What About God’s Love and Church Discipline?

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.

Hey Wayne, what (do you) do when a brother is choosing to “sin”? (I put it in quotes because I have had a real hard time figuring out what sin merits the scorn of fellow believers.) A friend of ours was “excommunicated” by the church he was a leader in because he had been caught having conversations with a married lady whom he works with, which were inappropriate… and were labeled by the church leaders as adultery.

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.

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14 Comments
  1. Tim Stiles December 17, 2004 at 9:08 am

    This is a very thought provoking topic, and one that I have wrestled with. I think that the Christian believer tries to take in his hands something that he has no right to do..Discipline others in the body. I think Wayne hit it right on that we can graciously remove ourselves from being yoked together with those who have chosen to live outside of the God’s will, but we have no right or authority to set ourselves up as being better and attempting to mete out judgment. When I read that record in Hebrews 12 it is God who does the disciplining not us! Furthermore, His discipline is ALWAYS out of love and never contempt. As Wayne eluded, we can hate the sin but we don’t hate the sinner, and the only way to help the individual is to love them with God’s unconditional love. I would like to include two passages from the Amplified Bible that I think we should consider..

    Romans 14:19

    So let us then definately aim for and eagerly pursue what makes for harmony and for mutual upbuilding (edification and development) of one another.

    I Peter 3: 10-11

    For let him who wants to enjoy life and see good days (good-whether apparent or not) keep his tongue free from evil and his lips from guile (treachery, deceit).

    Let him turn away from wickedness and shun it, and let him do right. Let him search for peace (harmony; undisturbedness from fears, agitating passions, and moral conflicts, and seek it eagerly. (Do not merely desire peaceful relations with God, with your fellowman, and with yourself, but pursue, go after them!)

    So many of God’s beloved spend far more time trying to aim at and correct someone elses evils rather than tending their own garden and pursuing peace, and allowing God to be the Judge…o.k. one last verse..

    I Peter 3:12

    For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous ( those who are upright and in right standing with God), and His ears are attentive to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who practice evil ( to oppose them, to frustrate and defeat them).

    To try to do God’s job is ludicrous. His Word stands as a bulwark that some will choose to break themselves against. If that be the case they will receive the consequences that they have chosen.

    Our loving Father is like a goldminer. Sometimes it takes tons of dirt to get to the smallest amount of gold. But he never goes in looking for the dirt, only the gold. Oh that we might follow his example!

    Our loving Father is like a Goldminer

  2. Wayne December 17, 2004 at 12:06 pm

    I neglected to comment on the Hebrews 12 passage, Tim, so thanks for reminding me. I think I have misunderstood that passage most of my life thinking of it like the punishments I gave my children when they didn’t do what i wanted. As I look back now, even those moments of punishment are an incredibly small part of all that i wanted my kids to learn about growing up in God and this culture.

    I think Father’s discipline is best viewed as training, not punishment. He trains us to live in him, to live free of shame and dependent on him. While he even uses our difficult moments, or the consequences of our own waywardness to bring us to the end of ourselves, I think these are best seen not as retribution for his displeasure, but the involvement of his incredible affection to free us from our own agendas and appetites to be more like him in the world. That’s why his discipline is a joy and not a terror.

  3. Tim Stiles December 17, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    This is a very thought provoking topic, and one that I have wrestled with. I think that the Christian believer tries to take in his hands something that he has no right to do..Discipline others in the body. I think Wayne hit it right on that we can graciously remove ourselves from being yoked together with those who have chosen to live outside of the God’s will, but we have no right or authority to set ourselves up as being better and attempting to mete out judgment. When I read that record in Hebrews 12 it is God who does the disciplining not us! Furthermore, His discipline is ALWAYS out of love and never contempt. As Wayne eluded, we can hate the sin but we don’t hate the sinner, and the only way to help the individual is to love them with God’s unconditional love. I would like to include two passages from the Amplified Bible that I think we should consider..

    Romans 14:19

    So let us then definately aim for and eagerly pursue what makes for harmony and for mutual upbuilding (edification and development) of one another.

    I Peter 3: 10-11

    For let him who wants to enjoy life and see good days (good-whether apparent or not) keep his tongue free from evil and his lips from guile (treachery, deceit).

    Let him turn away from wickedness and shun it, and let him do right. Let him search for peace (harmony; undisturbedness from fears, agitating passions, and moral conflicts, and seek it eagerly. (Do not merely desire peaceful relations with God, with your fellowman, and with yourself, but pursue, go after them!)

    So many of God’s beloved spend far more time trying to aim at and correct someone elses evils rather than tending their own garden and pursuing peace, and allowing God to be the Judge…o.k. one last verse..

    I Peter 3:12

    For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous ( those who are upright and in right standing with God), and His ears are attentive to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who practice evil ( to oppose them, to frustrate and defeat them).

    To try to do God’s job is ludicrous. His Word stands as a bulwark that some will choose to break themselves against. If that be the case they will receive the consequences that they have chosen.

    Our loving Father is like a goldminer. Sometimes it takes tons of dirt to get to the smallest amount of gold. But he never goes in looking for the dirt, only the gold. Oh that we might follow his example!

    Our loving Father is like a Goldminer

  4. Wayne December 17, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    I neglected to comment on the Hebrews 12 passage, Tim, so thanks for reminding me. I think I have misunderstood that passage most of my life thinking of it like the punishments I gave my children when they didn’t do what i wanted. As I look back now, even those moments of punishment are an incredibly small part of all that i wanted my kids to learn about growing up in God and this culture.

