A Long Journey in Church Discipline
June 1, 2011, marked my 25th year of serving as pastor of Grace Baptist Church. While there are challenges that go with a long pastoral tenure the blessings that attend it far surpass them--things like baptizing and marrying the children of people you baptized and married twenty years ago. A long ministry in one place also allows you the opportunity to see God work in ways that you would otherwise miss if you hadn't stuck around.
Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up. If you show up long enough you get to see some special things. One of the greatest blessings of my pastoral ministry at Grace unfolded over the course of six months in 2009 and culminated on Sunday night, June 28, 2009. A man that we had been forced to remove from our membership due to unrepentant, public, scandalous sin was restored to our fellowship after living for more than fifteen years in the far country. He has given me permission to tell part of what happened. It is a great story of God's great grace.
Steve came to faith in Christ and was baptized during the second or third year of my ministry in Cape Coral. He had been caught up in long-time patterns of life-dominating sin that had taken their toll on his personal life and his family. When I first met him his wife had taken their children and fled to Texas to get away from him. After Steve became a covenanted member of Grace I had the opportunity to fly to Texas to meet with his wife and persuade her to return home. When she agreed, several men from our church took up a collection for plane tickets for her and the children to come home.
Within a few months, she also professed faith in Christ and their home began to be rebuilt by the gospel. After 4 years, Steve began secretly to flirt with some of the sins that had previously dominated his life. His activities were providentially brought to light when he was arrested one night. That event began a two-year effort to help him put sin to death and learn to live by gospel grace. He was removed from all ministry responsibilities, formally admonished and the church was called on to engage in the effort of encouraging him to live faithfully.
These efforts, though apparently promising for the first year, ultimately proved fruitless and ended when Steve became belligerent and completely rejected the counsel he was being given. As we moved forward with the final step of church discipline, he moved his family to Texas.
On September 25, 1995, with many tears, the church voted to remove him from membership. On that occasion I said to the church,
In one sense Steve has already removed himself from us. Our action tonight is simply a sad confirmation of that. In another sense, we are called on by the Word of God to "deliver such a one over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:5).
As you would imagine there was no joy in taking that unanimous decision. After we voted, I made the following statements to the church:
- 1. This is the most serious step the church of Jesus Christ can take on this earth. It ought to humble us and make us very sober. It is not something that we have come to lightly. There have been countless tears and sleepless nights by many of those involved who have tried to help Steve.
- 2. Do not stop praying for the __________ family. They have left our area, but God knows exactly where they are. … Pray that God will bring Steve to the end of himself, that he will repent of his sin and will be restored to fellowship.
- 3. Take this as a reminder that Satan is constantly on the prowl seeking whom he may devour. Do not trifle with sin. What may seem to be a harmless, secret tryst with sin today can destroy you tomorrow. Do not give Satan a foothold in your life.
- 4. Pray for your church. That God would protect us and keep us faithful as we seek to follow Jesus Christ in obedience to His Word.
Over the next several months and into the ensuing years, I had indirect contact with Steve through one of his relatives. For most of the next fourteen years, however, he lived out of contact even with them. All that changed on Sunday afternoon, January 11, 2009. Waiting in my in-box after church was the following email, sent through our church's website:
May I first start off by apologizing for turning my back on Jesus Christ, Grace Baptist Church and all the people who helped me in my faith and walk with GOD. I don't know where to start but you are one person I know I can trust for direction. I've spent the last 12 or so years going through divorce's addictions, etc. due to my own doing and [I am] very empty inside (soul sick). I have been attending several different Baptist churches ... but just can't seem to fit in or understand how Christ can allow me to return for what I've done, or if my faith was ever real. I have a lot more to say, but want to make sure it is you that will get my e-mail. I just want to find my way back into Christ's love and His grace.
Pray for me and thank you for your time,
When I received Steve's email I was overwhelmed with a sense of God's power and grace which certainly appeared to be working to rescue a man who had been living in the far country for over a decade. I wish I could say that I had lived in expectation that one day I would get a phone call or email like that. But too often, to my shame, it is easier to believe in depravity than it is in grace.
