The Ugly Side of Restoration
Updated: Oct 30, 2018
An often overlooked and misunderstood concept in our modern culture is the practice of, "Church Discipline." This entry explores what the Bible says about it.
Our modern world loves stories about restoration. We love seeing broken things be put back together to how they were supposed to be, and the TV statistic, at least, bear this out. A few years ago, The Biggest Loser drew an average of 7.4 million viewers, and that was down 20% from the prior season's finale. Chip and Joanna Gaines' show Fixer Upper was an almost instant classic while it aired. Deep within us, we love seeing things that are not in good shape be restored to beauty. We love the before and afters of home renovation projects. We love restoration.
You know what we don't love? The hard work that it takes to get there.
There is always a limit, it seems. I love to do work on my house. I live in an older home built in the 1950's, and when I bought it, it was not updated at all. The woman that owned the house prior to us was the original owner. She lived there virtually her whole life. When she passed away, it was sold by her estate and we picked it up for a great price, in part, because of how out of date it really was. I have done a lot of work on it. No, I mean it. A lot of work. But there are times when I am confronted with problems that extend beyond the normal, day-to-day work that I am capable of. At that point, next steps have to be taken.
Renovating the Church
The church is, in a lot of ways, like an old house that is being remodeled. Of course, when I say that I don't mean the building. I mean the actual church. It's not uncommon to equate church with a building or a cathedral. You've likely heard the phrase, "Let's go to church," as if it is a destination. I imagine every church you've ever attended had an actual physical address. But how does the Bible define what the church is?
The New Testament describes the church as not a building, but rather, a gathering of people. The word in the original language, ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), simply means, "assembly, summoned ones." It's merely a gathering of people. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:27,
"Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."
He says in Ephesians 2:22,
"In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit."
The church is also referred to as, "God's family," with believers being sons and daughters of adoption (Rom. 8:15; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). Important to the topic at hand, the church also has structure, with the people who make up the body being led by a group of qualified men who are appointed to teach the gathering as well as oversee things in authority (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:1-7). These men are often referred to as Elders or Presbyters, and they were apparently a very important part of the structure of the church (Titus 1:5). Through the process of gathering together, being challenged by the Scripture, and being shepherded by the Elders, broken individuals are, "transformed by the renewing of the mind" (Rom. 12:2). When you sit back and watch a healthy church do its thing, it's like watching a house that is falling apart slowly be restored, brick by brick. It's like a restoration project. A "fixer upper."
But do you remember what I said a moment ago, about jobs requiring next steps? Unfortunately, those jobs occur in the church as well.
The Messy Business of Church Discipline
It's an unpopular thing to talk about, but church discipline is a very real and important doctrine in the Scripture. Jesus spells out the process by which church discipline would eventually become necessary. He says in Matthew 18:15-17,
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (Matt. 18:15-17)
The teaching is clear: If a brother (or sister) in the church is in sin, and they are confronted multiple times in the order Jesus prescribes, and they are still unwilling to repent, they are to no longer be acknowledged as a brother or sister.
When Jesus issues this command, of course, the church hasn't been born yet. That doesn't officially happen until after the resurrection, as recorded in the Book of Acts. As the church develops, the need for oversight increases and thus, the Apostle Paul becomes a major factor, instructing churches on what to do and what not to do through the thirteen letters that he penned in the New Testament.
Paul has quite a lot to say about church discipline, and according to him, it is one of the elder's roles to enact discipline on members who are actively engaged in the kind of unrepentant sin that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 18. The elder's role in removing someone from the fellowship of the church only came in to play in three specific instances: gross immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13), false teaching (Rom. 16-17-18), and intentionally creating disunity and division (Titus 3:10-11).
Removing someone from a church seems harsh and unloving. People will say, "What would Jesus do?" (Just see the above, Matthew 18:15-17). It is a frowned upon practice from the outside world. But here is the truth that any pastor who loves both people and the Word of God would gladly confess: It IS difficult, and it is NOT unloving. In fact, on the contrary, it is an expression of love. Maybe you disagree with me, but follow me a little further. Let's look at these scenarios in which removal is prescribed.
