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One afternoon, I heard a knock at the door. I found “George”, a leader of our community, tears streaming down his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was a fool. I had a one-night stand with another woman. My wife left me.”

I invited him. He and his wife had started attending our church – even the 13-week membership class. In the strange providence of God, the previous Sunday, we reviewed the discipline of the church.

Ecclesiastical discipline? Many of us are unaware of the process by which shared leadership in the church formally attempts to correct notorious sin among church members. In the 1800s, some Baptist churches in North Carolina averaged four or five discipline cases a year for a hundred years. They would marvel at our present lack of discipline – to them we would be like a church without a roof.

Beginning and often even ending privately/informally, healthy church discipline can grow to include the whole church. If there are questions about the action of the local church, it is useful to have a church appeals court. In its final, formal and public phase, church discipline removes an unrepentant person from church membership and fellowship participation. Often people withdraw before this stage. The purpose of discipline is always redemption, the protection of other members, and the honoring of the name of Christ. See 1 Corinthians 5.

Now back to “George”. As we were talking, he told me he was really sorry.

I asked him if he knew the difference between the repentance we fabricate ourselves and the true repentance the Holy Spirit works in us. He does not have.

So, we looked at 2 Corinthians 7:10 “Godly sorrow brings repentance which leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what ardor, what eagerness to justify you, what indignation, what concern, what desire, what solicitude, what eagerness for justice to be done.

He was eager to show godly sorrow.

“God, please make ‘George’s’ repentance real.”

I asked “George”: “What action can you put with each of the seven characteristics of 2 Corinthians 7?” What would such repentance look like to God?

For the “serious” George suggested, “Can I join the church – under discipline?” I had never heard of such an approach. He joined. An elder met with him weekly for prayer and counsel.

Returning to 2 Corinthians 7, I asked, “What about ‘readiness to be cleansed’? He knew that if he and his wife reconciled, she would be concerned about STDs. He suggested that she consult a doctor and obtain a certificate of good health.

What about “outrage?” We have reviewed the Commandment: “Do not commit adultery” detailed by the authors of the Westminster Larger Catechism and the supporting Scriptures. In response, he wrote a 14-page article – clearly explaining his stupidity in committing adultery and his newfound willingness to conform to God’s way of life. Later, we sent this document to his wife, “Anna”.

As a child, “Anna’s” father committed adultery on several occasions. Fleeing this house, she married young. Then she discovered that she had married a man like her father. Eventually, “Anna” and her first husband divorced.

Years later, when “George” proposed to “Anna”, she told him she couldn’t tolerate infidelity. When he chose to indulge his old nature, “Anna” left.

Initially, she told me that she did not want to have any contact with “George”. But, what “George” wrote in his article impressed her. She started conference calls with “George” and me.

“Phyllis”, the “other” woman, a married woman who professed the Christian faith, received a letter which “George” wrote to express “alarm”. “George” apologized, asked her forgiveness and let her know that he was seeking reconciliation with “Anna”. He encouraged “Phyllis” to repent and seek forgiveness from her husband.

I sent the letter by registered mail. I also called “Phyllis” so she wouldn’t be surprised when she received the letter.

Later I updated “George” and “Anna”. During this call, I “stuck my foot in my mouth”. I inadvertently mentioned “Phyllis” by name. I apologized, but the call was over.

However, God was at work – even in my rash error.

“Phyllis” occasionally came into town on business. Somehow, “Anna” found out about “Phyllis’s” schedule.

“Anna” showed up at “Phyllis’s” hotel room, asking “Phyllis” to call “George” so “Anna” could hear the conversation. “Phyllis” agreed.

When “George” answered, “Phyllis” identified herself. “George” immediately replied, “What I had to tell you, I said in the letter. Goodbye.”

For Anna, this response confirmed—perhaps more than anything else—George’s repentance.

Soon “Anna” and “George” renewed their wedding vows in my office and took their vows as members of our church.

What a story!

Thank God !

But even in a world where transforming grace is present, sinful patterns can have profound effects.

Years and years later, early on a Saturday, “Anna” called me. “Could we meet?”

We met. Convinced that the beeps on their answering machine meant secret messages from another woman, “Anna” confronted “George”. He declared his innocence – and continued to do so in several other meetings.

Finally, I suggested we apply Numbers 5. When unresolved feelings of jealousy arose between a husband and wife, God advised them to go to the tabernacle. Taking earth from the floor of the tabernacle, the priest mixed it with water. Then the woman made a vow before God that she was innocent and drank the concoction. So innocent, nothing happened. If he was guilty, dramatic consequences would occur.

I told them about another couple where the husband, although a brilliant man, abused his wife while drunk. As a result, after a careful process, our church leaders removed him from fellowship.

The woman also suspected him of having an affair. When confronted with possible adultery, he denied it. He made a wish number 5 – if he was guilty of adultery: “May God make it clear if I am guilty.”

Months later, a private investigator uncovered the truth about an ongoing case.

Yet the husband refused to repent. They divorced.

As “George”, “Anna” and I were discussing this story, “George” offered to make such a wish. “Anna” indignantly intervened: “No! You will destroy yourself.

Nevertheless, “George” declared his innocence in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

We waited – days, weeks, months. Nothing happened.

Eventually, “Anna” found work as a senior manager in another city. She abandoned her marriage with “George”. We cried with him.

“George” later remarried and moved away.

More than a decade has passed.

Then somehow “George” learned that I was seeking support to become general pastor in Helena. He started supporting us.

Friend, today all church discipline is unusual. But according to Calvin, healthy churches practice:

  • insightful preaching of the Word of God,
  • proper observance of the sacraments of God, and
  • wise application of the truth/grace of God in church discipline.

Friend, invite God to be God.

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