I immediately sent the following email response to Steve and began an exchange that included phone calls along with at least a couple of dozen emails back and forth.
I am very encouraged to get your email today. I have often prayed for you. Each time I see your old house I ask the Lord to rescue you and your family. …I have fond memories of some of our times together here.
Steve, this morning I preached on some of the strategies of the devil that the Bible warns us to guard against. One of the things Satan does is misrepresent God to our minds so that we do not believe the truth about God. God is a true Father--the perfect Father--to all of His children who trust in the Lord Jesus. As such, He is full of mercy and compassion. He delights in mercy and He has mercy enough for you.
Jesus said "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:11-13). If you know that you are sick (which you do) and you know that you are a sinner, then you can be sure that you are exactly the kind of person that Jesus came to rescue.
No doubt there are some confusing thoughts about your experience over the last 12 years. Was your faith ever real? Have you, as a real believer, been running away from God? What is the state of your soul? These and probably dozens of other questions can plague your mind and, if you are not careful, can paralyze you from doing what you should. And what should you do? You should take God at His Word. Trust Him. Believe what He says in the Bible and heed His calls. Your sin is great. His grace is greater.
Think about this gracious invitation that Jesus makes in Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
Read Luke 15:11-31. It is your story. Believe what it says about God.
I want to hear the rest of what you have to say. This email address comes directly to me. I have friends and know of a couple of good churches in the Baltimore area. I will be glad to put you in touch with them and to help you in any way that I can.
Psalm 130 is one of my favorites. May the Lord enable you to pray it from your soul:
"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities."
- Psalm 130.
Over the next few months we worked through issues related to his repentance. He also was able to make contact and become involved with a great church with faithful elders who took him in and helped personally shepherd him through the process. Since he lives in a different part of the country, having the cooperation of a church that understands biblical church discipline to assist and nurture him was a great blessing from God.
As Steve prepared his testimony, expressing his repentance and seeking the forgiveness of his church family, we made arrangements to bring him to Cape Coral for a scheduled Lord's Supper service. Only a handful of the current members of Grace know Steve from fourteen years ago. But it was evident from the very outset that he was indeed among family.
As he spoke through tears, we listened through tears. We experienced a heightened degree of what every Christian must learn to experience regularly in order to maintain emotional health and spiritual stability--sorrow and joy at the same time (2 Corinthians 6:10). It was a God-honoring testimony. Sin was not minimized. Neither was it glorified. The grace of Jesus Christ for sinners was the dominant theme.
Next, I spoke briefly before we ate and drank at the Lord's Table. My remarks included reading this letter:
The elders and members of Grace Baptist Church love and forgive you. Many of us wept with grief 14 years ago when we were forced to take that most sobering step that a church can ever take and, in the words of the Apostle Paul, delivered you to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that your spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:5). Today we weep tears of joy that God has indeed preserved you, that the wandering sheep has returned to our Lord and Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
We reaffirm our love for you and express our thanksgiving that the Lord has rescued you and brought you back from the far country. The same grace that pursued and restored you has rescued and sustained us. All of us in the household of faith are children of grace. All of us are dependent on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our lives. None of us has any reason to think himself better than others because each of us must say, I am what I am by the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10).
So, brother, as we rejoice in your repentance may you rejoice in our forgiveness. Live for the One who has saved us and is preparing us for heaven. Seek His glory and let the story of your life be the story of His amazing grace.
In behalf of Grace Baptist Church,
Lessons Learned Through This Process
When I came to serve Grace Baptist Church twenty-five years ago it was like many contemporary evangelical churches in that it was completely unfamiliar with biblical church discipline. There were many serious problems in the church, some of which called for corrective discipline, but the church was in no shape to administer it. I could have tried to "take the bull by the horns" and forced the issue, but even if I had been successful, the result would not have been church discipline but only pastor discipline--something that does not have the authority of the New Testament behind it.
Teaching on church order and what constitutes a healthy church was one of the top priorities of my early years at Grace. By the time we were called on to address the situation with Steve, the church was biblically-equipped and had already come to understand the wisdom of God and the blessings of both formative and corrective discipline.
