The Lost Practice of Church Discipline, by Bart Breen
(Note. The House to House Magazine site was removed recently, and so the article is reproduced here.)
Thanks to House 2 House Magazine for publishing an article of mine that scratches the surface of whether Church Discipline has a role or place within Organic Fellowship and relationships between other Organic Fellowships. There’s much more that can be said and it’s too short an article to be exhaustive. I hope it can lay a platform for further discussion and exploration of this issue whether people agree initially with the point raised and questions asked or not.
The Lost Practice of Church Discipline
What All Christians Need to Know
by Bart Breen
(Originally published by House to House Magazine)
Who is this person?
I remember well my days of pastoring and working in a denominational district office. Back then, I would get the occasional call from a pastor or church leader asking for a reference concerning a former church member or adherent.
In some cases, they would ask for a letter of recommendation assuring their staff that this person (or family) had been members in good standing and weren’t subject to church discipline. They especially wanted to know if the person or family in question had a reputation of trouble-making.
The practice of “letters of commendation” is thoroughly biblical. In the New Testament era, if you relocated from one church to another, a “letter of commendation” went ahead of you. That letter was to inform the church to which you were relocating if you had a “good report” or if you had a “bad report.”
Organic and Simple Churches don’t often do this.
Many organic and simple churches do not follow this practice at all, even though it’s wholly biblical and rooted in practical wisdom.
For example, let’s say that someone from church A (whether an institutional church or not) is excommunicated by the church for gross unrepentant sin. Of course, “unrepentant” means the person doesn’t acknowledge his or her sin and they don’t stop committing it. In fact, they may even justify it.
So the person is excommunicated from church A as Scripture teaches. Let’s assume that this is a thoroughly legitimate excommunication. The entire process of Matthew 18 has been followed. The person was approached in private, but they refused correction. They were then approached with 2 or 3 others in the church (perhaps on multiple occasions), and they still rebuffed the correction.
Only as a last resort, the person’s sin was made known to the church and they were asked to leave the fellowship as both Jesus and Paul both taught (see Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5; Rom. 16).
This person, having been excommunicated, relocates to attend church B. Church B is completely unaware of this person’s past sinful behavior and excommunication. So church B gladly receives this individual into their fellowship.
In some cases, the excommunicated person may bad-mouth church A, complaining of being “mistreated,” spinning the truth to suit his or her own purposes.
Church B, unfortunately, never thinks to call church A to find out what really happened and hear their side of the story.
This scenario is more common than we might want to believe.
Wounded people and Divisive people come.
Unfortunately, many people who gravitate toward simple forms of church have had negative experiences with institutional churches and sometimes other simple forms of church. Sometimes those negative experiences were because of dysfunction or high-handed hierarchical control on the part of those churches.
But others times, it’s not that at all. The reality is that the person was excommunicated due to a pattern of causing division or other unrepentant sin.
This was crucial in the early church.
In the first-century church, letters of commendation — recommending a person or warning others against them — were not just a matter of “protocol.” It was crucial and sometimes a matter of life or death. A good example of this was Saul, before he was known as Paul, who had a reputation of scourging the church of the living God.
Saul actively hunted down believers in Christ to imprison them and even stood by approving in the case of public executions (Acts 8:1-3). As we know, this same Saul later became integral within the body of Christ as a leading member, teacher, and preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles.
There was an extended time, however, where the Christian communities had to transition from justified fear and caution to unrestrained acceptance and trust.
This didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen without cautious “baby-steps” that were facilitated by already trusted men within the body who placed their reputations and lives on the line to vouch for Saul and assure others that a genuine change had truly taken place in his life.
Barnabas ended up being the key to Saul becoming Paul, enabling Paul to enter into the local churches with open arms. Barnabas was known and trusted by all within the Jerusalem church as a man who evidenced the fruit of the Spirit.
After Saul’s experience on the Damascus road and an extended time of retreat where he came to know Jesus personally, Saul returned to Jerusalem and sought to meet with the believers there, including the apostles.
Before Paul could be accepted by the church, it took Barnabas’s testimony to assure the church and the apostles that Paul was “safe” to God’s people (Acts 9:26-28). It was only because of the personal relationship that Barnabas had developed with Paul that the concerns of the Jerusalem church were overcome and Paul was able to receive an endorsement from the apostles.
