“The evangelical movement has become just a bit victimized by a success-oriented culture, wanting the church – like the corporation – to be successful.” Henri Nouwen link
I wish to express my gratitude to the professor and members of my seminary class who are teaching me, while demonstrating the love and kindness that are inherent qualities in true pastors.
After blogging since 2009, I believe there is nothing that has caused so much pain and unnecessary abuse of church members as the misapplication of Matthew 18 in regards to church discipline. Recently, I have been auditing a course on pastoral leadership in a conservative Lutheran seminary. I am the only non-pastor. A recent discussion on church discipline has significantly impacted my view on the goals and methods of that discipline.
Matthew 18 – Three short Bible verses which have caused untold pain.
When the topic of church discipline came up, I reviewed the abuse of Karen Hinkley by Matt Chandler and The Village Church. I asked the class of pastors “Is this approach to discipline appropriate?” Our professor immediately caught my attention when he asked a simple question. “What exactly does Matthew 18 say about church discipline?” I was challenged to look at the assumptions of authoritarian churches when it comes to discipline.
Take a minute and review the verses, concentrating on what they do NOT say.
Dealing With Sin in the Church
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
1 Corinthians 5: The New Testament example of a church discipline situation.
Now, review 1 Corinthians 5 since it involves the major example of church discipline in the New Testament. Focus on the actual sin and the attitude of those in that church towards that sin.
Also, slander in this verse refers to Biblical slander, which means purposely telling a lie in order to bring harm to someone’s reputation. Here is a post I wrote on the meaning of slander in the Bible – Slander or an Inconvenient Truth? This, too, is important as I build my case that today’s church discipline has been misrepresented by authoritarian leaders.
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? 3 For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. 4 So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,a b so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
Galatians 6:1: Restore gently
Finally, what is this verse telling us about our posture as we approach church discipline?
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. (NIV-Bible Gateway)
What is the primary goal of church discipline? Let’s start with gentle restoration.
This is the first question my professor asked us when I brought up this subject. Is the goal to get rid of the sin by quickly drop-kicking the sinner out the door? Here is where I am going to diverge from the discipline gurus out there who love to proclaim their authority, while insist they are protecting the sheep. I believe the primary goal is to restore the sinning person GENTLY.
The initial concern is not to protect the sheep but to correct the person who is sinning gently. The concern for the entire church should enter the picture if the congregation believes that the behavior of the sinner is righteous. This was the case for the Corinthian church, which thought it was fine for a man to sleep with his father’s wife. Review this verse from the Corinthians passage.
A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud!
Remember, folks, we are to live among those who disagree with us on the issue of sin. It should not come as a shock that there will be sin in our churches. What we need to avoid, as we work with those who are committing serious sin, is normalizing that sin within the congregation.
The answer to the professor’s initial question is “The goal of church discipline is to restore the person to the fellowship GENTLY.” It is restoration; not expulsion. My observations of many of these church discipline zealots seems to indicate that the sin is the focus, as opposed to the person who is sinning.
Are we disciplining sin or are we disciplining the violation of church rules?
That is the second question our professor asked us. Let’s go back to Matthew 18.
If your brother or sister sins…
Sadly, many of the church discipline abuse cases that we cover have nothing at all to do with sin. They have to do with violations of church rules. Many of these church rules are spelled out in membership covenants. Let me say this loud and clear. Membership covenants that spell out church rules are not the equivalent of a list of sins as outlined in Scripture. Matthew 18 makes it clear that we should be disciplining sin. Let’s review two infamous cases.
- Todd Wilhelm was put under church discipline for not joining a church immediately upon leaving his 9Marks church in Dubai. This is NOT a sin but a 9Marks church rule.
