Church Discipline: How to Help a Person Get Right with God

Church Discipline How to Help a Person Get Right with God

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What do you do when a Christian does not want to restore his relationship with God and others? Fortunately, the Bible does not leave us in the dark about this vital subject. Some people call it church discipline. Others call it church restoration. Both of these terms are helpful. Walking away from God and living your life on ungodly terms is a precarious way to live. It happens every time I sin—each time I miss the mark.

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Act of One Another-ing

The “mark” is holiness, and when a person willfully chooses to walk away from the pursuit of holiness, he is missing that mark; he is sinning. Another way of describing the act of sinning is to say, “Without God,” because to sin is to be without God, a precarious place for any individual.

The struggle that happens to us is the battle for control. You either submit to God and walk with Him (James 4:7), or you obey ungodly desires and whims, which is a choice to be without God. There are scores of imperatives in the Word of God to help us “One Another” each other back to God. We are our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) in that sense because every Christian has a personal responsibility to help each other walk with the Lord.

No Christian should idly spectate when sin is entangling itself around the life of a brother or sister in Christ. – Rick Thomas

A helpful verse that points in the right direction for helping an erring brother is in Matthew’s Gospel. The Savior gives us a template to serve any situation where a Christian is walking “without God” (Matthew 18:15-17).

Discipline and Restoration

Some people call this template a “church discipline policy,” while others call it a church restoration policy. Both terms are accurate. It depends on how the erring brother responds to the help offered. If he does not repent, there will be discipline from the church. If he does change, it will be restorative care from the church. It is up to him to respond to the corrective care from his brothers and sisters in Christ.

I prefer both terms, though my prayer is always that it will be more restorative than disciplinary. While it is the erring brother’s responsibility to respond to the loving, corrective care from his brothers and sisters in Christ, it is the Christian’s job to provide this kind of discipleship. Often, we let our brothers continue in their sin, which can have a ripple effect of negative consequences on him, his family, the church, as well as defaming God’s name.

I am not suggesting a hair-trigger approach to correcting people. I did say, “Loving.” Corrective care is loving care, which implies all the Scriptural imperatives for adequately loving a brother back to Christ. One of the most potent prescriptions for this is what Paul told his friends in Galatia.

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 (Galatians 6:1).

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Gentle Mending

This concept is why I like the word “restoration.” Paul said we are to restore an erring brother in a spirit of gentleness. You provide restoration with compassion and tears, not with frustration and impatience. Paul said the restorers should keep watch over their souls, or they too will be tempted to sin, in addition to the sinning of the folks they are trying to help.

Compounding the erring person’s sin with our sin is a complicated mess: you begin by dealing with one sin but end up dealing with two. I think most of us get the “spirit of gentleness” part–or we should get it. But the restore part could use a little more exegetical work. I like this word a lot because it is at the heart of discipleship. There are at least two other places where you find this word in the New Testament.

And going on a little farther, he saw James, the son of Zebedee and John, his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets (Mark 1:19).

By faith, we understand that the universe was created by the word of God so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible (Hebrews 11:3).

In the texts above, we see the same word restore used as mending and created, which is how you help someone get right with God. James and John were sitting on the bank, mending their nets. Their nets were broken, frayed, and rendered unusable. They knew they needed to restore them. Paul would say you do this mending in a spirit of gentleness. I’m sure they were precisely doing what any fisherman would do to restore their nets. Paul wants to make sure we know what to do to mend broken lives.

Chaos to Order

The Hebrew writer uses the same Greek word, but instead of calling it restore or mending, he uses the word create. He is talking about how God spoke the world into existence. The world was in chaos. God spoke, and the world was in order (Genesis 1:1-31). Similarly, a man living in unrepentant sin has a chaotic soul. His heart is out-of-line with the gospel’s ability to transform. This condition is the way we all were before God first spoke into our lives through the act of regeneration.

We were a chaotic mess. God restored us in a spirit of gentleness. Hallelujah. The Spirit of God came to us and began to reorder our lives. He brought us from “chaos to order” so we could magnify the name of God in all we do. The unrepentant Christian individual needs to get right with God. We who are spiritual–meaning those who have the Spirit, any Christian–are to come alongside a person and restore, mend, and create (order) their lives according to the Word of God.

From chaos to order

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 (Matthew 18:15-17).

