Our False Notions about Church Discipline Enable the Abuser’s Secrecy
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (ESV)
The abuser’s life is a secret. His real life, that is. He imposes secrecy upon his victim, threatening her with “if you ever talk about this family…!” And one of the ways he perverts Scripture to support this demand for secrecy is to piously insist that to ever talk about someone (ie, like HIM) is to be guilty of gossip and slander. He not only foists this idea on his victim, but if he is a supposed Christian, he will implement it in his church as well. Under the guise of Matthew 18, one of his favorites, he is allowed to verbally attack and accuse people in the church he is trying to control, but of course, he does so under a righteous banner of “going to his brother alone.” His intent is not to reconcile or seek truth and genuine relationship restoration. No. It is all about what makes the abuser tick: power and control. And then, woe to his target if that person should tell anyone else what the abuser has done! Suddenly, to tell becomes gossip and slander. It’s the old double-standard tactic that abuse victims are far too familiar with.
Christians do not understand church discipline, and as a result we are enabling the abuser by supporting his cloak of secrecy. Of course, I think we don’t understand many things in relation to abuse simply because we don’t want to understand something that is foreign and unpleasant to us. Well, as I heard someone say once to a whimpering young fellow who just didn’t want to grow up, “it’s time for you to suck it up and be a man!” Another person put it this way, and it’s good advice for us — “put on your big-boy pants and grow up!” Yes, Virginia, there really is a Satan and he has his servants all around us.
The three fundamental mis-ideas about church discipline that are rampant among us
1. Matthew 18 is the only process to be followed in church discipline.
2. All sins and sinners are alike, so Matthew 18 is the catch-all way to deal with them.
3. Oh, and by the way, having talked the talk about discipline, when it comes right down to it we aren’t going to exercise discipline anyway. Love and mercy, you know. That’s a better way. (All abusers cheer here)
Years ago when I helped write the doctrinal statement and bylaws for a new church, we were criticized for spending so much time and space on the subject of church discipline. But we had to. Why? Because the Bible has a whole lot to say about the subject, far more than just Matthew 18. Consider the following Scriptures and as you read them, think about how they indicate that there is more than one way to skin a cat (hey, I’ve got a cat too and he drinks water out of the tap – it’s just a saying:), or in this case, to deal with sin in the church:
1 Corinthians 5
verses 1-5 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
verses 11-13 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
2 Thessalonians 3:6
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
2 Timothy 3:1-5
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
And of course we could go on and on citing many others. Think of the mountain of Scriptures that command us to be on guard against false teachers, to test the spirits to see if they be of God or antichrist, to watch for wolves in sheep’s clothing or for devils parading as angels of light. In numbers of these cases, Paul tells us to “take note” of such people. Name names. Shine the spotlight on them. Put them out. He even pronounces as damned by God (anathema) anyone who would come with a false Jesus and false gospel (Gal 1). That means naming them. You never “try to reach the heart” of a wolf — he will only eat you.
So, you can see that there is more than one kind of offender, and more than one pattern of church discipline. In the case of a scandalous, public, unrepentant sin as was happening at Corinth, the method is “wham! You’re out!” It’s the same thing in dealing with a false teacher promoting heresy. No gently going and speaking to him one on one, no second stage of taking witnesses. No. You go right to the thing and in the church gathered you expose the sin and the sinner and you put him out. Hand him over to Satan are the words Paul uses. Does that sound too harsh? Well, if so that simply is an indicator of how soft we have become. To hand the sinner over to Satan is to put him out of the community of Christ (ex-communication) and thus into the world, the kingdom of which Satan is god. After all, if a professing Christian insists on living like a child of the devil, then he can go out into the darkness and live there. Perhaps he will even repent. ( Most people infer from 2 Corinthians that the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife did repent. If that inference is correct, the excommunication no doubt made the guy realise he couldn’t keep being a hypocrite, and God used that to bring him to true repentance and saving faith.)
In our so-called love and mercy and knowing better than Jesus, we refuse to obey these commands. Like a father who doesn’t love his son enough to discipline him, we don’t truly love an erring brother when we go soft on him. We are fools when we want to pet and stroke a wolf into repentance. The Christianity of our day just doesn’t want to acknowledge that there is real evil in this world and that this evil creeps in among us in the church. “Can anyone actually be that bad?” we gasp when a victim describes what her abuser does to her. Of course! Don’t you read your Bible?
And then there is the abuser and his secrecy. Do you see the beauty of what we are saying here? The proper understanding and practice of biblical church discipline strips away the facade and secrecy that the abuser counts on. HERE IS A MAN AMONG US WHO IS ABUSING HIS WIFE. THIS IS WHAT HE DOES TO HER AT HOME. WE ARE PUTTING HIM OUT OF THE CHURCH AND INTO SATAN’S REALM! WE ARE ANNOUNCING IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS! May the Lord have mercy on his soul and bring him to repentance, but for now we are going to have mercy on his victims for the glory of Christ! Why do we owe the wicked man or woman secrecy and confidentiality and reputation protection? Paul said Alexander the coppersmith did him much harm. He said that Hymaeneus and Alexander are blasphemers. And he said that by dealing with them as he had — handing them over to Satan -— the whole church feared God.
What kind of sins does Matthew 18 deal with?
