When churches face evil or unrepentant behavior we have to make a tough call. What does church discipline look like? It turns out that it involves several steps from talking to the person one-on-one to expelling them from the congregation. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Jonathan Leeman from www.9marks.org joins us to talk about his book: Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus.
Our main text is from Matthew 18 where Jesus lays out a clear plan for disciplining a brother or sister in Christ. Though the process seems easy, it is not without disagreement. Some people argue that discipline is tied to church membership. If someone sins, take away their membership to the congregation. The only problem is that membership is not in the Bible. It is an invention of man. But so are many other cherished parts of the church-going experience: youth group, Sunday school, crosses as decoration, even holidays like Christmas and Easter are not specifically outlined in the Bible.
Truce is a listener-supported podcast. Leave us a comment on iTunes and be sure to visit us at www.trucepodcast.com. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Our host is Chris Staron, author of Cradle Robber and writer/ director of the films Bringing up Bobby and Between the Walls.
CS: Chris Staron (podcast host) JL: Jonathan Leeman
CSL This episode contains some discussion of sexual impropriety. Parental discretion is advised.
In the aftermath of the scandal, as allegations rolled out across weeks and then months, the world was stunned. The Catholic Church, once seen as a safe place for families, for a community, had been a part of a systemic cover-up.
Maybe you remember this. In 2002 the Boston Globe broke the story that the Catholic Church had known about sexual predators amongst its priests. When the Church discovered the actions of the offending priests, they just shuffled them around. Moved them to new parishes. No jail time. No trials. The church tried to hide the story. Now it couldn’t. A film about the scandal won Oscars, drawing even more attention and shame onto this once revered organization. And not without cause.
What should the Catholic Church have done when they found out their priests were molesting children? The answer may seem obvious now. They should have gone to the police, made the community aware, been on alert. Excommunicated the offenders. But they didn’t. And some of these priests reoffended in other churches. Many people left the faith. But why? Because nobody did anything. They tried to bury the story. Was it out of shame? Fear of besmirching the name of the church? Or reverence for the men who were supposed to represent Christ on earth?
We hate to talk about church discipline for a lot of the same reasons. It might make outsiders look down on us. It will hurt community bonds, distract from social welfare projects, or alienate those who are being disciplined. But if these terrible incidents with the Catholic church have taught us anything, it should be that the risks of doing nothing can be too great to ignore.
I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
Now, that was an extreme example. We’re going to pull it back just a little bit. What about other sins? Infidelity? Gossip? Lust? Greed? How do we address the sins within our local church?
Along with me for the ride is Jonathan Leeman from 9marks
JL: Jonathan Leeman from 9marks, I’m the Editorial Director there.
CS: And he’s written a book about church discipline. Two, actually.
JL: The first I wrote was called “Church Discipline, how the Church Protects the Name of Jesus”.
CS: Two books on a really difficult topic.
JL: I don’t know who would say, “hey I want to write on that”.
CS: He’s also written on church membership and politics.
JL: They said, Jonathan, you’re really nice. And so we think you’re the right person to write about this’. Like, I think that’s a compliment?
CS: Okay, church discipline. Right off the bat. Before we really get going on the subject, there are a few things to keep in mind. A lot of us go to churches where discipline is not regularly practiced. Jonathan had some good advice about that.
JL: If you haven’t been doing it, don’t do it.
CS: Which may sound strange from a guy who wrote a book encouraging people to practice church discipline.
JL: Church discipline is a tough topic, and an even tougher practice, right? It’s easy to talk about in a podcast like this, but when you’re actually talking to actual Christians in an actual church and they’ve never done it before… you know there’s a lot of foundational work you need to get in place first. So, you know if you go reading Matthew 18 and you look, ‘lo and behold Jesus is talking about church discipline. There it is. I’m convicted, I gotta go home and do it right now. Well, if you do it next Sunday you won’t have a job, pastor… the following Sunday.
Which talks about the steps of church discipline
CS: The congregation may not handle it well. They need to be prepared in advance.
JL: And you gotta make sure people understand the gospel. Make sure people understand membership.
CS: Hold that thought. We’ll talk about membership in just a little while.
