How and when and why do you “tell it to the church”?
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17, NKJV).
We learned about it as one year was changing to a new one several years ago: two prominent, active couples, the man in one and the woman in the second, had become infatuated with each other and were moving toward dissolving their marriage for each other. I knew them both well. I’d done premarital counseling and performed the ceremonies. The elders and I had breakfast the following morning after I was informed and discussed the situation. Both extended families were concerned and cooperated in trying to bring resolution, although the parents of one involved weren’t members of the church.
After several contacts and visits over two or three weeks, we saw no sign of repentance. In this church, we met with a counselor twice a month to discuss whatever was current in our work. On this Monday morning, one of the elders told of our concern and intent. He related that our visits with the two hadn’t resulted in a change in attitude and said we would announce to the church the following Sunday that if there was no repentance in two weeks, the elders would ask the church to withdraw fellowship.
Our counselor replied, “You can do that and probably run off several families and upset the whole congregation.” We asked what else we could do. Didn’t the Bible teach withdrawal of fellowship for people involved in this?
His observation: about a third of the congregation is already upset because they know what’s going on and wonder why you haven’t already done something; about a third of the congregation knows about it and thinks it’s too soon for such drastic action; about a third of the congregation doesn’t even know anything about it. The elders followed his suggestions.
1. The following Sunday, one of the elders read a statement with no names mentioned.
“Thank you for your care and concern for others. It is my feeling this is Biblical, and very much Christ-like.
“Two of our young families are in tremendous pain and difficulty at the present time. This is so disappointing and I feel so tragic, especially with the potential for the Lord’s work these families have had.
“Since late December your elders and brother Jerrie have been aware of the circumstances and have worked daily on these problems, both in personal contacts and in prayer. The past few days have been distressing and the situation seems to be deteriorating. We desire and seek your help. Please pray sincerely that this hurt can be healed. If you become aware of anything that can be done, please contact your elders with your help.
“For the Elders.”
No names were mentioned. But people who knew about this now knew that the elders and preacher had been involved constantly. The ones who didn’t know now knew that there was a serious problem in the church.
2. After a few weeks, another announcement was made:
“On February 6 of this year, the announcement was made to you that two of our young families were suffering extreme difficulty. For the two involved, ___ _______ and _____ _____ , their condition has continued to grow increasingly worse. It is now the need and request also the pleading of your elders that you be more involved in helping _____ and __ .
If you can contact either ___ or _____ by personal visit or letter, please meet with us this evening at 6 p.m. in the all-purpose room downstairs. It is our sincere desire to bring these two back to God, if at all possible.”
The room was filled that night. We did not tell what the couple had done. The elders told what we had done and of our ineffectiveness to bring them to repentance. The elders asked everyone who knew them to contact them during the next two weeks in whatever way they thought appropriate to ask them to reconsider and return to their mates who were willing to take them back: make a visit, talk on the phone, or write a letter.
3. Two weeks later, the elders requested that all who came to the first meeting assemble again in the fellowship room thirty minutes before evening worship. They asked the group to report their recommendations by responding in writing. They had prepared a letter to the elders:
“Because of my love for ___ and _____ , I recommend the following: _______________________________ _______________________________ Signed: _______________ “
4. Without exception, the individuals in that meeting said, “There is nothing left to do but to withdraw fellowship. They admit their sin and show no signs of repentance.”
5. The elders replied, “We agree with your evaluation and we will be announcing that during the services this evening.” We had a sad service that evening announcing the process, ending in asking the members to withdraw from this brother and sister until they repent. Several family members were present in that service.
1. Although these two did not repent, we didn’t lose a person because of this action. The families were involved. Close friends and other members were involved. When I left that congregation several years later, the grandmother of one of the parties thanked me for everything I did and that the church did to try to bring her grandchild back to repentance.
2. Elders cannot withdraw from a wayward member on behalf of the congregation. They can only request that the members withdraw.
3. If the members are not involved in the process, there is the possibility that someone will say, “If I had only known, I think I could have done something to help.”
4. If a person is asked to participate and chooses not to make any effort, they have no complaint.
5. It’s my understanding that this is to be a church effort—not just the elders and/or the preacher. It’s interesting that in the books that discuss church discipline (Matthew, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Thessalonians) there’s no mention of elders. This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t be involved and lead in this good work. It’s to observe that scripture doesn’t teach you must have elders to practice church discipline in all its forms and degrees.
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
What suggestions do you have for this third step in church discipline?