The church needs to give serious thought to how Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are to be equally heeded and how tlo understand and apply each text in the light of the other. 1 Corinthians 5:11 lists six heinous sins quite specifically: sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and swindling (extortion). Matthew 18 doesn’t specify any particular sins, it just says “if your brother sins against you…” The ‘against you’ in Matthew 18 might indicate that Jesus was giving this guidance about how we are to deal with personal offences. For example: when someone said something false about me, or stole from me, or when he’s promised to pay me for my some job I did for him, he failed to pay. Or maybe when someone lost his temper at me. Or forgot to do something important that he’d said he would do. Or when someone unwittingly did something that hurt me. Matthew 18 gives a four step process and the early steps will resolve the issue if the offender realises his fault and repents. That suggests Matthew 18 is the go-to passage for things like:
- relatively minor interpersonal sins, but not so minor that I can overlook them in Christian patience
- situations where the offender may or may not have actually done wrong, but by talking it over one-on-one, and with two or three witnesses if need be, both parties are likely to come to understand what happened and repent where appropriate
- situations where the alleged offence is not such a heinous sin that the sinner must be put out of the church swiftly in order to protect the rest of the flock from their lying and evil conduct (i.e. not a sociopath, malignant narcissist, covert aggressive character)
In the Matthew 18 process, the sin only becomes fully public if the offender refuses to repent. But it WILL become public if there is no repentance.
When we let an abuser operate unchecked among us, let us not delude ourselves that the blessing of the Lord is upon our church. It isn’t.
Remember Achan, the guy who ripped off the silver and hid it in the floor of his tent? (Joshua 7) Our personal sin is not merely our personal sin, it affects the whole body of Christ. The story of Achan illustrates how one person’s sin, even when hidden from most of the flock, can affect the whole body. Even while Achan’s sin was still secret, while only he (and perhaps some of his household) knew about it, his sin caused thirty-six of his fellow Israelites to killed at the first battle of Ai. And Achan was then exposed by God and executed.
And the story of Achan also illustrates how public exposure of the secret and unrepentant sinner is salutary for the whole flock. Let’s explore this for a moment. After the public exposure of Achan’s sin the nation of Israel, Achan made confession of what he had done:
And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” (Joshua 7:20-21)
Joshua sent people to check it out. They verified Achan’s account; the stolen goods were buried in Achan’s tent. But did Joshua then say “Ok Achan, you’ve confessed, so [we assume] you have repented. Now; just don’t do it again.” No! Joshua didn’t say that. Achan’s sin had led to great suffering for other Israelites: the thirty-six who had died in battle and all their families who had been bereaved (not to mention the men who had been wounded in that battle).
The people of Israel stoned Achan and his family to death. It’s the principle of the punishment suiting the crime: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and the blood of the innocent crying out from the ground…
Now think for a moment: How would the relatives of those thirty-six Israelites have felt if Achan had been allowed to go on living? What would it have been like for those bereaved families if Achan had been permitted to live amongst them in the land of milk and honey? If you can imagine that, you can perhaps imagine what it is like for victims of domestic abuse who have been abused for years/decades and who finally expose the abuser to the church … and the abuser confesses their sins to the leaders and is allowed to remain in the flock. This scenario happens often. We know because we hear so many reports from our readers.
Is it any wonder that some victims of domestic abandon the faith altogether? Is it any wonder that, even when they don’t abandon their personal faith in Christ, many victims can’t face going to any other church? Isn’t the reason obvious: the chances are that when they disclose to people in another church — especially if the abuser has got into the ear of the victim’s new pastor — the victim will be misjudged and dealt injustice injustice yet again.
And before we leave the story of Achan, just imagine the salutary effect on the Israelites when they were stoning Achan to death! It would have given the Israelites a more intense fear of disobeying God. It would have acted like a warning restraint on any Israelite who might be tempted to do what Achan had done. (The fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom.) And furthermore, the communal carrying out of the execution would have helped the families of the men who had been killed or wounded in the first battle of Ai. Why? Because it would have helped them feel that their grief and loss was appropriately recognised and honoured, not discounted.
What if church leaders don’t obey God’s Word regarding church discipline?
Or they say they are obeying it, but they mess it up?
What do we do when we want to obey God’s Word regarding church discipline, but our church leaders and congregation refuse? Well, the Reformers maintained that a TRUE church of Jesus Christ necessarily was characterized by three essentials. 1) The Preaching of Scripture, 2) The observance of baptism and the Lord’s Table, 3) The faithful practice of church discipline. They would say that any church that refuses to discipline is a non-church. And we think they were right. After all, when a church will not discipline, it is saying “come one and come all! Anyone can be a Christian!” Very soon if it ever was a real church, it will deteriorate into what Scripture calls a “synagogue of Satan” and be Christian in name only. We think there are lots and lots of such synagogues around us today. What to do? Leave. You don’t want to be a member of Satan’s synagogue, do you? Of course, we think that you should boldly “raise some sanctified Cain” before you do depart so that everyone knows why you are leaving. Read the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 for some good ideas.
Abusers will not last in a church that faithfully disciplines. Neither will non-abusers who are Christians in name only (nominal christians). So this is nothing a church wants to do if it’s large numbers and big bucks they are after. But then, you can’t be after those things and follow Christ. He pastored a small church. So did Paul, so did Peter.
So there it is. Our false notions about church discipline are enabling the abuser’s demand for secrecy. We need to get it straight and shine light on his darkness.
Maybe someone needs to write a book about church discipline and get it right. Put that on the list. Right after we get a good book on biblical forgiveness and reconciliation. We’re all messed up on that too.
What about the proposition that “deciding before we’ve heard both sides is the definition of prejudice” ?
Okay, but did the Apostle Paul “hear both sides” before he denounced Ananias as a liar?
Acts 5:1-4 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”
Did God by revelation (a word of knowledge) instantaneously give Paul the certainty that Ananias was lying? It is certainly a possibility, and one that even the most extreme cessationists would have to countenance. (Cessationists are people who believe that the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 ceased after New Testament had all been written.)