Disciplined: Then What?

Sometimes members of our church are unclear concerning how to relate to a person who has been removed from the membership of Trinity Baptist Church through formal church discipline. This concern usually arises out of a desire to help the person who was disciplined and yet not be in violation of the Scripture. However, the desire can be, and often is, misguided and actually undermines the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.

When someone is disciplined by the local church, the relationship between the person disciplined and the church changes significantly because the disciplined individual refuses to repent and follow the Scripture. He/she has refused the plea of brothers and sisters in Christ. This person has resisted the conviction of the Holy Spirit and has chosen to live outside the will of God. Consequently, the church must respond to them quite differently than before they were removed. (Matt 18:17; Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 5:5, 11; 2 Thess 3:14-15)

We respond to him/her not merely as a lost person, but rather as one who claims to know Christ and is in open rebellion to Him. The only thing we can say to a person under the discipline of Scripture that is biblical and in line with church discipline, is to call them to repent publicly before the church and turn from their ungodliness. It is not a time to give different counsel than that of the Scripture and the church, or just listen to their claims of…or complaints. If they are willing to repent, and respond to the Lord’s commands carried out by the local church, then we will seek to help them in every possible way and thus fulfill the command to “carry one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:1-2). If they will not answer the plea of the Scripture and the church to repent, they are to be “turned away from” (Rom 16:17).

If we seek to relate to them in a way that is contrary to the commands of Christ, or according to our own feelings or wisdom; rather than helping, we become obstacles to repentance, the working of the Holy Spirit, the disciplined following the clear teaching of Scripture, and to the will of Christ. To think otherwise is to believe that our way is better than Christ’s way or that we are more compassionate than him. Although, the disciplined may talk of prayer, what God is saying to them, leading them to do, or of having peace with God, we dare not listen to one who has publicly demonstrated their unwillingness to submit to God’s word over God’s word, lest we find ourselves drawn into their sinful thinking patterns.

The following article shares a testimony of John Fluharty’s struggle with sin and the liberty he found in repenting of his sin and submitting to the discipline of his local church. This is not just a story about one man’s deliverance through church discipline, but it reminds us that forgiveness, liberty, and growth are available to everyone who falls under the discipline of the Lord if they will repent and submit to the Scripture.

“Gambling, Embezzlement, & Church Discipline” By David Roach, BP 3/26/07
FRANKFORT, Ky. (BP)–John Fluharty says church discipline saved his life.

Even though Fluharty was a member of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., he still had major sins in his life. A gambling addiction snowballed until he began embezzling from his employer to fund his habit. But when Buck Run and its pastor, Hershael York, intervened with church discipline, Fluharty repented and began to grow spiritually like never before.

“You’re missing something if your church doesn’t have church discipline,” Fluharty told Baptist Press. “God will give you the wisdom and the courage and the knowledge to get through it, but it has to be implemented.”

Fluharty’s gambling addiction dated back to before his salvation in August 2005. After making a public profession of faith at Buck Run, he quit gambling for three months but failed to develop devotional habits to help him stay away from his sin. By January 2006, he had started gambling again, and in March the problem escalated to a new level.

Fluharty’s wife went on a spring break trip to Florida, leaving him at home. While she was away, he gambled at a feverish pitch.

“That week it was almost like a drug addict going back out and just smoking and snorting anything he can get his hands on,” he said. “I was gambling 20 hours a day that whole week.”

When his wife returned, Fluharty continued his gambling but concealed it from her. As the gambling got worse, he used a company credit card to gamble and lost more than $20,000. Now in a huge financial hole, Fluharty started embezzling from his employer by selling company products on the side and keeping the profits for himself.

Over several months he embezzled approximately $250,000 through secret meetings with accomplices in the middle of the night and lies to his family and his employer.

In late July his company, the Washington Penn Plastic Company, discovered the theft and fired Fluharty. When Fluharty came home, he was devastated and his wife called York. Initially Fluharty lied to his pastor about the embezzlement, but a short time later the Holy Spirit pricked his conscience and he confessed everything both to his employer and to York.

York explained to Fluharty that the best way to repent from such a public sin was to confess to the church and receive discipline in the form of a public rebuke.

“He said, ‘Let’s fix it,'” Fluharty said of York. “I promised Hershael that I’d be at church Sunday and that I wanted to go forward and confess everything to the church. I knew the only way for me to get right with God and to recover from this addiction was to be open and honest with everyone.”

When Sunday came, Fluharty showed up at Buck Run, walked to the front of the church at a corporate prayer time and confessed to everyone.

Fluharty recounted York announcing to the church, “John has come forward to confess sin in his life. He’s committed criminal acts. He is back full-force into his gambling addiction, and he’s asking the church for forgiveness and support. And most importantly, he’s asking God for forgiveness.”

After the confession, the church’s deacons laid hands on him, and York publicly rebuked him, letting him know “that sin is not accepted,” Fluharty recounted York saying. “We don’t turn our heads from sin. We rebuke it and ask God to help us and get us through it.”

Following the rebuke, York prayed for Fluharty.

“The men all put their hands on me, and Hershael said one of the most amazing prayers I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said.

In the days following the church’s rebuke, Fluharty began to grow spiritually, developing a prayer life and accountability relationships within the congregation. And he joined a men’s small group that met weekly to pray and encourage one another to avoid sin.

Fluharty, whose legal troubles did not result in jail time, said the public confession and rebuke set him on a path to recovery.

“I don’t think I could have had the rapid recovery that I had if it hadn’t been for everyone praying for me,” he said. “It’s hard to have a church praying for you when they don’t know you have a problem. I believe 100 percent in my heart that the reason my recovery is going the way it is because I have hundreds of people that pray for me every day.”

