy of this session can be obtained by going to www.shepherdsconference.org
How to Practice Church Discipline
Handling the issue of unrepented sin in the local church
Seminar Session #1040
My name is Bill Zimmer, I’m a lay elder here at Grace Community Church. I’ve been here at Grace for about 29 years; I’ve been on the elder board for 22 or 23 years now. Some have referred to me as being “older than dirt”. I’m an Aerospace Engineer by profession and I teach this session to the new members: The session on Church Discipline, or as I prefer to call it, Church Restoration, because the point of Church Discipline is not to discipline people out of the church, but to restore them to a right relationship with the Lord.
So, this morning we’ll be talking about handling issues of unrepented sin in the local church. As I said, it’s called Church Discipline officially.
This morning we’ll be talking about the purpose, the precepts or rules and the procedures involved in Church Discipline.
A. The Church’s Purity
The Church’s purity is the first issue to be involved. It might be good enough for a commercial venture or even a government regulation but 99.4% pure is not good enough for Christ’s body of the church. The unblemished nature of God, that we have referred to in Matthew 5:48, “...therefore you’ll be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect…” sets an uncompromising standard for all who bear His Name.
1. Purity marks God’s Word
Psalm 12:6, “The words of the Lord are pure words.” Psalm 119:140 “the word is very pure; therefore my servant loves it.”
2. Purity is demanded of God’s people.
Not only is purity marking God’s Word, but purity is
demanded of God’s people. Philippians 4:8 says: “think on things that are
pure.” 1 Timothy 5:22 says to “keep yourself from sin.” Matthew
5:48 tells us that we are to, “…be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is
3. Purity qualifies God’s shepherds
Purity not only is demanded of God’s people and marking
God’s word, but it qualifies God’s shepherds. 1 Timothy 3:2 says that
“…an overseer then must be above reproach…” – that involves purity.
1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one look down on your youthfulness; but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself to be an example to those that believe.”
4. Purity distinguishes God’s church
“For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin.” Ephesians 5:27: “…that He might present to himself a church in all her glory, having no spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.” That speaks of purity, and yet He is now reconciled to you in this fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless, beyond reproach. That’s purity.
So, “…as obedient children, we’re not to be conformed to the former lusts, which were ours in ignorance, but like the Holy One who called us, we are to be holy ourselves also in all our behaviour; because it’s written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” That’s 1 Peter 1:14-16.
There’s a maxim in the Farmer’s Almanac that states, “That one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.” The same is true within the spiritual realm when truth gets mixed with error. So, how then should one who practices truth relate to one that does not? Scripture tells us to, “…be a companion of those that fear Thee, of those who keep Thy precepts.” It tells us that, if we walk with wise men we’ll be wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm.” We should leave the presence of a fool or we’ll not discern the words of knowledge. “We are not to be deceived: bad company corrupts good morals.” And then He said, “…knowing beforehand, be on your guard lest being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you may fall from your own steadfastness.”
B. The Whole Message
We’re dealing with the whole message and that whole message is: The Great Commission – to “Go into all the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So we deal with the whole council of God and that brings us to the point of what do we do about the issues of love and truth?
C. Love and Truth
There’s often a question asked when discussing Church Discipline: “Doesn’t Church Discipline and Biblical Separation contradict God’s commandment to love?” I think the issue involved is which came first? 2 John 6 tells us: “this is love that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment just as you’ve heard from the beginning that you should walk in it.”
1. Chronological sequence
There’s a chronological sequence that unfolds like this:
a. First there comes the revelation of His commandment, that’s truth.
b. Then it’s followed by a response to His commandment, which is obedience.
c. Finally the result of acting upon His commandments is called love.
So, a good working definition for Biblical love would be, “a wilful act of scriptural obedience toward the object of my affection, regardless of their response to me, regardless of what they return to me.” I’ll repeat that. A good working definition for Biblical love would be, “a wilful act of scriptural obedience toward the object of my affection, regardless of their response to me and regardless of what they return to me.”
2. Practical outworking of love in Scripture illustrate the point
There are practical outworkings that are shown in Scripture to illustrate the point:
a. Christian brother
Christian brothers, you should “reprove a wise man and he’ll love you.”
Fathers dealing with their sons: “if they spare the rod, they hate their son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”
c. Heavenly Father-Child of God
The Heavenly Father to his child: “For those whom the Lord loves, he disciplines and scourges every son whom he receives, for what son is there whom the father does not discipline.”
