Friday, May 13, 2011


What’s Wrong With Organic Church? Part 4 - Unequipped to deal with internal conflicts

In part four of our series, I wanted to talk about how Organic Churches sometimes struggle with church discipline issues, or even dealing with conflict inside the church itself.

What do you do when someone in your house church family is unrepentantly walking in sin? How do you respond? Do you just ignore it and hope it will go away? Do you talk about it behind their back with others in the group? Or, do you quietly pray for them and keep it to yourself because you feel uncomfortable with confrontation?

Frankly, most Christians tend to gossip about, ignore or avoid the sin of others in their church – house church or otherwise. Mainly because we don’t like to get into other people’s business, and because we just don’t like the idea of confronting sin in others.

Now, I know from experience that any discussion like this will inevitably lead to discussions about judging others and casting the first stone, or the plank in your own eye. I’m not talking about creating a legalistic, judgmental atmosphere in your church family. We need to have grace for one another and there is room for maturity over time on certain issues, but when someone in the church body is having sex outside of marriage, or committing adultery, or abusing drugs or alcohol, or otherwise damaging their witness and slandering the name of Christ by their actions, we do have a Biblical mandate to lovingly correct such behavior.

Both Jesus and Paul outline a clear series of steps towards reconciliation and restoration of a brother or sister trapped in sinful activity. The goal of this process is always restoration. The tone and the spirit of the process is always deep, sincere love and integrity. Church discipline, if it’s done properly, should always be entered into with tears and the aim should always be to bring the person back into full and complete fellowship with the Body of Christ.

Here’s what Jesus teaches us about how to handle conflict in the Church:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”- Matthew 18:15-20

This passage deals, specifically, with how we should handle interpersonal conflict in the Church (“If a brother sins against you”), but it’s a perfectly good process for handling the restoration of fellowship with someone in the Church family who is unrepentantly continuing in sin. Notice the first step is to go privately to the person in the hopes of restoring fellowship. If this isn’t successful we are told to take “one or two others” with us – again with the hope of restoring right fellowship between members of the Body of Christ. The goal is not to shame anyone. It’s not to point out their sinful failures. It’s simply, from the very beginning, about seeking peace between members of God’s family and bringing someone back into right relationship with Christ. The very last step is to take it to the Church body. This final step, again, is to be done with an eye towards hopeful restoration of the person’s dignity and fellowship. It should be done with tears and with a sincere desire to bring this person back into the fullness of Christ. It’s only if all of these steps fail that anyone should be removed from the community of faith.

Why should we employ this process in the church? Because we’re protecting not only this person’s spiritual health, we’re also concerned about the message they are sending to the world about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Paul is especially clear about this aspect of protecting the witness of Christ in one another when he urges the church to deal with error and sin in their midst. (see 1 Cor 5: 1-13)

Church Discipline is necessary because it’s not only important to help one another follow Christ with integrity, it’s also important that we stand up and together to more faithfully define for those outside the Body what a true follower of Jesus looks like. Someone who openly lives in disobedience to the clear example of Christ is not a true follower of Jesus, and if we will not point this out to the world, then who will?

Over the years, our house church family has only had to confront these sorts of things a few times. Only once did it come to asking someone not to return to the group, but in that case it was only until we could verify some disturbing information from another church about this person’s past history. Specifically, this person’s previous pastor provided some information that appeared to show that this person had lied to us, taken money from the church under false pretenses and was avoiding a host of addiction-related issues. I offered to meet with him privately at a time and place of his choosing until we could sort it all out. He nearly took a swing at me, but declined my offer to talk this out and never returned.

I wish I could tell you that we’ve always handled this process perfectly, but sometimes we’ve had to learn from our mistakes in this area. Thankfully, no one was damaged as a result of our foolishness and we continue to remain in good fellowship with everyone involved. (Except this person in the above example, although I did run into him about a year later and he embraced me and prayed for me and said that everything was much better, I guess even this one worked out too, by the Grace of God).

So, whether you’re part of a house church, or an organic church, the need for church discipline remains, and it’s commanded by our Lord Jesus.