JL: They need to understand repentance. There needs to be a culture of discipline and person, quiet, encouraging correction. You know, so if you don’t have a culture of discipline and discipline in your church, where it’s just normal to confess your sins to one another and welcome those kinds of corrections if that’s not your culture… moving towards public church discipline will be explosive and generally not helpful.
CS: Okay… so… All that to say, don’t just run off and do this willy-nilly. Discipline should be done slowly. Of course, if this is an issue where someone breaks the law, or is aggressive, harassing somebody— contact the police, talk to legal counsel. Don’t mess around with that stuff. What we’re talking about is sin that doesn’t break the law or endanger the safety of others. Also- church discipline is only for Christians. People who claim the name of Christ.
2 Cor 5:9-13 (NASB)
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.
From the New American Standard Bible.
Now, did you catch that? Don’t judge people outside the church. Don’t do it.
[MUSIC AND SFX]
Think of it this way. A burly, motorcycle dude walks into your church on a Sunday. He’s wearing a Hell’s Angel’s jacket and has a beer in his hand. Maybe his hair is unkempt, it’s long. There are holes in his jeans and uses bad language when he’s shaking people’s hands. Yet, we want to know about Jesus. Are you going to tell him to go home and change or are you going to share the gospel?
Right. You’re going to share the gospel. Keep the main thing the main thing.
Church discipline is only for people who claim the name of Christ.
JL: I don’t think you can discipline people who are not members of your church. I don’t think you can discipline, let’s just say, mere attenders of your church. You might have to warn your flock against, say, a false teacher, or somebody who is divisive, but you can’t formally discipline them or remove them from membership if they’re not a part of the membership in the first place.
CS: So… we’ve got that out of the way. People who claim the name of Christ. Now, who needs church discipline?
JL: Uh, me. You. All of us. Right? So, discipline isn’t just that big act of excommunication. That’s sort of the final stage of discipline. Uh, discipline is correcting sin. Look, I’m justified by faith alone, through grace alone, and I’m still a sinner. I need brothers and sisters in Christ to come to me sometimes and say, “Jonathan the way you spoke in this meeting was a bit severe. Or this thing that you were doing was a bit selfish.” I need brothers and sisters to challenge me whereas I heard one speaker put it, “there’s cream cheese on my face and I can’t see it”. Right? And, so we all need that. Look, if you’re not a sinner, you’re not welcome in my church. You don’t need to be there. Our church is for sinners only, okay? (laughs)
CS: Churches are places that are filled with sinners. All of us, you and me. By entering into that church, we’re saying, “I need help”. What does that help look like? Well, the Bible gives us a pretty good outline in Matt 18.
JL: And, you know, let me say this briefly about all 3-4 steps in Matthew 18. I don’t understand them to be just like steps for programming a computer or programming your DVD player or whatever. Step 1, step 2, step 3, step 4… I think what they are is giving us a sense of how this thing should work.
CS: What kinds of sin deserve church discipline? Jonathan Leeman says the sin should be outward, significant, and unrepentant.
JL: This sin has to be outward, significant, and unrepentant.
CS: Don’t go straight for the nuclear option. We all struggle with sin. It’s when that struggle becomes pursuit or justification of sin that we get into issues of church discipline.
Matt 18:15 – 17 (NASB)
(This is Jesus talking) “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.”
From the New American Standard
Okay, so, step one. Go to them in private. It should be noted that texting this kind of stuff is a terrible idea. Don’t ever text sensitive information. EVER. Okay, I think I’ve made that clear.
JL: Ordinarily you’re going to go directly to them.
CS: This, of course, depends on the sin.
JL: There are exceptional circumstances. Maybe it’s a woman who’s feeling preyed upon by a certain man. And it seems dangerous to go to that man, well yeah she might not go directly to that man.
CS: And it’s all in the approach.
JL: You’re not going to go with accusations, you’re going to go with questions. Um. You know, innocent until proven guilty, in a sense. Right? So look, I saw this, my impression of that is this. Is that a correct impression? Please correct what I’m not understanding correctly. Help me understand. Maybe ask some questions. You’re going to push in. You’re gonna do that in a spirit of gentleness and love. You’re not doing that to vent. You’re not doing that to get something off your chest.
