Yesterday we discussed how to prepare for church discipline. Today’s let’s take a closer look at the practice of church discipline, not so much at the procedures and rules, but the attitude and spirit with which we should go about this.
We need great love
Notice that the context for the church discipline passage in Matthew 18:15-19 is of caring for Christ’s little ones (vv. 1-10), and of the shepherd pursuing the lost sheep (vv. 11-14). We need a loving motive (to win back the brother or sister to Christ), and a loving manner – saying the right words in the right place at the right time. If at any time we find ourselves lacking a loving motive and manner, it is time to pause and go no further as without love we will do a lot of damage. Remember, Christ says that if we offend one of His little ones, it would have been better for us to have a large millstone hung around our necks and we be cast into the sea (Matthew 18:6; c.f. v. 10).
We need great carefulness
Again I want to emphasize the need for extreme care in following the three-step biblical process (Matthew 18:15-19) and however our particular church has understood this in its own particular circumstances. The person making the complaint should first approach the offender. If that fails to result in repentance or adequate explanation, then the concerned person should ask an elder, the pastor, or a mature Christian to come with them to speak to the person. If that fails to produce the desired response, then the matter should be brought before the “church” (either the elders or the members, depending on the government of the church). [edited]
The benefits of this three-step process are that the offended person is made to ask themselves, “Is this serious enough to warrant the next step?” The accused person is made to realize the increasing gravity of the matter. And witnesses to the earlier steps are able to testify to the church courts at the later stages if required. But perhaps the greatest benefit is that it stops frivolous matters being brought before the elders, especially by those who lack the Christian love and courage to approach fellow Christians first before going public.
Of course, if the sin is public knowledge then the Matthew 18 instructions about private offenses does not necessarily apply. However, as some people whose sins are well known will still try to use non-compliance with Matthew 18 to criticize their pastor or church, it is often wise to at least try a private approach first.
We need great courage
I don’t know anyone who looks forward to church discipline. Surely most, if not all of us, have an aversion to the mental, emotional, and spiritual demands of dealing with sin in someone’s life. Most of us draw back. Some will do anything rather than deal with these situations. And often the motive is not love for the person, but fear of them, or of their family, or of the consequences in the congregation.
We need the Lord to give us courage to face sin, do something about sin, do it in the right way, persevere through the stress, effect appropriate sanctions (admonish, rebuke, censure, suspension, excommunication, etc.), and to take appropriate actions.
We need great humility
If we could be humble enough to realize that we ourselves could fall into the worst sin (Gal. 6:1), it would give a much more loving flavor to all our attitudes and actions.
We need great wisdom
I’ve never been involved in a straightforward church discipline case. They have always involved complicating factors like counter-accusations, denials, excuses, lack of evidence, etc. We need so much wisdom to know how to proceed, what questions to ask, where the truth lies, etc. How much we should be praying for the wisdom that God has promised to His perplexed people (James 1:5). Which brings us on to our next point.
We need great prayer
We often quote Matthew 18:19 about the Lord’s promised presence where two or three are gathered in His name. However, we often fail to realize that the immediate context is that of church discipline. It’s not people met in a weekly prayer meeting or worship service, but people met to exercise church discipline, and they do so with prayer and the promised presence of God’s Spirit.
We of course pray for prevention, but also for love, courage, carefulness, humility, and wisdom in all that we say and do. We need help to be perfectly and consistently just, showing neither favoritism nor prejudice. And of course we pray for a successful outcome, where sin will be confessed and repented of, and the sinner will be encouraged and helped to a more holy and useful life again.