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Thursday we addressed a few questions about church discipline, and today we’ll hit a few more. You might have ones we don’t hit, and if so, please talk to one of the pastors. In case you missed it during the sermon last week, the book I mentioned was called God Redeeming His Bride: A Handbook for Church Discipline, by Robert Cheong. He does a great job of addressing important issues while keeping a redemptive and relational focus.
1. What stops the process of church discipline?
There are several factors that can stop the process of church discipline. Matthew 18:15-17 gives one of these. Jesus says that if we appeal to someone and "he listens to you, you have gained your brother." In other words, if we appeal to someone and they respond with humility and repentance, the matter is dropped. Even someone who continues a particular behavior can fall into this category if it's obvious they are remorseful and actively working to stop the behavior. We don't stop certain sins by simply flipping a switch; sometimes it takes time.
Church discipline can also be stopped if it turns out the person making the accusation is simply wrong. At times we completely misinterpret a person's actions. We thought they were giving us the cold shoulder, but it turns out they had a migraine at the moment and couldn't physically see us there.
Another reason to stop a church discipline process is when the accuser is offended by something that either isn't sinful (i.e., a matter of their personal preference) or is a sin common enough that it won't be liable to the fullest possible escalation of church discipline. I might be offended by someone's use of their money, but that is likely a matter of preference and not their sin. Or someone might be an impatient person, but that is common enough that it doesn't make sense to bring in the full measure of church discipline.
2. What is a "trial"?
During the sermon you might have noticed that I mentioned the place of a "trial" in the course of church discipline. In our Member Handbook this is called a "hearing" (p. 42). We aren't used to talking in these terms in our church, and it can sound overly formal, legal, and even anti-relational. A hearing can be all these things and do great harm if it's misused. But on the flip-side, we can also do great harm by not having one. A hearing allows a clear process for both sides in a situation to have their say. One side is not permitted to bully or manipulate the other. People are appointed with the specific task of preserving order and integrity. Further, people are appointed with the specific task of making a judgment based on the evidence presented—not on who has more influence in the church or experience in ministry or knowledge of the Bible. There are times when justice and fairness really demand some kind of trial.
3. How often do you expect church discipline to happen at Sovereign Grace Church?
Remember that church discipline is the whole array of things we do as a church to exert good pressure on each other to become more holy. In that sense, we expect church discipline to happen regularly in the church! Remember the one another command in Hebrews 3:13, "Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."
That should encourage us if someone comes to us about an area of sin in our lives. We don't need to fear that the next day a posse will show up at our door and a registered letter from the elders the day after that. Far from it! Helping each other grow by pointing out areas of weakness and sin should be a regular part of living the Christian life together at SGC.
But when we think of church discipline as that process where the church might unite to make an appeal to a member and they might ultimately be excommunicated, that process is not likely to happen often. It has happened less than three times in our 23-year history as a church.
4. Is there anything I can do if I disagree with how the elders and the church handled my church discipline situation?
Yes. One of the important changes in April 2012 when the Sovereign Grace Book of Church Order (BCO) was enacted was that we finally had a clear place of appeal. If members feel they have been mistreated in a church discipline situation, they can appeal to the Regional Assembly of Elders (Member Handbook, 47; BCO-23.2). Further, if you feel there is a pattern of the elders mistreating members in these types of situations, you can make a charge against an elder. This, too, is an important change introduced by the BCO. An elder who steps out of line in his doctrine or his morality can be charged by a member of his church (or by another elder) and be potentially removed from office.
5. Can an elder be the subject of church discipline?
An elder can be the subject of church discipline, and he can be charged in a way specific to his office. Any sin that would lead to church discipline would also make him the subject of a charge against his office. Yet, there are situations when someone could make a charge against an elder that would result in his removal from office, but which would not make him liable to church discipline. For example, elders in Sovereign Grace must be Reformed and Charismatic. An elder could be removed from office because of disagreements over such doctrine, but this would not at all be a reason for church discipline. However, the sins that the Bible holds up as worthy of church discipline would also qualify as a charge against an elder that could result in his removal from office.
6. What were those texts that speak of excommunication as removing someone from the church and not simply removing their membership privileges?
There are (at least) seven texts where the New Testament connects certain sins with being removed from the church: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Titus 3:10-11; Romans 16:17-18; 2 John 1:9-11; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; 1 Timothy 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 3:5.
The elders hope the sermon and these posts have hit your main concerns with this topic. We obviously couldn't hit every situation or nuance that might potentially arise. God gives us principles in the Bible, not policy. But we hope that you have a picture in your mind of what church discipline is and isn't.
Remember that church discipline is a means of grace given by God to help us grow in holiness and battle sin. It is a tool given by a loving Father to help us help each other, not a sledgehammer to wield against those who disagree or differ from us in the church. May God give us wisdom, humility, love, and patience as we walk together as brothers and sisters on this earthly pilgrimage.