Let me tell you why church discipline is important to me.
A number of years ago my minister father left my mother after an adulterous affair with his secretary. I’m telling this story with his permission. My father is now 90 years old.
This turn of events jarred us. We’ve not seen divorce often in our extended family. All of us are believers, and most of us are in the ministry, for four generations. While my father was working as a denominational executive, he began to counsel his secretary about her marriage. She found in him what she could not find in her husband. Soon, compromises entered in and adultery followed. My father did what he had often told us never to do—counsel someone of the opposite sex in a closed room. What seemed impossible to him and to us actually happened. And it happened within months of his retirement.
The four children gathered, from long distances, at my parent’s home to beg for dad’s repentance. He appeared to repent at that time, but soon backed away from it. Like Lot’s wife, his heart was gone, even though, by his own admission, there was nothing on my mother’s part to cause his sin. He did not turn around. Rather, he divorced my mother, married his secretary, and moved to another city. His retirement years, which at one time were going to be filled with ministerial activity and travel, were now an impossible dream.
Then came my mother’s death, just two years later. She died of Alzheimer’s disease, the effects of which were not noticeable until after the divorce. She had remained godly, fervent in her prayers for her former husband, and amazingly forgiving. But, to put it mildly, she was devastated, never before imagining that this could possibly happen to her.
Before she died, father truly repented. With tears of anguish over his actions, he asked the family’s forgiveness. He even came to the bedside of my mother to speak with her prior to her death. But the damage was done. He had lost his job, his reputation, his confidence, his family’s respect, his future ministry, his joy, and even the assurance of his own salvation. He had been a fool.
We are now twenty-two years beyond that awful period of time. Thankfully, Dad has been restored to Christian vitality, though with scars. His repentance was real and lasting. He has attempted to help others avoid the sinful actions of his past. Recently, as an old man, he stood before the Baptist pastors of one of our states and said that “he was a testimony of failure in the ministry.” But he also spoke of God’s remarkable grace. He spoke on this subject as well at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, where he had been a student.
Just this last year the four children took my father on the trip of his life. We traveled to ten small towns to visit all the memorable places of his childhood. We went to the place of his conversion, his call to preach, and his first church. This was a trip that none of us will ever forget. We laughed and cried, took pictures, and told stories all the way.
One day we drove down the dirt road to the quiet, secluded cemetery where my mother was buried, several miles outside of that familiar southern town where she grew up. This was the first time my father had seen the grave. He had refused to be disruptive by going to her funeral twenty-two years earlier. As we approached the grave, his body convulsed with tears as he clung to us. “How could I have done what I did to such a sweet person?” he cried. It was an agonizing, but cathartic moment for us all.
Why have I told this personal story? At the time of the affair, our family had attempted to convince the pastor of his church, one of the most prominent churches in the large city where my parents lived, to practice church discipline on my father. We had hoped that, at that vulnerable period, he would listen and repent if the church lovingly exercised this restorative biblical practice. They refused. I’m sure it was because they were not accustomed to such action and also because of the stature of my father in the church and community.
When we were in the car after that experience at the cemetery, I asked my father this question: “Dad, we tried to get your church to discipline you when you committed adultery. They would not do it. Do you think it would have stopped you from leaving mother if they had?”
Dad, who always takes the blame for his sin himself and would not let anyone else share in it, nonetheless, very humbly admitted, “I think it would have.”
Now, let me ask you, was the church where my parents attended loving my father by refusing to discipline him? Were they being gracious and kind? Were they doing what was best for him?
More that that, was the church loving God when they did not discipline my father? Were they following the Head of the church, Jesus Christ? Were they helping other families? Were they helping the believers throughout the city? Were they instructing younger children and youth in their church in the way of holiness and the sanctity of marriage?
What is the truth here? The truth is, church discipline is the most benevolent action that can ever be taken toward an erring church member, and when it is not done, it is flagrant disobedience toward God.
Restoring Those Who Fall
Let me be practical about an important matter. You need to have a comprehensive discipline statement for your church. We have a church discipline statement that may be adopted, or adapted for your use. It is called Restoring Those Who Fall, and it is the church discipline statement that I helped to write along with one of the pastors of the church I serve. The two of us were the first pastors of the church.
I have been involved in writing several statements like this in the past, but this is the clearest and most usable presentation of this doctrine I have had the privilege to work on. Dr. Jay Adams put the first writing of this statement in his Journal of Modern Ministry making it even more accessible to leaders. FIEL Ministries of Brazil distributed 22,000 copies of this statement to pastors and leaders in a small booklet for Portuguese-speaking people also. If you cannot find a better statement, or cannot write your own, you may consider accepting this as your discipline plan.
Let me suggest that you obtain copies of this booklet and make them available for your leaders. Or, you may download the statement in electronic form found on this site. Take them carefully through each line, looking up Scriptures and talking through the implications and strategy your church will take when sin enters the fellowship. Then you might consider taking the men as a whole through a period of study on church discipline, using the statement. Finally, it could be presented to all of the members. Then, according to the way your church makes decisions, the statement could be adopted as your church discipline policy.
We have found it helpful to have all incoming members read the discipline statement. We even include these words in our church membership agreement (church covenant):
“I will submit to the church’s discipline upon myself and lovingly assume my responsibility to participate in the discipline of other members, as taught in Scripture.”
You can understand my burden for restoring this practice. If you love people and love God, you will do it. If you neglect church discipline you will be disobeying the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, who commanded that you do it.
Restoring Those Who Fall, a church discipline statement, may be found here.