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Thank you!

I have enjoyed in my reading and even studying, the Standard Bearer. I don’t have the words to express my appreciation. I saved my copy of November 15, 2022—Vol. 99, No.4—titled “The Reformation’s Recovery of Justification by Faith Alone.” It’s a little bit worn. A great read in loaning out to others.

Justification in the blood of Jesus,

J.R.G.

[prisoner in Texas]

 

Questions concerning treatment of disciplined members

Editor’s note: In response to a recent editorial, a reader began correspondence with the author. The editors decided that this correspondence could be useful for many readers. With permission of the correspondent and with some slight editing, it is printed here. Our thanks to him for agreeing to its publication. We pray it is of benefit to all.

Prof. Gritters,

Thank you for your timely article in the recent Stan­dard Bearer on wayward children: “Our Forgotten (?) Wayward Children,” (November 15, 2023). My wife and I have been discussing this subject frequently over the last couple of months…. [The paragraph continues by explaining that a person close to them was excom­municated.]

I am concerned and confused about the activities taken after excommunication that you refer to in the article: pray, admonish, and be good examples.

I have not been able to reach a conclusion on where this is best to take place. I struggle with the holiday fam­ily get-together as the place. I feel this should be done in a more intimate setting than a crowded house of many family members. I don’t feel that an admonition at the door and a mention during the meal prayer is sufficient to justify spending the day with someone who doesn’t need my Savior in their life. However, should I use the rest of the day to show good examples to the wayward?

The Form [of excommunication] also confuses me. The form tells us to have no company with him that he may be ashamed, not counting him as an enemy, but ad­monishing him. Then the prayer talks about the cutting off from the community of the church, in order that we not be partakers of their sin, and that the person may become ashamed of their sin. It goes on to say we need with a pious zeal to labor with good Christian admoni­tions and examples to bring them back. What does this look like!?

Is the proper way to meet privately with the way­ward, invite him to my home or coffee to talk period­ically? Or should I invite him to family gatherings and try to properly admonish him there and allow him to partake of the family atmosphere as if he is acceptable in his walk before God?

Is admonishment direct, and alone, with him enough to then eat and fellowship with him?

I understand that God may have a way and a plan for him and my admonishment and/or example may play a part; we’re just confused on how the example should look without making light of his wayward walk and showing the proper example to my children….

Thank you for your work and your writings. Any suggestions or approaches you can help us with would be greatly appreciated.

Name withheld

____________

Dear brother,

My heart aches for you and your extended family, even as it did and does for other families (and my own as well) who struggle with how to relate to the way­ward. I have often said to people that in my ministry of forty years now, if I put all the hard questions into two piles: 1) how to relate to impenitent relatives, and 2) all the other questions, pile #1 would probably be larger than pile #2. So your questions are not surprising.

Let me write a few things to start a discussion. Please write back and reflect on these if you wish.

1. It is always challenging to establish a wise balance between having fellowship that is too close (a dan¬ger on the one side) and shunning (a danger on the other side). So many factors come into play. Your decision about how it will look in your circumstance must keep both those dangers in view. The biblical principles I want to abide by include these:
First, I Corinthians 5:9 and the biblical warning not to mingle my life with his. The Greek for “have no com¬pany” means to mix and mingle your life with his life. This does not forbid contact here and there, which is why Calvin speaks of communication that is “too familiar” (the early Dutch synods spoke of “overly famil¬iar” fellowship). Nevertheless, there must be a concert¬ed effort on my part that something significant changes in my relationship with the former member.
Second, II Thessalonians 3:14 and the biblical calling to “admonish him as a brother” so that he may be ashamed. We must not fail to speak to the former member. Failure to speak to him is sin as much as hav¬ing “too familiar” fellowship with him is sin. Thus, as Calvin also wisely says, “there is a difference between excommunication and anathema.”

2. The severity of the sin of which the person is guilty is a factor. Going all the way through to excom¬munication is as serious as can be. This is different than the relative who left your church because he does not heed the elder’s call to attend worship twice each Sun¬day but is going to another Reformed church once each Sunday. (By this I do not minimize Sabbath observance but give an illustration).

3. Where this excommunicated person comes into my presence also makes a difference to me. For exam¬ple, I would not invite to an event that I hosted a rela¬tive who is living with someone who is not his lawful spouse. I will try to talk to him to admonish him once in a while; I will have breakfast with him in private. But I will not invite him to a social gathering with others. However, when he is present at someone else’s social gathering where I also have been invited is harder. A large wedding where we will be in the same room is one thing. A small family gathering where we plan to watch football after eating Thanksgiving dinner would be much harder for me. If I attended the latter (and I don’t know if I would), I would want with a meek spirit to make clear to all that I have admonished him to turn from his sin. And I likely would not sit and laugh with him about the game, lest the impression is left that my relationship with him is the same as it always was.

4. In this circumstance (such a relative is invited to a family gathering to which I am also invited) I probably also have responsibility to speak to those who invited both him and me. They probably could use kind and loving help as much as the wayward.

5. Another factor in making my decisions is how others in this social gathering view the impenitent. Do they approve of his sin? Have they admonished him? What they have done and said to the impenitent is im¬portant. If other family members have not admonished him or even approve his behavior, I would be more hes¬itant to attend, because it may appear that I approve his actions as they do.

