Involvement of Body in Church Discipline

God has already laid out a process in His Word to help erring believers that seeks to:

  • protect the dignity of the individual(s)
  • guard the unity of the body

Here are the steps given in the Word in the order they should be taken:

1) Privately talk with the person. (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1)  This would be pre-discipline, seeking to gently restore the person.

2) If the person doesn’t repent after one-on-one input, take one or two others along as witnesses to talk with him/her again. (Matt. 18:16-17; 1 Tim. 5:19)  This would also be pre-discipline.

3) If the person still refuses to listen, take the situation before the whole body. (2 Thess. 3:14-15; Matt. 18:17; 1 Tim. 5:20; 1 Cor. 5:9-13)  If the person still does not repentant, this would lead to church discipline which involves a lack of intimate fellowship (“treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” – Matt. 18:17) and if necessary, cut off from further association (“Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.” – 2 Thess. 3:14-15; “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but … Do not even eat with such people.” – 1 Cor. 5:11)

Notice how much has been invested into helping the person(s) before it goes church-wide. I chose the word “invested” carefully. To go to the extreme of church discipline you must put in more than a casual attempt to help the person. You must do more than simply reprimand. You must put real time and effort into helping the person. — That is the part that seems to be missing in too many church discipline situations which end badly.

The first two steps are true body life in action. As we will see in the next post, body life can prevent the need for discipline.

If the third step is necessary, it enables the unrepentant person to see that this is not merely the opinion or bias of an individual or of a few.

If church discipline is left up to one or even a few leaders, you could face a greater risk of division over it. When the whole church has a level of involvement in the decision to discipline, it protects the body as it was a decision made by the whole for the good of the individual(s).

If you are going to call it “church” discipline, then it should be just that — “church” — ekklesia — the gathering or assembly. Notice that 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 says “when you are assembled.”

8 Replies to “Involvement of Body in Church Discipline”

  1. Our congregation was shaken recently when our pastor was accused of adultery by a member of the congregation. The accuser identified herself as the one with whom the adultery was being committed.

    Several deacons and elders met with the pastor regarding the charges. Initially, he denied being involved with the accuser; subsequently, he acknowledged the affair and said it was over.

    He admonished the officers for broaching him with the issue, stating “This is personal; my wife is divorcing me; my lawyers advised that I have the right to date even though the divorce is not final; therefore, the issue of adultery is not valid or open for discussion or discipline.”

    The officers counseled the pastor with Scripture from 1Corinthians 5 and 6; 1 Timothy 3 and 5; 2 Timothy 2; Matthew 22; Hebrews 12 regarding disobedience to the Commandments; the impact of his behavior on the congregation; and his attempts to justify the adultery by separating his personal life from his spiritual life.

    The pastor apologized to the officers for “inappropriate behavior.” He insists the entire situation is “personal” and that it should be dropped.

    At one point he volunteered to resign; but within a few minutes of making that statement, he reneged. Then, the officers asked him resign, and he responded “I will not roll over for anyone; I will not resign; I will stand and fight this; take it to the Church for a vote.” He also repeated this statement from the pulpit Sunday — without providing any context for it.

    The officers’ goal is to act Scripturally and avoid protracted meetings and fruitless discussions that will damage the congregation further. They have completed Steps “1” and “2” outlined in the document “Involvement of Body in Church Discipline.”

    Regarding Step “3,” there is a strong possibility that the pastor will not leave, and a vote by the church will likely be in his favor. If this projected outcome actualizes, the officers plan to resign and leave the church.

    How and when should they carry this out in a manner that honors God? Please advise quickly…

    • Praise God that the officers of your church want to respond scripturally. Sadly, it sounds like your pastor is basing his actions on emotions and worldly advice rather than God’s Word. God’s Word is clear that pastors, elders, deacons — church leaders — are held to a high standard as seen in qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. Some of the listed qualifications are “personal” not just church related. They are to be examples for the flock in all things (1 Pet. 5:3).

      If the church officers have truly done all they can to deal with this privately and the pastor remains unrepentant, then it would be important that they move on it with the congregation sooner rather than later. The longer it goes on, the more potential for gossip, side-taking, misunderstandings, etc. These kinds of situations certainly can splinter a church.

      Before the officers take it to the congregation, it would behoove them to spend a concerted time in prayer, personally and as a group. They must be sure to go into it with the right motivations, with God’s wisdom, and with His power to respond in ways that as much as it lies within them, promote peace and unity (Rom. 12:18).

      The elders need to keep taking the congregation back to the Word of God thoroughly explaining God’s heart to them and appealing to them to base their decisions on God’s Word not the popularity or appeal of the pastor, not how things are done in the world, and not by feelings. They need to try as much as is possible to make sure the congregation understands that it isn’t just because the church officers are personally offended by what the pastor is doing but because of God’s glory and the testimony of the church. They need to stress that it isn’t about taking sides but following after God.

