From Our Question Box — A Matter of Church Discipline
We receive scores of questions as a result of our web site. Some are not easily answered with a quick yes or no—or even with a simple Scripture citation. They require critical analysis and prudent judgment, ascertaining the teaching of the Bible and the highest welfare of precious souls. This week you can "look over my shoulder” as I deal with a recent, complicated question.
A Christian couple in a nearby congregation divorced with no scriptural basis. She later remarried but was never disciplined by her home congregation. Recently she and her current husband visited our congregation and stayed for a potluck meal. One family left, quite agitated, and accused the rest of sinning by eating with the woman. Were they wrong in leaving? Were we wrong in not asking the couple to leave?
You have described a volatile situation. I’m afraid that many Christians are so uninformed with reference to both the spirit and action of church discipline that extremes in either direction are common more often than not.
First, it appears that the woman was never formally disfellowshipped. If she had been approached, kindly reprimanded, and taken through the entire disciplinary procedure, it would seem clear that the “no-not-to-eat” (a specific for the general) implementation would be in order. But it appears that through neglect, the wayward woman was never given “due process”—and that is as important as the final punitive phase. It’s almost like sentencing a person to prison without a trial.
It should be acknowledged, however, that clearly there are circumstantial exceptions to the no-eat principle. I know of a case where a widowed brother fell into sin with a woman of the congregation. Eventually he was disfellowshipped. Now he is old and infirm, unable to care for himself. His family, faithful Christians, had to take him in. Circumstances now force them into a closer relationship than they would have maintained otherwise. To which obligation shall they yield?
There are times when spiritual obligations seem to collide and godly people are forced to make decisions. In such cases one must always attempt to determine what the higher responsibility is, and pursue it in the best interest of the offender.
Second, the brother who hastily got up and left, it appears to me, acted emotionally (though doubtless sincerely), without thinking through the process, and not in the best interest of the sinful lady. What did that accomplish? He would not have been contaminated simply by being in the same room. It was not a fellowship relationship he initiated. Does he think it would have been appropriate for the entire congregation to have walked out and left the woman sitting there, along with her Baptist husband? Would this likely have brought her to repentance? What impression would it have made upon the man? Or upon other visitors? Upon novices in the church? One must ever keep in mind that precious and vulnerable souls are involved in the actions we take.
Some years ago, a church disfellowshipped a brother whose wife remained faithful. Occasionally he would show up for a service and attend a potluck. The leadership discussed the matter carefully and came to a united decision. The congregation should have no strictly social fellowship with him (e.g., going fishing, hunting, to a sports event, out for a pleasure meal, etc.), but when he attended a service and stayed for an after-service event, he should be treated kindly and encouraged to come again. Eventually he was restored. Likely he never would have been reclaimed if the church had acted in an impulsive and harsh fashion. Sometimes folks get so caught up in technicalities that they forget the value of the person’s soul. This was a common problem with the Pharisees during Jesus’ ministry.
The situation described will not be an easy one for the church to work through, but wise and cool heads should prevail. It’s a mine field that requires spiritual judgment (Galatians 6:1) so as not to intensify an unfortunate circumstance.
If you can approach the brother when he is in a less emotional mood, and show him that other considerations are involved (beyond the mere eating issue), it might be helpful. If he could be made to see that even he would concede to circumstances where the eating issue would be relaxed due to higher obligations, it might help ameliorate the situation.
Church discipline (i.e., the most extreme form—withdrawal of fellowship) has a three fold function: (1) It is designed to save the soul of the wayward brother or sister (1 Corinthians 5:5). (2) Discipline is for the protection of the church; to assist it in maintaining its purity. A little corrupting “leaven” will soon affect the entire loaf (5:6-7). (3) There is an element of punishment in withdrawal. Apparently the wayward Corinthian brother was brought to repentance, for in his next letter Paul says, “Sufficient to such a one is this punishment inflicted by the many” (2 Corinthians 2:6). There is a price tag attached to flagrant rebellion.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.