ASTOR, WE HAVE A DIFFICULT SITUATION.”
The church’s first elder and I were visiting church members during my first few weeks as pastor in the district when he made this pronouncement.
“One of our church members brings different men home to go to bed with her,” he explained, “and she has her passive husband sleep on the floor at the foot of the bed. What do you think we should do?”
He obviously had my attention. My first thought was of 1 Corinthians 5:1, which says the church at Corinth had a case of sexual immorality that raised eyebrows even among the non-Christians.
“How do you know this is true?” I asked. “Her husband has talked with several of the church leaders about it, including me.”
“When did this happen?”
“It has been happening off and on for about six years.”
“Has any church discipline been taken?” I was incredulous.
“Well, her parents were church leaders for years before they moved away. And we hoped we could show her Christian love and win her back. And we’ve been without a pastor for almost a year.”
The first elder was a good and conscientious man, but it was clear that he was fumbling; trying to excuse what hadn’t been done that needed to be done.
Here was another one of those situations that seem to evolve over time. It starts as a little rumor about a church member, but because no one is sure the rumor is true, the other members excuse their doing nothing about the situation by the notion “We wouldn’t want to gossip.” And because the member in question is still attending church, they assume the problem will take care of itself. After all, they sometimes say, “We wouldn’t want to do anything that would keep them from coming to church.”
In time, however, the problem becomes more obvious, and soon the member isn’t coming to church anymore.
“Someone really needs to visit them,” a concerned church member says. “But isn’t that the job of the pastor or the elders?” another asks. Everyone, though, is busy, and “there are so many other more important things to do.”
The problem eventually grows bigger, but because the member is by now disconnected from the church, no one delves into the situation. Some think, Maybe if the church is “lucky,” the member will transfer to another Seventh-day Adventist Church and the problem will be gone.
After the first elder shared this story with me, I developed a sick feeling in my stomach—then I shot a bullet prayer to God asking for wisdom.
What to Do?
“Let’s go visit that home right now,” I said to my first elder.
“I don’t know if they are home.”
“Neither do I, but let’s go see.”
“What if they don’t let us in?”
“We won’t know until we try.”
With hesitancy he agreed to go.
We made three visits to the couple’s apartment during the next few months to see whether we could help the member experience a reconversion, and help her husband begin to understand what God’s love is really all about. When it became clear we were unsuccessful, the first elder and I talked with the other elders about the situation.
“But shouldn’t we show her God’s grace?” one asked. “Let the one without sin be the first to cast a stone,” another admonished. The others were silent. I began asking myself, “How can we ever change our community for God when we can’t stand up and acknowledge sin for what it is?” I didn’t want to be self-righteous, but I also didn’t want to ignore the importance of God’s righteousness and the role of the church as a witness to the community. And if the church is the body of Christ, I wondered, how are we to relate to the cancer of sin when it is not forsaken by the sinner? The answers, I believe, are found in incorporating the following three steps to spiritual church discipline:
1. Avoid the two extremes: no discipline versus harsh discipline.
Churches, like parents, frequently have a hard time knowing how to deal with discipline. They often go to one of two extremes: either they are harsh and vindictive, or they virtually ignore every situation that calls for discipline, hoping it will get better on its own, such as in the case I just described. And sometimes they swing back and forth between the two extremes. Developing a fair, balanced, and grace-filled approach to church discipline is the goal every church needs to strive for.
2. Study what the Bible really says about church discipline, and share those principles with others.
We desperately need the clarity only God’s Word can bring to church discipline situations: “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple,” the psalmist tells us (Ps. 119:130, KJV).
In this situation, the elders and I met several times to look at and listen to God’s counsel on the subject of church discipline. We discovered that part of the confusion in this area concerns the role individual church members should play in church discipline (see Matt. 7:1; James 4:11, 12; 1 Cor. 8; 9; and Gal. 6:1-10), as compared with the role of the church body (see 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:1-11; and 1 Tim. 5:20); also when both individuals and the church body are involved (see Matt. 18:15-17 and 1 Cor. 6:1-8). We found that the counsel in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (in the chapter “Church Discipline”), outlining the principles, process, and options to be biblically based and extremely helpful. And the book Restoring Fellowship: Judgment & Church Discipline, by Joy and Kenneth Gage,* gave a tremendously insightful treatment of the Bible passages.
