Pastor, Atlanta North SDA Church
A pastor grapples with a sensitive topic and offers helpful information.
One of the most difficult jobs a pastor has is in disciplining a member of the church. Most pastors do not want to deal with all the challenges that go with discipline. For the most part, I have found that church discipline is a disagreeable but necessary part of ministry. "Paul charged Timothy to preach the word, but there was another part to be doneto reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long suffering and doctrine. This work cannot be neglected with safety. . . . Watch in all things, watch for the devices of Satan, lest you be beguiled from doing the disagreeable part of the work" (Review and Herald,Sept. 28, 1897).
Part of the calling to ministry is to deal with discipline in the church. Many members have been deceived into believing that grace means forgiveness that has no moral conditions attached. The history of ancient Israel shows that God sometimes employs radical disciplinary measures to bring His people back into relationship with Him. Over the years of my ministry, I have seen many members come back to the church stronger after being disciplined and begin contributing to the life of the church after a new commitment. In my experience, most of these that come back do so after the other pastor moves on. It offers them the opportunity to reconnect with the church and have a new start with a new pastor. I have held Bible studies with former members and have had success with them. A visit with former members helps to determine the spiritual condition of the former member, and the invitation to come back can be well received.
Why should this be a concern for a pastor? First and foremost, it is biblical counsel. Matthew 18 gives us instruction and Paul provides New Testament examples of discipline (e.g., 1 Cor 5:1-5; 2 Cor 7:8-12, 13:2-4, 10; Gal 6:1; 1 Tim 5:20; Titus 2:5, 9-13, etc.). Ellen G. White wrote that "in dealing with erring church members, Gods people are carefully to follow the instruction given by the Saviour in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew" (Testimonies for the Church, 7:260). We are told to correct members in the way outlined in the Word of God with the goal of reconciliation. We are counseled to go to the erring one calmly and quietly with Christs love and sympathy to remove the difficulty (ibid., p. 261). "He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (James 5:20).
A frequent cause for misunderstanding and problems relating to disfellowshiping delinquent members is a lack of communication. Following Matthew 18 is the start, but I have found that to follow up takes work and letters to the member. Many times they understand the process and will avoid contact. Letters allow you to keep the process going. "Ministers of the gospel sometimes do great harm by allowing their forbearance toward the erring to degenerate into toleration of sins and even participation in them. Thus they are led to excuse and palliate that which God condemns, and after a time they become so blinded as to commend the very ones whom God commands them to reprove" (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 504).
"Too many ministers neglect to deal faithfully with those with whom they come in contact. They leave plain dealing to be done by other ministers: for they do not want to run the risk of losing the friendship of those for whom they labor. If ministers would deal at the right time with those who err, they would prevent an accumulation of wrong, and save souls from death. If the work of reproving is neglected by one minister, and taken up by another, those who are reproved receive the impression that the minister who did not point out their errors was a good minister. But this is not the case; he was merely a preacher, not a worker together with God for the suppression of sin" (Review and Herald, Sept. 28, 1897).
In one church, three pastors were dropped from the ministry as a result of the churchs not taking disciplinary action towards some women in the church. The same women caused these pastors to lose their way. How many pastors have fallen due to the lack of church discipline of members? Another church experienced repeated divorce and remarriage between members. It all started when the church did not discipline two couples in the church. A pastor who had moved 18 years before received a note from a member of that church, saying, "We have not dropped a name since you last pastored this church."
Is discipline important to the life of the church? Yes! Throughout the Scriptures God appeals to His people for a commitment to godly living. "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:1, 2 RSV).
Members of Gods church are to exercise great care in dealing with one another. They are to build up, restore, and seek to heal. But there is to be no neglect in the church of proper discipline. "God holds His people, as a body, responsible for the sins existing in individuals among them. If the leaders of the church neglect to diligently search out the sins which bring the displeasure of God upon the body, they become responsible for these sins" (Testimonies for the Church, 3:269).
As a pastor, I have to regard myself as a pupil and my members as pupils in a school learning how to deal with the erring. With much prayer and seeking counsel from the Lord with each case, we can be faithful and redemptive. But on the other hand, "if the sins of the people are passed over by those in responsible positions, His frown will be upon them, and the people of God, as a body, will be held responsible for those sins. In His dealings with His people in the past the Lord shows the necessity of purifying the church from wrongs. . . . If wrongs are apparent among His people, and if the servants of God pass on indifferent to them, they virtually sustain and justify the sinner, and are alike guilty and will just as surely receive the displeasure of God; for they will be made responsible for the sins of the guilty" (ibid., pp. 265, 266).
"If one neglects the duty Christ has enjoined, of trying to restore those who are in error and sin, he becomes a partaker in the sin. For evils that we might have checked, we are just as responsible as if we were guilty of the acts ourselves" (The Desire of Ages, p. 441).
This is a call for Gods pastors to be faithful and to go about prayerfully preparing His people for the coming of the Lord. It will help to counteract the worlds disregard for sin. Even some who have taken an oath to uphold the Word of God have allowed sin to enter in the pulpit. "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheeps clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits" (Mt 7:15-20, RSV). We want to save our members from the fire. We are agents for change to help our members to understand the condition they are in.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin."
Church discipline is a solemn work that a shepherd must participate in for the sake of the whole church and for the sake of Gods kingdom. The servant of the Lord once observed that not one in twenty were ready for the coming of Jesus. Are we so sure that things are better today? If we were to do our work of discipline, it could make a difference for some between being saved and being lost. May the Lord say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant" (Mt 25:21).
Should We Drop Members?
In light of this counsel, should we ever drop anyone from the membership of the church? I believe the answer is yes, but the process is challenging. If the churchs mission is to reveal the character of God before the world, then every Christian believer is a witness to the characteristics of God. How the world views our Creator will depend, to a large degree, on our witness or exhibit of Him through our lives. It only stands to reason that the world cannot be expected to believe what the church preaches unless the world can see that the message has truly made a difference in the lives of its members.
Philippians 2:15 says, "That you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world." Jesus established His church in the community to love those caught up in strife, hatred, covetousness, and blasphemy, to demonstrate that Christ alone can harmonize the disagreeing elements into true fellowship. As Christians, we are called to be a community that values unity, cherishes a spirit of forgiveness, and manifests unconditional love. Through His church Christ is seeking to mold us into a fellowship that projects His image before the world.
Ellen White wrote, "God would have His people disciplined and brought into harmony of action, that they may see eye to eye and be of the same mind and of the same judgment. In order to bring about this state of things, there is much to be done. The carnal heart must be subdued and transformed" (Testimonies for the Church, 3:360).
Titus 3:9-11 urges, "But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned."
To follow this instruction, one church developed a yearly covenant for the believer in letter form, asking each church member to renew a specific commitment to membership each year. This gives an opportunity for follow-up with those who do not renew on their own. In some cases, problems can be identified and addressed, leading to restored fellowship. In others, the persons membership may ultimately be dropped. In either event, the church must be faithful to its calling, and it will be stronger for having done so.*
Members sometimes move away and do not transfer their membership. The home church does not know if they are faithful, inactive, or completely uninterested. One or more letters may be helpful in encouraging transfers and identifying those who are now members in name only, bringing their inactive state to resolution.*
Here is a sample letter for inactive members who may still be within the reach of the local church. It is a first step toward possible further contact. Usually it would come from the pastor on church letterhead.
*Editor's Note: See sample letters on our website.