Our False Notions about Church Discipline Enable the Abuser’s Secrecy

(Matthew 18:15-20  ESV)  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence 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, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The abuser’s life is a secret. His real life, that is. He imposes secrecy upon his victim, threatening her with “if you ever talk about this family….!” And one of the ways he perverts Scripture to support this demand for secrecy is to piously insist that to ever talk about someone (i.e., like HIM) is to be guilty of gossip and slander. He not only foists this idea on his victim, but if he is a supposed Christian, he will implement it in his church as well. Under the guise of Matthew 18, one of his favorites, he is allowed to verbally attack and accuse people in the church he is trying to control, but of course, he does so under a righteous banner of “going to his brother alone.” His intent is not to reconcile or seek truth and genuine relationship restoration. No. It is all about what makes the abuser tick: power and control. And then, woe to his target if that person should tell anyone else what the abuser has done! Suddenly, to tell becomes gossip and slander. It’s the old double-standard tactic that abuse victims are far too familiar with.

Christians do not understand church discipline, and as a result we are enabling the abuser by supporting his cloak of secrecy. Of course, I think we don’t understand many things in relation to abuse simply because we don’t want to understand something that is foreign and unpleasant to us. Well, as I heard someone say once to a whimpering young fellow who just didn’t want to grow up, “it’s time for you to suck it up and be a man!” Another person put it this way, and it’s good advice for us — “put on your big-boy pants and grow up!” Yes, Virginia, there really is a Satan and he has his servants all around us.

The three fundamental mis-ideas about church discipline that are rampant among us

1) Matthew 18 is the only process to be followed in church discipline.

2) All sins and sinners are alike, so Matthew 18 is the catch-all way to deal with them.

3) Oh, and by the way, having talked the talk about discipline, when it comes right down to it we aren’t going to exercise discipline anyway. Love and mercy, you know. That’s a better way. (All abusers cheer here.)

Years ago when I helped write the doctrinal statement and bylaws for a new church, we were criticized for spending so much time and space on the subject of church discipline. But we had to. Why? Because the Bible has a whole lot to say about the subject, far more than just Matthew 18. Consider the following Scriptures and as you read them, think about how they indicate that there is more than one way to deal with sin in the church:

(1 Corinthians 5:1-5  ESV)  It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.  [Emphasis added.]

(1 Corinthians 5:11-13  ESV)  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

(Galatians 6:1-2  ESV)  Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  [Emphasis added.]

(2 Thessalonians 3:14-15  ESV)  If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.  [Emphasis added.]

(Titus 3:10  ESV)  As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.  [Emphasis added.]

(Romans 16:17  ESV)  I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.  [Emphasis added.]

(2 Thessalonians 3:6  ESV)  Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.  [Emphasis added.]

(2 Timothy 3:1-5  ESV)  But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.  [Emphasis added.]

And of course we could go on and on citing many others. Think of the mountain of Scriptures that command us to be on guard against false teachers, to test the spirits to see if they be of God or anti-Christ, to watch for wolves in sheep’s clothing or for devils parading as angels of light. In numbers of these cases, Paul tells us to “take note” of such people. Name names. Shine the spotlight on them. Put them out. He even pronounces as damned by God (anathema) anyone who would come with a false Jesus and false Gospel (Galatians 1). That means naming them. You never “try to reach the heart” of a wolf — he will only eat you.

So, you can see that there is more than one kind of offender, and more than one pattern of church discipline. In the case of a scandalous, public, unrepentant sin as was happening at Corinth, the method is “wham! You’re out!” It’s the same thing in dealing with a false teacher promoting heresy. No gently going and speaking to him one-on-one, no second stage of taking witnesses. No. You go right to the thing and in the church gathered you expose the sin and the sinner and you put him out. Hand him over to Satan are the words Paul uses. Does that sound too harsh? Well, if so that simply is an indicator of how soft we have become. To hand the sinner over to Satan is to put him out of the community of Christ (ex-communication) and thus into the world, the kingdom of which Satan is god. After all, if a professing Christian insists on living like a child of the devil, then he can go out into the darkness and live there. Perhaps he will even repent. (Most people infer from 2 Corinthians that the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife did repent. If that inference is correct, the excommunication no doubt made the guy realise he couldn’t keep being a hypocrite, and God used that to bring him to true repentance and saving faith.)

In our so-called love and mercy and knowing better than Jesus, we refuse to obey these commands. Like a father who doesn’t love his son enough to discipline him, we don’t truly love an erring brother when we go soft on him. We are fools when we want to pet and stroke a wolf into repentance. The Christianity of our day just doesn’t want to acknowledge that there is real evil in this world and that this evil creeps in among us in the church. “Can anyone actually be that bad?” we gasp when a victim describes what her abuser does to her. Of course! Don’t you read your Bible?

