I got the following email last week about church discipline and thought that others might be interested in this topic as well. This is a blog, remember, so I’m not giving a definitive, this-will-fit-every-situation kind of answer. Rather, I’ll share some thoughts that may help you think through these kinds of situations when they arise.
It is a really sad situation. I have stood by my friend, and encouraged him to continue to trust God through this, and for his benefit to create some distance between himself and this lady friend. But here’s my problem. God loves my friend. A lot. And would totally (and does) hang out with him, even in his current “excommunicated” state. But what do we do with Scriptures like, “there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality” (Eph 3:5) and then 1 Corinthians where we should “expel the immoral brother”. And the one in Hebrews about God disciplining those he loves…
You have so opened my eyes to the love that Father has for me. I knew it before, I thought… but all of a sudden, I only know the very beginning! What do we do with the discipline side of stuff, without getting “judgmental” or “legalistic”?
I think this is an excellent example of how we have taken realities Paul lived in a relational context and try to apply them to an institutional one, and it just doesn’t work. Scripture never uses the term ‘excommunication’. That’s an institutional word not a relational one. What Paul asked the Corinthians to do was set a brother outside of the group who was persistently living in an immoral relationship and which the group was endorsing by their acceptance of it. His hope was this would cause repentance and it did. In 2 Corinthians Paul tells them that the brother has repented and ended the relationship so it was time to bring him back as a brother. The purpose of this was not to ostracize him and shame him; it was just to help him see the reality that his lifestyle was not acceptable in God’s family.
In one sense we are to have scorn for all sin—it diminishes who God made us to be and hurts others around us. So we can hate it as much as God does. However, feeling scorn for sin doesn’t translate into feeling scorn for sinners. For them we show compassion. We all know what it is to cave into sin and know how helpless we are to conquer it in ourselves. I’m glad you’ve still shown that kind of love to your friend and you’re right, God does not reject us in our failure, but invites us closer to him.
We had a similar situation in a group I met with once. I had a friend who was living in a gay relationship and they both wanted to join our group for fellowship. They had come to the conclusion that Scriptures used against homosexuality were being misinterpreted and that God accepted their relationship. Of course our group did not feel the same way. We had a long conversation about it and I told them that while I cared about them, I did not endorse their relationship and neither would others in the group. We couldn’t pretend to be on a journey together when they were seeking to justify something we thought the Scripture clearly defined as outside of God’s will. This would have been very different if they could have confessed it as sin and wanted us to help them find God’s healing and freedom. In any case, they could see that it wasn’t best to come and our friendship survived that. Having a friendship with someone struggling in the bondage of sin is very different from sharing the journey with them in the context of fellowship. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said to put people out of the body who live in persistent sin. He said to treat them as tax-gatherers, the kind of people he was criticized for hanging out with. Cleary his desire was not to add shame to their lives, but simply let them live honestly the consequences of their choice. But if we don’t love folks like that, how will they come to know him?
The problem I have with what is often called ‘church discipline’ is that it usually only applies to sexual sins, when Paul’s list included far more: “You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler.” Sometimes the very people implementing such discipline are those who live greedy or gossiping lives. If we’re going to take this seriously, let’s do it for all in this list and not just for sexual sins. But notice what Paul is really driving at here. It’s not the sin that causes the problem, but their attempts to pass themselves off as a brother or sister in that sin. He tells us not to avoid them in the world or treat them with contempt but to avoid the appearance that people are on the journey when they are not allowing Jesus to transform them into his image. The real dilemma is how do we love them without endorsing their point of view, which Jesus had no problem doing and when we learn to walk in compassion and truth we will find that freedom as well.
In your specific case, and assuming these are all the facts, this doesn’t seem to fit Paul’s teaching at all. To call an inappropriate conversation or even forbidden attraction ‘adultery’ is a gross misunderstanding of the Sermon on the Mount. Depending how deep it was it might have been a good idea to release him from leadership, but to ostracize him from fellowship for this kind of thing is really ridiculous. I think these are the kind of instances where Galatians 6 comes into play. When you find a brother or sister faltering, go rescue them with gentleness and tenderness knowing that any of us could fall into the same kind of trap. Body life is not a shared journey of those who are perfect, but of those growing to know him and passionate to be changed into his image, not find endorsement for our sin or failures. Until we get honest with the fact that we all struggle against various kinds of sins we’ll never find the depth of fellowship that God offers us. As long as we have to pretend to be better than we are to find fellowship, our fellowship will be false and ineffective. Paul points that out in so many ways in the totality of his writings.
When Paul tells the Ephesians that “there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality” among them, he is offering his hope, not the reality. You can’t read through the epistles and not see that sexual failure was an ongoing part of the struggles of those early Christians. Paul invited them to the greatest freedom imaginable in the life of Jesus. He didn’t tell them to reach that goal by kicking everyone out who struggles with sexual sin. Try to do that and you’ll just have a group of people who have learned to hide it better.
So, I hope those thoughts are helpful. The great thing about a blog is that others can weigh in on this important topic as well. So, agree or disagree, feel free to add your thoughts below and let’s see what we can all learn through this.