Have you ever been under, or seen an instance of someone being put under, Church discipline?
While in a previous Church, our leadership had to bring a young man into Church discipline who had chosen to live an unrepentant homosexual lifestyle.
People reacted in two ways: Many went along with the request and cut contact. Some thought this was ridiculous and unloving, and decided to keep offering the man friendship, without realising that they were destroying the whole reason for Church discipline: Reconciliation; The saving of souls.
Let’s read together from Matthew 18:15-20.
15If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
Whenever one person has been sinned against, or offended in any way, this is the way that they are supposed to go about dealing with it.
First thing we learn is that an offense must be confronted.
CONFRONT THE OFFENSE
Many people dislike confrontation. Fear of confrontation is at the root of many people’s distress. Workplace issues, relationship troubles, and interpersonal problems could likely be resolved if only people were able to address their concerns in an open and direct manner.
People who avoid confrontation often make excuses for their behaviour, such as ‘I don’t want to ruffle any feathers,’ or, ‘It’s probably just me,’ or, the good-Christian one: ‘I’m a peacemaker’. Sorry to blow this one up for you, but Jesus was a peacemaker, and he was one of the most confrontational individuals in the Bible.
Whether it’s finding out that you’re being gossiped about, or over-hearing a fellow Christian making inappropriate jokes, or even finding out that someone in your Bible study is being overly-friendly with a married man, fear of confrontation often outweighs an individual’s desire or sense of duty to address an issue head-on.
Failure to confront can lead to many painful ends:
Hatred – Your heart can become hard and bitter about the matter (Leviticus 19:17 Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in his guilt.)
Their destruction – You can watch the person continue down their dangerous path until, unsupported, they fall into greater and greater sin. (James 5:19-20 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death.)
Others’ destruction – Others can also be hurt by their actions; which they may not even be aware of, because you’re unwilling to stand up and deal with the matter.
Despite the way it appears, confronting someone in an assertive but loving manner over a matter that may have harmed you, or may be harming others, is the most loving thing you can do.
In fact, it is hateful to watch someone continue down a destructive path and saying nothing.
It is loving to stop someone from going down that path and calling them to consider their ways.
You might save them, and others from terrible pain.
But it takes courage – great courage – to confront.
When you decide that a matter is damaging to you or the Church family, it’s time to act. How do you go about it?
First, deal with your own heart.
FIRST STEP: DEAL WITH YOUR HEART FIRST
Right after verse 20, we come to one of the clearest, simplest teachings on forgiveness; and I’m not going to preach on that part tonight, but our passage assumes that by the time you begin the process of confronting someone, you’ve forgiven him or her from your heart. You’re not confronting them with malice or anger in your heart. Look at what you’re trying to achieve: If he listens to you, you have won your brother over! You can’t do that when you hate the guy!
Do you know that that’s why Jonah ran away from the mission to Nineveh? He wasn’t simply afraid of public speaking. He hated the people that God was sending him to preach to. He wanted them to face God’s punishment. The Assyrians were a terrible nation – they didn’t just kill their victims; they literally would tear pregnant women to pieces; and their methods of killing men were beyond describing.
Jonah wanted the Assyrians to be under God’s wrath; he wanted them to die. He wasn’t afraid of public speaking – he was full of hate!
You can’t win someone’s soul back to God when you still secretly wish them harm.
Now you walk into Church and 'Joe' bites your head off publicly for nothing you did intentionally – you want Joe to suffer the same way that you have, you don’t want to ‘win Joe over’.
Before you confront, you have to deal with your heart issue first. Have you forgiven the person? Do you see the destructive path that person is on, and do you desire to save them from it?
I’ve had many opportunities for confrontation as a pastor. Whether the issue is that I depended on them and they let me down; or that they are speaking in a way that hurts the flock I care for – or me; or whatever else the problem might be, before I confront the person I always ask myself: ‘Am I looking for revenge, or am I doing this to help them?’ Do I see their behaviour as destructive to themselves and others, and am I aiming to save them from pain because I love them, or am I simply trying to make them feel bad for what they’re doing?
To be honest, it’s sometimes hard not to be petty and just lash out. But I know that if I were to do that, then God will rise up to defend them, and guess who’ll win that battle?
Confrontation has to be done with reverent fear and genuine love, or it mustn’t be done at all!
Deal with your heart first.
STEP TWO: CONFRONT THE PERSON
Let’s say that you can see that Joe’s been yelling at a lot of people lately, and it’s starting to affect the joy of the Church family. You can see that he’s on the verge of losing some friends, and hurting some people, and after he bites your head off it become personal. God allowed that, because He wants it to become a priority for you. You are God’s chosen individual to confront Joe on this issue.
