Author: Ron Graham
If self discipline were practised properly, there would be no need for any other form of discipline. It becomes necessary, however, to sometimes exercise discipline upon those who won't exercise it upon themselves. Just as we convert sinners to Christ, we must nurture and discipline them in Christ, lest Satan snatch them away again. In this lesson we outline the proper procedure for correcting sin in others.
Some take the attitude is that individual accountability leaves everyone free to do as they please without interference or intervention. Others respond with fanatical, abusive, and cultish forms of discipline. Wrong responses to sin may be summarized as follows....
If you saw that a fire had started in someone's house, what would you do? Would you ignore the problem, hope it would fix itself, and trust nobody would get hurt? Of course not.
Similarly, you cannot ignore the sin you see in others. You must "snatch them out of the fire" (Jude 1:23). Please don't say, "It's none of my business!" when you see others in sin. Surely it is your business to "save a soul from death" (James 5:19-20).
It is inappropriate, on the other hand, to lose sleep and worry yourself sick when you see sin in others. At least you are not ignoring the sin, but you are not, by worrying, helping to restore the sinner either (Galatians 6:1).
It might seem strange to put "praying for the sinner" down as a wrong response, especially as it appears better than ignoring the problem or worrying about it. Prayer is appropriate for the penitent struggling to overcome sin. But when someone is not dealing with their sin, go and confront that person, don't hide away in your prayer closet and use prayer as a cop-out (1John 5:16). Certainly you would pray before going to the person. That prayer helps you go. It is not a substitute for going.
An obviously wrong response is to complain to others and "speak against a brother" (James 4:11) when you have not spoken to him.
Go to the sinner privately (Matthew 18:15). You must respect confidentiality at this stage. You do this for two reasons. First, privacy keeps the problem contained, and under control. Second, privacy protects a reputation from unnecessary hurt.
Before you go, examine whether there has really been a sin. Are you perhaps nit-picking and being a nuisance? Or have you jumped to unfounded conclusions? Or are you seeking to bind your personal opinion on someone else? Maybe you are trying to get even with this person. If any of those are so, then to go would be out of line.
If a person is in sin, but won't listen to you, don't shrug off the matter —a soul is in danger. Go again, this time with the help of one or two others (Matthew 18:16).
Obviously you should choose those helpers carefully: They should be not novices but mature, objective, impartial, and trustworthy to keep the matter confidential. If they happen to already be aware of the problem, so much the better, as it saves having to expand the circle in which the problem is being handled.
If you still have no success, don't delay or abandon the Lord's plan. Take the matter further: "Tell it to the church" (Matthew 18:17).
This does not mean that you drop a bombshell in the church and shock the assembly with a surprise speech! It means that you let the church quietly take the matter out of your hands. A sensible approach would be to bring the matter to the attention of a church elder. The elders will quietly confirm the facts and approach the sinner in an attempt to avoid rebuking him publicly, but they should not resile from a public rebuke if that becomes necessary (1Timothy 5:20).
If even a public rebuke fails, the final effort to restore the person will be the "disfellowship" of that person. The Bible calls this action a "rejection" or "removal" from the church (Titus 3:10-11 1Corinthians 5:11-13).
This is definitely a rare and last resort, and it is not meant to be a threat constantly held over the heads of church members.
If a someone is weak and struggling to overcome sin, if someone needs our help and support, it is hardly appropriate for us to remove that person from our fellowship.
On the other hand, if someone has left the church and wants no more to do with us, there is no point in disfellowshipping (excommunicating) that person either. How can you "remove" somebody who has already gone?
Disfellowship is appropriate for the person who is leading a double life. Some people want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be in fellowship with us, yet at the same time to be in sinful rebellion against God. Disfellowship may be the only way to force them to choose whom they will serve, the Lord or Satan.
In the rare event that disfellowship does take place, there is certainly no intention of vengeance or intimidation.
There are two main reasons for rejecting or removing such a person from the church fellowship.
The person needs to be shown, in a clear-cut way, what it is like to be in fellowship with Satan and alienated from God. So we give the person to Satan for the time being (1Corinthians 5:5).
Hopefully the sinner, having to deal with Satan without the shelter of the church, will cease to be double minded. The sinner will realise what sort of person Satan is, and no longer wish to serve him. The person will appreciate the blessings of church membership and no longer take them for granted (Ephesians 1:3-14).
The second reason for disfellowship is to prevent contamination of church (1Corinthians 5:6-7). It is only right that the leaven of evil influence should not be allowed to remain in the church.
This worthy principle sometimes degenerates into a witch hunt mentality. In their enthusiasm to "purify" the church, legalistic people lose sight of an even greater principle.
It is the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord which purifies the church, and he shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). A person struggling with sin in an attitude of contrition is purified by Christ. Such a person is no threat to us. That person belongs in the church, sins and all.
The following points are intended to help clarify a general misunderstanding of the relationship between the church and someone disfellowshipped from it.
Social restrictions. A disfellowshipped person is no longer included in normal social engagements with church members (1Corinthians 5:11). Invitations to lunch, for example, are neither issued nor accepted. But the person is not banished from or avoided at the family table. He is disfellowshipped from the church, not from his home and family.
Not shunned. A disfellowshipped person should not be "shunned". Crossing to the other side of the street, and other forms of psychological abuse, are not Christian practice. A beloved brother or sister should not be treated as though they were hated enemies (2Thessalonians 3:14-15). The disfellowshipped will be made unwelcome at church meetings until willing to repent, but will also be made to feel that he or she is missed. Remember the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).
Not pestered. A disfellowshipped person is not pestered. "Exhorting as a brother" means saying the appropriate thing at the appropriate opportunity. It does not mean constant harassment by church members to wear the person down.
Not blacklisted. A disfellowshipped person is not blacklisted. When the Bible tells us to "mark" people (Romans 16:17), it means to be watchful that such people are properly disciplined so they might mend their ways. It doesn't mean to put their names on a blacklist or to send emails and letters far and wide about them, or to wreck their reputation. It may be necessary to inform some others, but this should be done discreetly.
Welcome to come back. A disfellowshipped person is welcomed back and comforted as soon as a change of heart occurs (2Corinthians 2:6-8). Naturally we would expect the change of heart to manifest itself in a change of practice, but the right environment for that change is fully restored fellowship and a warm embrace. Again, remember the story of the prodigal son.