I mentioned in the Who is a Christian and who is not?
discussion that believers cannot determine with certainty whether another person is a Christian or not. I have heard cases where people who were prominent members of Churches and had long friendships with other believers eventually left their Church and declared themselves to be non-Christians.
On the other hand, it is possible for people to believe serious Christian heresies but still maintain the attitudes and fruit of a true Christian, and be destined for Heaven. I don't want to focus on this possibility too much, but I believe it to be possible. Perhaps I will present my experiences with this in a future discussion.
This makes the problem of delegating authority, responsibility, membership, or even fellowship in a Church difficult. Thankfully, the Bible presents a standard for removing people from the Church who are probably not Christians. This standard is called "Church Discipline" and is described in Matthew 18:15-17
. Church discipline has been criticized
heavily lately, such as in that Youtube video. Caution watching it though, the guy is very disdainful and the comments extremely bad. These people usually refer to passages such as Matthew 7:1-2
, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Thus I wanted to explain the process, why we use it, and how to explain it to other people.
The first step is: "go and show him his fault, just between the two of you."
The important parts to note here are that you are going to him alone and that you are keeping his privacy. Going to him alone keeps the confrontation casual and friendly. You can bring up issues that are relatively unimportant. You are not bringing authority to rebuke him, so his compliance is voluntary. Meanwhile, keeping his privacy is important so that if he does comply with the rebuke, then no one knows that there was a problem to begin with. Even if he does not comply, it may never rise above that level. Overall, this first step also provides a warning and some time to think about the issue before discipline moves to the next level.
The second step is: "But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'"
Again, note that the focus here is on keeping the number of people involved to a minimum. By bringing only one or two other people along, the person's embarrassment is not shown to the Church as a whole. Hopefully, the issue was just a misunderstanding and the additional people were just needed to explain the issue in a different way.
Another important issue here is that this discipline references the Old Testament
practice of requiring multiple witnesses to establish a testimony. While at first, bringing in additional people looks like they are being used to overpower the person in discipline, in reality, this is another way of protecting them. In many cases, the original person bringing the issue will be corrected when they ask someone else to support them. While it may be possible to get an arbitrary person in the Church to support the argument, ideally, the witnesses should be people in authority that the person under discipline respects. If someone does go around to many people trying to recruit them to support him, then they are breaking the spirit of the process to keep it a private issue.
The third step is: "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;"
After establishing that the person is in need of Church Discipline and that they have refused it, the issue gets presented to the Church. Note that if the issue does get to this point and is to be announced, the announcement should be done with the blessing of the elders of the Church. This part of the discipline process is not a license to gossip. It is not a license to get up in the front of the Church and air your grievances. It is the last hope to restore a member of the Church to fellowship and should be executed responsibly. In many cases, it will be the elders or another responsible, older member of the Church who will be making the public announcement, not the person who initiated the process.
Note again, that there are protections here for the person going through the discipline process built in here. There is no chance for a gossip campaign to form or factions to build before they get a chance to defend themselves publicly. Meanwhile, the elders can't kick the person out of the Church without revealing their reasons why. If the people disagree with the reasons, they can air their own concerns, and, if necessary, leave as well. Hopefully, the unified decision of the Church will be enough to convince the person in discipline that they need to repent and be restored to fellowship.
Finally, step four is: "if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
This step is a group decision of the Church to treat the person in discipline as a non-Christian. In other words, the people break off their fellowship with him decisively. There are still several issues here though. First, this response assumes that the person under discipline is still claiming to be a Christian and following the Bible. If they are not claiming that they are still a Christian, then the process would have been stopped earlier. There would have been no public "outing", because the person did it themselves, though hopefully much more amicably.
Thus, I think there is a major distinction here when the person under discipline still claims to be a Christian and when they do not. If they are treated as a tax collector, they are treated as someone who is publicly reviled for their behavior. While they would still love the person, they would not invite them into their homes or spend quality time with them like their other non-Christian friends. The point here is that the people of the Church should not be engaging in fellowship with people who have been removed from the Church under Church discipline.
It must be remembered that each Church is usually distinctly separate and that someone kicked out of one Church may be able to join another without a problem. This is another protection for the person under discipline in case the discipline was bogus. When they do join the new Church, they should probably explain their Church history to the leadership or they might find themselves under a new round of inquiry. Local Churches do maintain some regular communications and accountability with each other, so the person won't find getting away from the discipline necessarily easy either.
Like I said all throughout the explanation, this process is there to protect the individual from undue accusations and gossip. Complaints have to be vetted by multiple people before they become a real issue. It also presents a formal process to be followed so that the Church is protected from legal issues of failing to deal with their members.
When explaining this to other people, be sure to remind them that people becoming Christians commit to a standard of behavior. While it is understood that they will break that standard occasionally, that they have repented of it and are committed to resisting it. If someone both commits to resisting it and refuses to give it up, then their beliefs and actions are contradictory. They have put themselves under the accountability of their local Church. Doing so opens them up to judgment and rebuke in the interest of sanctification. If they refuse this discipline, then they are refusing the accountability that they have put on themselves. The whole discipline process is actually just a complicated method of making that issue clear to them. If they really do wish to continue their allegedly sinful behavior, then they are free to remove themselves from it and they will be treated as regular non-Christians, rather than a horrid tax-collector.
Note that my explanation of the Church Discipline process focuses on behavior rather than people's beliefs or teaching. While someone might go through the discipline process for heretical beliefs, they would probably not be removed from fellowship unless it was also clear that they were not Christians. If the Church thought that they really were Christians but had heretical beliefs, then they might only lose their Church membership, but would still be treated as a Christian. I suspect that they would be treated as someone from another denomination.
False teachers also have their own guidelines for being dealt with. They are a more serious issue than correcting false beliefs because the Bible places a serious responsibility on teachers to teach correct doctrine.