The motivation that we must all share is to restore
In our last article, we looked at the power of our Lord, as manifested in how he works with those who are unwilling to repent of sins unto death. We do not simply “throw the problem over the wall” when we must withdraw from our brother or sister. Rather, we prayerfully deliver them for the destruction of the flesh. The Lord is in command of this process and knows how to intimately work with erring saints.
This brings us to our final topic — restoration. It is important to note that restoration is a fundamental desire of our God, going all the way back to the Garden. We have the voice of the prophets to remind us of how God pleaded with Israel to repent — to turn from rebellion and sin to the sweet fellowship only He could offer them. It is essential for us to remember this point as we consider discipline in our ecclesias. The motivation that we must all share is to restore. It must never be punitive or out of exasperation. At no time does our brother stop being our brother for whom our Lord died. Love must guide our thoughts, group deliberations, and actions.
Therefore, all discipline, especially the action of withdrawal, must be taken with all soberness of mind. Bro. Carter wrote in 1950:
“This step of withdrawal is not something to be lightly undertaken, for it is a gravely responsible action. Its gravity might deter some brethren from taking the step, but it should be remembered that it is equally grave to refrain from separation when that should take place. A man of a combative nature will emphasize the duty to withdraw when he should look well to the motives behind his contention; a man who finds controversy distasteful and strife a burden has to remember the duty of the defense of the faith and of loyalty to the command of Christ.”1
Bro. Carter illustrates a major point in these articles. Sound Scriptural discipline is not to be based on our personal preferences or those of one ecclesia versus another. These are the commands of our Lord! Sound Scriptural discipline, and particularly withdrawal, is to be approached with a deep sense of reverence. We are not to rush into it. We should not be pressured into moving faster than is appropriate. We should never desire such separation. Yet, to fail to follow the Master’s commands and demonstrate our love for our brother, because we find the work unappealing, is just as unacceptable. Remember, our work is to either save by showing compassion or to fearfully pull them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh. There is no place here for inaction.
Thankfully, most Scriptural discipline results in repentance long before we must exercise the full process of Matthew 18. Most of our service can be done through prevention! Paul wrote to Timothy:
And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will” (2Tim 2:24-26).
The phrase here, “instructing those who oppose themselves” is most illustrative of the real situation we face with Scriptural discipline. When our brother sins, when he continues in that sin and rebels, he is opposing HIMSELF. Our service to him in instruction is to help him with the battle he is facing with his own worst enemy — his deceitful and desperately wicked heart. The Divinely-appointed checks and balances of his life, self-examination, and the engrafted Word are no longer operating as they should. Now, we wish to assist him in recovery from this snare. In most cases, this can be accomplished by the sound dividing of the Word of God. The Greek word for instructing here, paideuo, is translated as “chastening” in several places, including Hebrews 12, and doesn’t involve simply providing education or classes, but the word also commands an active oversight. It is similar to the concept Paul uses in Galatians 3:24, where the Law was our “schoolmaster” to bring us unto Christ. The RSV translates “schoolmaster” as “custodian.”
Involved in others lives
Here’s why these thoughts are so important for our consideration of Scriptural discipline. It is not sufficient for us to only offer formal classes for our ecclesial members and young people on the threats of the flesh. These have a significant place in the battle against sin, but they cannot be fully effective unless they include OVERSIGHT. This requires us to be involved in each other’s lives, by literally going to war with one another in our collective battle against sin. But, let’s not underestimate the value of a sound educational process in the ecclesia! This calls for our ecclesias to be watchmen, scanning the horizon for approaching threats. It would be to our great benefit to discuss these threats and couple them with sound Scriptural discussion long before the threat arrives at our gates. We need to identify the spiritual principles that believers should embrace in the governance of their lives. There can be little doubt that this is what the Apostle Peter meant when he wrote that the elders were to “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind” (1Pet 5:2). This is an appeal to the elders of modern ecclesias to be regularly guarding against threats to the flock. What are the new threats that the flock may be experiencing? What are the Scriptural principles that should guide our future actions?
A last comment on Paul’s admonition in 2 Timothy. Did you notice HOW the instruction was to occur? It must be done with meekness. As you will recall, this is always an essential part of recovery. We must not “instruct” with a wagging finger or with an air that we ourselves would never fall to such temptations. Of course we could! The High Priest was always aware of the fact that while he was offering for the sins of the people, he too was “compassed with iniquity.” On this point, we too often approach the education on moral matters as if the main application of these is for “our young people.” When it comes to issues such as fornication, for example, we may be drawn to direct our instruction to them solely. But, recent research on fornication, associated with areas like internet pornography, show that this is NOT simply a “youth issue.” We need to stop positioning morality classes exclusively at our youth. Yes, the instruction is needed for our young people as they are progressively exposed to these threats as their life becomes increasingly independent. However, morality issues are topics of instruction and discussion for all ages. We must remember meekness when we are chastening!