Paul understood the importance of being vouched for in this regard and he practiced the same in his subsequent ministry. Paul would commend people to local fellowships who were coming from other fellowships.
In other cases, Paul would warn people against those who had a history of divisiveness. (See 2 Cor. 3:1-3; 1 Cor. 16:15-18; 2 Cor. 8:16-24; Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-10; Phil. 2:19-30; 1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10-11; 1 Thess. 3:2; Acts 15:22-27; Rom. 16:1-2; Acts 18:27 for both examples.) Philemon is a positive letter of commendation on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus.
To repeat, Paul would warn others against people who sought to do him harm by maligning him and thereby hurting the churches within his care.
Forgiveness and Restoration after Repentance.
Paul understood that there was forgiveness and restoration available to those who attacked the Lord’s servants, but only when true repentance was evidenced. Nobody knew that better than him, since Paul attacked the church and was later forgiven and received after his repentance.
Until there was a time of repentance, however, Paul knew that those who sought to make a name for themselves at the expense of others to promote their own teachings and establish their own name were a deadly threat to young fellowships and new believers.
Repentance means a change of actions. And it’s evidenced by an apology to the offended parties and a change of behavior over a sustained period of time based upon a change of mind or heart. It’s not just a show of regret, emotion or lip-service.
Names are Named.
Paul sometimes even named names and made public warnings as evidenced in cases like Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14-15). Paul also referenced a group known now as the Judaizers who would follow him into places he previously ministered, slandering him with lies and false reports, attempting to draw Gentile converts into their legalistic practices (Gal. 1:6-7).
By their very nature, organic fellowships and simple churches seek to establish deeper fellowship, interaction and trust without hierarchies and formal policies. Because of that, however, they are particularly susceptible to people who have been excommunicated by other fellowships because of a history of quarrelsomeness, contentiousness, divisiveness — and other serious sins condemned in the New Testament.
Do not discount or neglect the wisdom of the early church as demonstrated by Paul in looking for commendations from others who are known and trusted. By the same token, do not discount the warnings of others about a person if those warnings are current and from multiple credible sources.
When a local fellowship or a group of leaders has excommunicated someone for serious and ongoing unrepentant sin, the body of Christ has spoken. Therefore, for a church or individual to receive the person who has been excommunicated by a local fellowship or group of leaders on biblical grounds is received into fellowship, it’s a denial of the oneness of the body. More seriously, it’s a denial of the voice of Jesus on earth.
Excommunication is Serious.
Only when the people who were involved in the excommunication can verify true repentance can fellowship can be restored to the individual.
To ignore this principle is to invite the enemy “into the camp” and he will use it to wreak all sorts of havoc and confusion among Christians.
If we are going to take the New Testament seriously about how we are to gather, we must also take seriously the principle of the oneness of the body of Christ, and this includes the practice of letters of commendation — both of positive recommendations and of warnings.
Signs of False Warnings
Of course, warning letters are sometimes bogus and written by people who have a sinful agenda. Here are some of the marks of a false warning:
1. It’s written or headed up by one person.
2. The accusing person has never gone to the individual they are accusing privately to hear the person’s side of the story (per Matt. 18).
3. The accusing person has not brought others to go to the individual privately (per Matt. 18).
4. The accusing person has no relationship with the person they are accusing, but are deriving their accusations from second, third, and fourth hand sources and there is a discernible hidden agenda present.
Such letters of warning should be ignored out of hand. They are virtually always written by someone who is seeking to smear another person and are driven by evil motives.
Signs of Legitimate Warnings
On the other hand, if a letter of warning is signed by multiple credible witnesses and those witnesses followed the process of Matthew 18 — privately pleading with the person to repent, taking others to do the same, and then finally, taking it to the church — then such letters should be seriously heeded and taken to reflect the voice of the body.
Without evidence of an offending person’s changed heart and changed behavior, reconciliation with those who have harmed others in the past leads to “leavening the whole lump” and defiling others with sin. This is why the practice of excommunication — as gut-wrenching as it is — was practiced in the first century churches.
Restoration of the individual was the goal but not at the price of quarrels and division within the body as a whole.
Apart from the work of Christ in our midst and within the members of His body, the past is a good indicator of what might happen in the future. Only when the past has been dealt with by true repentance is it gone forever, never to be mentioned again.