Wally has a series of posts going on about church discipline. I have a personal example of church discipline that I’d like to share, but I fear it will be a bit of a long story and I’d rather not hijack Wally’s comment section to tell it, so I’m posting here instead.
Actually, it’s not me, personally, that faced church discipline…it was my husband…but it affected me, and it was done at least partly for my sake.
In 2010/2011, my husband had an affair with another woman. This is not a big secret, I have a whole other blog that I wrote for about three years, pouring my heart out, trying to come to terms with it all. I guess you can go and read all about it if you want to – just be warned that it’s raw and ugly. I’m not really going to go into many details today though – I just want to share the part that has to do with church discipline.
So, when I first discovered that my husband had been cheating on me, I went to him with it. I found out accidentally, I had no idea that it had been going on, suspected nothing; and yet, when I stumbled across plain evidence of it on his laptop, wasn’t my first thought So THAT’S what’s been going on!?! Suddenly, everything clicked; all the cracks that has recently appeared in my marriage suddenly made sense. I knew in an instant it was true.
The only thought I had in my head was, This can’t be happening. But I knew that it was. There was no need for me to look any further, to search his laptop and look for – what? More proof? Proof was right here in front of me.
I didn’t know what to do, and I guess maybe instinct and habit took over because I did what I would normally do. I went to my husband, the guy I always go to with my troubles.
So with maybe no more than a minute having passed, I grabbed the laptop and and went to my husband. Inside, I was one hot mess, but I managed to say as evenly as possible, What am I looking at here?
And so the truth came out, and he admitted his sin to me and I again I did what came naturally to me; I immediately forgave him. Imperfectly, yes; not even very well, really…but I forgave him as best I could, as best as my wounded, confused heart would allow in that moment.
I told him, I forgive you…and maybe it was only 1% true, maybe not even that much; but I spoke the words, knowing that it was not the paucity of my act of forgiveness that made forgiveness for him true. I could confidently speak those words to him because his forgiveness is not dependant upon how much (or little) forgiveness I could muster up in my heart for him. Christ’s promise stands ever true – your sins are forgiven.
I forgive you, I told him, and we can get past this. I will do whatever I have to. Please give her up so we can move forward.
And those words were like lightening to him. He was deep in his sin, and my words caused him to flee. Much, much later, he told me that it was my very words of grace and forgiveness that he didn’t know what to do with. He KNEW he was unrepentant, he KNEW intended to continue his affair, and he KNEW he didn’t deserve any grace. Certainly not from one he had harmed so grievously. And even though a part of him desperately wanted to take the grace being offered, he wanted his sin too.
And so he rejected grace.
This isn’t so scandalous as it seems – this is simply what struggling with sin looks like in the life of the Christian. We all do it, in big and little ways, every day…this is just an example of it, magnified to the nth degree. And, of course, I have the benefit of hindsight now.
I don’t think I did anything “wrong” in how I approached him. I spoke Law to him – You are hurting me, please stop – and I spoke Gospel to him – I forgive you, and I want to be reconciled with you – and both were doing their work. If they had not been, he simply wouldn’t have cared either way. He wouldn’t have felt conflicted by it; there would have been no struggle within him.
He agreed to speak to our pastor. I wasn’t there for that conversation and my husband has only given me a few details of what transpired, but the gist of it was, In love, be restored to your wife, whom the Lord has given you. You are hurting her, as well as the image of Christ that you bear as her husband. You must stop.
The best my husband could do was promise to try, but, of course, he really did not; he made no attempt to, really didn’t want to…he only said so to get everybody off his back.
We continued to see our pastor twice a week and my husband continued to insist that he was trying, but after 4 weeks of it, I was a nervous wreck and my husband was not showing any indications that he wanted to be reconciled. His affair continued underground (though not so underground that I couldn’t find traces of it). He was still living in the family home, but he was not being a husband to me, not in any meaningful sense of the word. And I don’t know, suddenly, how badly he was sinning against me became crystal clear – this man was no longer my husband. He had completely cast off his duties as a husband to me and had given them to another woman. We were husband and wife in name only, a mere legal formality. He had forsaken our true marital bond, the bond made in Name Only. (<– see what I did there?) We were no longer husband and wife to each other, and somehow (to me anyways) I felt like by staying in the situation, I was participating in adultery as well.
So I left him, though I made it clear that I was not leaving the marriage, I was leaving the situation that he had put me in. This was his choice, not mine. If he would repent and turn away from her, then and only then would I be able to return. If I was to return, it would be a return to our marriage and not whatever this sham had become.
As I mentioned earlier, I was in rough shape by then. I was going through chemo treatment at the time as well, and I was barely hanging on mentally and emotionally. My parents got me into the hospital where I was admitted to the mental health unit; then called my pastor for me as well.
He came immediately. I told him. I don’t remember all that much about that conversation. I do remember that he asked me if I wanted him to let my husband know that I was in the hospital and I remember struggling with answering that. I finally decided that I would have my daughter let him know. (For the life of me, today, I can’t imagine why I thought it would be okay to burden her with such a thing… did I mention I was in the mental unit??) In any case, my pastor then also asked me to let him know when my husband had been made aware of what was going on with me, basically for pastoral reasons, which I understood. He would have to talk to my husband about this.