And then there is the abuser and his secrecy. Do you see the beauty of what we are saying here? The proper understanding and practice of biblical church discipline strips away the façade and secrecy that the abuser counts on. HERE IS A MAN AMONG US WHO IS ABUSING HIS WIFE. THIS IS WHAT HE DOES TO HER AT HOME. WE ARE PUTTING HIM OUT OF THE CHURCH AND INTO SATAN’S REALM! WE ARE ANNOUNCING IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS! May the Lord have mercy on his soul and bring him to repentance, but for now we are going to have mercy on his victims for the glory of Christ! Why do we owe the wicked man or woman secrecy and confidentiality and reputation protection? Paul said Alexander the coppersmith did him much harm. He said that Hymaeneus and Alexander are blasphemers. And he said that by dealing with them as he had — handing them over to Satan -— the whole church feared God.

What if church leaders don’t obey God’s Word regarding church discipline?
Or they say they are obeying it, but they mess it up?

What do we do when we want to obey God’s Word regarding church discipline, but our church leaders and congregation refuse? Well, the Reformers maintained that a TRUE church of Jesus Christ necessarily was characterized by three essentials. 1) The Preaching of Scripture, 2) The observance of baptism and the Lord’s Table, 3) The faithful practice of church discipline. They would say that any church that refuses to discipline is a non-church. And we think they were right. After all, when a church will not discipline, it is saying “come one and come all! Anyone can be a Christian!” Very soon if it ever was a real church, it will deteriorate into what Scripture calls a “synagogue of Satan” and be Christian in name only. We think there are lots and lots of such synagogues around us today. What to do? Leave. You don’t want to be a member of Satan’s synagogue, do you? Of course, we think that you should boldly “raise some sanctified Cain” before you do depart so that everyone knows why you are leaving. Read the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 for some good ideas.

Abusers will not last in a church that faithfully disciplines. Neither will non-abusers who are Christians in name only (nominal Christians). So this is nothing a church wants to do if it’s large numbers and big bucks they are after. But then, you can’t be after those things and follow Christ. He pastored a small church. So did Paul, so did Peter.

So there it is. Our false notions about church discipline are enabling the abuser’s demand for secrecy. We need to get it straight and shine light on his darkness.

Maybe someone needs to write a book about church discipline and get it right. Put that on the list. Right after we get a good book on biblical forgiveness and reconciliation. We’re all messed up on that too.

[August 24, 2022: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to August 24, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to August 24 24, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to August 24, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (August 24, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Further reading

Dear Church: Stop Trying to Convert Wolves


UPDATE Sept 2021: Barbara Roberts has come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches.  He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.

10 thoughts on “Our False Notions about Church Discipline Enable the Abuser’s Secrecy”

  1. Those Scriptures in Matthew 18 always tripped me up. It was the go-to Scripture on the topic of discipline. How on earth is a woman supposed to come up with two or three witnesses to something happening in secret? Everything becomes “he said-she said” with the abuser ready to lie like a rug. And the “two sides to every story” was always the excuse not to address a thing — ever.

    Seems to me the abuser almost has to be discerned — these guys do show themselves given enough time. Then hopefully, the wife will confirm (although that isn’t always the case either).

    Another great post you two. 🙂

    1. Yes, the common notion of Matthew 18 thinking is infected with all kinds of Scripture-twisting. Matthew 18 is NOT the Scripture that applies to abuse. No way. It presumes that the person you are dealing with is a Christian who, most likely, will repent at stage 1 of the process. Not so with an abuser. The abuser is of the wolf category. He is a murderer. He is a false professor of Christ who has crept in unnoticed among us. Peter uses words to describe such people that offend the modern sensibilities of most Christians. But then, Peter was writing the very words of God, so hmmm….maybe we are the ones whose heads are all turned around on this thing.

      Also, another issue that I did not address in this post. When we think of 2 or 3 witnesses, we always think that these witnesses have to be PEOPLE. Not so. The 2 or 3 principle comes from the Old Testament and it is God’s rule of evidence. A witness is ANY piece of evidence that is credible. That includes symptoms seen in the victim that are non-verbal and which we are capable of seeing IF we are knowledgeable about abuse. Traits in her children. Qualities seen in unguarded moments in the abuser. But once a person is identified as a classic abuser, he is to be put out of the church. The church must be made a safe harbor for the victim and her children. Abusers can go bring forth fruit in keeping with any so-called repentance and get help somewhere else.

