How to Handle Trouble in the Church

June 7, 1992 | Ray Pritchard

Some subjects require special justification by the pastor; others are self-evident. This one requires no justification. Wherever you have two or more people gathered in one place, you will have trouble sooner or later. Whenever you have hundreds of people in one place, you’ll probably have trouble sooner rather than later. Thus the need for this study.


What do you do when …

–Two Christians will no longer speak to each other?

–A youth pastor has an affair?

–A Sunday School teacher denies the deity of Christ?

–One leader criticizes another leader behind his back?

–A Christian businessman cheats another man in the church?

–A woman seeks a divorce because she believes God told her to marry someone else?

–An usher is caught stealing from the weekly offering?

–A teenager accuses a youth worker of sexual harassment?

–A deacon turns out to be a homosexual?

–Two couples begin spreading rumors that the Music Minister uses drugs?

–The pastor refuses to preach in accordance with the church’s Statement of Faith?

–A choir member threatens to sue the church if it reveals she is having an affair with a co-worker?

These are not hypothetical situations. They happen every day in local churches across America. And let’s not kid ourselves. Things like this happen in our church–maybe not every day, but they happen more often than we would like to admit.

Let’s begin with the words of Gordon MacDonald:

Today the contemporary church struggles with the subject of discipline. It is not popular to judge one another, nor is it an easy thing to confront one another. Many would rather ignore sin than go through the struggle of facing it and forgiving it under proper conditions. But we cannot hope for an effective ministry . . . and neglect the necessary purification of our lives and of our fellowship. Restoring Fellowship, p. 7

1. Some Initial Considerations

A. Although it is often overlooked, church discipline has long been regarded as one of the three primary marks of a true church–the other two being the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the ordinances. An “undisciplined” church is a contradiction in terms. It is something less than fully biblical.

B. Biblical church discipline always goes beyond our natural impulses to either get mad, tell someone else or sweep sin under the rug. To the contrary, church discipline faces problems head-on, confronts sin, upholds the name of Jesus Christ, and seeks to win the erring brother back to the Lord.

C. Church discipline always has three great purposes at heart:

1. To preserve the purity of the church.
2. To protect the honor of Jesus Christ.
3. To restore the erring believer.

This is a crucial subject because the very health of the church is at stake. How do you handle trouble in the church? You may be surprised to know that Jesus gave us the central word on this subject.

2. What Jesus Said to Do Matthew 18:15-17

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ’every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

This passage reveals a basic four-step process that we should follow in handling trouble in the church.

Step # 1 Go to the person. Church discipline begins with something as simple as one person going to another person. It needn’t be anything highly organized or even emotional. In the beginning, it is simply one friend helping another friend correct some mistake they have made. In order to be effective, this step needs to be taken:

A. Personally

B. Privately

C. Immediately.

Most problems can be dealt with on this basis. And most church struggles come about because we would rather do almost anything else than confront another person. In particular we would rather A. Tell someone else or B. Forget about it. Both approaches only make matters worse. As difficult as it is to confront another person, not confronting them is almost always worse. “The first price you pay is always the cheapest.”

But what if they laugh at you, or worse, if they get angry, or if they deny it all? Then you go to the next step.

Step # 2 Go with someone else. At this point matters have gotten much more serious. Now a third party is involved as a witness to the proceedings. Things are still private, but not as private as they were before. Going with someone else protects you from false accusations and it also impresses upon the person being seen the seriousness of their offense.

But what if they still refuse to listen? Then you go to step 3.

Step # 3 Tell it to the church. It must be emphasized that there is a vast gulf between step 2 and step 3. When you “tell it to the church,” the matter is no longer private and confidential. Such a step should only be taken after you have exhausted all other means of confrontation. Step 3 must not be taken lightly!

“Tell it to the church” does not necessarily mean announcing it to the congregation. It may mean “tell the matter to the designated leaders of the church–the elders, the deacons, etc.” Why take such a drastic step? You do this only when the sin is of such a magnitude as to threaten the very life of the congregation. Under what circumstances would you actually announce a discipline issue to the whole congregation?

