church discipline

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Sins Leading to Death

Monday, November 27th, 2006

A few days ago I received a letter from a friend of mine who oversees a congregation that is heavily involved in mission work. Unfortunately, the letter reported bad news. An important work in a foreign country was suffering at the hands of a modern-day Diotrephes, who has seized important assets and has single-handedly managed to arrest a crucial work in an area that badly needs the gospel. Don’t get the wrong idea. My friend took no joy in spreading this bad news; this wasn’t idle gossip. It was news he reluctantly and regretfully had to report. My eyes grazed his words until they fell on the last line. “Pray for him,” it said.

I know what he meant. He wasn’t taking this personal. He loved the other man’s soul, despite the fact that he had become a persecutor of the church. He was prepared to forgive him, should the wayward brother ever return. I understood the sentiments, but I’m not sure they were properly expressed.

John writes about how we should pray for our brethren, saying,

If anyone sees his brother commiting a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life–to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death (1 Jn. 5:17-18, emphasis added).

John sets two types of Christians side-by-side in these instructions. All Christians fit into one of these two categories. For one class, we are to pray; for the other, we are not to pray. We may pray for those who commit sins “that do not lead to death.” We are prohibited from praying for those who commit “the sin that leads to death.”

John has already told us who fits into the first category. These are Christians who sin, then confess their sin to God and repent (1 Jn. 1:8-10). These are promised cleansing and forgiveness. Therefore, they have committed sin, but it does not “lead to death,” since they have taken advantage of God’s second law of pardon and have found salvation.

The implication is that those who refuse to confess sin have committed the sin that “leads to death.” We suppose that John tells us not to pray for these because such is futile. God won’t forgive them until they acknowledge they are in the wrong and turn from their evil attitudes and behaviors.

An understanding of this principle is important if we are to deal properly with brethren who have been “overtaken in a fault” (Gal. 6:1-2). More than prayer is needed. (I am sure that the elder I mentioned knows this and that he has done everything possible.) In fact, prayer is impossible until we have taken other, more interactive measures to bring the wayward brother or sister back. These measures are spelled out in the Lord’s formula for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17 and in other places (1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1-2; 2 Thes. 3; Titus 3:10). As I have stated in other places, this entails much more than withdrawing fellowship from the alleged offenders. Rather, the motive should be love and the strategy, intervention. Only then will we be able to reach those who, for whatever reason, have turned their back on God.

I’m reminded of an episode where God admonished Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward” (Ex. 14:15). I wonder how many times He has thought the same thing concerning the leadership of the church today. There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for other measures. May we be able to discern one from the other.

Coming Home Day

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

What should churches do with their delinquent members? This question plagues every church leader who holds a genuine concern for the members of his flock. There is no question that wayward brethren are in a perilous condition. “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome,” Peter says, “the last state has become worse for them than the first” (2 Pet. 2:20).

Some churches choose to ignore this problem. They soothe their consciences by telling themselves that members disappear by their own choice, and there is nothing that can be done to bring them back.

Others take a casual approach, keeping track of who is missing and giving these members a call when they have been away for more than a week or two. This approach is usually effective in getting weaker brethren back into service. But it also creates a dangerous dependency, where some are coming to church on Sundays just to avoid an uncomfortable phone conversation with Brother Jones.

A great number of churches use the disciplinary action prescribed in the New Testament for Christians that have slipped into a sinful lifestyle (cf. Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thes. 3:6-15). There is a debate over whether poor attendance should qualify as a sin deserving of discipline. I believe it does, but I also agree that the last resort in Christ’s formula for church discipline–withdrawing fellowship–has little effect on a member who has already withdrawn himself from his brothers and sisters in Christ. Churches that succeed in using this method usually do so on the grounds of the initial stages of the plan.

Several months ago I heard about a new strategy for bringing unfaithful Christians back to the Lord through my friend Todd Clippard, who preaches for the Burleson Church of Christ. He called it Coming Home Day. The occasion is not to be confused with Homecoming Day, which is a day on which friends and family are invited to leave their home congregations to visit for a short period and then return to their respective places. Coming Home Day invites wayward brethren to come home where they belong, and stay.

We took Todd’s idea and implemented it at Ashville Road, with a few alterations to suit our situation. The effort began with the printing of “Come Home Cards.” These were published in our bulletin, and extra copies were made available in the foyer. Our members were asked to use them to report names, addresses, and phone numbers of members of the church in our area who were not attending church anywhere. Of course, we already had a record of those who had placed membership at Ashville Road, but we were hoping to glean more names through the network of our membership. The cards were a success: we received about a dozen names in addition to the number we already had on hand.

The next step was to plan a visitation meeting in which we would assign visits using the names from our “Come Home Cards” and the church’s records. The meeting was scheduled on a Sunday night, about thirty minutes before the evening services began. At the meeting I walked our volunteers through the process of making these visits. Invitations should be cordial and friendly. The one making the visit should explain the purpose of Coming Home Day, that it was an effort to bring members of the church home. At the same time, the conversation should be kept brief, and the words should be spoken in love.

Leading up to the special day, I preached two sermons on the subject of unfaithful Christians and a church’s responsibility towards them. These were intended to motivate our church to pray, write cards, make phone calls, and visit the brothers and sisters who were the focus of these efforts.

On November 12, the date that had been set for Coming Home Day, I preached a lesson entitled, “The Man Who Came Back.” It was about John Mark and traced his journey away from the Lord’s work and back again. I was pleased to see quite a few of our members who had not been to services in a long time. During the invitation song, two actually came forward and confessed sin. These were welcomed back with open arms. Some of the others, I believe, will also be restored in the coming weeks.

The whole process of getting names, making the visits and calls, and hosting the event took five weeks. It was well worth the effort. Basically, Coming Home Day is an exercise that follows the first two steps of Jesus’ formula for church discipline (Mt. 18:15-17). In my judgment, it is a good way to reach out to these lost brethren without using the emotionally-charged language that often accompanies a church’s attempts to bring their straying sheep back into the fold.