      Let me translate “there are two sides to every story.” In modern parlance, it means “If what you are saying is true, then it is just too scary of a situation for me to involve myself in — too costly for me. So I am going to side with your abuser. It’s safer.” Hmmm….always two sides, huh? “Well, God, yes, I did commit lots of sins, but you have to understand that you can’t be too harsh on me because, well, you know, there are two sides to every story.” (Ca-chunk! Sound of trap door to hell opening.)

    2. Ida Mae, it surprised me to hear that you interpreted Matt 18 to mean “you have to have two or three witnesses who have actually SEEN the abuse taking place”. I’ve never heard it read that way. I’ve always understood it to mean that I should ask one or two people to come along with me in my second meeting with the alleged offender. These witnesses are not expected to have witnessed the original offences. How could they, when the offence was done in secret? They are simply to witnesses a) how I behave and what I say during the meeting, and b) how the alleged offender behaves and what they say during the meeting. If the witnesses are sensible, maybe they will be able to help the matter come to a proper resolution. Maybe there’s a possibility of extra pressure being applied so both people (complainant, and alleged offender) get a fair hearing, and are held accountable for their conduct. There’s potential at this meeting that the witnesses will say to the complainant “Hey, you’ve been a bit unfair! Listen to the other guy’s response!” Or the witnesses might say to the alleged offender “Hey, you’re being unfair! Listen to your sister’s complaint. Don’t brush her off! She’s got a valid complaint here, brother!”

      Not that I’ve ever seen this step of Matt 18 done properly, of course! It’s all rhetoric and theory in the churches I’ve attended. I’ve only pictured in my mind what is meant by that Scripture. But I’ve never pictured that the witnesses had to have witnessed the original offence.

      1. Barbara,

        Haven’t given it much thought in a long time, but yes, that’s the way it was taught in the church I attended. Of course, it was generally being taught by someone in leadership who wanted to squash gossip about a leader or to deny wrongdoing — mishandling of funds, etc. — not abuse cases. In other words, if you don’t have two or three witnesses, shut up already.

        I suppose I just extrapolated from there and considered it hopeless.

  2. The complacent church is a wonderful refuge for abusers. My husband was a master of hiding his true nature….he did it all the time, in public places. Of course, as befits the classic abuser, he was very different at home.

  3. Two sides to every story. Yeah. Like when Hitler invaded Poland, there must have been two sides. Poland had been a bit obnoxious so Hitler was justified in sending in the army to take Poland over? How ridiculous.
    When Pol Pot slaughtered the people of Cambodia, there must have been two sides, eh? Those poor peasants must have done something to provoke him. What rot.
    We don’t apply the “two sides” argument across the board in international politics, so why do we apply it across the board in marriage?

  4. Anne, such a difficult situation. I am so sorry for where you are at with your church. I will be praying for you.

  5. What do you do if an abuser is still in your church but they have recently divorced. So, he is “no longer” abusing her and he has said he is “sorry” according to our leadership. We have tried to bring our concerns to leadership and they say we have no proof. It feels like our only option is to leave? The pastor is a narcissistic abuser himself as well as one of the Elders.

    1. Thanks for the great question, EverydayBRAVE!

      My thought is that probably you will end up leaving, if your perception of the pastor and one of the Elders is correct, and I have no reason to doubt your perception.

      Do you have other options? Perhaps….and I will suggest some. You could consider:

      —formally letting the entire eldership that you have this serious concern about this recently divorced man, and you also have concerns about the way the pastor has responded to your concerns.

      —seeing if you could contact the man’s ex-wife and ask her if she would be willing to provide evidence of the abuse (including evidence of any post-separation, or post-divorce abuse which her ex may have done and may still be doing to her). If she was willing to provide you with that evidence, and allow you to present it to the eldership, that would perhaps get the eldership to realise that this divorced man is NOT trustworthy and his “sorry” means very very little.

      —presenting to the Elders two documents from our website and begging them to read them. And making it clear that if they refuse to read those two documents and then demonstrate to you that they will deal with this divorced man more appropriately, you will feel you have no choice but to leave the church. Here are the documents:

      Checklist for Repentance

      As a pastor, what are the most important things for me to know about domestic abuse? (This one has multiple links with it. I would suggest that the Elders and pastor ought to read most if not all of those links.)

    2. Thank you so much for your fast reply, helpful advice and those articles [posts]. They look helpful, but I am not confident they will be read by our leadership, but I will try. 😦 I had not come across those yet. Your whole blog, the books and sermons have been a God-send. I have been so blessed and encouraged by all of it and am passing it on to friends. I am close friends with the wife and we have decided that it is not safe or wise for my husband and I to confront him. He knows that we know. The very unfortunate thing is that the pastor knows about most of the abuse and the Elders some of it and are choosing to minimize and deny the reality of it. Thank you again for your input!

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