Mailbag #11—Why “Disowning” Family Members Isn’t an Option; Term Limits for Elders; Expedited Church Discipline; Can I Leave My Family’s Church?
My wife’s father left his wife three weeks ago. There does not seem to be any sexual sin involved. They have spoken with a counselor, but my father-in-law is unwilling to meet with the pastor. Also, he is not giving his wife any money. Rather, he is taking her earned funds for his expenses meant for their mortgage. They attend a church that does not have church membership. The pastor is willing to talk with him but believes the church cannot do anything other than bar him from future leadership opportunities. My father-in-law’s wife pleaded for help from the pastor two weeks ago but has not received any response.
As a son-in-law who attends a different church, what does Jesus ask of me in this situation? Am I to cut myself-off from my father-in law?
I am so sorry to hear about this situation. I can think of at least four things Jesus asks of you. First, support and encourage your wife (1 Peter 3; Eph. 5). It’s probably a tougher road for her since it’s her father. What can you do to be a source of strength, guidance, and wisdom for her? I’ll leave you to work out the details on that.
Second, warn your father-in-law (whether directly or through your wife) that those who abandon their wives will not inherit the kingdom of God (see 1 Cor. 6:9-11). A man who does not provide for his own household “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Seek to restore him (Gal. 6:1), doing your best to snatch him from the fire (Jude 23).
Third, both you and your wife should continue to honor and love him as a father (Eph. 6:1-3). I would say this even if you were members of the same church and your church excommunicated him. The New Testament commandments to break fellowship with believers who acts like unbelievers (e.g. Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:9,11) apply to family members in their capacity as fellow Christians and church members, but I don’t believe they apply to family members in their capacity as family members. In other words, the wife of an excommunicated man should still fulfill her wifely obligations since those obligations are the property of a creation ordinance, not a new covenant ordinance (see 1 Cor. 7:13). And the children of excommunicated parents should still honor their parents, again, since the parent-child relationship is grounded in creation, not in the new covenant relationships embodied within a church.
A brief tangent here: this is why I think the whole idea of “disowning” one’s son or daughter when they oppose our faith in word or deed is misguided. For instance, the Christian parent who breaks relationship with the son or daughter who adopts a gay lifestyle (whether or not the child self-identifies as a Christian), I propose, is wrong to do so. Instead, that Christian parent should continue to affirm his or her parental and unconditional love for and relationship with the gay son or daughter, even while expressing disagreement with the lifestyle decisions being made.
Fourth, so long as your father-in-law remains in unrepentant sin, you should not treat him as a Christian (see Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:5). No, I’m not saying you formally excommunicate him. You don’t belong to the same church, as you said. But there is a sense in which you might informally replicate that. In other words, you don’t ask him to pray at meals. You don’t refer to him as a brother in the Lord. You don’t say anything to make him think that you think he’s a Christian. Instead, when the subject of the faith comes up, he feels some measure of awkwardness from you because you have warned him (point 2 above) and told him that you have no reason to think he’s a Christian if he persists in unrepentant sin.
Balancing these four things, no doubt, takes wisdom. Duties three and four might feel like they are in some tension with one another. And they are. Most of all, pray for his repentance. Repentance, finally, depends upon the work of God.
Dear 9Marks, I am almost done with Jeramie Rinne’s book on elders, but I still don’t have a good grasp on whether there should be term limits for elders. Thoughts? Thank you for you time.
Ah, term limits. And to be clear, I assume you’re talking about term limits for lay or non-staff elders. My own church’s constitution, for instance, allows a lay-elder to serve two three-year terms, and then requires him to take a year off. But I have never heard of a church with limits for staff elders.
Let’s start biblically. The Bible says nothing about term limits. So, the question is, does the Bible leave us free to use them? Does the church have the authority to say to a man whom they have affirmed as an overseer, “The constitution says it’s time for you to step down”? I suppose I lean toward thinking we have the freedom, but I admit the biblical question is debatable. What’s worse, I’m not sure I have anything to contribute here.