In addition to providing spiritual support, members of Buck Run also are providing financial support for Fluharty’s family as he faces the legal penalties for his sin.

Fluharty is quick to disagree with those who say public discipline in churches is a bad idea because it causes too much shame and embarrassment.

“You should be embarrassed about sin, and you should be ashamed about sin,” he said. “And part of getting over the sin is that embarrassment and shame that you have to be put through going in front of the church. I think that if you sin willfully the way I did, you should feel that shame.”

York, who also serves as Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching and associate dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., agreed with Fluharty’s assessment of discipline.

“Sin always hurts,” York told BP. “If we love people, we seek to deliver them from sin. And the cruelest thing we could do is leave them in sin. Most people have an aversion to church discipline because they feel like it really hurts people’s feelings.

“It’s not their feelings I care about, it’s their souls. Obviously I want to do it as sensitively as possible, but I’ve got to think about their eternal souls more than I care about their feelings. It’s certainly worth the risk of hurting someone’s feelings or even alienating their family if it’s going to deliver their soul from hell.”

Fluharty said he wants to tell his story to others so that churches can help other believers defeat sin by disciplining them when appropriate.

“If I tell this to 10,000 people and one is helped, it’s worth it,” he said.

For example,

If a couple/spouse pursues separation or divorce on grounds that are not supported biblically, or one or both are unwilling to follow the elder’s steps to reconciliation, the elder(s) will approach the couple and appeal to them to reconsider their decision. Should they choose to disregard the teaching of Scripture concerning the sacredness of their marriage vows (Gens 2:18-24; Matt 19:3-10; Eph 5:22-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Peter 3:1-7), it is appropriate for church discipline to be initiated toward the errant individual or toward both parties if necessary.

Church Discipline in history

We recently had to bring three of members to the church for church discipline. This is always a sad time. One of the saddest times is when someone who professes to be a follower of Christ willfully rejects following the Scripture and has to be removed from the Lord’s assembly.

The Bible clearly teaches church discipline, and there are a growing number of pastors who are leading their churches to follow the clear New Testament teaching concerning church discipline.

Baptist churches have stood out as believing in local assemblies of free association of people who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit in salvation and follow the Lord in believer’s baptism by immersion and covenant with one another to live holy lives and hold each other accountable.

Baptist still believe in regenerate church membership, baptism by immersion, but the holy walk demonstrated in the practice of church discipline is rare. So rare, that when we practice it, a sense of aloneness can be felt. First we are not alone, for Christ said with regard to church discipline “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.””(Matthew 18:20) also we are not alone today, for others do practice church discipline, nor are we alone historically. Luther, Calvin…all practiced church discipline.

Recently this article, which grants a glimpse into church discipline in recent Baptist history, appeared in the Baptist Press.

“Baptist History Evidences Church Discipline” By David Roach 3/26/07

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Prior to the last century, Baptists “practiced church discipline on a large scale” and regarded the practice as a normal part of church life, according to church history professor Greg Wills.

Between 1781 and 1860, for example, “Baptists excluded more than 40,000 members in Georgia alone,” Wills, director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted in a 2001 essay in “Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life,” edited by Southern Baptist pastor Mark Dever.

“Across the nation in this period they excluded between one and two percent of their membership every year. But the number of church trials was yet greater. Only about half of the offenders received excommunication. Baptists on average disciplined between three and four percent of their membership,” Wills wrote.

Baptists generally exercised discipline at monthly Saturday conference meetings, Wills noted. At such meetings church members accused offenders of specific sins. The accused usually confessed guilt. But when the accused either denied guilt or was absent, the church appointed a committee to investigate the matter. The committee reported its findings at a subsequent meeting and recommended a verdict and sentence. The members then voted on the verdict and the penalty if the offender was found guilty.

Churches generally imposed either admonition or excommunication on offenders who were found guilty, Wills noted. Many excommunicated members maintained their piety and were eventually restored to church membership, he wrote, noting that Baptists followed the process outlined in Matthew 18 for church discipline.

“Baptists sought to restore offenders to holiness,” Wills wrote. “They believed that church discipline helped believers overcome sin and temptation.”

Several documents from past generations of Baptists confirm that discipline was the norm among Baptists in general and Southern Baptists in particular through the 19th century.

“A Summary of Church Discipline,” written by the Charleston Baptist Association in 1774, argues that the Bible prescribes three “censures” for “rebellious and unworthy members” — rebuke or admonition, suspension and excommunication. The various censures should be applied depending on the severity of an offense, according to the document.

The goals of church discipline are “the glory of God,” “to purge the church and preserve it from infection,” to clear the church of immorality and false doctrines and “the good of persons excommunicated,” the document says.

William B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC, argued in an 1846 essay that Scripture demands church discipline.

“In relation to this part of the discipline of a church (the exclusion of disciplined members), it is important to understand, that a proper attention to its exercise is indispensable to the welfare of the body,” Johnson wrote. “And further, that by the faithful, vigilant supervision of the rulers of the church and the duty of the members, the necessity of its exercise may be, as far as possible, prevented.”

Patrick Hughes Mell, a former president of both the SBC and the Georgia Baptist Convention, presented a detailed summary of the discipline procedure for both public and private offenses in his 1860 treatise “Corrective Church Discipline: With a Development of the Scriptural Principles Upon Which it is Based.”

“The views which are presented in the following pages are such as have been held by the Baptist churches from time immemorial,” Mell wrote in the preface. “The Author attempts to do no more than to exhibit the sentiments of our Fathers, and to defend them by showing that they are sustained by the Scriptures.”

Ronnie W. Rogers