Last of all, the Shepherd and his flock: Hebrews 13:7 tells us: “Remember those who led you and spoke the word of God to you. In considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith, obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable to you.”
So, we’re dealing with love and discipleship. Jesus commanded the disciples to love one another as He loved them. “A new commandment that I give you that you love one another even as I have loved you so you shall also love on another.” But how did Jesus love them? He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.” So we are to express love by obedience to divine revelation.
How can I become a disciple of Christ? Jesus said: “If you abide in my word.” How can I express my discipled relationship with Jesus to others? By having love for others, by expressing truth in action, life action. And the question, how can I prove my discipled relationship with Jesus Christ to others? Jesus said: “By bearing much fruit.”
So, the church is to be pure.
The church’s purity is determined by the whole of God’s word. Love
and truth are inseparable. Therefore, the truth of discipline issues
forth in acts of love. An authentic Christian disciple should result
in truth acted out in love.
E. the Purposes of Church Discipline/Restoration
1. To glorify God by obedience to his instructions.
2. To maintain the purity of the Church in her worship.
3. To vindicate the integrity and honor of Christ in his religion by exhibiting fidelity to His principles.
4. To reclaim offenders. Matthew 18:15, 1 Corinthians 5:5, Galatians 6:1. Galatians 6:1 tells us: “if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself lest you too be tempted.”
5. To deter others from sin. 1 Timothy 5:20 says “those who continue in sin rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest may also be fearful of sinning.”
6. To prevent giving cause for God to set himself against the local church. Revelation 2:14-25 tells us how sin within the local fellowship in Pergamum and Thyatira resulted in God dealing with them directly.
So, we’ve dealt with the purpose and now we’ll deal with the precepts or rules.
A. Believers are to separate themselves from other believers who knowingly and rebelliously continue in doctrinal error.
“Now even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which I preached to you, let him be accursed” [Galatians 1:8]. “Holding fast the faithful word, which is in accordance with the teaching that he may be able to both exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict” [Titus 1:9]. And, “Reject the factious man after the first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” [Titus 3:10-11].
B. Believers are also to separate themselves from other believers, not whose doctrine is in error, but whose behavior is knowingly and rebelliously wrong.
The lengthy passage from 1 Corinthians (5:1 ff) the key points here is the Apostle Paul states in response to this brother who is sinning within the church and the church seems to be proud of their acceptance of this brother. He said I’ve decided “…to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Clean out the old leaven.” “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people. I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or idolaters, or revilers, or a drunkard, or swindler; don’t even eat with such a one.” “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
C. Furthermore, believers are to separate themselves from unbelievers as far as joining in common enterprises.
Do not be yoked together, a passage in the New American Standard [Bible] states, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers.” Now, in biblical practice we have examples of the proper discipline of a believer towards a professed believer in doctrinal error, and we also have examples of improper relationships of believers towards professed believers in doctrinal error.
D. Biblical Practices
We’ve dealt with the purpose and the precepts. Finally we get to the procedures.
i. The kind of love that God showed toward you in forgiving you.
ii. The love that a father shows to a son in Proverbs 13:24.
So, we’ve dealt with the steps. Note that Scripture
always treats those who profess faith in Christ the same. Hence these
actions are to be taken with anyone who identifies himself with the
church. Before either the third or fourth step, letters should be sent to
the individual, it should be spelled out in writing, either by registered mail
with returned receipt or by hand carried couriered mail, so that you ensure the
person has in their possession the information that will be disclosed, in
either the third or fourth step, to the church and when it will be disclosed
and give him a date and time when we must see repentance to stop the process
from going any further.
Not all church discipline results in restoration, even though we call it church restoration, in some cases it does not, and then after some time, sometimes it’s years, that the person realizes the sinfulness of their behavior and they repent. We’ve had people come back years later saying, “When you put me out of the church, I was wrong. I was in sin, I was deceived. I was wrong. Please take me back. It’s a cruel life out there. I can’t live the life of a believer without the fellowship of others around me, supporting me.” If we believe that it’s true repentance after studying their life for a period of time, we will assign a couple of elders to watch over the individual and ensure that there’s truly fruit of repentance. We’ll make an announcement just like the announcement that put him out, but it will be an announcement before the whole congregation that so and so has repented, welcome him back into the fellowship.