A. When it involves a major and well-known leader (1 Timothy 5:19-20).
B. When the sin itself is known throughout the congregation (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).
C. When drastic public action must be taken to protect the congregation. (Romans 16:17-20).

If all else fails then you go to the last step.

Step # 4 Treat him as an unbeliever. This means excommunicating him from the congregation–withdrawing fellowship, terminating his membership, asking the congregation not to treat him as a Christian brother, refusing to serve him the Lord’s Supper, etc. The exact form will vary from time to time and from place to place but the principle is clear: Because of his obstinate refusal to listen to godly counsel, he must now be treated as if he were an unbeliever. This step is by far the most severe, and should only be taken in the most extreme circumstances.

Note two observations about the whole process:

1. The steps are progressive, each one more severe than the previous one.

2. Each step is meant to be a final point in the process. That is, if personal confrontation solves the problem, then you don’t go to step 2. Likewise, you never go to step 3 or step 4 unless the previous steps have been exhaustively tried. It has been my experience that most problems are solved at Step 1 or 2. Perhaps 1% actually go to Step 3. Step 4 should be used very, very rarely. If I had to guess at the percentage of problems that are solved at each step, the numbers would look something like this:

Step 1 90%
Step 2 9%
Step 3 1%
Step 4 ????

But is it really reasonable to expect a modern church to actually follow this pattern in solving its internal problems? Will a church actually dare to go to Steps 3 and 4 if circumstances require it? Many people answer No, but I think the answer must be Yes. We must at least be willing to do these things if we are going to be faithful to Scripture.

We know the early church took these things seriously. In fact Paul records a striking case study of successful church discipline. The story deserves our attention because it affirms the principle that God’s way is always the best.

3. A Case Study in Tough Love I Corinthians 5 & II Corinthians 2

I. Discipline Applied I Corinthians 5

A. The Problem vv 1-2

1. A man in the church was living with his father’s wife.
2. The church knew about it and did nothing to stop it.
3. Even the Gentiles didn’t do things like this.
4. The church was even bragging about their “openness” and their “tolerant” spirit.

B. The Solution vv 3-5

1. You should have cast this man out of the church already.
2. Paul has already passed judgment on this man.
3. When you come together for a service, cast this man out of the church.
4. Deliver him over to Satan (that is, put him back in the world where Satan reigns) so that one of two things will happen:

1. Either he will come to his senses and repent or
2. He will be judged with a premature death because of his immorality.

5. Dealing harshly with this man is the only hope that he will eventually be saved on the Day of the Lord.

C. The Reason vv 6-8

1. To leave this man in the church would be to corrupt the entire congregation.
2. Fellowship with Christ means breaking with all that is evil and impure.

D. The Application vv 9-13

1. During the time of discipline do not treat this man as a brother.

2. Do not do anything (such as eating with him) that will cause him to think that nothing has happened. Something has happened! His sin has broken the fellowship.

3. This does not mean to treat him rudely or in an unloving manner. It means that you should recognize that your relationship with him has radically changed because of his sin.

II. Forgiveness and Restoration II Corinthians 2

Now we pass from I Corinthians to 2 Corinthians. Evidently the church at Corinth heeded Paul’s advice and cast the offending brother from the church. After an interval of some months, Paul writes again. The situation has changed in that during the interim, the sinning brother has come to his senses, seen the error of his way. Now he is heartbroken over his sin and desires re-admission to the church. Should the church restore him or not? Paul gives a clear answer: Restore him!

1. The punishment is sufficient. vv. 5-6

2. Prove your love by forgiving him. vv. 7-10

–So that the disciplined believer will not be destroyed. v. 7
–So that your love will be clear to all. v. 8
–So that Satan might not outwit us. v. 11

This passage shows clearly that when discipline is properly applied, it has as its ultimate goal the restoration of the offender to the Christian fellowship. In the beginning the judgment seems harsh and perhaps even unloving, but in the end it will be seen that growth only comes through pain. By exposing the erring brother to the pain of separation, you allow God the opportunity to work through the pain in order to bring him back to God and to the church.