The next passage I’d like to share is one that has deep personal meaning for me. Paul writes: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-2). Notice here the similarity of message. Restore in meekness, considering thyself lest ye also be tempted. Restoration must be undertaken always with our own need in mind. However, the word I’d like to focus your attention on here is “restore.” The Greek word is katartizo. It is the same word used about the disciples “mending” their nets on the seaside in Galilee. It is a word that in Greek literature is for the setting of bones. Here’s where I can personally relate, as can anyone who has experienced a significant bone break. In my case, it was a spiral fracture of the tibia and fibula. The pain was pretty significant. The doctor asked me to drape my leg over the hospital bed and gently, but quickly he pulled my foot down and snapped the leg back into place. Instantly, 95% of the pain was eliminated.
When we restore, it truly is like gently putting bones back in place. It is about patiently removing the seaweed and filth from our nets and mending them so they will be useful for the next day. This is an important guide to us as we contemplate working with our brother or sister who has been overtaken in a fault. Don’t condemn or use a hammer! Gently help to restore, to put things back in working order.
I’d like now to turn to a few practical matters associated with withdrawal, because they are often critical in the recovery process. First, in most cases, the decision of the ecclesia about withdrawal should be communicated live and in person to the withdrawn brother or sister. Preferably, the full ecclesia should deliver this message in a special meeting with the brother or sister. However, in almost no case is it appropriate for such decisions to be communicated for the first time by post and certainly never by e-mail! Letters are important to document decisions made, but they often rarely effectively communicate the true feelings and intents of the writer or the ecclesia. This is best done face to face. Years ago a faithful brother told me never to post such a letter. The letter should be written, but hand delivered, where one can personally communicate the action. In such cases, it is important to remember that we want to make the repentance and return of our brother or sister as easy as possible. This is a unique opportunity to express to the brother or sister our deep sorrow and the hope we have of quick restoration. It is important to let the brother or sister know that the whole ecclesia will be praying each day for their repentance. They will not be forgotten.
Another consideration is how the ecclesia can stay engaged with the brother or sister during a time that it is important for them not to be participating in our ongoing services. We indeed must deliver them to Satan for the destruction of the flesh and as we have seen previously, this requires a certain “censure” from the fellowship that we enjoy. One thought is for a brother and/or sister to serve as volunteers to keep in touch with the withdrawn member. It might even be advisable to let the withdrawn brother or sister know the names of the brother and sister who have lovingly volunteered to stay in touch. But, what does that really mean? Preferably, this should NOT be a family member. Families will likely be in touch and have more regular interactions with the brother or sister because they are a family. From personal experience, I can say that often the family is in the worst position to encourage and lovingly chasten one who has left. The volunteers should plan to regularly communicate. This is best if it is face-to-face. If not practical, a telephone call once a month (or minimally once per quarter) should be made. And what is the purpose of the call? Since the brother or sister expects the contact, the purpose should be understood. How are you doing? Have you been able to make changes in the matter that brought about the withdrawal? Do you need my help with anything? Minimally, it is to remind the withdrawn that they are at the top of our minds. We are praying for him or her specifically each week as an ecclesia and daily as individuals. We need them back!
I offer the suggestions above in all humility, recognizing how frequently I have failed to live up to such a standard. Generally, my experience is that we forget such brethren over time. Our prayers diminish and finally cease. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, perhaps at the core of this issue is that I am limiting my Lord. In Psalm 78:40-41, the rebuke of Israel was they had limited God. “How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert! Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel.” Let’s not limit our God. Though our brother may be in the process of the destruction of the flesh for decades, the Lord has not abandoned him. He is powerful to save. We must never allow ourselves to forget our brother or to doubt that the Creator of the Universe can certainly heal the mind of our brother or sister.
The censure of the Bible is a far cry from the ecclesiastical excommunications practiced in other denominations. First, a brother or sister should not be withdrawn from without the ecclesia knowing about the matter and giving its approval of the action. The power of the ecclesia itself in the recovery process is essential. The voice of many brothers and sisters, in one accord, communicates a powerful message to the rebellious brother or sister. Once withdrawn from, we must take steps to make clear the change in the brother or sisters life. Communications and interactions are not to remain the same. Yet, let us never be a people who will not acknowledge and greet our withdrawn brother or sister we see on the street. Such encounters offer an opportunity to confirm our love, remind the brother or sister that we are praying for them and to demonstrate the character of our Lord.
