“I believe the process of church discipline saved my life. When my marriage unexpectedly fell apart, my church held up the gospel before my eyes through the process of church discipline. When my wife abandoned me, my elders didn’t.”
This is the testimony of a man whose wife committed adultery and then left him. The tale, like all stories of broken marriages, is deeply grieving. “I had been left without reason by a woman who no longer regarded the teachings of Scripture on marriage.” To this day she has not returned. The marriage is over, and she has been excommunicated from the church.
Right now I don’t want you to focus on the tragedy. I want you to look instead at the beauty that quietly appears in a healthy church amid such tragedies, like catching a glimpse of Jesus’ face in a crowd. Focus on the community of people who loved a man and his unfaithful wife—of all things—through church discipline.
This man, a new friend, told me that his elders did two things:
“First, they pursued my wife with a gracious, firm call to repentance. Forbearing in their timing, sensitive in their decision-making, and erring on the side of patience, they were slow to move but sure of how they would respond if she chose to remain in her sin.” He knew they loved his wife deeply, precisely because they begged her to abandon the way that leads to death.
Not that church discipline is always loving. Recently, in fact, I received an email from someone else who has been disciplined by pastors who believe their decisions are always sacrosanct. There’s a recipe for abuse.
Still, if a Day of Irrevocable Assize awaits us all, then you must agree that it is loving to wave your arms—wildly if you must—at anyone sprinting toward the cliff. It’s unloving to stay silent (Prov. 13:24; 27:5). Church discipline, which begins with private remonstration and reluctantly goes public with excommunication, is just such a waving of the arms: Please, stop! Bridge out!
Pursuing the Sinned-Against
Yet here’s what I also want you to see: This man’s church did more than pursue his unrepentant wife. They pursued him, the sinned-against.
He explains, “Second, they pursued me, a member in good standing who was willing to do anything to see his marriage restored, with gracious, firm, and constant reminders of the gospel.” And this pursuit, he said, “led to an extraordinary subjective experience of God’s grace in and through his church.”
Really? You experienced God’s grace as your wife was disciplined?
Take notice: “When my wife left, my pastor was there to remind me that God had not forsaken me, but, rather, had forsaken his own Son in order to join himself to me.
“When flooded with doubt, erratic emotions, and overwhelming loneliness, my elders reminded me of God’s sovereign, fatherly care for me.
“When, by the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, I was able to extend grace and love to my wife despite the almost inconceivable hardness of her heart, I heard them say, ‘You are walking well.’
“When it became clear that my wife was committing adultery, they reaffirmed their commitment to walk with me through the entire process.”
Does that make sense? When you are sinned against, especially with sin of any significance, it can feel like the universe has lost its balance. The scales of justice are off. As you stagger and reel, you need someone to say, “Yes, the scales are off. That was unjust.”
I was once involved in counseling a woman whose husband had cheated on her. An older brother advised me to assure her not only of God’s love, but of God’s hatred for the sin. “God hates what your husband did. He’s against it. He grieves with you.” Yes, sin is first godward, but don’t forget the human element. Empathize with the hurting like Jesus did (Heb. 2:17; 4:15).
And here is where church discipline comes in. It’s one thing to have an empathetic counselor say, “I’m so sorry.” It’s another thing to have King Jesus’ formally authorized representative on earth, the local church, publicly recognize the injustice as an injustice (see Matt. 18:17). It brings Christ’s own loving, affirming face into the crowd of your supporters: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I with them” (Matt. 18:20).
This is what my friend saw and felt: “Never have I had such an acute sense of God’s grace to me as when I stood on the ‘other side’ of a case of church discipline. There is no greater gift that the church can give to its members who have been victimized by sin than to rightly, graciously administer church discipline in accordance with the teachings of Scripture.”
Beauty in Strange Places
Can you see it? The beauty of Christ’s love in this strangest of places? Few sins reach with destructive claws so deep into a heart as adultery. It’s like the sharpest of knives cutting into the tenderest of spots. Yet it’s right there in that torn spot that Jesus would have the church show up, bringing affirmation and healing. It does this, in part, by addressing the sin honestly and explaining Jesus’ strident opposition to it.
A church’s process of discipline says to the person who has been sinned against, “Right there in that deep, deep place where you feel most torn open, you, who are made in the image of God, have been wronged. We, his royal representatives, know an injustice has been done, and we want you to know that God sees it. Indeed, he feels it because it’s against him, too. He’s with you. What’s more, he would have us, his beloved children, tell you that he loves you and is for you in that deep, deep spot. Nothing can separate you from his love, not even your spouse’s betrayal.”
Do you see it? How the face of Christ shows up even here—in the pursuit of both the sinner and the sinned against.