Todd was once being considered for church leadership in UCC Dubai, which is an outpost of Mark *9Marks* Dever’s church. He became aware of the allegations of child sex abuse cover-up in CJ Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries. This church, mirroring Dever’s devotion to his BFF, CJ Mahaney, pushed Mahaney books in their bookstore. (What a witness to the world, guys!) Todd decided to resign from church membership because he disagreed with this. He refused to join another church immediately because he wanted to avoid another church like UCCD. Such a decision is wise and to be commended, not punished. Did you know that such an action is considered a SIN by 9Marks when it is merely one of their rules? Todd’s thoughtful action was treated like a sin, not because the Bible says it is a sin. It was considered a sin because some human beings instituted a church membership agreement which listed that *not joining a church immediately* was a church rule. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t in the Bible. It was a sin because they said so. You can read about what happened in these two posts.
My, My Dubai: 9Marks Played Hardball While Lifeway/ David Platt Stretched the Truth
The Magisterium of the United Christian Church of Dubai Have Spoken (By: Todd Wilhelm) Point: Todd Wilhelm was disciplined, not for sin as is listed in the Matthew 18, but for a violation of a church rule which is NOT listed in the Bible as a sin.
- Karen Hinkley was put under church discipline for annulling her marriage to a child porn watching, allegedly admitted molester and then resigning from the church because they would not leave her alone. Karen discovered that her husband was viewing child pornography while they were together on the mission field. There were confessions of pedophile behavior as well. Karen returned home, and the state of Texas allowed her an annulment of her marriage.The church put her under discipline and claimed that her ex-husband was *walking in repentance* after about a month of counseling. Along with Amy Smith of Watchkeep, we broke this story which became known internationally. The actions of the church were so grievous that eventually Matt Chandler had to apologize to Karen and affirm that she was certainly justified in seeking a divorce from her pervert husband. The embarrassment and harassment that Karen endured from The Village Church (TVC) is well documented in our series which you can access at this post. Her actions were not a sin according to Scripture. She simply violated TVC (9Marks affiliated) church rules, as codified in their document known as a church membership covenant. Point: Karen Hinkley was disciplined, not for a sin as is listed in the Matthew 18, but for a violation of a church rule which is NOT in the Bible.
Do we discipline for church rules or for sin as stated in Matthew 18? I contend that any church which disciplines for violations of church rules are actually in violation of Matthew 18, which states we are to discipline for sin. Reread this portion from the 1 Corinthians 6 chapter posted above.
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.
It would seem to me that this is a list of sins that should be considered for church discipline, along with sleeping with the wife of one’s father.
Digression: I have yet to see a greedy person thrown out of a church. Perhaps they give too much money to the church coffers?
What is the time frame of the order of events found in Matthew 18?
Let’s assume there is a couple who is living together and attending a church of which they are members. Let’s also assume that the desire of the church leadership is to discipline said couple gently, as described in Galatians 6:1 posted above.
We are Americans addicted to smart phones, and we want things settled yesterday. Should we apply instantaneous discipline as well? How long should the Matthew 18 process take? (Pause here and reread the verses.)
Surprise! There is no time limit placed on the 3 steps. Why do you think Scripture does not impose time limits? Let me hazard a guess. I bet God is hoping that thoughtful people will take enough time to help the errant couple understand why the Bible says they should not be living together.
Let me give you an example. During the span of a couple of decades, a long time pastor has had 5 couples in his churches who were living together. Here is how he handled it.
- He sat down with the couple and reviewed their understanding of the Bible. He gave them some reading assignments and met with them a few times. This ongoing discussion continued over the course of many weeks. He actually cared enough to make sure they understood the Scripture and how it should lived out in their church. Also, they cared enough to meet with him over this time period. There is great hope in such a scenario. Ask yourself a question. In your church, would a pastor really care enough about the members to meet with them and assure them of his love and his concern beyond the actual sin itself? Or would he simply command them to stop living together immediately or be kicked out of the church?
- If they were still living together after this discussion/study was completed and they still refused to move apart, he still had one more trick up his sleeve. He would tell them that they were still welcome at the church, but they would need to refrain from taking communion. I am now in a denomination that takes communion very seriously, and this request would be a blow to most members in the church.
