I have done a four-part series on the topic of church discipline in earlier posts, so I won’t be visiting old ground here.
- As a church we follow the Matthew 18:15–17 principles for church discipline at our church.
- When we talk of church discipline we mean the daily ‘one anothering’ of church member with church member. That means the overwhelming majority of‘sin issues’in our churchare dealt with in this way.
- We have an extra layer within these principles in which serious sin issues come to the elders for prayer and discussion before we take them to the congregation for appropriate action. This gives us time to investigate the situation and we either (a) encourage those involved in originally challenging the sin to maybe rethink or act with more wisdom and/or grace (in other words we don’t think the issue is as serious as they do) or (b) we challenge the person confronted to explain the situation. Going to the members is always our final option, and only after we have exhausted all other biblical measures and steps open to us.
- Excommunication is the final step in our discipline process. This is when we say to a person, or people, that we can no longer, as a body of God’s people, ratify their confession of faith. To be clear, we only excommunicate people for serious, public. and consistently unrepentant sin that brings the gospel and the witness of the church into disrepute.
- Excommunicated members of our church are still permitted, indeed are actively encouraged, to attend worship on Sundays (unless the offence(s) puts others at risk) but are not allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper and have no rights as members (such as pastoral care). In effect, we treat them as lovingly, kindly, and welcomingly as unbelievers until such time as we see a genuine profession of faith that produces fruit in keeping with repentance.
This all sounds clear but, unfortunately, life (and sin) don’t quite work out like that. There are many, many factors that can muddy the process. In my 18 years in ministry, I have experienced the following:
- Those under discipline just leave the church and refuse all attempts at contact in an attempt to avoid serious sin issues in their lives.
- More ‘open’ churches (read: liberal) will take in people involved in serious, open, and unrepentant sin with no questions asked. So, for example, we recently had a couple come to us professing to be believers but discovered that they were sleeping together outside of marriage. We challenged the behaviour when they applied to us for membership. They left our church and now ‘worship’ at another one that accepts their behaviour (or at least doesn’t challenge it).
- Members under discipline from our church were encouraged to leave us and join a different church by the pastor of that church with the promise that they would be taken care of better (they have since almost split his church and nearly ended his ministry).
- We have had members of other churches turn up at our services, citing ill treatment or legalism or accusing their church of not being ‘gospel centred’ (a favourite excuse) when, in fact, they had hopped around from church to church for years and had caused division wherever they went. They leave when we question them and ask for references.
- Church leaders have given us good references for ‘problem people’ just to get them off their hands (a growing issue this one!).
- We discovered one of our members, undergoing the discipline process for serious sin, was actually a small group leader in another church (where they weren’t a member!). When I informed their pastor of the situation, he wasn’t even aware this person was in attendance at his church, never mind leading a group.
There are many more examples I could discuss. There is a problem in the UK. Small churches and/or church plants, desperate for bums on seats, will take almost anybody on board in a desperate attempt to look like they are growing. Or, bigger churches will take anybody on board because they don’t really have a handle on who is attending their churches in terms of really knowing them or their background(s). The end result is almost always the same. Those under discipline and/or church hoppers jump around from congregation to congregation with impunity, cause mayhem, and then move on to their next unsuspecting (although not altogether innocent) victims.
The challenge, then, is for pastors to take some responsibility for the current situation. We need to remind our church members of their responsibility to ensure that we are on the lookout for wolves among the sheep. The problem became even more pressing recently at a meeting of 20schemes church planters. We discovered that a man who was excommunicated from our church had begun attending one of the plants in another scheme. As I write this, another of our excommunicated members is attending a different scheme church. The question is, how should the church planters, and we as the excommunicating church, react? How should we treat those in question?
How do we handle those who have been excommunicated from one church when they start attending ours?
- We must ensure that we truly know the sheep Jesus called us to feed. We don’t want to come over all secret police, but we do want to know the people sitting in our pews and attending our meetings. Who are they? Where have they come from? How can we serve them? What is their background? What is their previous church experience (if any)? If they were under discipline in their old church, what was it for? If they won’t answer that question truthfully (and the chances are that they won’t), then ask them about some of the major sin issues they currently struggle with in their life.
- Take up references from other pastors where appropriate. We do this at Niddrie, regardless of denomination or whether we think the church they’ve come from is ‘sound’ or not. We must ask probing questions when doing this. What were they like as church members? Have there been any historical or serious sin issues that we ought to know about? (Small church pastors and church planters are terrible at this). Many a time I’ve had to call a pastor or planter and inform them of the situation of some of my people who’ve left us under a cloud and have joined them in an attempt to run from their sin and responsibilities. Alongside this, many pastors/planters are often too willing to believe bad things about other church leaders from people they hardly know who’ve turned up at their meetings with a sob story about how they’ve been badly treated. This is made even easier if the church they have come from is one with which we disagree theologically. No-one comes into membership in our church until (1) we have taken up references and are satisfied that there is no serious history we need to be concerned about and (2) they have left their last church well (in other words, they are not on the run).
- Encourage new attenders to finish well in their old church. In effect, don’t let them sneak out the back door of their old church and skip through the front door of yours. Have they written a letter of resignation to their old congregation stating their reason for leaving and assuring them they are in fellowship in a new, gospel-centred church (this is part of the covenant statement for our members)? Be sure they are not leaving unresolved sin behind. Remember, not getting on with other people or not liking the pastor’s sermons are not, in my opinion, biblically sufficient reasons for leaving a congregation and joining another. If they don’t leave their old church well, then the chances are they won’t leave yours well either.
- Encourage reconciliation with their previous church and/or those they have sin issues with.
- Don’t hand out authority quickly. Let people attend, and be welcoming, but don’t give them too much authority too soon. This gives them a chance to get to know your church, and you a chance to get to see their character. One couple left us after six months because the man felt that he was more gifted than most of my elders. That may well have been true, but the fact that he couldn’t sit and humbly receive ministry from them told me what I needed to know about his character defects. Also, his leaving had very little effect on the church than it would have had I given him a place of authority earlier. One of the problems with scheme churches (and this is true in poor communities generally) is that they tend to attract theologically knowledgeable, but spiritually immature, believers. Small churches (20–60 people) in our communities are easy targets for those looking to show off what they know and exert power and influence.
We scheme/council estate churches, particularly, need to be careful because we have such few numbers that anybody who walks in with a pulse on Sunday can be tempting for us. Such is our desire to have mature believers that we can confuse knowledge with character, and we can pay a heavy price for that mistake. We want to be places of refuge for the broken and marginalised, but we also want to protect our sheep from the wolves that roam the evangelical church scene. May God help us be faithful to the Scriptures. May he give us love and patience and wisdom in these matters.