Question: Pastor John, what do you do if you confront a chuch member with an offense and they do not respond. You then get another witness to confront them and they will not respond. Then the two of you go to the church eldership with the whole matter because the offender will not respond. Then the elders take the position of the offender. What in the world do you do then?
Thanks for your question. In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus outlined the sequence of steps we are to take when there is an offence between an individual and a fellow brother or sister in the church. This process is something rarely enforced today, much to our shame. However, Jesus' words still stand. He expects His disciples (including those privileged with the task of leadership) to follow His word in these matters.
Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20 says, "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence 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, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them."
If you have indeed followed Jesus' protocol, once you have exhausted the biblical steps mentioned here, there's really not much you can do. You have discharged your duty before God in doing all in your power to see the matter brought to justice. The Lord knows that.
The elders have then taken a position you do not agree with. Not knowing the situation, I do not know if the disagreement you have with the elders is because the they do not see enough proof that the other party is in violation of Scripture in their conduct, or whether the elders know of the violation but will not implement Church discipline. It is hard for me to comment further on the matter, not knowing any more than what you have revealed.
The only question that remains is whether you believe the matter to be so serious and such a violation of Scripture that your conscience will no longer allow you to submit to the leadership of the Church.
If you feel the elders are involved in a serious violation of Scripture, then you may well need to move on to another church. If not, in spite of your angst that they have taken the position of the other party, you should stay and submit to the leadership. In doing so, you can be sure of two things. Firstly, you have fully discharged your duty in the matter as you have followed all the steps our Lord gave us to do in Matthew 18. Secondly, you can be sure that the elders as well as the other party, will all answer to the Lord for what they have done.
I would say this though. Submission is never really tested when we all agree. Submission is in view only when there is a disagreement. Heb 13:17 is clear when it says, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you."
The only time it is legitimate NOT to submit to leadership is when in doing so, it would violate either Scripture or conscience. Only then should we disobey. On all other occasions, we should submit to the leaders and to their spiritual oversight and care.
P.S. Shortly after posting this answer I came across the following from Justin Taylor:
There is an exception for every rule, but please be exceedingly slow to write about or evaluate situations of church discipline from a distance. Virtually all instances of church discipline that I know of have layers of complexity, pain, history, sin, personalities, and just plain old messiness. And there are two sides to every story.
Let’s remember that the truth of this proverb: The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Prov. 18:17)
Discipline done wrongly can be harmful and hurtful. But criticizing the discipline from a distance, without an awareness of all the facts, can damage the reputation of the church of Christ and her leaders.
In addition, let’s remember that those who call most loudly and consistently for repentance among some pastors—often with legitimate criticism—are sometimes the least to model repentance when they themselves may be engaged in gossip or slander.
My dilemma in giving specific examples here is that it would do precisely what I’m trying to avoid—discussing local church discipline situations publicly. But I recently saw a post that models wise repentance after a critical post, and think it’s worth quoting as a model. I’ve deleted specific names of the individual and the church in question:
While being discreet to protect the identities of those involved, and avoiding many of the gory details, my friend laid out enough evidence to satisfy me that the initial accounts given by [the individual] and those promoting his story are at best incomplete, and most likely deliberately misleading. Large parts are left out, including the majority of action taken by the church to reconcile him. Also, [the individual's] case involves a confluence of several situations that it appears [the church] has properly and thoroughly dealt with. Because the details involve the sin of others that are not publicly known, the church has decided the best course of action is to remain silent to protect those people’s reputation and privacy. They did not divulge the identities of the people involved, or the specific details of each situation to me, but they gave me a rough overview of the pieces missing in various accounts of the incident now in circulation. In light of these facts it is only right that I publicly retract my former comments directed at [the church].
Only the gospel can produce that kind of humility.
While I hope that we would have less discussion of specific cases of church discipline, I also hope we would have more discussion about the biblical teaching on this important process. Toward that end, I suspect that Jonathan Leeman’s short book, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (due out in April from Crossway), will become the go-to book for many churches. As Craig Blomberg writes, “Far too few biblically grounded, pastorally sensitive books on church discipline remain in print today. I know of none that is as exegetically accurate, practically relevant, and filled with real-life case studies of how churches should deal with a wide variety of common situations.” J.D. Greear says it’s “an outstanding, one-of-a-kind theological work. . . . I believe this will be the definitive work on church discipline, and our elders plan to use this work as our guide.” So if you have questions on what “church discipline” is and how to put it into practice, this may be a resource to consider.