- There was no need for Step 3. Two of the couples chose to leave the church (without some big showy ceremony of placing them on a *care list* and being thrown out.) For those two couples, there is always the hope they will repent and return. The other three couples all began to live separately. Two of the couples eventually got married. One couple split.
This approach will leave all of those couple who participated in the process with a sense that they mattered and were cared for. Sadly, with most church pastors today acting like they are walking podcasts, there is little time and little inclination to engage with members of the church.
Who is supposed to be involved with Steps 1 and 2 of Matthew 18? The elders? The lowest rung of assistant pastors?
Reread Matthew 18 again. Note who the verses are addressing…*you.* Do these verses say that the pastors or elders are to deal with the problem? No. One pastor said “If someone comes to me to report a sin, I always ask that person if they have talked about it with the person first.”
Folks, we are all guilty of wanting to pass this off to someone else. I wonder how things might be different if a good church friend of a couple that is living together spoke to them first. Then, if one person had no effect, why not have a few people who know them well within the church go to the couple together? Do you see why this is so good? The church members who truly care for the couple are the ones doing the confronting.
We should do this before telling it to the *church.* Who is the church? Maybe *take it to the church* means it is time to get the pastors and elders involved. Perhaps church leadership should be the last resort option.
Does Matthew 18 actually say to have big, exciting (yet oh.so.serious.) meeting and tell it to every last person in the church?
One of the stupidest decisions made by Matt Chandler and his lieutenants in the Karen Hinkley situation (which could have resulted in a very serious lawsuit) was to send a letter to the intimate group of 6,000 (!) members of The Village Church informing them that Karen Hinkley was in sin and under church discipline. I even phoned an elder at The Village Church that I used to know when I lived in Dallas and asked him “What were you thinking???!!” He refused to answer because, well, you know, *confidentiality,* *pray,*… yada, yada, yada.
Folks, do you really think that this sort of action is what Jesus was discussing in Matthew 18? I presume that it is if you believe church discipline is meant to chase a person as far away from the church as possible. Do you really think that this is “restoring a person gently?”
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul was upset because the entire church thought that the dude having sex with his father’s wife was actually being kind of cool. That guy had to be thrown out, and the entire church needed to hear about it because they were actually *in bed* with the situation. (I couldn’t resist.)
Sadly, UCC Dubai leadership actually thought it was an excellent idea to tell the entire church that Todd Wilhelm needed to be on the *care* list. For those of you reading this who think – “There are two sides to that one” – it is crucial for you to know that Todd Wilhelm agreed to sign a statement allowing the church to release ALL information surrounding his *discipline.* As expected, UCCD leadership refused. Matt Chandler tried the same thing with Amy Smith and me, telling us via Twitter that we didn’t know the *whole* story. We let him know we had all of the texts, emails and church letters…
There is nothing in Matthew 18 that indicates it is against Scripture to tell just a few members of the church who are actually involved and truly care about the individual being disciplined, instead of telling the entire church. Yeah, like 6,000 members getting emails was what Jesus had in mind. In fact, if all 6,000 church members really cared about a *sinning* member, they should have been the first to approach said member at the start of the Matthew 18 process, since all 6,000 of them were truly invested in the situation…
I think the implementation of *church discipline* has taken an ugly turn. There are far too few examples of gentle restoration a la Galatians 6:1. Many times the pastors and church members begin a process that is harsh, mean-spirited and often unScriptural. I believe in church discipline. The situation in 1 Corinthians 5 is an example of the sort of thing that must be handled. However, all too often we hear about abusive situations like the so-called ‘discipline’ that was foisted upon Karen Hinkley and Todd Wilhelm. Todd and Karen did not sin. They wisely chose not to follow man-made church rules.
When church rules become the basis for church elders to implement discipline, that church has become abusive and unbiblical. Those church leaders and members demonstrate that they have no wish to restore people gently. They just want to get rid of those lousy sinners in an expeditious manner. That sort of church proves they are just one more man-made, abusive, authority-driven business. Who has time for gentleness? Efficiency matters!
As it is, the world has far too many of those kinds of institutions. The church should be different. Gentleness matters!