Removal for Immorality
Paul addresses the believers in the church in Corinth regarding an issue of sexual immorality. He says in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 that there is reportedly a man who has committed a very egregious and public act of sexual immorality, and Paul's instructions are clear: "Let him who has done this be removed from among you." He continues on, and develops this a bit further in verses 9 through 13:
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. 'Purge the evil person from among you.'” (1 Cor. 5:9-13, ESV, emphasis added)
For Paul, hanging around sexually immoral non-believers is not the issue. It's hanging around sexually immoral people in the church that is problematic. Paul says that Christians are never to judge the outside world, because that is something reserved only for God, but they are to judge those who are in the church (you read that right). This seems pretty severe, but this is actually an act of grace, as evidenced by the quote at the end. Paul quotes several verses in Deuteronomy where it is written, "Purge the evil person from among you." However, in those contexts, the purging is done by way of death. So in the age of the New Testament church, removal is actually an act of grace, because there still remains a chance for repentance and restoration, whereas death leads to, well... death.
The next instance of removal follows someone who is teaching heretical doctrine. The Book of Romans is the second lengthiest of all of Paul's writings (only next to 1 Corinthians) and is very likely the most theologically dense. Paul gives an extensive treatment to several key theological concepts and wraps up the letter in chapter sixteen by giving a shout out of sorts to several individuals. Then, in verses 17 and 18, we read this:
"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive." (Rom. 16:17-18)
This is quite the charge, and speaks volumes about the importance of sound teaching. If there are people in the church who are teaching doctrine that is contrary to what has been laid out by the apostles, they are to be avoided and regarded as not Christians. Paul issues an equally stout pronouncement in Galatians 1:8:
"But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed." (Gal. 1:8)
Any person who proclaims a contrary Gospel is to be, "accursed." The Greek word here, ἀνάθεμα (anathema), means, "to be cursed, condemned." This is not a good thing, but it is a necessary thing. This is the Gospel that Jesus died for. Nothing can be allowed to compromise it.
The final basis of removal from a church body by the elders is the intentional and unrepentant act of creating divisions. Paul writes to Titus regarding the need of Elders in every town (Titus 1:5), and then lays out several practical teachings for pastoral direction. In chapter three, he warns the church to avoid discussing false teaching that leads to arguments and dissension. He says in verses 9 and 10:
"10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned."
Division is never a good thing in the body of Christ, and for obvious reasons, and if a person is unwilling to stop stirring up division, they are to be removed. On the contrary, Paul says in Ephesians 4 that Christians should be always, "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Why? He gives the answer:
"4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6)
We are to be vigilant about our unity in doctrine because if we are not unified on truth, we are scattered in error. The claim of the Scripture is that it is the very words of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). If members of the body oppose this, they are opposing the very basis of our faith and have become enemies of truth. That cannot be allowed to continue in the family of God.
What's the Point?
At the end of the day, why is this the way it is? There are at least two reasons.
1. Repentance: The hope is that by removing the one in error, they would be led to repent and be restored back to the body (1 Tim. 1:18-20). This is the ugly side of restoration, but sometimes it's necessary. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:9:
"9 As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us."
Grief is always a worthwhile emotion if it leads to repentance. It's not fun, but it's necessary and even beneficial.
2. Protection: The other side of removal is that it protects those in the church from further damage from the sin of the one who has been removed. It also protects the reputation of the church and reinforces the commitment to truth.
A Final Word
It's interesting that people outside of the church struggle with the concept of church discipline because it seems too harsh for their understanding of Jesus, and yet the church is blamed for hypocrisy when sin is allowed to continue. What I mean is, if the church stands on the side of truth and follows the biblical mandate to remove a brother or sister under the above circumstances, the church is seen as judgmental (a claim that is actually not totally untrue, but also permitted by Paul in 1 Cor. 5:12). If however, the church decides to abandon the truth of the Word and not press removal, and continues to allow sin to run rampant, the church is accused of being hypocritical. It's a lose-lose scenario.
Need proof? According to Barna Group, among young people who don’t go to church within the last decade, 87 percent say they see Christians as judgmental, and 85 percent see them as hypocritical. Did you catch that? Let that really sink in. Judgmental AND hypocritical. We are fighting a battle that both can't be won and shouldn't be fought. We are not responsible for defending church practices to those outside of the church. Our responsibility to those outside of the church is to be ambassadors of the Gospel of Christ. To be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16).
This is a difficult subject and a task that no pastor (who is healthy, at least) ever wants to engage in. However, the Scripture is clear: there are times when the removal of a brother or sister by the Elders of a church is necessary. Like any job in a home restoration project that requires more than the normal procedures and a little extra help, removal is not the first step nor the normative step, and it should always be done for the protection of the body and with the task of bringing the one in sin to repentance. When that happens, God is honored and the Word is obeyed, even if a few are ticked off.