IV. A Final Note
One final note: Biblical history is filled with troublesome
reminders that in this world system evil normally overcomes good, unless
prevented measures are taken. God’s remedy is discipline and separation;
never isolation. “With God’s Word as our Teacher and the Spirit of God as
our Counselor and Guide, may we walk alertly in ways that will bring glory to
Him. Above all, let us consistently work towards the purity of Christ’s
Church, which he purchased with his own blood.”
These words of the prophet Jehu to Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, serve as an appropriate trail marker for our pilgrim journey through this sin-filled world. “Jehu the son of Hanani the seer went out to meet him, and said to king Jehoshaphat, ‘Should you help the wicked and love only those who hate the Lord and bring wrath on yourself from the Lord.” There may be in our churches many caught in sin. May God give us the grace to confront their sins in love, so that they may be restored to fellowship with the Lord and continue to grow in grace in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In your handout of everything stapled together, the first section of it is, I think, eight pages. This is a good reminder, in practicing church discipline in this very litigious society in which we live, may result in repercussions. I have an analysis of a court case, The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling in Gwen (sp?) versus the Church of Christ, back in 1989, as an example of what you should and should not do.
In this particular case, in Collinsville, Oklahoma, a woman by the name of Gwen was in the Church of Christ but she was sinning openly. The whole community knew of it. The church went through various steps of trying to restore her and went all the way to the step of putting her out of the church. She turned around and sued the church for defamation of character and for bringing her name into disrepute. And a [local] jury, as juries are want to do, ruled in favor of the parishioner and awarded her $205,000 in actual damages, a $185,000 in punitive damages and $45,000 in interest. That’s quite a blow for a small church. This hand out that you have, if you move on to about the sixth page (they’re front and back, by the way), about halfway down the page, there’s some lessons to be learned and some things that came out of this case.
1. Number One: The discipline of church members is a constitutionally protected right of churches. If discipline of church members is a possibility in your church, then you should adopt a disciplinary procedure that ideally is based upon and specifically refers to scriptural references. The procedure should specify the grounds for discipline and describe the process that will be conducted.
2. Number Two: The first amendment guarantee of religious freedom insulates pre-withdrawal discipline of church members from legal liability in most, if not all, cases.
3. Number Three: Deals more with that.
4. Number Four: The court concluded that the constitutional
right of a church member to withdraw from the church membership is protected by
the first amendment guarantee of religious freedom, unless a member has waved
that right. One approach would be for a church to adopt a provision in
its bylaws, preventing members from withdrawing if they are currently being
disciplined and to be as safe as possible, a church should explain to present
and prospective members, the provision in the bylaws, limiting their right to
withdraw and explaining to them that by becoming members, they will be waving
their right to withdraw from membership if they’re under discipline by the
There’s a summary on the eighth page, upper right hand corner: Churches have a constitutional right to discipline members, statements made to the church members about disciplined members are conditionally privileged. Churches have broad authority to discipline clergy. Churches have constitutionally protected rights to discipline a former member, who has withdrawn from the membership, if the former member has effectively waved his or her right to withdraw from membership. That’s why we teach church discipline in all our new member classes. We have new member classes every month here at Grace, there’s usually 30 to 50 people in each class and it’s explained to them, not only as part of the membership process, have they had to read our bylaws and agree with them, they are reminded that when they agreed to them, they waved their right to sue us if we practice church discipline with them as the recipient.
And I’ve also included, on the last two pages of your hand out, a section lifted from our bylaws. Our bylaws are a booklet, about an eight of an inch thick and within article 5, church membership, there’s a section 8, church discipline. Remember what I said, was anyone who professes to be a believer in your fellowship should be treated as if they’re a believer in the process of church discipline. What do you do with people that aren’t members? They haven’t been through the membership class, they haven’t waved this right. Do we practice church discipline on non-members? Yes, we do. We believe we have a spiritual and scriptural mandate even though there may not be a clearly defined legal mandate. In fact, what we go by, from a legal standpoint and in certain cases we may consult with legal counsel on how to proceed, but specifically, if we can demonstrate that an individual has been in the church for enough time and been present and can verify and document that they were present during services in which church discipline was practiced and they are thus fully aware of how we deal with sinning believers, we can use the term called “implied consent” and we have used this in the past. So, we practice church discipline on both members and non-members and if you read our bylaws section, we also have provision for removing people from membership even not by church discipline, just by inactivity. I would urge you in your churches; keep your roles clean, that they consist of people who are actively members of your church not just people who had a name on a roll.