You go home, spend some time with the Lord, sharing your hurts and pain over the public embarrassment you just went through. You recognise the way it also hurt God’s heart to see Joe doing that and you feel moved with pity to save Joe from the path he’s pursuing. You thank God for the sense of mercy and forgiveness you feel towards Joe, even a sense of love, and you call Joe and ask to meet him.
God has done an amazing work of grace in your heart. Left to yourself, you would have spiralled into bitterness and hatred; but now you’re not just free of bitterness – you’re full of love and concern.
When you meet with him, Joe’s response isn’t quite what you expected. Instead of recognising the love and wisdom you are showing, he rebels: “I never did that! You’re just sensitive. If people saw me yelling at you, that’s good because you need to learn your lesson!’
Now you’re in a dilemma.
Maybe it is just you. Maybe Joe wasn’t in the wrong – maybe you were.
Only one way to find out. Gossip all over the Church until Joe feels bad enough to leave?
No! Now you need to check yourself against a sounding board.
16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
This is the first time that you are supposed to have spoken to anybody about this issue except God and the person. What do we often do? Because we’re afraid of confrontation, before we’ve even gone to the Lord over the matter, we’ve spoken to all our friends about it, and they’re all on our side because they’re our friends!
Proverbs 25:9-10 “If you argue your case with a neighbour, do not betray another man’s confidence, or he who hears it may shame you and you will never lose your bad reputation”.
You’ve been tasked with winning your brother’s soul back from the destructive destination it’s heading to, but he’s just found out that you’ve been speaking about him with everybody else, and you’ve been identified as a gossip and a slanderer.
Firstly, you’ve lost any credibility with people; secondly, you’ve lost any credibility with Joe and have no chance of winning him over.
Don’t talk to people until you’ve talked to the person!
So, you’ve dealt with your own heart first.
Then you’ve confronted, and the person rejected you.
Now, you speak to the elders.
STEP THREE: TALK TO THE ELDERS
Yes – I say elders. ‘Take one or two others along…’ is not the Bible’s green light for you and your pack of buddies to go put the whoopin’ on the person who offended you.
What you need now is wise advice and godly counsel. That’s where the elders come in. And I’m not talking here only about Fanie, Mark or Claude – I’m talking about the persons who will give you wise and godly counsel; it might be your Mom or Dad; your Bible study leader or worship leader; it might be the godly older lady at work. Whoever it is, they’ll give you godly counsel.
This is as opposed to only emotional support. Your friends will make you feel better; elders will help you know better, as they show you God’s perspective on the matter. Elders can either disagree with your take on the matter and advise you to take a step back (imagine you actually are the problem!); or they may agree with you on the matter and agree to go with you to confront Joe.
Notice at every point how anti-gossip this process is. Church discipline is anti-gossip:
God hates gossip. Proverbs 6 (16-19) tells us:
There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
Don’t come with the excuse: “But it’s true! Aren’t we supposed to speak the truth??”
You’re quite right that everything we say must be true. But I’ve always admired what pastor Craig Groeschel teaches: Everything that’s SAID must be TRUE; but not everything that’s TRUE must be SAID. And not everything that’s true and said needs to be said to everyone. Be wise in what you say, who you say it to, and when you say it.
Don’t stir up dissension among brothers and sisters in the Church. Don’t do it! You’ll be fighting with God! You know who’ll win that battle? It won’t be you, I promise!
When you’ve been offended, you don’t run immediately to your friends, you go to God first. And having gone to the Lord and received His grace to forgive, you go immediately to the offender with love. And having loved them, you continue the love by protecting their reputation by not going to your friends for easy support, but going to wise counsellors for direction.
So, you go to one or two elders – Andre and Anton – and they agree, “I’ve seen Joe been acting edgy over the past few weeks. I’ve been noticing people avoiding him as well; and even though we didn’t listen to any gossip, you’re the third person to mention this matter to us. I think this is worth talking to Joe about.”
Now the three of you ask to sit with Joe after Church one Sunday morning.
Three of you lovingly and patiently point out the destructive path that Joe is on. By now, others have also been hurt by him. Some newcomers have chosen a different Church to attend because they feel unsafe in this place. Joe is now harming the Church as a whole. But Joe still refuses to listen.
Then it’s time to bring the Church in.
STEP FOUR: TALK TO THE CHURCH
You, along with your one or two wise witnesses approach the Church leadership: the pastors, the elders and the deacons, and speak to them about the damage you see taking place in the Church body.
The leadership agree that this is doing harm to the body and must be confronted, and call a Church meeting wherein Joe faces the challenge.
Yet Joe refuses to see it. Whether from pride, or unconfessed sin, he refuses to repent.
If he sat and confessed – actually, he’s been struggling with a shopping addiction and sliding further and further into debt, and he feels trapped and scared and can’t get out and that’s perhaps why he’s lashing out – then you can work together towards health. If he simply shared that he doesn’t know why he’s been hurting people, but he trusts you to help him think it through because he wants the Church to be safe and healthy – then you can work together towards fellowship.