If this whole process seems unrealistic, let us ask ourselves, What must the early church have been like in order for church discipline to work like this? I think there are four assumptions we can make about any church that cares to take discipline seriously:

1. The church must be organized enough to discipline people.
2. The church must be alive enough so that the one cast out misses the fellowship.
3. The church must be committed enough to stick to its no-association rule.
4. The church must be obedient enough to dare to do it.

4. Questions and Answers

1. What sins especially call for church discipline? The New Testament presents us with three broad categories of sin that call for some kind of disciplinary response. The precise response will vary with exact circumstances, but something must be done in each of these three cases:

A. Blatant immorality (I Corinthians 5)

B. Serious False Doctrine (Romans 16:17-20)

C. Divisive Behavior (Titus 3:10)

2. When should we overlook the sins of others? Here’s the best rule I know: You know to overlook those sins in others that you would like overlooked if you committed them yourself. Just apply the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Remember, love covers a multitude of sins.

3. When is it right to confront another believer? This is the flip side of the previous question. You must confront when the sin simply cannot be overlooked. You must confront when the sin is deliberate or repeated or malicious or injurious to others. You must confront when the one sinning is dragging others down by his behavior. You must confront when the health of the entire church is at stake. You must confront when to ignore the behavior would only worsen the situation.

4. When should we completely forgive and restore the broken relationship? This one is easy. We should completely forgive when there is genuine evidence of godly sorrow and deep repentance. What are the marks to look for? A humble and contrite spirit. A refusal to blame others. Accepting full personal responsibility. Willing to suffer consequences. Anger replaced by tears. Willing to follow godly counsel. Eager to make restitution. See 2 Corinthians 7:7-11.

5. What is the great danger we face in this area? Becoming unbalanced and going to extremes. Either becoming harsh, critical and judgmental or being so “loving” that you become soft, easy, mushy, and compromising. In everything we must seek the spirit of Jesus who loved sinners while hating the sin, who loved not because of but in spite of, who cleaned out the temple with a whip and then prayed for the men who crucified him. If we find the spirit of Jesus, we will have both the courage and the compassion to reach out to the fallen and do the hard work of bringing them back to God.

A Concluding Word

The crying need for discipline today is seen in the laxness of modern Christianity. We have substituted rationalization for the clear Word of God and excuses for obedience. We tolerate immorality, laziness, busybodies, false doctrine and divisive behavior … all in the name of Christian love.

But there is another side to this. Love must be guided by truth. Our love has limits. What we need today is a new allegiance to the church as God-ordained and not to be trifled with. We need a new commitment to one another to be responsible for our lives, a new emphasis on church membership as a holy commitment, a new kind of accountability to the body of Christ.

What will be the result? Some will be hurt and ashamed, some will even be put out of the church, many will feel uncomfortable for a time, others will counsel moderation. But in the end, there will be one sure result: A strong church with a purity of testimony that will commend itself to the watching world.

Today we put up with things in the church that secular organizations would never permit. It is high time for the church of Jesus Christ to become what God meant it to be–holy, without spot or blemish, blameless before the world.

Multitudes will flock to us when they see that our churches stand for something, when they understand that we take our doctrine and practice with deadly seriousness. Like the citizens of Jerusalem who heard of the shocking judgment on Annanias and Sapphira, they will be filled with awe and great fear, and they will surely know that God is in this place.

Gordon MacDonald Once More

I conclude with the words of Gordon MacDonald:

As our Western world lapses more and more into an unChristian perspective, and as human behavior is increasingly gauged by pagan standards, it will become necessary for Christian leaders to raise the standard of holiness and Christian discipline higher. For to rationalize sin and not confront it will be to sow the seeds of ultimate destruction for congregations. Restoring Fellowship, p. 8


Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?