Saturday, July 06, 2013

3 classes of Church Discipline

Yesterday I posted one blogger's comment about a "youth minister" who was caught having ongoing sexual relations with a teenage girl in his church. He wrote, "If he does not respond accordingly [repentance], he needs to be dealt with according to Matthew 18:15-17. But if he repents, we need to forgive. That is how we deal with these things."

Most American Baptists have lived through an entire generation or two (or maybe three) in which no discipline has been practiced in their churches. Sin is preached against generically and at times specifically, but no action is taken even when "it is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife." People have abortions, extra-marital affairs, live together out of wedlock, steal, get drunk and such-like -- and these things are not done in a corner -- all the while remaining members in good standing at their local Baptist Church. Brethren, these things ought not so to be!

Early in my ministry I read Church Discipline by L. S. Walker. In his booklet Walker categorized what he called "3 classes of church discipline": 1. Private offenses, 2. Public offenses, and 3. Heretical (or Doctrinal) offenses. Walker was correct and I have found no reason in the subsequent 30-something years to change, other than I have tweaked the wording of his third category. Resolution of each of these offenses are approached in a different manner by Christian and the church.

Matthew 18:15-17 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
1. Private offenses. A private offense is, as the name implies, an offense that occurs between two parties and generally will be known only unto them unless one of the parties tells others of the offense. A falling out between siblings is an example of this kind of offense. This is the type of offense whose resolution is formulated in Matthew 18:15-17. It is formulated in three steps, the following steps being unnecessary is the preceding step brings about the resolution. (1) Resolve the issue privately, no one else need be involved; (2) Take witnesses who might the negotiate between the parties toward a resolution; (3) Tell the church and let the church judge and resolve the issue. Any attempt to apply this to something such as a child sexual abuse case that the church already know about becomes ludicrous.

1 Corinthians 5:2b-5 ...that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present , concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
2. Public offenses. This is a sin that is publicly known or affects "the public" -- people other than just the parties involved. These include sexual sins such as fornication and adultery, violent sins such as murder and rape, and property sins such as theft. An example of the resolution of this type of offense is found in I Corinthians 5:1-13. In this situation in Corinth a church member was fornicating with his father's wife -- a sin so vilely reputed that the promiscuous Gentiles wouldn't even sanction it! The church already should have acted, and are urged by Paul to take immediate action. No one goes to the member privately. The unrepentant public offender is immediately put out of the church. This is initiated by the church and not privately by an individual. The steps of Matthew 18 do not apply. In matters of public offense which are also criminal, the church acts in her realm in regard to her member, and also allows the "ministers of God" (authority, government) to act in their realm of criminal punishment.

Titus 3:10 A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject;
3. Church fellowship offenses. This is an offense in which a church member causes division in the faith and practice of the church. Perhaps he or she adopts beliefs contrary to the faith of the church; for example, to reject the virgin birth of Jesus Christ or his blood atonement for sins are plain violations of the scriptures and bring one under the censure of the church. A divisive spirit that will not be corrected also falls under this type of offense. The individual might be divisive about matters on which the church would otherwise give broad leeway, such as eschatology. He or she might hold the doctrines "to the letter" but not uphold the law of love, trying rather to drive wedges between the believers in the church -- a church splitter. Titus 3:10 is the standard for such discipline. The church teaches and admonishes the member to return to the faith and practice of the church. The unrepentant offender, after being admonished twice, is rejected by the church from their fellowship. Because the offense is known to the church, this is not a private offense and the steps of Matthew 18 do not apply.

It is not uncommon to hear believers plead for the application of Matthew 18:15-17 to be inserted in all matters of church discipline. Such a plea is beyond the pale of scriptural truth and is a misunderstanding of biblical ecclesiology.

I don't have my copy on hand at the moment to compare, but the booklet by Walker or a digest of it can be found HERE.

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