And now my pastor had to bring the full thunder of the Law upon him. His actions, and his failure to repent of them and be restored to forgiveness had brought about a physical and spiritual rupture to the marriage. He was not, as he insisted, “trying”. This was simply open, unrepentant sin with dangerous spiritual consequences. This was not only about “stop sinning against your wife”, this was about “stop inviting damnation upon your soul”!
For that is what it is to reject forgiveness and restoration. It is unbelief. It is to say, I don’t want those things, nor do I believe that I need them. I like things fine, just the way they are. To choose to stay in that state, well, that is a dangerous place to be.
And so, out of love and concern for my husband, my pastor warned him that for the good of his soul, until he repented he could not be admitted to the Supper, lest in unbelief he “eat and drink damnation upon himself”. It’s a strong warning to the sinner, to say I’m not so sure you actually believe what you profess to. You say you believe in the forgiveness of sins, but you are rejecting it. Something is not right and it needs to be examined.
The Church calls this type of warning excommunication. Ugly word, ain’t it? I’m not all that knowledgable about it, honestly. I know that for churches that use it, there’s often a formal process involved, but I also know that it’s a bit more than merely a bureaucratic formality, that there is a Scriptural foundation to its use and a body of theology surrounding its use. But beyond that, I’m not really conversant enough with it to get into all that. I “get” the concept, but not well enough to articulate it coherently 😉
So far as the formal process, what little I know, my husband related to me.
I’m holding back a chuckle because my husband, of all people, was well acquainted with the not just the process of excommunication, but also all of its theological underpinnings, LONG before he experienced it personally. You see, he sat on our church’s board of elders – had for years. He knew all about the process, all about the theology behind it, as part of his training and duties serving as an elder.
What happened was, after our pastor had warned him, but before he was formally excluded from the Sacrament, he was asked to meet with his fellow elders. They sat in a room together and one by one they spoke to him Law and Gospel. They were kind, they were gentle, but they were firm: Brother, flee from sin and unbelief. Be reconciled to your wife and to your Lord. Be joined again to your brothers and sisters in our common confession – Christ has died for ME.
And STILL he did not believe. I know this because he told me (again, much, much later) but he told me straight up, he didn’t believe there was anything to be forgiven. And not to put to fine a point on it, but that is rank unbelief. He told me that at the time, he believed that it was God’s will for him that he should be with this other woman. That marrying me had been a mistake and that he could see God’s hand so clearly in his new relationship. He was supposed to be with her, he was sure if it.
Do you see what he did there? Do you see how he shifted his trust from the clear commands – and the clear promises – of God for the promises of a different god of his own making? I don’t know what other to call that than unbelief. He sure wasn’t behaving like he believed it!
Now I wanna be clear here, I don’t know if my husband ever actually strayed over in to unbelief. I don’t even think he knows. My point is not to speculate about whether he did or he didn’t. My point is, it doesn’t really matter – either way, he was in dangerous territory. Yet despite this, the Lord kept a hold of him.
How do I know this?
Because the Law and the Gospel did it’s work. Though he didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to believe it, the Law convicted him – This is wrong. It didn’t happen overnight; we were separated for 9 long months as he struggled to fully believe it. But the Law kept doing its work and convicting him, I don’t care what your new god says, you KNOW you have abandoned the truth! And then the Gospel swiftly moved in, Come back to Truth. Let go of the so-called promises of your false god; return to forgiveness and life and rest. I know you feel like you have done nothing to deserve grace and restoration – let go of that too, for it has already all been done for you.
Back and forth he went between his two “Gods” with their two very different words for him…both insisting, “You should believe me!”
Only one of those words actually has the power to do what it says it does. There is only One Word that declares “I save you!”…and then DOES.
My husband did eventually repent and return to me, a long and painful process for both of us. Do not make the mistake of thinking that it was the excommunication that caused it, for it is only God’s word that has such power. Excommunication is intended to protect the one who has been excluded from bringing more harm against them, should they be eating and drinking the Supper unworthily. Ideally, the Christian should excuse himself from the Supper should his conscience be bothering him, but sometimes the conscience malfunctions and we don’t recognize that we are unrepentently sinning. In such a case, it is up to the Church to intervene and protect the sinner from further harm. Excommunication is not meant to be a hammer with which to crush the sinner (that’s what the Law is for) – excommunication is meant to be loving protection, a shield for the “smoldering wick” against the wind of unbelief. But it in no way has any power in and of itself.
From what I understand, it is seldom used, mainly out of concern that it be used wrongly, because to keep another from the Sacrament is serious business, and every effort must be made to bring about repentance before it must be, however reluctantly, applied. Much discernment and pastoral care is needed in deciding when and when not to apply it.
In the end though, it is the Gospel that remains the cure; the sure and steady promise that there is life and forgiveness – for YOU – in Christ.
Anyways, that is my true story of my husband’s messy, but ultimately beautiful, reconciliaton to me, and to his Lord.
I couldn’t change his heart.
My pastor couldn’t change his heart.
His elder brethren could not change his heart.
But Jesus could.
And He did.