By the power and mercy of our Lord, change may begin to happen. If we have broken all contact, if they are no longer in our minds and hearts, we will not be likely to know that repentance and change has occurred. Again, this is where the volunteer brother or sister can be of such service. That regular contact may uncover positive change, or at least a movement in the right direction. At that time the volunteer brother and sister may determine that increased contact is appropriate. Perhaps an invitation to come to their home for dinner and the readings? Maybe simply an invitation to meet for a cup of coffee or to get together for a shared interest in recreation. Remembering Paul’s counsel in Corinth, we ought to go and confirm our love to our repentant brother — not wait until he walks back through the ecclesial doors. Let’s reinforce the positive ground that has been made. Give the withdrawn brother or sister a renewed taste of how wonderful our fellowship is and the joy it can bring to aching hearts. But, until repentance is complete, we must stop short of full engagement.
Our last words will focus on the blessed day where our brother or sister has finally repented and desires restoration. Here, we know that even the angels in heaven share in our joy. The angelic work with the brother or sister has brought them to a point where they have “come to themselves” and seen clearly once again the vision of returning to the Father’s house.
For years, I’ve seen a number of ways that repentant brothers and sisters “come back” to meeting. I have also heard from those who have returned just how incredibly difficult that re-entry can be. It can conjure up deep feelings of guilt that were once quelled. Brothers and sisters, not intending anything but to be accepting, can say things that hurt rather than help. So, what can be done to make the re-entry and restoration a better process for our brother or sister?
First, it all begins with how we parted ways. Did we express love in our separation? Do they feel that the sin that they were holding onto was condemned or that they themselves were rejected and condemned? Did they feel the ongoing presence of faithful prayers? Were they encouraged by the volunteering brother and sister that stayed faithfully with them through the darkest hours?
But still, it is difficult to come through those doors after months or years away. How can this be made easier? Here again, the volunteering brother and sister can be of tremendous help. When return to the meeting is warranted, offer to be at their home to pick them up that morning! The volunteer brother and sister should be there with them through the day to guide and cheer. I remember a brother gone for several decades who, after repenting, talked about coming back to meeting for nearly six months. What broke the stalemate? A brother called him and told him he would be picking him up for meeting that coming Sunday. It worked and the brother was back in the ecclesia for several years before falling asleep.
When we restore our brother or sister, let’s not have them sheepishly “enter the back door.” We have a need as a body to confirm our love to them, to welcome them back into the service of the ecclesia. A faithful brother in my home ecclesia made a recommendation several years ago that we adopted as a regular practice. When we restore fellowship, we once again extend the right hand of fellowship. This is done much the same way we offer it to our newly baptized brethren. Up front, before the eyes of the entire ecclesia, we welcome our restored brother or sister. I have found this process to be a deeply spiritual experience and one that brings to the ecclesia a great sense of joy. Eyes are rarely dry! The words of the two hymns we sing afterward, “The Lord Bless Thee” and “Blessed Be Jehovah” seem to capture the spirit of the moment. Our dear brother or sister is back! The Lord has worked mightily in his or her life. We are to be filled with praise!
Bro. Nicholls wrote in 1977:
“There might well be fewer ‘automatic’ withdrawals, or less abandoning of those who have been withdrawn from, if there were in fact more true ecclesial discipline exercised in the spirit of helping one another towards a spiritual maturity, and a fuller realization that forgiveness and restoration are complete in God’s sight for those who at least attempt to mortify the flesh.”2
May we renew a firm commitment to Scriptural discipline. The Lord delights in mercy. We can count on this.
In summary, there are many reasons for us to be committed to sound Scriptural discipline. Among the reasons are that the honor of God’s Name is promoted; the integrity of the ecclesia is preserved; pure doctrine is protected; a rescue process is undertaken for wayward believers; and a warning is provided to the assembly about accountability. But for our ecclesias in this dark age, it promotes a culture of love and support that is consistent with the first century ecclesias. By God’s grace, our ecclesial light on the hill will shine brighter. Our members will see the ecclesia as a place where real issues can be surfaced and loving support will be present in time of need. If I find myself at complete odds with God and overcome by sin, I can trust that my brothers and sisters will not turn away or abandon me. They are with me for life!
So, what can I do? I can labor to create an environment of trust and openness where real problems can be discussed and comfort and encouragement given. I can work to ensure my ecclesia is clear on Scriptural principles governing discipline. I can openly discuss and identify threats to holiness — the intrusions of humanism in our thinking. I can work to locate the lost sheep of my ecclesia and make sincere attempts to restore. I can courageously face any long-standing and festering issues that need to be addressed — in my ecclesia and certainly in my own life.
My grandmother’s favorite verse in the Bible was Malachi 3:16-17:
“Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son that serves him.”
Perhaps this is a good place to close our consideration of Scriptural discipline. If we fear our Lord, if we talk about Him and his principles for living, if we think about his Name, we will not be lost in a world of darkness that is about to be judged, but rather, we will be His jewels, His special treasure. In a world that desires to own us, we will be His! May this be our joy and vision in these last days before our Lord’s return.
David Jennings (Pomona, CA)
1. The Christadelphian, 1950, p. 53.
2. The Christadelphian, 1977, p. 340.