There are several pragmatic advantages for term limits (as well as sabbaticals for staff pastors). First, it helps to keep the work and the office tied together, instead of keeping the man and the office tied together.
In other words, becoming an elder does not mean the Holy Spirit emblazons something on your soul such that once some is an elder, they’re always an elder. No, a person assumes the office of elder in order to perform certain tasks (oversee, shepherd, teach). And if a man stops performing those tasks because he’s growing old and tired, or if he starts performing them badly, he is no longer eldering. And he should not be “an elder.” In the ordination model where a man is ordained for life, he remains an elder even if he’s not eldering. I don’t like that at all. It cheapens and undermines the office. And how much liberalism and nominalism results! Term limits, however, are one small constitutional mechanism that clarify, “You’re here to work.”
Second, relatedly, limits provide an easy way—ahem!—to roll off the older gentleman whose work, let’s just say, is not what it used to be. You know what I mean?
Third, limits give lay-elders a rest.
There are pragmatic disadvantages, however. First, it may give a board of elders an excuse not to have a difficult conversation with a brother that they should have. They fear his reaction more than they love him, and so they just wait for him to roll off the board instead of having that tough conversation with him.
Second, if you’re like me and you believe that every elder (staff or lay) should possess an equal amount of formal authority (that is, one vote), term limits tilt the power distribution in favor of the staff elders.
Third, limits can disrupt good eldering that a lay elder is doing.
All that to say, there are reasons for and against term limits, and I think each church needs to decide for itself whether or not to hardwire them into its constitution. That assumes, of course, that we do have biblical freedom to use them. And I’m leaving that conversation for another day.
Granted that the norm for church discipline, such as in matters of sexual sin, should be patient exhortation, gradually (and regretfully) becoming more formal and confrontational, according to the pattern in Matthew 18:16ff, is there a time in church life when a member’s sin is so poisonous to the body that the elders need to quickly drive the troublemaker out? For example, in Titus 3:9ff, Paul tells Titus that in the case of a contentious, divisive member, he ought only warn him twice and then “have nothing more to do with him”. Surely that means that he is no longer a member of the church. Then, are there cases, especially with public, disruptive behavior in the church in which the elders are empowered to expedite church discipline and drive the wolf from the flock?
—John, North Carolina
I agree that Titus 3:9 is referring to excommunication, but I don’t understand Paul to be laying out the entire process for how discipline should work with divisive members. In other words, don’t read that verse like you might read an instruction manual on an IKEA dresser. Instead, Paul is simply making the general point, “Warn this guy at least a couple of times but then act quickly. It’s urgent!” I don’t think he’s addressing whether Titus should do it, or all the elders, or the whole church. He’s just saying, “Do it!” And byone Titus 3:9, I don’t see any precedent in Scripture for the elders acting apart from the congregation in matters of excommunication.
That said, I do think 1 Corinthians 5 gives us grounds for speeding up the process of discipline. Paul skips the Matthew 18 process because he judges the man to be unrepentant and the sin is already widely known, and that’s what the Matthew 18 process helps us determine: is a person repentant? Therefore, in those situations where the leadership feels confident a person is unrepentant, they have license from 1 Corinthians 5 to ask the congregation to immediately remove a member, just as Paul exhorts the Corinthian congregation to do.
Hope that’s helpful!
Hello, if someone has grown up in a certain church since they were a child, is it mandatory for that person to join that particular church’s membership when they become an adult? Or is it okay for that person to consider joining other churches? I’ve recently graduated from college and I’m unsure whether I should stay in my current church or look for a different one.
Of course you can join another church! A membership covenant is not a marriage covenant. You’re not bound to remain in one church the rest of your life. Of course you want to do everything within your power to make sure your relationships are in good order, and that you’re leaving on good terms. And you want to make sure you’re thinking biblically about what makes a church healthy. But I can think of no reason why you should remain in the church of your childhood, you know, just because.