Mailbag #41: When the Church Votes “No” on a Clear Discipline Case; The Biblical Case of “Lay Elders”

Mailbag
11.11.2016

What if the congregation votes “no” in a clear case of discipline?»
Are “lay elders” a biblical category?»

Dear 9Marks,

We have a young woman in our church that has been regularly attending on Sunday mornings. She has been living with a man that is not her husband (who is an unbeliever and skeptic), and has now become pregnant. She is 25 years old, claims to be a believer, and in the midst of her sin claims to have peace with God. I met with her and her boyfriend once, and she has refused to meet with me any further. I have reached out through a letter and not heard back from her. We are going to have to bring it before the church in the next several weeks as we are bound by the Word of God and this is what it would call us to.

At this moment, we’re a pastor- and deacon-led church, which I pray will become a plurality of elders within the next 24 months. All of the deacons are on board with what we are doing as they all appeal to Scripture as our final authority. So, my question is this: what if we bring this before the church at a Member’s Meeting, and it gets voted down to remove her from our congregation? She is unrepentant, living the life uncharacteristic of a believer, and even with all of the education I have provided our people, what if the church votes to allow her to maintain her membership at our church? What would my next step be, and how should it then be handled?

—Andy

Dear Andy,

A few thoughts. First, if she’s not a member of your church but merely an attender, you should not bring her name before the church. She has not made herself accountable to you; you have not affirmed her profession of faith; and so your church does not have responsibility for that profession. Now, you may feel an individual obligation to speak with her privately, as you have done. Good. But I don’t believe your church possesses a corporate obligation or authority.

Let her continue to attend your public gatherings. Be kind and friendly. Yet don’t let her do anything reserved for members, like work in the nursery or sing in the praise ensemble. Treat her as an attender but not a member. Why? You want her to feel—listen to how mean I am—like an outsider. Why? For love’s sake! You want her to feel the separation she is causing between her and Jesus through her sin, by feeling slightly separated from your church. You want her to repent and come to Jesus and join the church!

Now, I say all that assuming your church practices membership, and that there is some type of line, both formally and informally, between members and non-members. After all, you mentioned the possibility of a congregational meeting where you would make a motion to excommunicate someone. If your church doesn’t practice membership, however, and if she’s as much a member as anyone, well, that makes your job harder.

But let me answer your question as if she is a member, and I misunderstood your question. Generally speaking, you should not bring a case of discipline before the church if you don’t think the church will agree with it. It’s like asking a child to carry a suitcase that’s too heavy for them. You’ll just confuse, provoke, discourage, even harden them against you and the truth. They still have growing to do, and, apparently, you still have teaching and pastoring to do.

What do you do if the congregation votes against you when you didn’t expect it? On a matter of church discipline, I’m not sure. The difficulty is, now you’re in the awkward situation of being in a church with someone you cannot affirm as a Christian, whom all the congregation knows you as a pastor cannot affirm as a Christians, but they disagree with you. Talk about a source of division and potential gossip! In some scenarios, I can imagine a pastor resigning at this point, simply for integrity’s sake. Perhaps there is a scenario in which you would simply continue to pastor, but I do think that would be difficult.

I pray this is useful and wise.

Dear 9Marks,

I am semi-familiar with your ministry, my pastor, more so. I am wondering, as we are discussing eldership in our church, why or where do you find the term “lay elder,” specifically clergy and laity? Where do you find the terms and ideas in Scripture? This will help me in our discussions.

—Michael

Dear Michael,

I met one man who didn’t like the language of “lay elder” because he thought it invoked the medieval Roman Catholic distinction between clergy and laity. I appreciate the sensitivity, but perhaps he was a bit too sensitive?

No, the term “lay elder” is not in the Bible. These days, most people use the term “lay elder” just to make a distinction between staff and non-staff elders, which is another way of saying “unpaid” versus “paid elders.”

Keep in mind, all the references to actual elders in Scripture occur in the plural (Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). Yet it’s difficult to imagine all the elders of these churches being in the full-time employ of the church. First, Paul suggests that “double honor” (which refers to payment) is owed to those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17–18; cf. 1 Cor. 9:14). Plus, the citizens of the first-century Mediterranean economies probably couldn’t afford that many paid pastors. Christians were often despised and marginalized. There was no big church building on the street corner with a staff of eleven, where a receptionist answered the phone, “First Baptist Antioch, can I help you?” Most elders, I assume, would have made their living elsewhere, perhaps even as slaves. They would be what some today call “lay elders.” (I personally use the language of “lay elder” or “non-staff elder,” probably more the latter.)

Finally, I’d say, there is simply no biblical requirement to pay an elder or pastor. So why not get more hands for the harvest, especially if the men are qualified and doing the work!

I hope this answers the question you’re asking.