|Caring Enough to Confront
This article was orginally printed in the October 2000 issue of Alliance Life (a publication of the Christian & Missionary Alliance church) and is reprinted by permission.Redemptive love is the key to effective church discipline.
by Donald L. Bubna
Church discipline is too often unpracticed. What should the church do with a person indulging in delinquent behavior? It seems that only sexual sin prompts immediate action, when sins like greed, envy, strife, deceit, gossip, arrogance and those disobedient to parents (Romans 1:29-30, NIV) are all overlooked. Neither do we tend to get serious about the Galatians 5:19-21 passage that includes “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension, factions and envy.” Many of these are common in most churches, especially in board and congregational meetings. These sins may be hurting the health and witness of the church more than the occasional sexual sins that garner all the attention.
So what do we do when we are faced with violations of godly attitudes, the lack of humility, honesty, morality or integrity—issues to which the Bible clearly speaks? How do we help these people?
Rather than caring enough to confront, we tend to allow much error to go on and on. Only if a scandal breaks out or pressure breaks up a marriage do we begin to express concern. Usually, by this time it is too late. God calls us to a better way.
Paul told the Galatians that if a person is caught in any trespass or sin, those who are spiritual ought to seek to restore such in the spirit of meekness (6:1). Discipline in the church is always to be redemptive in nature. Its aim is not to show that we are right and others are wrong. A child is corrected to save him from delinquency and to help him grow into maturity. The Galatians text sees the person as caught in sin as the victim of a trap set by the evil one. The call for the church is to “rescue the perishing.”
Neglecting a confrontation might contribute to our brother’s downfall and even indirectly cause serious injury to the other person(s) and the church involved.
The Web of Relationships
The church is a family. When we are family, we belong to one another. As a church family we are equally responsible and accountable to one another. Effective discipline takes place in the context of these relationships. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6, KJV).
If a parent or sibling in the family communicates with another family member only to correct, that guarantees little positive response. Similarly, if the church elder is seen only from afar, he has little basis to administer needed reproof. If he never visits or invites others into his home, he will not be heard as clearly as the elder who has become a true brother.
Disciplers are tuned into the web of relationships in their fellowship. Leaders take the initiative in nurturing these webs through a spirit of hospitality and caring. If we reach out early, our later efforts in times of serious trouble will be more meaningful. If, however, we allow someone to grow distant from our fellowship without trying to find out why, there is little basis for later confrontation or healing.
“When all else fails, read the directions,” we often say. The words of Jesus (Matthew 18:15-17) give us clear directions on church discipline, which I like to call guidelines for redemptive love in action. Too often, leaders within the local body, charged with the responsibility of discipline, either are unfamiliar with these instructions or treat them as irrelevant.
If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private.
This calls for an open fellowship where people can honestly talk about differences, shortcomings and sins. When I sense there is sin, it is a loving act for me to take action. Every marriage counselor knows that where wrongs have taken place in a relationship and no communication follows, that marriage is on the road to failure.
But the reproval should be private. The person who feels offended may have misunderstood. This is the time to gather information and to learn. It is not the time to gossip, an act which brings injury to the church family. In a healthy church, this first step of private reproval is common practice.
When a fellow member of the Body of Christ approaches us about any matter, the Matthew passage says we have the responsibility to listen: “If he listens to you, you have won your brother.” This is the level where 90 percent of discipline should take place.
When It’s You Who’s Confronted
When I’m confronted, my first tendency is to inwardly say, “Here we go again!” and then raise my defense mechanisms. I immediately want to justify my actions. Learning to listen stretches us. One of the things that has helped me is disciplining myself to listen so carefully that I can summarize to the person what he has said. I ask him to correct my summary so he knows I have really listened.
By this process I have learned a great deal. My attempts to listen to reproof have been good for my character, an aid in my development and a bridge-builder in our church’s web of relationships.
If he does not listen to you, take one or more witnesses.
If the first step does not bring the needed response, it is time to move into a small-group process. This is level two, where about 9 percent of cases can be settled.
The new people are not there to substantiate our prejudices, but to bring new objectivity as God gives them spiritual insights. Again, the emphasis is on listening. God wants us to strive to understand what is being communicated. The risk is greater now, and it always must be remembered that the motivation remains redemptive. Although moving into the group process is scary, it does improve the attention level.
Nurturing to Restore
The winning of a brother is not apt to be a simple one-time contact; it will most likely require a series of contacts. Restoration takes nurturing.
And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.
Now we move into the heavy stuff. But at this level we are talking only about 1 percent of the cases. We must remember that in Jesus’ time, a structured local church didn’t exist. The organism did not yet have the form it would take in the Book of Acts and the Epistles. This aids in understanding the importance of the principle of communicating a situation requiring discipline to the larger body. Our local church bylaws must reflect this practice and people must understand this when joining the church. Thus, the church is protected from legal action being taken by a distraught member.
I am not certain that there is one way to “tell it to the church.” Scripture seems ambiguous about this part of the procedure. When this happens, I am convinced we are allowed cultural flexibility in carrying out principles. In the churches we served, we used the elder board. Two or three cases reached this level each year. When our elders dealt with discipline cases, we reported it in our bulletin along with other agenda items. Names were used only in extreme cases of excommunication.
If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.
An outcast. This means that you treat the person as a nonbeliever, because he is not walking as a believer. Love him as Jesus loved the publicans and sinners. Reach out to him in witness, but not to relate to him as a member of the Body of Christ. Like all evangelistic outreach, the goal is to bring a soul to Christ and back into the functioning Body.
This is an extremely heavy responsibility. But Jesus says in this passage, “Where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst,” and this action which the church must take—loving discipline—is agreed upon in heaven (Matthew 18:18-19).
The New Testament makes it clear that the exercise of church discipline is for those “who are spiritual” (Galatians 6:1), and that discipline is to be carried out in a spirit of “meekness,” realizing our own vulnerability. Every incident of serious discipline is an awesome reminder to me of my own weakness.
I want to treat men and women the way I’d want to be treated when needing reproof: I would desire the absence of harshness or condemnation, and a preeminence of the very spirit of Christ, who, as our living high priest, would put His arm around us and say, “I know, I understand. I once also lived as a man.”
Where this is true, there will always be the extending of forgiveness up to “seventy times seven,” and the very character of Jesus Christ will be the marks of His Body, the Church.
Isn’t it time for the living church to return to this basic ministry of resolving those entrapped by sin? Let us embrace them with truth and bring them with us to the all-forgiving Lord!
Donald L. Bubna was an Alliance pastor for 38 years. He and his wife, Deloris, have served as a pastor-at-large team since 1993, providing a ministry of encouragement, consultation and leadership development to churches across North America. He also is on the board of Peacemaker Ministries. The Bubnas make their home in Salem, Ore.