by Jared C. Wellman
Church discipline. To say it’s tough would be the understatement of a thousand lifetimes. But it’s a biblical mandate, one that Jesus uncrates in Matthew 18:15-20. In short, his instructions are:
First, approach the one in sin privately.
Second, if he doesn’t listen, take others with you.
And third, if he still doesn’t listen, tell it to the church and treat him as the unrepentant sinner that he is.
In this we see both God’s grace and God’s judgment. God wants to redeem people, but he also holds people accountable for their sins. And this is a good thing. The church needs to be a place distinct from the world and its ways, and this schematic offers sinners an opportunity to be redeemed or to get out of the way.
However, most, especially those on the receiving end of the discipline, consider it unloving for a believer to call him out on his sin, but the truth is that it’s exactly the opposite. If sin really is as bad as the Bible says it is–and to be clear, it is–allowing people to simmer in their sins is the most unloving thing a believer can do.
Nonetheless, the process of exercising church discipline is never fun, and there are always residual issues left in the wake of the event. The following offers twelve tips for church leaders who find themselves in the uncomfortable and unfortunate position of exercising church discipline, and are left holding the bag of biblical accountability.
1. Leaders are silent when they need to be silent.
Words cannot be taken back. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is plumb wrong. Leaders ought to measure the weight of their words before saying them, because once spoken, they can never be taken back.
Silence is also more than not saying the wrong thing, but saying the right thing by not saying anything. Matthew says that when Jesus was accused by the chief priests and elders that “he did not answer” and that he also did not respond to Pilate (Matt 27:11-14). This was because nothing he said would change what was true and what needed to happen. It would have only riled up the crowd more.
2. Leaders are vocal when they need to be vocal.
For the same reasons that being silent is important, which is that words cannot be taken back and that saying nothing is sometimes better than something, being vocal is important, too. Sometimes silence can be interpreted as cowardliness, and so in some situations a leader needs to be bold enough to say what needs to be said, because those words can serve as a tool to bring clarity to the situation at hand. In the same event listed above, Jesus, in response to the governor’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews,” said, “It is as you say” (Matt 27:11).
This is ultimately why he was silent toward others, because he had already been vocal.
3. Leaders do not defend themselves, but let God do the defending.
Leaders are not only prone to difficult situations, but are fated to them. It comes with the territory. God calls church leaders to stand in the gap and make tough decisions. And many of these cases, although including objective decisions, also include subjective means or mediums to accomplish said decisions. Jesus says to “tell it to the church,” but he doesn’t necessarily explain how that should look.
In these events, members might question their leaders, and leaders will be motivated to defend themselves. This is not only counterproductive, but probably unbiblical.
Jesus, the most innocent man of all time, “was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth (Is 53:7). This is because he knew that God knew the truth and that his day would come. And it did when he was raised from the grave, and it will again when he comes back to make all things right.
Leaders ought to imitate Jesus’s leadership in this area, and be more concerned with God’s name than their own.
4. Leaders are not afraid to stand up for truth.
As noted, leaders will inevitably experience difficult situations. Some of these situations happen because of the leader’s decision to stand up for truth. It’s important that the leader rests in the truth of the gospel in these situations. Paul once wrote a letter to the churches in Galatia, berating them for their corruption of the truth. Knowing that they would not enjoy the discipline, he writes, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10).
I’ve found this verse to be equivalent to a comfortable bed after an exhausting day. Leaders should seek to honor God, even if it upsets man.
5. Leaders are apologetic when they need to be apologetic (and learn from their mistakes).
Leaders make mistakes. It is absolutely impossible for leaders to not step on an eggshell every now and then. When this happens, they need to be willing to acknowledge their missteps personally and publicly and learn from them. A prideful leader is a poor leader.
Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble there is wisdom.”
6. Leaders are unapologetic when they have nothing for which to be sorry.
Sometimes leaders make a difficult decision and receive backlash for it. If it was the wrong decision or if it was handled in the wrong way, then the leader ought to express an appropriate apology. But it’s possible for a leader to make the right decision in the right way, and for people to disagree. In these situations, leaders ought to stick to their guns and not feel the need to apologize for what they did right. Even if people don’t understand.
Paul never apologized for his stance on truth, whether it was toward believers or unbelievers. He was “not ashamed” of it (Rom 1:16).
7. Leaders live above reproach.
Salvifically and sanctifiably speaking, leaders are no different from non-leaders, but with that said, a leader in the church becomes an example to other believers. When a leader fails to live above reproach, it communicates to others that not doing so is okay. Paul told Timothy that overseers ought to “be above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
8. Leaders recognize that they are sinners, but aren’t content with it. They pursues sanctification.
Leaders recognize that they are sinners, but they also recognize that God calls them towards holiness. The cry of the unrepentant sinner is, “I am who I am,” but the cry of the church leader–and the Christian for that matter–is, “I am a sinner, I need God’s forgiveness.”
“To thine own self be true,” says Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but “Deny yourself and follow me,” says Jesus.
9. Leaders do not subliminally talk about other people on public social networks.
It’s easy in today’s world to unleash frustrations via public social networks like Twitter or Facebook. It’s even easier to do so subliminally, where it’s obvious about whom and what the post refers, even though the who or what isn’t specifically mentioned. However, this is unprofessional and unbecoming. It does nothing to help the situation, and does everything to hurt it. This is advice that I think spans to Christians in general.
Thom Rainer has a wonderful blog on this topic here: Seven Warnings For Leaders Who Use Social Media
10. Leaders recognize that the medium is just as important as the message.
Today’s world offers a variety of ways to communicate without doing so personally. Things like email, text messages, and social media messages make it easy to quickly communicate with people. This can be both beneficial and dangerous for leadership. It’s beneficial to utilize some of these tools for easy communication, but it’s dangerous to use them for discipline.
In his instructions for discipline, Jesus says to “go” to the sinner (Matt 18). The indication is personal. With this said, Paul often wrote letters to hold both people and churches accountable, but it was because he could not personally be there, and he made sure to acknowledge this in those cases.
11. Leaders know that people will become a product of their leadership.
Leaders will be held responsible for their leadership, namely because the flock over which they have care will start to reflect their personality and traits. Leaders should ask themselves, “Is God proud of what this group has become under my leadership?”
If your group is okay with ungodly things, then it’s important to ask yourself if it is because you are okay with ungodly things. Iron sharpens iron, but no sharpening will occur with unconsecrated dullness.
12. Leaders deny self and seek to become more like Jesus.
There is a popular story in the Gospels where Jesus walked on water and Peter desired to do the same. Peter was initially successful, but started to sink when he took his eyes off of Jesus.
There is a lesson that can be learned here.
Leaders should strive to step out of their boats, because doing so allows them to trust in Jesus, not in themselves. Leaders can “walk on water” so long as they keep their eyes on Jesus. This is an important lesson, because some leaders are afraid to get off of the boat. And some leaders justify this by thinking that they don’t need to try to “walk on water” because they are too busy “swabbing the deck.” While this might appear to be a selfless philosophy, it’s actually quite selfish.
God calls leaders to look to Jesus and trust that he can help us accomplish the impossible task of leadership, but this can never happen when we attempt to justify our actions of never stepping off the boat.
Jared C. Wellman currently pastors in Odessa, Texas where he lives with his wife and daughter. He has earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies and a Master of Arts in Theological Philosophy from the Criswell College in Dallas, Texas, and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Theology from South African Theological Seminary in Rivonia, South Africa. He blogs regularly at jaredwellman.com and is the author of The Church Member.