Go, and Tell Him

If you take all of the “one another passages,” plus this section in Matthew, it becomes clear how we can help an erring brother. Mercifully, the Savior left us with this excellent template to follow. One of the things missing from this template is the steps that should be in place in a Christian’s life before he gets to this point. If the church discipline or church restoration policy is working in a person’s life, he will be doing the necessary things to walk in holiness long before it ever gets to the place where Matthew’s words come into play.

What Matthew is calling us to do is to go and tell a brother his sin. Because he is not doing what he is supposed to be doing, he gets to this need for church restoration. What I mean is, if he is actively praying, applying the Word of God, and living in a transparent community of sin-confessing Christians, he probably will not get to the place where Matthew 18:15 begins. This condition is a sad place to be, but it is necessary, and I have often had this done to me. My wife has regularly talked to me about my sin.

It is not uncommon for her to come to me and gently call me out regarding my sin—what mercy from the Lord Almighty to have a person love me enough to call me out so I can experience restoration with God and others. I’ve had friends in my various small groups do the same thing. This kind of communication is how things ought to be. Imagine a person who repeatedly cut himself with a knife and refused to do anything about it. It does happen. Imagine no one helping him.

This “physical illustration” is similar to sinning in the spiritual world, which is why you don’t want to sin without caring, biblical friends. You want people around you who love you enough to tell you your fault. The hope is that you will experience God’s restoration, which is amazing grace.

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If He Does Not Listen

A visitor emailed our site about how to respond to a leader in a miserable marriage. I’m going to call the leader Biff and his wife, Mable. I’m sharing this with you because it is an essential discussion, as affirmed by James.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).

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At this point, Biff and Mable are unwilling to listen to the folks who have tried to care for them, which is where Matthew 18:15 applies; they are not interested in repenting. If the couple were, there would be a noticeable change in Biff and Mable’s attitude, speech, and behavior, and they would allow you into their lives. Until this happens, you are limited in how you can help them. I responded to their question below, which I hope will serve you as you help your struggling friends.

And because of their defiance, they are “defining the relationship” with you, others, and their church. Sadly, the inevitable consequences are on them because of “their choice” not to change. But you must respond to them. Their situation is no different from how you interact with others who are walking “without God.” You can only interrelate with people according to how they live, e.g., if they are mean, you respond biblically. If they are kind, you react biblically. If they are humble; if they are angry; if they are transparent; if they are stubborn; if they are unrepentant, etc. You get the idea. You can only work with what they give you.

Biff and Mable are not interested in changing at this time. You cannot respond to them as though they are humble and pursuing change. Thus, you have to respond to their “current” stubborn and unrepentant attitudinal and behavioral conditions. The first call to action is that Biff is not qualified to be a leader, and he needs to step down, step aside, and take time off from leading the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7). His priority is to bring his marriage back in line with the gospel.

The Restoration Process

Step 1 – Biff and Mable have had the opportunity to make personal changes.

Step 2 – Biff has appealed and confronted Mable to change. Mable has appealed and confronted Biff to change.

Step 3 – You and others have confronted them about changing.

Step 4 – It’s time for the next steps. As you can see, the circle is getting larger. You’re at the point of bringing the church leadership into their problems, which could lead to church discipline. Allowing them to continue their personal and marital sin is not loving them, and it is not suitable for the church. According to your email, their sin is in the open, and it brings into question things that people should not question:

  • Does the church know?
  • Does the church care?
  • Is it okay to sin?
  • Why are they not changing?
  • Isn’t he a church leader?
  • Why isn’t grace sufficient for this?
  • They are living hypocritically. Is this what the church is about regarding its leaders?
  • Where is God in this?

All of these questions have to be decisively answered by the church leadership. Cancer seeps into the congregation, and the sheep will be hurt and confused by what is happening. And Biff and Mable’s lives “without God” will affirm and convince the world that religion is bogus.

Sadly, none of this needs to happen if Biff and Mable choose to change the course they are on currently. They are “defining the relationship,” which is why you must respond to how they are living. It has gone on long enough. It’s not like you have not loved Biff and Mable well, not provided care for them, and not appealed to them to change.

Their marriage is a sad situation but worse than you might imagine because it is closer than any of us realize. Sin is real; we all do it. And we can choose how we want to get right with God. I trust this article will help stem the tide in our battle against the encroachments of sin.

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