      If it does become necessary for the officers to resign and leave the church, they should do it in as loving of a way as possible. They must remember that they are personally accountable to God for how they shepherd the flock. They too must be examples. If the pastor won’t resign on his own and the congregation stands with him, and the officers are unable to take further steps, then the separation very well may have to be them leaving. BUT, it needs to be communicated as clearly as possible that they aren’t leaving for vindictive purposes. They must make it clear that they cannot in good conscious before the Lord condone that which grieves the heart of God.

      Some might say that the elders should stay and try to affect change. How are they going to help the church if they leave? That must be considered. But there is also the possibility that staying would communicate a condoning of what is happening. And, there could be a point at which they cannot be a help if the pastor and congregation remain obstinate and hardened. Even God has had to turn people over to their own ways (Rom. 1) because they “exchanged the truth about God for a lie” and refused to turn to Him.

      Whether they stay or leave, they must be doing it as a result of much prayer and a conviction that it is what GOD wants them to do. It certainly would be an extreme measure but from what you wrote, this may be an extreme situation. The prayer support team for Ministry Tools Resource Center will be in prayer for your church. May God soften the heart of the pastor to do what is best for the congregation, not himself, and to seek God’s glory, not his own personal agenda.

  2. Thank you so much for the prompt and caring response. I will share it with the elders and officers. They are deeply saddened by these events and offering much prayer and meditation seeking God’s way to being obedient to God and demonstrating loving spirits to everyone during this process.

    Some families in the church are already grappling with splitting their place of worship – one may remain and the other plans to leave. Some long time members are feeling torn because of the possibility of separating from friends.

    This is heart rendering for those who must lead through this passage. It is duly noted that clear, concise, non-vindictive communication is imperative.

    We are so grateful for your help and your concern. Please do keep us in prayer — the pastor, the congregation and the surronding community. Thank you for being there in our time of need.

    • You are welcome. The sense of loss in leaving a church where you have had close relationships undoubtedly sets in motion the grief cycle — You will now find part of this response in a new post so I could expand upon it: Grieving in Divisive Church Situations — Let’s pray people yield to God to walk them through these stages so they don’t get stuck. There will be grieving no matter how this situation turns out. The elders will need to come alongside of people with comfort and counsel to help bring healing. They too (the elders & officers) will undoubtedly be going through this process as well so it is important that they are there for one another.

  3. We highly regard the wisdom you have shared with us, and we receive it in the Name of Jesus Christ. How, when and where do those that are leaving “… come alongside of people with comfort and counsel to help bring healing.”

    Over the past 2 years, we maintained individual commitments to love, serve and “come alongside” the pastor and members of the congregation as we all grappled with how to handle improprieties at our church. Through spiritual apathy, we allowed ‘foxes’ to come in and misues and abuse God’s people and His resources.

    Some repented and set about earnestly to bring order according to the Word of God. We conducted workshops and seminars to equip and encourage all members to see and apply Christ based leadership in every aspect of their lives.

    We need advice on how to demonstrate support, love and consideration to members through this change. This particular aspect is new to us. As expected, each of us is under attack spiritually and from the tongues and attitudes of members. We understand that we need grace AND that we must give grace to others as God gives it to us. Where and how do we engage?

    Please receive our sincere gratitute and prayers for all of you at Train Church Leaders helping us to help others.

    • This is a hard one to answer as much of it will depend on the particulars of the situation as it unfolds and the opportunities before you. However, I can give some general suggestions.

      The suggestions given in this response have been expanded upon and made into a new post: Healing in Divisive Church Situations

  4. Thank you for the godly advice embodied with Scripture, love and humility.

    We are now four who stand alone… no fight, no anger, just sadness and love for our brothers and sisters in Christ and quiet determination to honor God through this season. The pastor and other leaders are entrenched in the position that “this is pastor’s personal business now let’s move on.”

    We are praying separately and together, ministering to one another, and so far, responding to attacks with gentleness and compassion. We agreed to be careful to “hear” how the people feel and not to be defensive when talking with them.

    Oh, by the Grace of God, through this experience, the 4 of us are learning more and more about the loving God and loving our neighbors. We are getting it: we must be “carriers” and “givers” of the grace God gives us. It Is NOT About us, It Is All About God… through the tears and heartaches, we are taking strength from Scripture and singing hymns written by Christians of bygone days…

    “Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide ’til’ the day is done. There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus – No not one, no not one!”

    • Praise God that the four of you are standing in the truth of God’s Word. You are going against the flow which is a really tough and lonely place to be. I don’t think it is any coincidence that in the passage about elders being shepherds in 1 Peter 5 that it goes on with these words: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” — Praise God that you are already finding strength in Him … learning and growing through it all. May He continue to give you wisdom as you extend His love and grace, doing so as you continue to stand firm in Him and His truth.

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