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Q. How Should One Handle Church Discipline and Family Members?

Answer

This is a very interesting and important question. The question behind your question is this: “How does being a family member, related to the one living in sin, impact or modify the instructions given to us in Scriptures like Matthew 18:15-20, Galatians 6:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 5?”

Let’s focus for a moment on Matthew 18:15-20.

15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. 17 “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. 18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matthew 18:15-20 (NASB)

How does this text apply, for example, to a child whose parent is living in sin, and perhaps is even under discipline by the church?

We should probably begin by observing that our Lord’s words in Matthew 18 (as well as Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5) are addressed to the church. The purpose of church discipline is three-fold: (1) It is to confront the sinner with their sin with the hope of bringing about their repentance and restoration to fellowship, with God and with the church (Matthew 18:15). (2) Church discipline protects the church from the influence of this individual by removing them from the fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). (3) Church discipline removes the sinning individual from divine protection and instead hands them over to Satan for discipline, which could be severe (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20).

While the church can remove a wayward saint from fellowship, you can’t necessarily do so within the family. A minor child can’t remove himself/herself from the family, or from the meal table. Matthew 18 seems to give us guidance here:

17 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. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:17-18, NASB).

In other words, you deal with the wayward, unrepentant sinner as though they were not a believer. You may not be able to terminate interaction completely, but you can limit contact and when it is necessary deal with this individual as you would any unbeliever. It seems to me that what you take away is any “fellowship” with that relative and deal with them as you would any unbeliever.

In the case of your adult children, it seems best that you not assume salvation, and deal with them as an unbeliever. Indeed, pray for them as an unbeliever. The most dangerous thing for an unbeliever is to assume that they are saved. Any affirmation of this on your part only makes it worse. It might be good for you to express your conclusion that they do not appear to be saved, and that you are praying that God would get their attention and bring them to faith. Granted, this may lead to alienation on their part, but this serves to reveal what is in their hearts.

There are some wives (or husbands) who may be married to an unbeliever, and this is not as difficult as being married to a mate who professes faith but lives as an unbeliever. Paul does not urge us to withdraw from unbelievers, but from those who profess faith and continue to practice sin without any repentance (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). In the past I have seen a Christian wife constantly nag her husband to do things which make him look like a believer (attend church, read his Bible, pray), but this only makes him (or her) a hypocrite. The fruit of one’s faith should be much more natural, and the believing mate is far better off to apply this text:

1 In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2 as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. 3 Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4 but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; 6 just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (1 Peter 3:1-6).

I think this is good advice for parents and their children as well. Once a rebuke has been given and concerns have been raised about their salvation, better to concentrate on your own godly living and leave the conversion to God.

Related Topics: Discipline, Ecclesiology (The Church)

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