One of the great challenges of ministry is to discern one’s appropriate role in the administration of church discipline. As a pastor it is clear that besetting sins, those associated with the works of the flesh, must be addressed. Drunkenness, rage, unbridled greed, idolatry, and fornication must be addressed. Members who are known to indulge in these must be called to repentance, nurtured into spiritual renewal and restored to full fellowship. But other sins are less clear. How do you confront someone about gluttony, envy, jealousy, or pride?
I have had to supervise the discipline several church members in my nearly thirty years as a lead pastor. Chronic lying, spouse abuse, drunkenness, slander, and adultery are among the sins I have had to address. The results have been mixed.
The process I follow is fairly direct. If a church member or regular attender gets caught up in a work of the flesh I have a one-on-one conversation to address the situation. My goal is to clarify the Biblical teaching on the subject and assess the person’s desire for spiritual restoration. If there is no sign of repentance I instruct the individual I will not allow him or her to participate in the life of the church as true believer: no testimony except of repentance, no ministry activity, and no communion. If he or she is a member I inform the individual there will be a formal church conference to consider excommunication. In all cases they are encouraged to continue attending church. I have never had anyone to choose to continue their sin and remain in the church. I have never overseen the removal of membership from a member; I have had several to leave the church rather than submit to the restoration process.
If the guilty person confesses and expresses a desire for restoration I offer them some options. They must enter into a program of accountability. Typically this component is a disciplinary band. Bands are comprised of three to five persons who are of the same gender as the transgressor. The individual nominates the participants as persons whom they consider spiritually mature whom they trust. I reserve the right to veto a participant. If I think the sin is tied to an emotional or psychological problem, I encourage the member to get therapy with the church offering assistance if needed.
I had a case several years ago that proved futile. The young woman’s husband was approaching the end of his prison term. She had been faithful to him throughout his five years of incarceration. But as his release approached she began to question her desire to remain married to a convict. She got involved with another man and started bringing him to church; he was “just a friend.”
One Sunday they asked to talk with me. Her opening statement, “Pastor we would like to get premarital counseling.”
“Mary (name changed), I can’t do that.”
“Mary, you are already married.”
“I know, but I thought that if you gave us premarital counseling I could decide which one I wanted to be married to.”
She confessed they had been sexually active for some time and she agreed to submit to a disciplinary band. I stressed the purpose of the band was to help her get restored to Christ. She attended six weeks of counseling and accountability sessions. Afterwards, she came to me to ask if I would then give them premarital counseling. When I refused she protested, “But Pastor, I submitted to the discipline. I did everything you asked. Why won’t you do this for me?”
They left and found a church that “lived by the Bible, loved everyone, and refused to judge.” She did divorce her husband and married the other man.
The saga continued. A few years later I was leading a small group Bible study and her ex-husband showed up one night. Some of his family remained in our church. On that night he gave a prayer request. “Pastor, I need prayer.”
“What for Billy (name changed)?”
“I’m having a problem, I’m fornicating.”
“Billy, I have a word from the Lord for you.”
With sincerity, “Really, Pastor, What is it?
“Stop fornicating! It’s that simple; God wants you to stop.”
“I can’t stop. She might leave me, just pray she will marry me and everything will be Okay.”
Well, that’s ministry. Sometimes you just have to leave people in the hands of God. When you have no power or authority, all you can do is pray and hope you are a convicting presence, a voice of truth and love, and not condemnation.
October 3, 2010