6. Returning to II Thessalonians 3, I am reminded of what my goal is: the sinner’s shame may bring him to repentance. “Have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.” (By the way, the ESV says “have noth¬ing to do with him,” and the NIV: “do not associate with him.”) Our withholding familiar fellowship aims at making him “ashamed.” Likewise, Paul says (I Cor. 5:5) that excommunication aims at the complete ruin of their earthly life (first step) so that they may come to their senses, repent, and be saved (ultimate goal!). Too many want to do just the opposite: they want to make the sinner’s life normal and make him feel comfortable. I may be labeled as mean and unkind when I want to make the person uncomfortable (“ashamed”). You have felt this. But it is not ‘mean’ to do what God calls us to do to make someone feel shame, any more than it is ‘mean’ for elders to excommunicate him. Both are acts of love, aimed at his repentance and salvation.

7. I also want to make decisions that can be consistently applied. Some will fellowship with those who embrace some false doctrines (an Arminian Baptist relative) or whose Sabbath observance is gross violation of the fourth commandment but refuse fellowship with one divorced and remarried; or vice versa. Consistency is an important principle for Christian conduct.

8. Finally, I find that good people make different judgments in light of differing circumstances. I want to be very careful not to draw lines that are too sharp and may be simplistic, and not too quickly to judge others who make different decisions.

God give you wisdom and much grace.

In Christ,

Prof. B. Gritters

____________

Dear Prof. Gritters,

You asked me to reflect on your last letter.

First, fellowship or contact with this individual is dif­ficult. About the only time I see him would be at a fam­ily get-together, holiday, or wedding. As you mention, I don’t feel this is the place to pull him aside and admon­ish him, because very little substance can be brought to the conversation in such a setting. I did not invite him to our [family function] recently. My relatives were a bit upset about this…. I have another relative that had him over for dinner specifically to talk to him and admonish him. This was a great idea. But some think that this opens us up to allow him at all our family functions. We do not believe so. I need to have him over as well and admonish him, but I don’t believe that this will al­low future get-togethers. I always come back to this: he willfully left the church by excommunication, basically shaking his fist at God as an unnecessary part of his life. I cannot associate with such a one.

Second, Article 28 of the Belgic Confession clearly states we are to be bound to the true church and out of it there is no salvation. He has dismissed God’s church. I cannot think of a sin any more gross: it is a denial that there is a God. I’m not sure anything is worse.

I appreciate your approach to letting others know my view if an occasion occurs where the individual will be present. This stand also may not be easy when all do not agree with my stance on this.

I would like to start strong rather than waffle and try to change to a harder stance in the future. As you say, consistency is a “must” and could be necessary for other possible relationships in the future. This is where the “ashamed” part comes in as well—very important. I never want him to feel as if I condone his lifestyle and lack of spiritual walk and talk.

Thank you again for your time and work; this has been a good exercise for me to work through this issue with someone, rather than just keep reading/praying and trying to go it alone.

____________

Dear brother,

Your last letter reminds me of a couple things I should add:

First, God’s people ought to be united in their stance toward the impenitent. Discipline is the act of the en­tire congregation, not merely of the elders, so for the congregation to be divided does damage to the act and thus to the sinner. My 2023 summer classes on disci­pline (see our seminary website, https://www.prcts.org/post/2023-summer-class-on-church-discipline) began by showing why, and the seven ways how, all church members perform discipline. No member may under­mine this work by improper fellowship with a former member. Of course, division is not surprising, as it is the devil’s specialty. Paul’s comment in II Corinthians 2:6,7 that discipline was carried out “by the majority” hints that there were some holdouts in the congregation’s ex­ercise of discipline. That was not healthy. If there is a difference of opinion in a family, it would be wise to seek the counsel of the elders.

Second, to gain this unity, we should all carefully read the Forms of Excommunication and Readmittance, and the Scripture passages that apply to this aspect of discipline (Matt 18:15-17; I Rom. 16:17; Cor. 5:9-11; II Thess. 3:6, 14, 15; II John 10, 11). We will all agree that our actions will be governed by these.

Third, the pain of keeping no company with a fami­ly member is especially acute. Thus a) sympathize with and pray for the closer family—it is their son, daughter, brother, spouse, father, mother, who is no longer a part of their fellowship; b) remind yourselves of Jesus’ en­couraging promise in Mark 10:28-30 to those who, for His sake, must leave their family members.

Fourth, those who leave before final excommuni­cation must be treated in the same way as those who “stuck it out” to the end. All members who were placed under discipline, even the first step of “silent censure,” were charged with impenitence in sin. Such a charge is Jesus Christ saying to them through the church, “If you do not repent, you will perish.”

Fifth, I want always to examine my own heart and conduct more than the misconduct of others who treat impenitent family members wrongly. My heart: am I acting in love and a spirit of meekness? My conduct: am I truly taking action to help the sinner, both in frequent prayers and regular visits to bring him the gospel and show him my care?

May our study of this matter serve the goals we have in discipline—the salvation of the sinner, the purity of the church, and the glory of God.

In Christ,

Prof. Gritters