Saturday, September 19, 2009

The ULTIMATE Church Discipline

It's about time to lay another one to rest. It is my conviction that the ultimate church discipline wielded by church leaders is taken from 1 Corinthians where Paul says;

" ... hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord".

Do I think that the church is more in danger of license and immoral behaviour or do I think the church is more in danger of legalistic overuse of verses like this to control God's people? Let Rob Rufus answer that one - he was speaking at the "Increasing Glory" conference in South Africa;

"But if the first question elders ask after getting the message of grace is; “What leverage have we got now if this is true?” – it shows how that they have been seduced by a spirit of witchcraft and are thinking themselves as moral policeman and are making the people behave with threats of withdrawal of favours, of ignoring them".

That to me is the litmus test. If church leaders hear the message of grace and their first question is this - then the problem is clear. And one piece of leverage that must be removed is the threat of handing "church members over to Satan". I have experienced it myself - and it is the most devastating thing that can ever be spoken to anyone. So what does it actually mean?

Well I am indebted to City Church International for taking the time to answer questions such as this. Here's what Rob and Ryan Rufus had to write about this Scripture and it's implications:

"Handing someone over to Satan - 1 Cor 5:

Handing a brother over to Satan is actually a very encouraging scripture, because it shows that even this brother who was involved in a terrible sin was born again and once his flesh was destroyed (once he dies) he will then go on to be with the Lord as any born again person does!

I don't believe it means Satan plays a part in getting the guy saved. What kind of gospel would that be? There's no precedent for that in scripture. I believe it means the guy is already saved. I think handing him over to Satan means just withdrawing any prayer support and covering over him. Basically giving up on him!

I really don't think we should practice this kind of thing to hastily as there's not enough scripture to build a strong enough case for us to do this and it's really not written to us but for a specific situation and I believe is the only reference to this kind of thing.

Any way later on we see that this guy repents and Paul says they should embrace him again. We really don't know what exactly happened to this guy to make him repent. We can speculate but the details are so vague and it would be very dangerous to try and build and promote a formula out of this situation.

Churches that are quick to try and practice these sorts of things will end up treating people with a judgmental pharisaical spirit. We need to be very wise about how we treat people. And slow to judge. Are they struggling with a sin or are they overtaken in a sin and influencing others to partake in it and teaching that actually there's nothing wrong with it?

So many people are quick to associate someone with the people that Jude talks about. To make anyone equal to the people Jude talks about is a very very serious accusation. Those people Jude talks of are very evil! I don't know many people if any like them. Most times when Paul, or Peter or even Jesus seem to come across harsh to people I don't believe they are attacking brothers and sisters and being ungracious, but are attacking a spirit- a religious spirit and a spirit that opposes faith in Jesus and anything that mixes the gospel with other things.

Handing someone over to Satan? I can't say I've personally done it or know anyone who has! Not sure if I would ever do it. Not sure if I'd even build a theology around it. Why? Because it seems like such an extreme thing to do and yet the scriptures don't give us a clear method or definition or urging to do it. To start developing a church discipline method for doing this could get you into some dangerous territory.

We need to be very careful with Corinthian scriptures as they are written to a specific people for a specific time that we don't totally understand. Some of it we can learn from but some of it is not for us. It was written for us but not to us.

1 Corinthians 5 about handing someone over to Satan is a very serious thing that we just don't have enough scripture to build a solid doctrine on. To form a practice or a standard for Church on this one scripture I believe is dangerous and will just end up in lots of judging going on in the church. Where do we draw the line between one persons sin and another’s? All sin is bad so why don't we just hand everyone over to Satan who just commits one sin?

I believe Paul warned them possibly, to not eat with 'such' people, because they were so weak and struggling with sin and would be so easily influenced. Like an alcoholic - I would suggest that they never go to bars even if they were going to drink a coke! It would be bad for them. Also they are obviously people who have come under deception and now just living in sin. They're not pursuing the gospel anymore and it's not helpful to hang around those people, but we mustn't write them off with pious self righteous judgment. Even handing them over to Satan seemed like a drastic but loving act towards them.

If our interpretation of scripture causes us to become self righteous and judgmental it usually means we are misinterpreting it and are putting law back into it. There should be such a liberating sense of grace about the scriptures that empowers people into freedom and cause people to get their eyes off themselves an onto Jesus and to put their faith and hope in Jesus not themselves".

To summarise - is it right to build a church discipline on one verse? Can we argue from context that this action was only applied (not even by Paul - but from the Corinthian church) in a situation where the sinner was unrepentant and influencing others? If even the apostle Paul gave this advice in a "last resort" situation then what business does a church pastor/elders have doing this quickly, judgementally and angrily? Any thoughts?


MR said...

There are places in the messages to the 7 churches in Revelation where God Himself rebukes church leaders for allowing immorality and false doctrine in the church. Church leaders are held responsible for guarding the congregation against these threats, so some kind of action is needed. Actually, probably the most serious false doctrine is legalism, and I personally believe that the "Synagogue of Satan" warnings refer to legalism.

