A growing church is a beautiful sight, assuming the growth is genuine and solid. Those who observe large numbers of people streaming into a church can, regrettably, forget the problems that growth can bring. As open sin becomes more prevalent in society, there are increased risks to the church. People coming into the fellowship by salvation or transfer can bring along real baggage from the past. Those in regular fellowship can be influenced by sin in the world and become ensnared by various lusts. Doctrinal problems can creep in. What happens when serious sin is discovered in the church? What should be done? Anyone reading the Corinthian correspondence will note that the early believers faced this problem. Fortunately, the apostles were quick to write instructions for the young churches, and these writings contain all that we need today to practice godly discipline in the church.
Remember a few basics
– Discipline is not a synonym for excommunication (“putting someone out of fellowship”), even though some people use it that way. All corrections and exercises in training are disciplines beginning with the simplest instructions e.g., “Please close that door.” Putting a person out of fellowship is the most serious form of discipline and is sometimes the culmination of unsuccessful attempts to solve a growing problem. Elders ought to ask themselves how the matter got to be this serious. Do they have a healthy understanding of the many lesser steps that overseers can take as they work with someone struggling with personal problems that could become public sin?
– The goal of all discipline is restoration. Even in the most serious cases, the desired effect is repentance, confession, restoration. This positive progression can be traced in the matter of the sinning man at Corinth in I Corinthians 5 and II Corinthians 2, 7. Leaders must be certain that all efforts and communications pertaining to excommunication spring from hearts that earnestly desire to see the sinner restored to fellowship. We may have private thoughts about the validity of such a person’s testimony, but since he has been called “a brother,” and we cannot know the heart, we must think of him as one of Christ’s sheep gone astray until the Lord brings hidden things to light.
– Procrastination can multiply the damage. In both doctrinal and moral evil, the Scripture is clear: leaven spreads and in time will infect the whole (I Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9). The wise man wrote truly: “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” (Eccl 8:11 KJV)). Certainly there is a time for prayer, fact finding and perhaps even fasting. A rush to judgment is unworthy of godly leaders. But let there be no undue delay! Think of an infection in the body. The doctors consult and move quickly lest the situation get out of control. So must it be in the church. More than one darkened lampstand can bear witness to the truth of this.
– Not all sins are of equal danger to the health and testimony of the Christian community. Moral evils of a most serious nature are clearly listed in I Cor. 5:11. “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” Understanding of the exact meaning of some of these terms may vary among leaders, but we are wise to consider this list sufficient for our needs for moral issues. Serious doctrinal evils involve error in the fundamentals of the faith, and many would hold that there must be in addition to the error, the active work of “teaching things which they ought not” (Titus 1:11), i.e., unwillingness to keep silent.
Now let’s consider ten guidelines suggested by the text of I Corinthians 5 as we learn how to proceed when serious sin has arisen and attempts to resolve the matter through repentance have not been fruitful.
1. Attention to the heart condition of the church (vs. 2). If pride or boasting are present, the beam must be first removed from our own eye by confession and humbling before God or we shall not see
2. Adequate research into the matter (vs. 2). More is implied by the expression “this deed” than expressed in this passage, but research is always essential to righteous judgment as taught in many other passages (see II Cor 13:1).
3. Prayer for God’s intervention (vs. 2). The anguished cry of the heart to God over sin, the realization that Gods holy Name and the gathering of His saints are being tarnished move all to seek Gods intervention directly or through their obedience.
4. Courageous facing of sin (vs. 3). Paul has set the example and faced the matter squarely. Sin called by softer names is more likely to be tolerated.
5. The call to united action (vs. 4). There is no Biblical warrant for leaving this action to the elders to handle in private. Elders may take the lead, but the entire assembly must have one mind and resolve or the discipline will not work.
6. Conviction of God-given authority to act (vs. 4,5). This is not a group against a person. Believers acting “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” are only submitting to the authority of the Lord by handing the person over to Satan.
7. Love for the sinner (vs. 5). Once the sin has been mentioned (vs. 1), Paul does not dwell on the details or describe it. All succeeding references are to the person (vss. 2,3,5,13). Harsh as the action in verse 5 may sound, there is no hint of getting rid of the man but that in the end he may be saved. Incidentally, we should note that the Greek word sarx means “flesh.” The desired effect is to break that control of the sin nature over the physical body which combination is referred to in Scripture as the flesh. To destroy the “sinful nature”, as some translate, can only mean physical death to the sinning man, as the sinful nature cannot be removed in any other way during this life.
8. Clear and open communication (vs. 5). This is implied, but obvious from Paul’s clear speech and forthright handling of the whole matter. We ought to note that there are dangers involved in public statements about people in today’s world, and the assembly ought to be wise in all public communications. Observing a few simple safeguards such as reading and posting disciplinary actions, basing them on words of Scripture and confirmed statements of the offender, and making sure all actions are the unified conviction of the group, will go a long way to avoiding repercussions. In some cases, professional counsel can outline ways to prevent needless problems when handling excommunication within the church.
9. Understanding the nature of broken fellowship (vs. 9). Those who lead should help the community of believers understand what has really happened. The sinning man has broken fellowship with Christ. The church must now (as the body of Christ) take the same action as the Head. There can be no thought of schism, i.e., some part of the body siding with and defending the one who has done wrong.
10. Strong, godly leadership (vs. 3, 4; 6:5) We may trace through the account the firm and courageous leadership of Paul. He has judged with Godly discernment, written with boldness and clarity, and now stands with them as if present.
If we had only the I Corinthians 5 passage to instruct us, the benefit would be great. But inspiration has also preserved a record of the outcome. In II Corinthians we learn how things worked out in the end. In 2:6-11, it is clear that the action taken was successful, the sinning brother repented. The believers must now reach out and receive him back into the warmth of fellowship. This must not be delayed lest he become the victim of excessive sorrow. And it must be genuine, not a half-hearted “OK you can come back now,” but presumably like the joy of heaven over a sinner that repents. As an aside, one might ask what would have happened had the man not repented? Here is the wonderful part about obedience to God’s word. If the sinner repents, the church regains a brother and a friend. If he does not repent, losses are kept to a minimum, the protection of the flock is secured, and the testimony of the church maintained in holiness. In II Corinthians (next issue of ESN) we learn not only how things turned out with the sinning man, but we will get a look behind the scenes at the underlying relational problems at Corinth.