Stories of Restoration after Church Discipline
Editor's note: We asked three pastors to share a story of restoration—that is, someone who had been restored to membership after being disciplined for unrepentant sin.
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By Phil Newton
While visiting with a man to rebuke him for disrupting his marriage over pornography, another elder and I discovered that his wife had cast aside her marriage vows. Confronting her, she balked at correction. Calling her to meet with the elders, she came but with venom that spewed in harsh, hateful words toward a group of men lovingly calling her to repentance. She left abruptly. We wept.
Removal from the body by church discipline followed for the unrepentant, unteachable couple. They soon divorced. She remarried and started a downward spiral of rebellion that led to another divorce and consequent brokenness. Occasionally, we would hear some report of her. She began to attend another church that accepted her for membership despite being informed of her being under discipline. After about nine or ten years, on her third marriage, broken over her sin, and desiring to be restored to fellowship with a church that had loved her enough to call out her sin and plead for repentance, she contacted the elder that had originally joined me in visiting with her. She asked whether it might be possible for the church to forgive her and restore her to fellowship. She didn’t seek membership, as she had moved from the community.
After receiving her humble request, meeting with her to see the longing for restoration, we presented to the congregation this request to restore her to fellowship with our body. The church unanimously affirmed restoration! A few weeks later, at our Christmas Eve Communion Service, we offered her the bread and cup as a sign of this restoration to fellowship. Since that time, she has visited with us on several occasions with much gratitude and joy.
Here’s a similar story: After learning of a man’s unfaithfulness to his wife, the elders and I confronted him and let him know that he was under discipline. After initially stonewalling, he humbly responded to the requirements that we established. For another couple of years he showed great faithfulness, even publicly repenting and requesting baptism as a new convert. Unfortunately, he started to slide back into some of the old patterns. When confronted, he steadfastly refused to submit to the elders’ instruction. He even threatened a lawsuit if we disciplined him. After following Matthew 18, we asked the church to remove him from membership, which they did.
The path ahead proved hard for him, with much brokenness and heartache. Seven or eight years later, he asked if he could meet with me. He came humbly, admitting his sin and rebellion, and asked if he could be restored to fellowship. The elders presented this request to the church and the congregation unanimously approved. We had the joy of welcoming him to the Lord’s Table a few weeks later as he visited with us.
1. Exercising church discipline is a painful act of love that confirms the purity of life in the body. For those disciplined who later repent, they long to see that purity and love restored. That’s evidence of true repentance.
2. Not all will ask to be restored to fellowship but when it happens, it gives the congregation a clearer picture of how we’re to love and forgive through restoration.
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By Joel Kurz
Carde had grown up in a broken home and, when I met him, he was an agnostic. But he loved to debate about Christianity. After the death of his father, God’s grace surprised me (as it often does), when Carde made a profession of faith, was baptized, and joined our church. One year later, he was excommunicated.
During the summer of 2014, Carde began to drift from the faith. He returned to sinful habits, “the streets” appealed to him, and the historic injustices committed by the church proved a sufficient reason for him to abandon the faith. On a sad, prayerful day, the church removed Carde from membership as an act of church discipline.
Months passed. Carde ran the streets, smoked a lot of weed, expressed hostility toward Christians and the church, and eventually found himself broke and homeless. The church never stopped pursuing him. Paul would reach out to him and find creative ways to spend time together. Daniel and Susanna opened their home to him. After living with them, he moved in with another family, and then another. Having hit rock bottom, he enrolled in a job training program led by Stephanie. Another member encouraged him to get off weed and clear his mind. Others began inviting him back to church. Carde accepted their offers and started reading the Bible again. To our surprise, in short order he was once again confessing the gospel.
I’ll admit, we were hesitant to bring him back in as a member. We were afraid this was yet another phase. We were worried he’d hurt us again.
Nevertheless, at Sunday evening prayer service Carde publicly asked, “What would it take to become a member again?” In the next few weeks, we restored our love for him and brought our brother back into the family.
A few lessons we learned:
- God’s love is displayed through people. As the body of Christ, human beings become the means of experiencing God’s love on earth. Christian love testifies that the gospel is true.
- Intentional living can make a difference. Members inviting Carde into their home, not only displayed love, but gave him regular exposure to the gospel and a safe place to detox from drugs and from the rest of the world.
- Don’t assume the past dictates the future. We thought we knew Carde better than we did. At first, we were hesitant to reaffirm him and receive him as a church member. We figured he would cycle through seasons of disobedience. But we were wrong. Five years later, Carde is continuing to grow, he’s making disciples, and he’s in leadership training. God’s grace interrupts man’s cycles of sin.
One final story and lesson learned: restoring love saves lives. After Carde came back to Christ and into the church, we discovered there were people who had determined to kill him. In the streets, he upset the wrong crowd. However, when they found him, they confessed to a friend: “He was changed, and we decided not to kill him.” Not only was Carde’s physical life preserved, through his hope in the gospel, his eternal life is kept safe.
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By John Folmar
Harry, a member of our church, was living with his girlfriend. His closest friends had been warning him that he was defaming Christ by this living arrangement and misrepresenting what it means to be a Christian. In time, the church elders got involved. We met with Harry and probed his understanding of the situation. Harry said he knew it was sinful and brought disrepute on Christ’s name, but he simply would not move out. We warned Harry that he was living like “those who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:5) and that if he did not repent of his sin, we could no longer affirm his profession of faith. Since the apostle Paul warns that the sexually immoral “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10), those whose lives are characterized by such behavior have no confidence of a right standing with God unless they repent.
Harry was disciplined in November 2011. He was removed from membership and instructed not to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
For several months, Harry stopped attending church. But after that time, we started to see Harry in our services again. Some of our elders met with him to discuss how he was doing. It became evident that he was repentant for what he had done. In time, Harry approached the elders and asked to be re-admitted into membership. He expressed sorrow toward the whole congregation for what he did, and remorse for how his actions reflected poorly on the Lord and our congregation. As the months and years have passed, not only has Harry shown his repentance to be genuine, he has on several occasions held himself out as an example of the positive effects of church discipline.
In Scripture, the goal of discipline is never punitive, as though the church is punishing someone for his sin. On the contrary, the goal is restorative—to win the brother back. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul said the reason for putting an unrepentant sinner out of fellowship is “so that his spirit may be saved on the last day.” Discipline awakens repentance in the heart of a believer. In Harry’s case, he was greatly helped by the love and support of the church family after having being readmitted to membership. His sin was not condoned, but genuine friendship prevented Harry from being “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:8).
When a whole congregation makes a clear statement that someone is in serious unrepentant sin, and that following Jesus makes a difference in life, and that God’s people do not condone what’s being done, then the gospel is clarified and those living in unrepentant sin are confronted with the truth. Church discipline causes the person to sit up and take notice, and even to repent of his sin.
We’re all wayward sinners—church discipline is exercised for those who will not repent of their sin. It’s a restorative step designed to purify the church, to honor Christ, and also to win back an erring brother or sister.