Mailbag #55: Explaining the “Care List”; When a Member Marries a Non-Christian

Mailbag
03.10.2017

Can you explain your church’s “care list”?  »
Does marrying an unbeliever warrant church discipline? »

Dear 9Marks,

As I understand it, the elders of your church keep a list of people who are in need of special care and oversight. This list includes people in a variety of circumstances: in health crises, in process of being confronted over unrepentant sin, in need of deep encouragement because of certain struggles, etc. And the purpose of this list is to make sure the elders have “eyes on” and are kept in touch with the condition of the individuals.

So, some implementation questions:
1) How does someone get on the list?
2) What info goes on the list? Name + situation + elder taking some primary oversight? More information? Less information?
3) Who sees this list? I presume elders only, but are there exceptions to that?
4) If a person gets on the list, are they notified? If so, what’s that conversation like?

I’m sure there are other aspects of this practice that would be good and helpful to hear about. It seems like an excellent thing for us to begin doing at this stage of life in our church. Are other ways of thinking about it that you would commend to us?

—Joshua, California

Dear Joshua,

Thanks for introducing the “internal elder care list” so that I don’t have to. You describe it correctly. It’s our list of those sheep who have wandered off from the ninety-nine, or who for some other reason are in ongoing need. To your questions:

  1. During the executive session portion of our elders meeting (when there are elders only, and no pastoral interns or other guests are present), the chairman asks if anyone has an addition to make to the care list. At that point, any elder can recommend adding so-and-so for such-and-such reason.
  2. The list includes the person or couple’s name(s); the name of the elder(s) primarily responsible for interacting with the individual and keeping the elders informed; as well as a phrase or two update. We all receive a copy of the list in our “elder packet” four or five days before the elder meeting (packets also include minutes from previous meetings, any memos to discuss, the list of the members’ names for whom we will pray, member applications and resignations, etc.).
  3. Only elders see the list. No exceptions. We do talk through the list during elders’ meetings when others are present. But we don’t refer to the individuals by name in that setting but by number. Every other elders’ meeting, the chairman will lead us through each name. “How’s number 1 doing?” The elder(s) responsible for number 1 will then provide all of us an update. “And how about number 2?” When a person’s status has improved, we remove him or her from the internal careless.
  4. No, no one is notified if his or her name is on the internal care list. The care list is just our way of reminding ourselves to pursue regular updates on hurting or straying sheep. The only time people find out their name is on the care list is when we inform them that we are putting their name on the “public care list.” This latter list consists of the names we announce to our members in our members’ meeting, either to request special care and prayer, or as a preparatory step toward excommunication. Our public care list will, at most, only have a few names on it. Our internal care list tends to have anywhere from 5 to 15 names. And we’re a church of just over 1000.

Well, that was some serious insider baseball. Or more like a pastor geek convention. Either way, I hope helps you to care better for your sheep.

Dear 9Marks,

If a church member marries an unbeliever (against the counsel of the elders), would that be ground for excommunication? If not, to what extent would you practice church discipline?

—Dan

Dear Dan,

Here’s the most important thing for you to take away from my answer: I don’t have more Bible than you have. There is no “extended cut” version that says “always do this; never do that” for most of the pastoral situations we find ourselves in.

What that means is, with just about any sin, the question of whether or not we “should” excommunicate (remove from membership and the Lord’s Table) will almost always be, “It depends.” Oh, Lord, give us wisdom.

To your scenario specifically, the first thing I’d want to know is, did he or she act more in weakness or more in open rebellion? Paul envisions different pastoral responses to different kinds of people (1 Thes. 5:14). The fact that he or she refused the counsel of the elders should weigh into your answer. But I can still imagine both scenarios, and the more a person seems to have acted in weakness, the slower I will move.

Second, how does the person talk about what he or she did. Justify it? Confess it as sin? Now, you and the member are both in the position of wanting the marriage to succeed. So don’t go fishing for a disavowal of the spouse, and always speak respectfully about the spouse. Still, your member was just given a choice between Jesus and marriage—based on God’s command to only marry in the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39)—and he or she chose marriage. Does he or she recognize that fact. Does it cause any grief?

More than that, you’re searching for any note of repentance. Christians sin. We all sin. The difference between Christians and non-Christians, however, is that Christians repent of their sin. They fight against it. Your member happened to choose a life-altering sin, so repentance doesn’t require him or her to “undo” what was done, like asking a thief to give back stolen money. But do you see any brokenness, any grief, any willingness to confess, any desire to do what’s right, any longing to hear the consolation that comes from the good news of the gospel?

Now, the person might be reluctant to say any of that because it will feel dishonoring to the spouse. You will have to help him or her separate the two things (honoring the spouse; the question of sin) by expressing an “as of this moment!” support for the spouse and the marriage. Still, that’s what you want to discern.

Assuming you believe the person is repentant, no, you should not excommunicate. But you probably need to inform the church, simply because a marriage is a matter of public record and a very visible part of a person’s life. Telling the church also gives you a chance to affirm the person’s repentance and to counsel the congregation on how to best care for the individual.

Assuming you don’t believe the person is repentant, then, yes, you might move toward excommunication.

I pray this is useful.

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