    I think Father’s discipline is best viewed as training, not punishment. He trains us to live in him, to live free of shame and dependent on him. While he even uses our difficult moments, or the consequences of our own waywardness to bring us to the end of ourselves, I think these are best seen not as retribution for his displeasure, but the involvement of his incredible affection to free us from our own agendas and appetites to be more like him in the world. That’s why his discipline is a joy and not a terror.

  5. Dale Bare December 17, 2004 at 9:38 pm

    Just a brief not on discipline.. It is a sad thing that the only way we seem to view discipline is as punishment. Is that really what discipline is? Paul writes in one place how a race disciplines himself for an earthly crown. Discipline is supposed to mean teaching or training. Someone training for a race runs every day. Some even have a personal trainer. It isn’t always pleasant training for a race or a job. But punishment is not used in professional training routines. Is it? When Father disciplines us isn’t He really acting like a personal trainer? To tell the truth, I can never recall a time when God has punished me. Oh, I have paid the price for my mistakes and sins. But even though some of the lessons Father has taught me were not pleasant to go through. I have never felt punished.

  6. Dale Bare December 18, 2004 at 12:38 am

    Just a brief not on discipline.. It is a sad thing that the only way we seem to view discipline is as punishment. Is that really what discipline is? Paul writes in one place how a race disciplines himself for an earthly crown. Discipline is supposed to mean teaching or training. Someone training for a race runs every day. Some even have a personal trainer. It isn’t always pleasant training for a race or a job. But punishment is not used in professional training routines. Is it? When Father disciplines us isn’t He really acting like a personal trainer? To tell the truth, I can never recall a time when God has punished me. Oh, I have paid the price for my mistakes and sins. But even though some of the lessons Father has taught me were not pleasant to go through. I have never felt punished.

  7. peter worthington December 21, 2004 at 7:06 am

    I feel that Wayne has very wisely and biblically answered the issues raised. It gets very emotive when people that we are close to, perhaps in our extended family or home church. I feel that for many years all kinds of issues were not dealt with, as Mathew 18 could not be implemented due to the size and pattern of church gatherings. With simple church, people are much closer and develop relationships in which people feel free to confide in each other and thereby "confess their faults to one another".

    It is essential for some nettles to be grasped if we are to have reality, integrity and power in the church.

  8. peter worthington December 21, 2004 at 10:06 am

    I feel that Wayne has very wisely and biblically answered the issues raised. It gets very emotive when people that we are close to, perhaps in our extended family or home church. I feel that for many years all kinds of issues were not dealt with, as Mathew 18 could not be implemented due to the size and pattern of church gatherings. With simple church, people are much closer and develop relationships in which people feel free to confide in each other and thereby "confess their faults to one another".

    It is essential for some nettles to be grasped if we are to have reality, integrity and power in the church.

  9. steve s January 1, 2005 at 9:02 am

    I have been thinking about this senario…

    I have a friend who used to smoke pot. He stopped for a long time but went back and now has quit again.

    At this point it is illegal and as the law of the land Romans 13 comes into play. However, I wonder if it was legal how I’d handle it. I have no problem with alcohol as long as people by and large keep under control. With drugs, maybe its me, I’d have a harder time with it for several reasons. Is this where we go to Romans 14 and have to say, "we disagree, God bless you but I can’t condone this"?

    I’ll have a beer or glass of wine and know that some people really have trouble with that.

  10. Wayne January 1, 2005 at 10:57 am

    This is the great question: What rises to this church discipline process and what doesn’t? Certainly smoking pot is not in Paul’s list of sins that rise to this level. Yes it is stupid. Yes it violates the gift God has given us in our bodies as does overeating and stressing. And, yes, it is against the law. For me this would be a Romans 14 thing where I wouldn’t condone their actions, but I would walk with them through that difference, hoping that in sharing God’s life together they would come to see how silly their actions are. That said, I wouldn’t let them do it in my home and I’d walk away if they started smoking in my presence because I don’t want to be involved with someting illegal. But I certainly don’t think that dealing with each other’s sins is an excuse to make people live the way we think they should. God has to change them and he does that as we learn to grow in him together…

  11. steve s January 1, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    I have been thinking about this senario…

    I have a friend who used to smoke pot. He stopped for a long time but went back and now has quit again.

    At this point it is illegal and as the law of the land Romans 13 comes into play. However, I wonder if it was legal how I’d handle it. I have no problem with alcohol as long as people by and large keep under control. With drugs, maybe its me, I’d have a harder time with it for several reasons. Is this where we go to Romans 14 and have to say, "we disagree, God bless you but I can’t condone this"?

    I’ll have a beer or glass of wine and know that some people really have trouble with that.

  12. Wayne January 1, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    This is the great question: What rises to this church discipline process and what doesn’t? Certainly smoking pot is not in Paul’s list of sins that rise to this level. Yes it is stupid. Yes it violates the gift God has given us in our bodies as does overeating and stressing. And, yes, it is against the law. For me this would be a Romans 14 thing where I wouldn’t condone their actions, but I would walk with them through that difference, hoping that in sharing God’s life together they would come to see how silly their actions are. That said, I wouldn’t let them do it in my home and I’d walk away if they started smoking in my presence because I don’t want to be involved with someting illegal. But I certainly don’t think that dealing with each other’s sins is an excuse to make people live the way we think they should. God has to change them and he does that as we learn to grow in him together…

  13. steve s January 2, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    Yes, I agree that God is the One that needs to help them change and not me.

    I am so glad that Paul wrote Romans 14! Gives us all alot of room.

    thanks for the response.

  14. steve s January 2, 2005 at 9:48 pm

    Yes, I agree that God is the One that needs to help them change and not me.

    I am so glad that Paul wrote Romans 14! Gives us all alot of room.

    thanks for the response.

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