Our God is a God of grace and restoration. One of the most difficult things a spiritual leader may experience is when leading the process of godly discipline and restoration when someone within their realm of responsibility falls into sin. This article gives grace-filled guidance for ministering to someone in this type of situation.
The Lord God we serve is a God who disciplines, reconciles and restores. Hebrews 12:11 tells us, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (NIV).
Discipline is an essential element of healthy and vibrant growth. With a lack of discipline comes a lack of personal integrity and responsibility. Rather than accepting responsibility for one’s actions, there is a projection of blame and responsibility. This abdication of personal responsibility and trust can cause one to avoid issues due to a deep need for personal self-preservation.
The Bible says, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily” (Colossians 1:28-29).
Although much of the church and society in general seem to be operating in a mind-set opposed to restrictions and discipline, God expects the church to exercise discipline over its members. In so doing, it must guard against harshness and condemnation. The overall goal must be restoration of the fallen member, purification of the church, and in the end, glorification and honor of God.
“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
Types of Discipline
There are various types of discipline, but they all have the same purpose: to so shape our hearts and lives that we are brought into conformity with the image and likeness of Jesus Christ (Galatians 4:19).
When we look at types of discipline in the Scriptures, we see two general distinctions—discipline that teaches, instructs and equips us in a positive way, or discipline that is punitive.
Positive discipline can be defined as the building of our hearts and lives through correction, warning, reproof, rebuking, teaching, training in righteousness, prayer, personal ministry, deliverance, relational accountability, friendship and discipleship.
Punitive discipline can be defined as the building of our hearts and lives through direct application of governmental authority and consequence. This often results in punitive measures being taken to assert the authority of Christ Jesus within the hearts and lives of the people of God, His church. This may result in things such as public rebuke, direct actions of a corporate accountability, loss of position or loss of fellowship with the church, among others.
No Christian leader rejoices over the need for corrective discipline. It is a duty which must be performed when other more positive methods to cause growth and maturity have failed. The wise leader will enter into a corrective discipline situation with compassion, understanding and an abundant supply of grace.
A wise leader also enters into corrective discipline with firm resolve. While the need for such discipline may be tragic, the desired outcome is always cleansing and restoration. Leaders can be grateful that this important tool is available to help protect the health of the body of Christ.
Reasons for Discipline
Church members may need corrective discipline for any number of reasons. When a member enters into sin in a way that threatens his or her own spiritual life and those around him or her, that person, as well as the church, must be protected. The church needs wise and decisive action of its leaders in such a case. In addition, other church members must understand their own role in the process of corrective discipline and restoration. Some areas that may require decisive discipline of church members include:
- Unresolved offenses between members
- Moral impurity
- Unbiblical divorce
- Any form of disobedience to the Bible
- Ongoing refusal to receive input from overseers
Discipline and Restoration of Fallen Leaders
God has given us clear instructions in the Bible on how to deal with church leaders who are involved in sin. God expects purity of heart and holy living in all His people, and emphasizes that those in church leadership are expected to live blameless lives that are above reproach. Due to their high visibility and responsibility, Apostolic Council members, elders, fivefold translocal ministers, ordained and licensed ministers, members of the Stewardship Team and DOVE International staff must be Christ-like in their lifestyles and conduct. When ministers of the gospel fall into sin, the integrity of the church is called into public question.
The following outline of Scripture policy concerning discipline of church leaders is taken from I Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-25 and Titus 1:5-9.
Process of Discipline for Leaders
If an elder of a partner church has fallen into sin, the lead elder and a member(s) of the Regional Apostolic Council or designates should be involved in the process of discipline and restoration along with the other elders. If a lead elder has fallen, two Regional Apostolic Council members or designates are to lead this process with the involvement of other elders. If a fivefold translocal minister has fallen, the lead elder, elder team and a representative from the Regional Apostolic Council are to be involved in the discipline and restoration process. If a member of the Regional Apostolic Council has fallen, the International Director, other Regional Apostolic Council members and a recognized spiritual advisor are to be involved in the process. If the International Director has fallen, two or more of the recognized spiritual advisors will lead the process of discipline and restoration along with the other Regional Apostolic Council members. Due to the potential of legal issues involved, it may be appropriate to contact legal counsel prior to beginning the process.
Process of Restoration for Leaders
If sin is substantiated, the fact that sin has occurred should be made public. The level of influence of the person concerned will determine the degree or group to which it will be made public. In most cases, it is wise that the details of the sin not be made public, but the facts and the process of restoration need to be made public so that all can observe if the process is complete. True repentance and restitution include a clear acknowledgment of the sin. There must be a willingness on the part of the one who sinned to submit to the process of discipline and restoration. Those responsible for administering the process of discipline and restoration should set clear goals for the fruit of repentance. The standards should not be changed because of the size of the church, the responsibilities, or the offender’s gifts or personal charisma. A leader cannot opt out of discipline. Time does not change rebellion in a person’s heart. “Gross” sin is evidence of major character weaknesses. The character qualifications of I Timothy 3 for spiritual leaders must be fulfilled. This takes firmness, time and accountability. It is recommended that the spiritual leader who has fallen be removed from leadership for a period of time.
A restoration process does not necessarily need to be completed within a set time frame. In many cases, the timing should be left open-ended with an evaluation of progress built into the process. The fallen leader needs to submit to the elders the Lord has placed over him or her. It should not be assumed that restoration to ministry will be the end result. There needs to be a genuine heart change and new habit patterns built into the life of the leader who is going through the discipline and restoration process.
The restoration process is first a personal restoring of the individual to God and then a restoration to his or her family (spouse). Following this restoration there needs to be a restoration to the local church, then to other church leaders. Finally, there is the possibility of restoration to a ministry position.
There may also be a need for counsel for the family affected which would include regular counsel for the restoration of the leader and family members. Severance pay for transition must be considered if the person is submitted to the discipline process.
It is extremely important for Matthew 18:15-20 to be followed when accusations surface. If Matthew 18:15-20 is violated and information is made public prematurely, the approach of I Corinthians 6 should be used whereby a council of judges hears the issues, evidence and testimony and renders a decision. Records of dates, times, evidence, discipline carried out and specific sins confronted should be kept, but in strict confidentiality.
- The Biblical Role of Elders in Today’s Church, Chapter 11, “Discipline and Restoration,” by Larry Kreider, Ron Myer, Steve Prokopchak, Brian Sauder (House to House Publications)
- Due Process by Dan Juster (Destiny Image Publishing)
- The Making of a Leader by Frank Damazio (Bible Temple Publishing)
- The Church in the New Testament by Kevin Conner (Bible Temple Publishing)
Additional sources for church leaders
- Healing the Wounded by John White and Ken Blue (Intervarsity Press)
- Can Fallen Leaders be Restored? by John H. Armstrong (Moody Press)