CS: You’re doing it because you want their good. So… examine yourself before you even start. (deep breath) Is this out of unjust anger? Am I trying to look holy? Am I making a bigger deal out of this than I need to? Don’t go in trying to be that pesky person who loves to find fault with other people. If it’s not done out of humility, don’t do it at all.
JL: So first step, you might say, even before talking to the person is doing that, sort of, own heart work on yourself and say, “okay, what is my goal here? It is to kick the guy or to love the guy?”
CS: Privacy is important because you don’t want to encourage gossip in the name of fake holiness. And don’t be the guy who asks gossips by asking people to pray for whoever is the offender. Come on, guys.
JL: Yeah, and then so you go in a spirit, giving the person the benefit of the doubt, asking questions and seeing if you can come to a shared understanding of what the problem is and if you can resolve it. And if you can resolve it, the person repents, or you misunderstood, great. Conversation over. Discipline done, that’s step one.
CS: If you’ve gone through step one and you come to a resolution, then stop. Awesome, everyone can go back to their lives. If not… well, Jonathan gave this example. He and a friend were out to lunch…
JL: And over lunch one day it came out in conversation that he was engaged in a lifestyle of sexual sin. And I had that first… I say, “you know what the Bible says about this.” And he was like, “yeah, but the… God told me He was okay with it.”
CS: So Jonathan brought in a friend and they sat down with this guy.
JL: And it was a repeat of the same thing. “Hey, you know what the Bible says.” “Yeah, I know what the Bible says, but God told me it was okay.”
CS: At that point, they went to the elders of the church, who did their own investigation. See, here’s the thing. Accusations of sin are supposed to be confirmed by multiple witnesses.
Replay Matt 18 (NASB)
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.
JL: And it’s not mob justice. There needs to be evidence. You need to take care. You need to move slowly. And in the same way, Jesus is commanding the same sort of slow, methodical, innocent until proven guilty process.
CS: Have I said that before? I’ll say it again: unless we’re talking about something really really egregious or time sensitive…move slowly.
JL: When you’re confronting a person in sin you’re not aiming for their initial response. It’s their, kind of, tenth response I’m most interested in. You know, their response two weeks later, a month later I’m most interested in. Not their response today.
CS: Hopefully this resolves the issues. If so, great! Job done. Forgive. Stay accountable. Move on. Of course… it may not be the end.
Then it’s on to step three: bringing this before the church. Jonathan continues his example of an unrepentant man caught in sexual sin.
JL: The elders then went to the whole congregation at what we call a members meeting, which is a meeting of just the members. They name the sin – the category of the sin, rather. They don’t get into the details. They just say, “so and so is doing this.” And then they call the congregation to be involved. They say… let me just call him Joe. Now, if you have a relationship with Joe, we’d encourage you to pursue him. If you don’t have a relationship with Joe, now is a good time to be praying for him, that the Lord would bring him to repentance. And at our next regularly scheduled members meeting two months from now, if nothing changes between now and then in Joe’s life, and if he doesn’t repent of this sin, the elders will return and recommend his removal from membership as an act of excommunication. Or as an act of discipline.
CS: Telling the whole congregation may sound harsh, but the alternative could be worse. Think of the gossip. Feelings will be hurt if the elders excommunicate somebody without providing information. It is not a fun process, it shouldn’t be the chance for people to grandstand. Again, we’re all sinners. But sin is what tears us apart from God, it’s what breaks churches apart. With that in mind, this process should be done humbly.
Say Joe doesn’t turn away from his sin… That’s where things get a little tricky. Remember when I said we’d come back to that membership thing? Here’s Jonathan Leeman.
JL: Does that mean we’re saying Joe is a non-Christian. Well, no. We don’t presume to have Holy Spirit eyes. We don’t presume to have the ability to finally say whether or not Joe is a Christian before God. What we are saying is that insofar as by bringing Joe into membership we affirmed his profession of faith, we affirmed him as a believer, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are now removing that affirmation. We no longer using our corporate credit to make a public declaration on Joe’s behalf.
CS: The question is the method of discipline. According to Jonathan, excommunication means taking away Joe’s church membership.
JL: Now back to our church, we would then remove him from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s table.
