What if a church leader is guilty of persistent sin? He should be “rebuked in the presence of all.” The Bible is as clear on this point as the church is confused on it. Sin happens in every church, large or small. The question is not whether it happens, but how the church should respond when it does, especially when persistent sin is found in the life of a leader. How many times have you heard about a church where the pastor, youth pastor, worship leader, or one of the elders has been discovered in an ongoing pattern of adultery or another sin that disqualifies him from leadership, and he has simply been quietly dismissed? Or worse, he has been given a stern “talking-to” by the other leaders in private; meanwhile, he remains in his position with no public rebuke, no discipline whatsoever. Whatever sin a church ignores, especially in its leaders, it welcomes into the body. A large church in California chose not to discipline sexual sin with a pastor and his secretary, but rather kept it quiet. The next year, seventeen marriages of senior leadership people in the church ended. Why is public discipline necessary? Paul says it clearly in 1 Timothy: “that the rest also may fear.”
I remember being fascinated by a guy in the 7th grade named Steve. Even at thirteen, he was a wild child, living on the edge. We were walking down the hall one day, when Steve suddenly stopped, pointed to the ceiling tiles and said, “It would be so easy to put a bomb up there, under one of those tiles.” I looked at him with surprise, thinking he was just kidding around. I laughed, nervously, unsure what to say, but Steve was lost in his thoughts. Just days later, during a whole-school assembly, the principal called Steve down front. He then told the student body that Steve was trouble and warned us to avoid him. Apparently Steve’s bomb talk had been voiced to other students and had made its way back to the principal’s office. I don’t know why the principal handled the situation with public censure, and I am not suggesting it was the right way. Today he would probably be fired. The end result, for me at least, was mortal fear. I stayed away from Steve from then on, and was very careful about my behavior for the rest of the year. The last thing I wanted was to be called to the front of the gym during an assembly.
That is the point of the instructions Paul gives to the New Testament church. If discipline of a sinning church leader is done properly, the result will be a healthy and glorifying fear of God. Why, then, has the church lost its courage to discipline her leaders? Al Mohler writes, “The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.”
What can result when churches lose their courage? John Leadley Dagg wrote in the 1850’s, “It has been remarked that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
What if the church does have courage and the sinning leader repents? Then restoration is made possible, at least to the fellowship as a member, if not as a leader.
A healthy church has courage to exercise church discipline, especially with its leadership. We ignore this at our own peril.