God has put His great grace and mercies on display for us and others through this whole process. The reason that I asked Steve if I could share his story is because I believe it can encourage lots of other people as much as it has the family of Grace. I know that there are pastors and others who are in churches that have neglected the practice of biblical church discipline. They want to see their congregations led to recover this teaching and begin to obey our Savior's instructions. It can happen, and the benefits are worth the efforts.
Steve's story serves as a warning to every Christian. The sin that remains in us is not of a lower-grade quality from the sin that formerly reigned in us. It is deadly and if left unmortified, will take a person to hell. "For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:13; cf. Matthew 5:27-30). If this seems inconsistent with perseverance of the saints then I suggest that you get John Owen's Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers and read it before next week. If you can't do that then read chapter 27 of John Piper's Future Grace before tomorrow night.
Steve's story also can give incredible hope for both those who have loved ones who have turned away from the gospel they once professed to believe and those who are themselves prodigals. Sometimes we are tempted to give up on people who have walked away from Christ. Steve is a reminder of the truth I like to rehearse often with our church: "As long as there is breath, there is hope." Had you taken a snap shot of Steve's life at nearly any point over a fifteen-year period it would have looked hopeless. Yet, all things are possible with God and He is able to rescue anyone by His sovereign grace and power. Therefore, we must keep praying and persuading, confident that nothing is too difficult for our God.
Sin brings devastating consequences. The sorrows that Steve has lived through and the pain that he has inflicted on people he loves as a result of his choices have left scars that will not be healed completely until heaven. There is no need to go into detail in order for this lesson to be recognized. Scripture has many illustrations of this (David and Samson, to name just two) and most of us know of modern examples that underscore this point. God has shown great mercy to Steve but those mercies have been very severe. Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and no discipline is joyful at the present, but grievous (Hebrews 12:5-11).
The practice of church discipline is designed by Christ for the honor of His Name, the welfare of His people and the advance of His kingdom. We have seen these purposes fulfilled to some degree in this process with Steve. One dear brother in the church was converted as a direct result of Steve being removed from the church fourteen years ago. Several members have already expressed to me that Steve's testimony has humbled them and led them to take more specific steps to put sin to death in their lives and to make no provision for the flesh.
There is no easy way to lead a church to understand, embrace and practice church discipline. It is hard work and pastors must not allow themselves to become paralyzed by the myth that "there's got to be an easier way." There isn't. If we are going to be faithful shepherds then we must roll up our sleeves, dig in our heels and do the hard work of lovingly, prayerfully and persistently leading our churches to obey Christ at this point. It is not easy, but it is worth it because God will be glorified, the church will be strengthened in holiness and mission and individual believers will be helped. Fortunately, there are many resources readily available today that can assist in recovering biblical church discipline in a local church. I will list a few at the end of this post.
Many of the good things in ministry occur over long periods of time. Though God may well lead a pastor not to spend the better part of his life in one church, there are wonderful blessings that come from doing so.
If you have been at your God-assigned task for a long time, be encouraged. There are still blessings ahead that the Lord will show you that you would not be able to see if you had not stayed the course for the long haul.
Resources on Church Discipline
Jay E. Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline: A Right and Privilege of Every Church Member (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974).
Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God's Love: Reintroducing the Doctrine of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
James Leo Garrett, Jr., "Church Discipline: Lost, But Recoverable"
A revision of an article Dr. Garrett first published in 1959
A Summary of Church Discipline from the Charleston Association
Instructions for Baptist churches in the South from 1774
James P. Boyce, "Church Discipline--It's Importance"
Published by the founder of Southern Seminary in 1852
Mark Dever, Editor, "Polity: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents"
An excellent resource from ancient Baptist wisdom on discipline and related issues
Wyman Richardson, Walking Together Ministries
A website with a wealth of resources, including workbooks, on church discipline and heath
From the Founders Blog:
"Robert Murray M'Cheyne on Church Discipline"
"A Plea for Church Discipline"
"Bill Clinton and the Discipline of our Churches"