CS: This is where we get into controversy. Church membership as we know it is not explicitly outlined in the Bible. It is a structure made by mankind. A useful structure, but a manmade one.
JL: Uh, true. You don’t see membership interviews, membership classes, membership packets. I think all of those are forms that we adopt.
CS: I don’t know about you, but this stuff makes me nervous. I start thinking about the Pharisees and Sadducees and their manmade structures. At the same time, we’re surrounded by manmade structures. The Bible doesn’t specifically lay out what a church service looks like, but we gather anyway. There is no youth group in the New Testament. It doesn’t say anything about providing childcare, coffee after the service, lighting candles for advent, or even using crosses as decorations. Many of us wouldn’t want to a church without those things.
So… what about hard-nosed people who want to continue sinning and go to church at the same time? If they are excommunicated in the style of Jonathan Leeman it just means this: they are no longer affirmed by the church body, but they can still keep coming.
JL: Well, yeah. We always explain to the church, “hey look. If Joe decides to continue attending on a Sunday morning, this is a public gathering with Christians and non-Christians, think 1 Corinthians 14, there’s no place we’d rather him be than here on Sunday mornings sitting under the preaching of the gospel. Nonetheless, he’s no longer a member, he’s no longer one of us, he’s no longer a part of our fellowship, he’s no longer welcome to the table and you are not to interact with him in any way that would make him think that he’s okay with Jesus. Don’t do anything to undermine that. You’re not getting together just to hang out and talk about football. Instead, insofar as you are interacting with Joe you’re calling him to repentance.
CS: This guy’s not just like a non-Christian friend you hang out with. Instead, when you get together, you continue to talk about repentance. Depending on your denomination he may not be able to teach Sunday school, vote in congregational meetings, participate in youth group, sing the choir, pass the plate. All stuff that hurts if… Joe… is used to serving. But is it the prescribed method from the Bible?
Some say no, that this style of excommunication doesn’t have any teeth since the offender continues to be in the church. They pray. They worship. Join us for coffee and donuts for the fellowship hour. Outsiders will still see his or her behavior as being accepted by that local church.
You see why this gets complicated. On one hand, Jonathan’s method, which he is not alone in, is very workable. It’s kind of elegant, actually. I wouldn’t be opposed to going to his church or put up much of a stink if mine started doing this. His method cuts out the difficult move of telling someone not to come back. It allows sinners the chance to be under good preaching.
JL: We do not have the authority of the sword. The state holds the authority of the sword. The state can say, you just took that from the store, I’m literally taking your body and sticking you in prison now. It’s a geographic, coercive authority the state has. The church does not have that. It’s an authority of declaration. This is the gospel, this is not the gospel. This is a member, this is not a member. That’s all the authority we have. So, one, in response to that critique, I would just say, look, we don’t have authority to do otherwise.
CS: Being removed from membership can hurt… a lot. It doesn’t, however, account for verses like 2 Thessalonians 3:6.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 (NASB)
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
Or the command in Matthew 18 that we not even eat with such a person. See, that sounds more like… shunning.
What do we say then? Church discipline is hard. It reminds us that we’re all sinners. And when one of our brothers or sisters in Christ comes to us with a concern, we need to be open to it. Because that’s how we grow. When a church is filled with hypocrites and heretics and looks just like the world, how is that loving to our communities? How does that reflect on Christ? Not well.
Discipline is also an important aspect of spiritual growth. Maybe the hardest part is that people are tasked with this responsibility. For whatever reason, God has seen fit to have humans helping, correcting, teaching other humans. Which sometimes makes discipline look like a power play.
All that to say, God has equipped the church to establish His reputation, to protect new believers, and to set a good example for the community. He has not called us to unrighteous anger, to getting even, or to slander.
What happens in a church, what is associated with the church changes how non-Christians see the gospel. If our congregants, or worse yet, our leaders are corrupt, angry, liars then Christ, out of no fault of His own, will be associated with corruption and lies. And that makes it even harder to do the real work of the church.
Special thanks to Jonathan Leeman. You can find more information about his books and articles at 9marks.org. That’s the number nine then the word marks and a dot org. We’d love to hear what you think about the show. You can leave comments on our Facebook page and find out everything worth knowing about Truce at trucepocast.com.
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I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.