We as elders were finally ready to recommend to the church in business session that we vote to acknowledge that the member, because of her continued choices to live a life in violation to God’s law, had made it important for her name to be removed from church membership, praying that in the future there would be repentance and a turning away from the sinful lifestyle. The recommendation did not share details. We then informed the member what we were recommending.
When the church met in business session, a number of people spoke about how “God wants us to be patient with others,” and that “we are all sinners.” But when the secret ballot vote was finally counted, all but one person present voted for the recommendation.
The first elder and I went to visit the now former member with a letter documenting the action taken. The letter stated: “As a church family, we are very sorry we have not been able to provide you with the spiritual encouragement and ministry that would help you in your personal walk with God and commitment to living the Seventh-day Adventist lifestyle. In the future, we hope we have another opportunity to do better.
“You are still welcome to attend any of the worship services, Bible study groups, or other activities of the church. We hope you will find these to be a blessing and encouragement in your relationship with Jesus and your preparation for His soon return.
“The time may come in the future when you would like to reunite with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Enclosed is a list of baptismal vows and fundamental beliefs. We would be happy to review these with you and help in any way we can, if you would like us to.”
3. See the situation through to the end or reap the spiritual consequences.
Many times during the process it would have been easier to just forget the whole thing. Did we handle everything perfectly? I don’t think so. Could we have stated things in a better way? Probably. Did the former member ever repent and come back to church? Not to my knowledge, but I would be thrilled to learn otherwise. Were there other church discipline situations to deal with later in that district? Certainly, but none as dramatic as this one. Did the church leaders and members grow in their understanding of what the church body is called to do in church discipline situations? Definitely. Was I glad I accepted the call to that district? Of course! Why? Because we were all learning to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) through humbly submitting ourselves to His Word. And during the next few years we saw dozens and dozens of people added to the church.
An Act of Self-preservation
Church discipline is rarely easy, but it is absolutely essential if we are to be faithful to our calling and help the church to be faithful to hers. Consider this inspired counsel from Ellen White:
“Sin and sinners in the church must be promptly dealt with, that others may not be contaminated. Truth and purity require that we make more thorough work to cleanse the camp from Achans. Let those in responsible positions not suffer sin in a brother. Show him that he must either put away his sins or be separated from the church” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 147).
A serious danger exists for the one needing to receive discipline if it is not given. Ellen White wrote: “Many do not realize the sacredness of church relationship and are loath to submit to restraint and discipline. Their course of action shows that they exalt their own judgment above that of the united church, and they are not careful to guard themselves lest they encourage a spirit of opposition to its voice. Those who hold responsible positions in the church may have faults in common with other people and may err in their decisions; but notwithstanding this, the church of Christ on earth has given to them an authority that cannot be lightly esteemed” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 17).
A danger also exists for the church leaders responsible for seeing that the discipline is extended: “To hate and reprove sin, and at the same time to show pity and tenderness for the sinner, is a difficult attainment,” wrote Ellen White. “The more earnest our own efforts to attain to holiness of heart and life, the more acute will be our perception of sin and the more decided our disapproval of any deviation from the right. We must guard against undue severity toward the wrongdoer, but we must also be careful not to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. There is need of showing Christlike patience and love for the erring one, but there is also danger of showing so great toleration for his error that he will look upon himself as undeserving of reproof, and will reject it as uncalled for and unjust.
“Ministers of the gospel sometimes do great harm by allowing their forbearance toward the erring to degenerate into toleration of sins and even participation in them. Thus they are led to excuse and palliate that which God condemns, and after a time they become so blinded as to commend the very ones whom God commands them to reprove. He who has blunted his spiritual perceptions by sinful leniency toward those whom God condemns, will erelong commit a greater sin by severity and harshness toward those whom God approves” (The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 503, 504).
Does your congregation have a church discipline situation that needs attention? If so, I encourage you, in Christlike love and in cooperation with God’s Word and God’s leaders, to follow the three steps I outlined. To postpone dealing with a church discipline issue could be spiritually disastrous, but dealing with it in the spirit and clarity of Christ brings strength, health, and growth to you as a member of the body of Christ and to the church family to which you belong.
*Joy P. and Kenneth G. Gage, Restoring Fellowship: Judgment & Church Discipline (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1984).
Dan Serns and his family enjoy pursuing their passion of taking the Adventist message to all the world in this generation. They live in Vancouver, Washington, where Dan serves as ministerial director of the North Pacific Union Conference.