With that, I’ll open it to questions.
Question: We are talking about two believers. The husband is behaving in a manner that is causing his wife distress, but their not under any authority because they are not members of any church, or they are members of a church that does not practice church discipline. What do we, as individuals do?
Answer: I would believe that you should take the first step as outlined in Matthew 18. You should go and reprove your brother. If he does repent; go with witnesses. If he does not repent, and if there is a church that does not practice church discipline but yet is a church that has accountability for him—I’d tell it to that church leadership. If he is not in any church, then you would have to bypass that step, but I think you have done all that you can do, but I believe that you have the right, with you and your witnesses to go forward with the ramifications of what would take place in church discipline if it was followed through, that is, you stop your fellowship with that individual and make it clear to him that the reason for your stopping fellowship with him is his failure to repent.
I think that you as a concerned other believer can call him to repentance and if he does not repent then treat him as a gentile and a tax gatherer. That’s the scriptural mandate. I mean, you can’t go and beat the guy up, even though you may feel like it—that would be sin in itself.
Question: With non-members do we practice church registration? Do we have members register their attendance?
Answer: Yes, and that’s one of the documents that we would use to verify that they were indeed present in a meeting in which church discipline took place. Yes, we rely on the registration cards. There is a section for “members” and “non-members” to fill out.
Question: Since most church discipline cases involve family—there is family involvement, how do other members of the family deal with the individual under church discipline?
Answer: If it is first, second, or third step,
then you carry on as normal because you really don’t know about it, unless you
were the individual that confronted him. But if you have gone through step
four, it says, “do not eat with such a one,” I would think that would mean that
you limit your social involvement with him. If you are going to have a
family reunion and you are responsible for the guest list you may accidentally
leave him off. If you are not responsible for that but you meet him at a
family gathering, the extent of your conversation might be, “Have you repented
yet? No? Then that’s all we have to say to each other.”
Now, this is fine for brothers, sisters, and cousins, but not husband and wife. You can’t shun your wife. There are other scriptural teaching on how a wife is to respond to a sinning husband and vice versa. We should imply that since other scripture deals specifically with children in obedience to their parents, that the parent-child relationship should not follow this norm, that it must still remain as a parent and a child.
Question: Occasionally you will have situations where there appears to be, after a brothers reproof, contrition and repentance, but then it occurs again and again, for instance alcohol abuse. How long-suffering should we be?
Answer: Well if I believe what Christ said, seventy times seven times, but I also would believe that you might be dealing with other sins if there is a recurring pattern of sin and repentance, and sin and repentance, and sin and repentance in a specific sin area then there is probably a bigger issue involved and that may be the one you have to deal with where you don’t find contrition.
Question: We have a situation where we don’t have the implied consent, for we haven’t got that there in our constitution. We are about step three with a situation where we have two spouses and one is not faithful and the other is very faithful. We were almost to the point of going to the congregation and they submit a resignation?
Answer: Ok, what about the situation where you are following the process and when you are nearing the end of the process the person submits a resignation from your membership? Our bylaws specifically state that if you are under church discipline you have no right or authority to withdraw from membership. If you are in the process of discipline, which means anything past step one. If the church knows about then you have no right to withdraw and that’s conditioned within the bylaws so withdrawal is not valid.
Now, if you don’t have those provisions in you bylaws does that mean you should stop the procedure? I would submit this question and the specifics of it to legal counsel. There may be cases where you should move forward, and there may be cases where you would be doing more damage to the situation than is necessary by proceeding.
Question: What do you do when the person in the discipline process leaves and goes to another church?
Answer: Well, this happens quite often. If we are aware of the church that they have gone to, then we feel an obligation to notify the leadership of that church, not of what the sin is, but that that individual is fleeing church discipline from us. What they do with that information is their business, but we don’t get into specifics.
Question: Is the church member allowed to attend services when they are in this discipline practice?