Certainly pastors should not exercise this type of discipline based on a mere suspicion that a church member is sexually immoral! There needs to be clear evidence of a pattern of sin without repentance. Even then the response should not be to lay rules on that sinner's back as an added burden to bear. Rather leaders need to humbly, in love, urge the sinner to repent and follow Jesus. If he or she refuses to stop their bad influence on the congregation, then the more serious action may be considered.

Dan Bowen said...

I would agree with you MR that the most serious warnings relate to legalism. Funny, I've certainly never ever heard of a church member/pastor being "handed over to Satan" for being legalistic! Entire churches would be set free to wander!

However I'm still not happy with the whole ethos of church discipline being built around one mention in 1 Corinthians. Surely the understanding of what Paul was telling the Corinthians to do was so dire, that as I understand it the unrepentant church member repented swiftly anyway.

Paul says "for the destruction of his flesh". Doesn't that suggest that the action the church took would have severe effects on his health, possibly even his swift translation to glory? He was "once saved always saved" after all.

Modern equivalants seem to be nothing like that whatsoever. I being one of them. Church members are being "handed over to Satan" but it's rather notable that Satan doesn't seem to be doing much "destruction of the flesh"!

Four years or so later and I'm still here and alive.

Does that suggest that the church leaders had no business uttering threats like that (as I certainly was not unrepentant) or that Satan is not active (highly unlikely)?

I think the key thing here surely is absolute caution. There is more references to Paul instructing women to cover their heads in worship than there is instruction on this church discipline. He devotes a whole chapter to head covering! Do we really want to take this drastic action based on one verse?

lydia said...

It's good you raise questions like these. The church has WAY too many doctrines built on single verses anyway.
Julie and I have discussed this verse, she has some good thoughts on it, maybe she will comment.
The only time I have seen this verse put to action, in a helpful way (cause believe me I have seen it in an unhelpful way too) was in my parent's church. A member was an alcoholic, and I do not know all the details. He was sent away and apparently it was the best thing that ever happened to him. The severity of it woke him up and he was able to get set free and have restored relationships.
My personal thoughts are that this action would be more for someone who is endangering not only themselves but others as well, and they have hardened their hearts to change. After awhile you just don't cast your pearls before swine and you protect your other people from one who is stuck or enslaved to 'whatever'.
I have heard Rob say, he will extend grace upon grace to everyone in his church, but when someone starts to threaten or hurt others he will become like a roaring lion or something. Haha.
I feel like this verse is more for situations like that, you simply must not put others in harms way.
Anyway, just my 2 cents..........I wonder how this verse relates with Matthew 18??? I bet they are used together - didn't you get that Scripture too back then???

Sheila said...

In all our years of ministry, I've only seen Tim (my husband) invoke this Scripture one time. Only once. And it DID involve someone being completely, entirely unrepentant, and it DID involve this person being an absolute danger to people in the body. (He physically attacked his own elderly father, a member of our church...*elderly* father!)

This man held onto the same patterns, unrepentant, for twenty or more years, his wife ended up divorcing him, and he stole from people, and then, as I said, attacked his frail father, because his father said some things to him. His father was completely calm, but very honest, and he flew into a rage.

Tim prayed with our church leadership (then consisting of himself and two other men, I believe) and handed him over - in full faith and knowlege that it was "for the destruction of his flesh SO THAT his soul would be saved in the end."

Within ONE month, Tim was preaching this man's funeral. This has been within the past year.

I wish I were exaggerating or making this up. reading this man's journal and personal notes, after his unexpected death (not suicide! The investigators and autopsy ruled out both suicide and homicide! It was simple heart failure...whew.)

...these notes revealed that his heart was softening, and he saw the truth about himself.

This man walked with God in his youth...and there was a flicker of that relationship still there, in his own handwriting, in the days and hours before he died. He cried out to God.

Therefore, Tim preached his funeral as preaching about one who is now in eternity with God, forever out of the reach of demon spirits. Part of the funeral service of this man was the words to this old hymn:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' Name

When darkness seems to hide His face
I rest on His unchanging grace
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil

His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood
When all around my soul gives way
He then is all my Hope and Stay

When He shall come with trumpet sound
Oh may I then in Him be found
Dressed in His righteousness alone
Faultless to stand before the throne

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other sinking sand!

This man's parents, his ex wife, his children, and all of us were comforted, and able to have complete faith that this destruction of his flesh was SO THAT his soul could be saved. This is no fluffy sentiment...sometimes someone's mental stability depends on being able to take God at His word in this way!

I honestly cannot imagine ever having to "turn someone over" again. It would have to be that extreme...with the person entirely unrepentant, and a danger to others.

Dan Bowen said...

Yep Lydia - got it in one - Matthew 18 carries the other implicit "threat" of "exposure" to the rest of the church. I think it's a different story if the pastors with broken hearts are saying to the unrepentant sinner, "Look, we love you, we care for you, and we must do this because we want more people praying for you!" - and then proceed to share again with broken hearts this to the church. But sadly both times I've seen Matthew 18 in play - Dunstable and Bristol - it was done angrily and as a threat.

Sheila - thank you for sharing that. That sounds to me like it actually WAS the right use of this Scripture perhaps. How difficult that must have been for you guys.