The major difference in the organic church is that church discipline is done by the Body, and out of relationship, not through an external or artificial hierarchy. Even Jim Belcher, local pastor and author of Deep Church, agrees that hierarchical structures aren’t necessarily capable of bringing about true repentance.

About a year ago I was interviewed by Jim Belcher for his book, and in it he references our discussion in two different chapters, touching on this very issue, saying:

“My greatest concern about house churches like Keith Giles’s is that there is no formal structure for discipline. When I asked him how he would mediate a struggle between him and another member or leader...he really did not know. He would try, he said, to convince that person based on the strength of their relationship. But I have seen firsthand that this is not always enough. Sometimes a higher court, like an elder board or a denomination is needed.”

Although Belcher sees a need for a denominational authority in these cases, he goes on to agree with my assertion that relationships are more powerful than hierarchy when it comes to addressing these concerns:

“Keith would agree that they have no hierarchy, offices and fluid structures. But he would disagree that they have no accountability. When I asked about discipline, he said it is done through the relationships that are built in the house church. He mentioned a few times that he has had to confront wrong choices people have made.

'If they are not going to listen to me, when I love them,' he said, 'why would they listen to someone above me in a hierarchy?'

I would have to agree."
(Jim says)

In the actual interview between Belcher and myself, he went on to share several very specific instances where he personally confronted people in his church who were behaving sinfully and they did not waver when he brought in the denominational authority.

Still, the issue of church discipline in an organic church can be a tricky thing. Mainly because most of us do not like conflict or confrontation, and if we’re going to respond to sin in our midst, or correct someone who is teaching something heretical, we’re going to have to do more than a little confronting.

Another friend of mine, Todd Hunter (now a Bishop in the Anglican church), once told me that the condition of the person’s heart is actually more of a determining factor in these cases than anything else, saying, “A good man will remain faithful, even with a poor structure of accountability, and a degenerate man will frustrate and resist even the most iron-clad system of accountability.”

I must agree.

So, while it may be one of the more difficult aspects of participating in an organic church, discipline within the Body is still a necessary part of growing in community with one another.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.



reformedlostboy said...

My most recent experience with an institutional church took discipline very seriously. We believed that discipline did not rest in the hands of the elders although the elders were usually involved once it got to the "two or more" stage. If reconciliation had not come through this, the matter was discussed in a special congregational meeting after the service in order to allow the entire body know the situation and encourage everyone to call the sinning brother or sister to repentance.

In those instances, I did not know the person well enough to think that my friendship would have any bearing on them. I figured that if their heart didn't change after close loved ones went to them, me doing so would be a waste of both of our time.

Now that we gather in a more simple and intimate fashion, I couldn't bear to lose any of my brothers and sisters. We are connected ina way that I never experienced in IC's. I believe that the relational loss would bring a sinning member to repentance once those relationships have had time to build. Without being built together, discipline among the body is likely not to end well.

reformedlostboy said...

I forgot to click the sub box

Greg Carlet said...

I have been thinking about this a lot recently. I have read over both Jesus' words in Matthew and Paul's words in 1 Corinthians.

In the Matthew account it says we are to treat the person as a Gentile and tax collector. This is interesting as we would welcome those people into our church. So it seems as though the person would still be welcome to attend gatherings, but would be treated as a Gentile or tax collector, but not a bother or sister in Christ.

The 1 Corinthians account seems to deal more with completely removing the person from being a part of the body, with the ultimate goal being restoration. This is not only to bring about repentance, but also to protect the body. "Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?"

In the past couple of years, we have not yet come across an intense church discipline moment in our group yet. I think part of the reason is there is much accountability between people throughout the week that it never makes it past the one-on-one or two or three witnesses level.

I'm glad I found this post Keith. Thank you for posting it.

JF Morin said...

We have experienced the need for church discipline in extreme cases. The cohesive force in the church, however, is to be love. We need to give people the freedom to choose love in their interactions with others. When division and hostility arise we discipline after a few warnings. But through the process we need to show the proper attitude to the offender. How will that person learn love if he is not seeing it in his correction?

Anonymous said...

I saw such abuses of church discipline at a 1’000 member church that my heart was really open to a house organic church. Now the leader is preaching teaching a revised version of universalism.