But instead, he refuses to repent: “Ah, you’re a bunch of liars! Everybody else loves me. You just can’t take a joke. I’m not going to change just because you’re overly sensitive!”
If Joe refuses to listen to the Church, that’s a sure-fire sign that he has lost connection to the head: Jesus, and that he’s in open rebellion against the Spirit of Jesus; and that rebellion has a consequence: disassociation.
LAST STEP: DISASSOCIATION
Titus 3:10-11 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, on order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
While I was in college, I remember a story that one of our lecturers, Professor Pohlman, told us about disassociation. He said that in his many years of ministry, there have been a few times where he has counselled a person not to go down a certain sinful path. But the person persisted and persisted and refused to listen. At some point, Martin Pohlman would stand up, walk to his door, open it and ask the person to leave. He would say, ‘Once the world has had it’s way with you, and you’re ready to come back – come back; I’ll be waiting.’
The father in the story of the prodigal son didn’t lock his beloved boy inside the house – He gave him his inheritance and let him go. He knew what poison the world had, and what damage it would do to his boy. But he let him go, in the hopes that his boy would realise – hopefully before it’s too late – that his father’s house is a better place than the world.
Paul uses some pretty strong language in 1 Corinthians 5. In that chapter we see a man who is persistent in his sin, and it’s starting to cause damage to the Church inside, and damage to the Church reputation. Now what? Paul says (1 Corinthians 5:4-5) When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
Sounds pretty gory, doesn’t it? Hand this man over to Satan! But don’t miss the hope in the reason behind it: so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
You see, what the people in my old Church failed to understand in choosing instead to associate with this young man who had chosen a homosexual lifestyle instead of God’s plan for sex was that they were providing the very thing that was keeping him from turning back to God. They thought that by comforting him, encouraging him, fellowshipping with him, that they were showing him God’s loving arms, when in fact what he needed to see was the devil’s claws.
When the first person confronted his sin, he was showing him God’s arms. When the second and third came with, they were showing him God’s arms. When the elders and deacons confronted him, they were showing him God’s arms. But once he’d rejected God’s arms again and again and again, it is then God’s will to show him the ugliness of the enemy’s camp.
And that is a horrible place to be. Go and experience the world; see the way they treat their own; see what a world without moral laws and standards looks like; live without the warmth of Christian fellowship; enjoy the sinful pleasures that God has been protecting you from – and after the world has had it’s way with you, and you’re ready to come back – run back!
THE AIM: RECONCILIATION
What is the point of all this? The ultimate aim of Church discipline is RECONCILIATION.
What is reconciliation? We ended off last week’s message with the story of the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one. God’s heart is for the lost sinner. Jesus Christ came to seek and to save the lost.
That is reconciliation: the restoration of friendly relations. Once we were enemies of God (Colossians 1:21) But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death. He has made you His friends again through Jesus’ death on the cross.
The Bible says that it is not God’s will that any should perish, but that all should come to a saving knowledge of His grace. And having been saved, He commands us all to be His ambassadors, ministers of His offer of RECONCILIATION.
It is God’s will that you should come to know His love from an early age, choose to follow Him and never to leave Him. But in the unfortunate circumstance that you do choose to wander off, His desire is for you to be reunited to Him. Still while you live His arm is stretched out to save, even in your suffering.
God’s desire for you is that you love Him, and that you live in unity and love for one another. This is how the world will know that you’re His: That you love one another.
When something happens to disrupt that unity and love, God cares about that. He hears and He cares when you speak unkindly to one another, or hurt the unity in some other way. So He wants you to confront the issue. Don’t sit back, afraid to speak out: Confront the issue! For God’s sake, Confront the issue. In reverent fear, confront the issue. With loving courage, confront the issue. So that the world will see that we are His, and He, the Lord, is ours – for that reason, Confront the issue!
Discipline, Church discipline, may be painful in the moment of confrontation, but when we deal with a wound in the right way and at the right time, we have every expectation that it will heal thoroughly.
For those of you who are not Christians, this passage is not for you. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5, "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?...God will judge those outside." If you have rejected God’s offer of grace, then you are still the prodigal son, enjoying the deceitfulness of sin. My only prayer for you is this: Before it is too late, cry out for God’s grace to be a part of His body, the Church.
For those who are the Children of God: I encourage you to live like it. Avoid offending a brother or sister in Christ by the way that you speak, or the way that you live. And when you see a brother or sister in sin – don’t hide your eyes in fear, speak up in love, that’s how we fight well in the Church; that’s how we can walk forward in purity, unity and worship before our God.
Let’s bow our heads and pray.