Answer: If it is before step four, then yes, they are allowed to attend, even if it has been step three where the whole congregation has been urged to go after them. But if it has gone to step four then they are not welcome. Our first line of defense is our ushers who know of each individual that has been removed from the fellowship, and they, if the person tries to come in, they urge them to leave. Now, we have had cases where the people get belligerent. We have a second line of defense, we call it the “temple guard” it’s generally speaking, people who were in the law enforcement profession and have volunteered to act as special security around here, and they can remove the individual and that has been necessary on occasion. In fact, it has been necessary, on occasion, to get a court order restraining them from being present on our campus.
Question: Based on an earlier question of a person fleeing and going to another church, what if we are that other church that they are fleeing to?
Answer: If we are made aware of the situation, our leadership, who would be the only ones made aware of it, would go as that first step of church discipline to that individual saying, “What’s going on here? This is sinful that you have left that fellowship without legitimate grounds for leaving them. In fact, you are fleeing church discipline. Repent! Go back where you came from. Go back!
Question: If a person flees from the church, in the process of church discipline, do we continue to process to the end?
Answer: Yes. In fact, these registered letters and hand-couriered letters sometimes cross many states.
Question: What do you do with someone that is not in your church any longer but is causing division within your church?
Answer: If they profess to be a believer, whether they are members of our church or members of some other church, if we are aware of that sin: steps one, two, three, and four can be practiced, and steps three and four can be based on the non-member provision we have within our bylaws.
Question: What do you do in the case where a person brings an issue before the leadership in the church having information about sin in the life of someone else and they don’t want to deal with the situation, but they have given you all the details so that you now are part of a gossip train because they gossiped to you. How do you deal with the situation?
Answer: Well, the first thing is to be on your toes when people start bringing issues before you. If it smacks in any way of sin, then cut them off before they give you any details. You don’t need to be party to any of that information, and that’s why our elders are sort of on the defenses about that; that we don’t want to be the only ones dealing with church discipline. We want the whole membership to be dealing with those first two steps.
By the way, those first two steps are effective. How do you know they are effective except by gossip? Not by gossip, but in fellowship groups, in prayer meetings, in Bible studies. Quite often there is testimony by a certain individual who will say, “I really love brother so-and-so because he came to me when I was drifting from the Lord, and he called me back into repentance. We hear those on a regular basis of how people are interacting with each other and bringing purity to the church. So we know that the first two steps are working.
Now, as the leadership in the church, so we’re not the only ones doing it and deprive members of the sweet fellowship of restoring the sinning brother and developing a strong relationship together we want to cut that off before they tell us any information and to make us party to gossip. If they get to far with it we have to reprimand them and usually they do not throw it back in your face saying, “I refuse to repent of gossiping to you”—I just gossiped. Quite often you are going to see repentance there rather quickly.
Question: What do you do when the individual will not follow the first and second step as the rebuker and they won’t deal with this, but they’re telling you and maybe telling others?
Answer: If this is a pattern in their life of gossip then you have got to deal with them, and you are the first individual that knows of it, so even though you’re a leader in the church you don’t take it back to your fellow elders, but you deal with it on a one-on-one [basis]. Then probably your witnesses will be other elders, and then go all the way with it.
Question: What kind of sins do you deal with?
Answer: All kinds of sins. It’s only a certain kind of sin that seems to go to step four. Those seem to be, generally speaking, be sins dealing with immorality, because that seems to be the one area in which people are willing to throw over their family, all the friends they have had over the years—being willing to chuck everything to remain in that sin. They seem to be very hard to repent from, so that tends to be the majority. But we’ve disciplined people for unfair business practices, for continual lying, for spreading dissent within the body. So it’s all kinds of sins, especially when you take it serious that church discipline is not just steps three and four. Church discipline involves those first two steps that can deal with any kind of sin in a person’s life.
Question: What do you do with a sinning pastor? The specific case was one who leaves the fellowship where they were aware of the sin but has done nothing about it, and he goes to another fellowship. How do you deal with that situation?
Answer: If you are aware of it as a leader in the church, in general you should go to that individual and call him to repentance, and if he refuses to repent then take witnesses from either the church that he is now a part of or from the larger community of people that are aware of his life and just follow through with the procedures.
Now you mentioned the Hispanic church, quite often the pastoral role in the Hispanic church is sort of a patriarchal situation and it is very hard to break that mold of confronting the pastor. Scripture is very clear, it doesn’t tell us how we should modify this procedure for certain difficult cases, it just lays out the procedure, so I would urge to follow that procedure.
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