Discipline: The member who is struggling to repent

by Jay Guin

Several passages deal with members who are wandering from the faith but haven’t yet left the faith. They are struggling in their submission to Jesus as Lord.

(2 Thes. 3:14-15) If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

Plainly, the disobedient person under consideration is still a brother in Christ. He is impenitent, but not so much so that he is lost – at least, not so far as we can tell.

The goal of the disassociation is to shame him. Now, obviously enough, this means the action must be taken while he still cares what the church thinks. He must still be part of the community – so much so that being expelled could bring him to repentance. For this to work, the thought of losing the friendship of his brothers and sisters must be unbearable.

If the man can simply move his membership to another congregation or leave the church altogether and be content, then it won’t work. The solution isn’t to insist that other congregations honor the decision (although, as a rule, they should). The solution is for the church to have such a dynamic love that members can’t bear to lose it!

(1 Cor. 5:1-5) It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud!

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus … hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? …

Here’s a more specific example of the same teaching. The problem was, again, a lack of penitence. They knew incest to be wrong. This wasn’t an honest disagreement over doctrine, such as those considered in Romans 14. Here’s an example of a man guilty of known sin making no effort to overcome his sin.

The attitude of the church is to be one of “grief,” literally, mourning. The church isn’t angry – it’s worried. A member is on the brink of falling away. Just as we are distressed for a family member fighting a fatal illness – and in agony when our loved one seems to give up – the church is desperate for this man to return to his Lord.

The goal, of course, is for the man to repent, as this is the only possible path back to Jesus. He is “handed over to Satan” in the sense that he may no longer enjoy the sweet fellowship of the Kingdom and must live as the world – getting a preview of what it will be like if he doesn’t change. It’s “tough love.”

(2 Cor. 2:6-8) The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

And as Paul urges his readers in his next letter to the church in Corinth, the church must be ready – anxious – to forgive and restore fellowship. The penitent man needs to be reassured of the church’s love. He is not to be considered a second-class Christian.

(Matt. 18:15-17) “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

I’ve posted a much more detailed exposition of this passage here. Here’s the short version.

This passage has been horribly misinterpreted – especially by some ministers. Here’s what it DOESN’T mean –

* This is not a lesson on conflict resolution. It closely parallels some very sound conflict resolution principles, but that is not why Jesus said these words. After all, the outcome of a failure is that the sinner is disfellowshipped. Moreover, this is spoken in the context of the parable of the lost sheep. It’s about restoring a Christian caught up in sin — a sin that might cause him to be lost. That’s what the parable is about.

* This is not a legal structure that allows us to avoid responsibility for our sins. I’ve had ministers very seriously argue that they don’t have to change their bad behavior because the person making the accusation didn’t follow the Matthew 18 process! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!!

Change your behavior because you’ve made Jesus your Lord and love your neighbor. If you lean on legal technicalities to avoid accountability, you’re not much of a Christian.

* “Against you” almost certainly is not part of the original text Matthew wrote. The words are absent in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus – two of the very oldest, most complete, ancient manuscripts – as well as being absent in quotations by some of the earliest Christian writings, such as the works of Origen, Basil, and Cyril.

After all, why should the victim be the person who has to deal with this problem? Remember – this is not about conflict resolution so much as rescuing a soul from potential damnation! It’s great when the victim can take this task on, but sometimes the elders or someone else is in a better position. Sometimes the victim isn’t even a member of the church! (Must a beaten wife confront her husband before the church can remove the wife beater from its fellowship? I think not.)

Ultimately, the point of the passage is simple enough. We are to confront those who commit sins that they know to be wrong. Impenitence is best dealt with early on – before the Christian is completely seduced by the sin.

Gentle, prayerful, humble confrontation comes long before disfellowshipping, but there may well come a time when the sinner must be disfellowshipped – for his own good. And this time is before the sinner leaves the church on his own. He must still enjoy being a part of the community – so much so that loss of community will shock him into repentance.

Consider 1 Tim. 4:2. A conscience can be “seared as with a hot iron” and no longer capable of being brought to repentance. Consider also Heb. 6:4-6. Don’t wait too long!

Finally, the attitude of the church is of critical importance.

(2 Tim. 4:2) Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.

The leadership is certainly to rebuke sin – but patiently and with instruction. Take the time to teach those who disagree. Give God time to work through prayer. Don’t give up too soon.

(Gal 6:1) Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.

Take the time to search for “gentle” or “gently” in the New Testament. This word is repeatedly used of the leadership of the church. When a sinner is confronted, restoration must be gentle – and humble.

We must restore humbly because it’s easy to feel morally superior when dealing with a man who has fallen into known sin. And as soon as the leadership begins feeling morally superior, it’s in serious danger.

(2 Tim. 2:25-26) Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

Paul urges gentle instruction, rather than bombastic condemnation. Imagine how the history of the Churches of Christ would have been different had our leaders actually obeyed this passage?

Repentance comes from God. We can lead the sinner back to his Savior. We can’t scream them into penitence.

“Truth” in the New Testament means the truth about Jesus, the gospel. As a result, the truth we are to return our sinning members to is the truth of the gospel – the same truth that led them to repent in the first place. Therefore, this isn’t about getting the instrumental music or elder re-affirmation question right. It’s about getting “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9) right.

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One Comment on “Discipline: The member who is struggling to repent”


  1. Mr. Guin. Thanks for your article. I referenced it on my blog site:

    http://undeniablygod.blogspot.com/

    Hope you don’t mind…God bless.


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