Mailbag #42: Hypocritical Church Discipline; Pre-Marital Counseling for Two Unbelievers?

Mailbag
11.18.2016

Why do churches discipline for sins like homosexuality and adultery but not other sins like gluttony or vanity or greed?»
Would you do pre-marital counseling for two unbelievers? If so, what would you cover?»

Dear 9Marks,

Why do churches discipline for sins like homosexuality and adultery but not other sins like gluttony or vanity or greed? It seems as though someone living in a big mansion is just as clear as someone engaging in a same-sex relationship. Is this not a kind of hypocrisy?

—Darryl, Alabama

Dear Darryl,

Thanks for your question. When you say discipline, I assume you mean the final stage of discipline, which is removing someone from membership. Is that right? A few quick thoughts.

1) I cannot account for the practices of every church out there. Your statement does not characterize my own church or many churches I know. In addition to disciplining for sexual sin, over the years my church has disciplined for unrepentant drunkenness, stealing, lying, wrongful divorce, non-attendance, and more. And I don’t believe we have disciplined disproportionately for one type of sin over the others. As for churches “out there,” I realize that disciplining for some sins will be more offensive to our cultural sensibilities, and so social media will talk about it more. But nothing I’ve seen tells me that churches are disproportionately disciplining for sexual sin. (And see point 5 below.)

2) Whereas church members might privately confront one another over any number of matters, including the matters you list (gluttony, vanity, or greed), I would say that only certain sins warrant public and formal church discipline, namely, sins that are unrepentant, outward, and significant.

  • Unrepentant: the person has been confronted (usually multiple times over weeks or months) but they refuse to repent.
  • Outward: we’re not making guesses about the state of someone’s heart. “You’re greedy. You’re vain. You’re proud.” “How do you know?” “We just know!” No, no. There needs to be outward evidence—something that can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. Remember, Jesus says a charge needs to be agreed upon by two or three witnesses (Matt. 18:16). Civil courts are careful. Churches should be careful, too.
  • Significant: To remove someone from membership in a church is to say the church can no longer affirm their profession of faith. Stress and anxiety might be sins (they demonstrate a lack of trust in God), and someone might be “unrepentant” in their pattern of living in stress. But I’m still willing to affirm their profession of faith. To be sure, this last criteria is somewhat subjective, but I think this limitation is appropriate.

A sin must be all three of these things before a church should remove someone.

3) With these criteria in mind, let’s think through the three sins you mentioned as case-studies: gluttony, vanity, greed. All three might be unrepentant. All three might be significant. All three might show themselves outwardly. The challenge is, all three are principally states of the heart. They are not things a church can see, per se. And the outward signs that people associate with those heart-sins (let’s say: overeating, really nice clothes, a mansion, respectively) might be the fruit of those sins, but they might not be. Some of the churches of the New Testament, for instance, met in the larger homes of their wealthier members (e.g. Rom. 16:3–5; Col. 4:15; Philemon 1:2). I’m not prepared to say from Scripture that buying a large home, by definition, results from greed.

In short, because we’re not the Holy Spirit and cannot see the heart, I don’t think churches should formally discipline members for “inward” sin. Hence, you will notice the list in point 1 only includes sins that have an indisputable “outward” manifestation. 9Marks often tells pastors, don’t bring cases of discipline before the church merely based on your interpretation. Only bring facts. If you don’t have facts, don’t pursue the discipline. Asking the church to act upon someone’s interpretation will only divide the church. People would be right to wonder, “But how do you know, pastor?” That’s a good question.

4) Sexual sin, if unrepentant, meets all three criteria. Now, it gets a little complicated if there’s a situation of he-said/she-said and the facts are disputed. But if the facts are not disputed and it’s unrepentant, then sexual sin clearly warrants formal discipline.

5) Right now, our culture doesn’t want to admit that sexual sin is sin, so talkers talk online and off when churches discipline for sexual sin. As a result, Christians feel weak-kneed on this topic. But think of a sin where the culture still agrees with us—say, spousal abuse—and you will find that churches feel less reluctant to discipline (sadly, I know there are exceptions on this one). But imagine moving to a country where the broader culture condones spousal abuse yet outwardly condemns sexual sin (I could name several such countries). Disciplining for sexual sin will be expected and comparatively easy; but for spousal abuse I imagine it would be harder. What’s the moral of the story? Follow the Bible no matter what your culture is saying.

Dear 9Marks,

I was wondering how you would go about facilitating pre-marital counseling for two unbelievers? What content and topics would be covered?

—Dan

Dear Dan,

When I do pre-marital counseling for members of the church, I do it in four sessions, which cover:

1. Manhood, womanhood, and extended family from Genesis 1-3 and Ephesians 5.
2. Good communication from multiple texts.
3. Intimacy from Genesis 2, Song of Songs, and other texts.
4. Money, children, and few other miscellaneous matters from multiple texts.

With two non-Christians, I would draw from that same program, but how explicitly biblical I would be would just depend on the nature of the relationship and the circumstances of why they’re asking me to do their counseling. Are they family members? Are they neighbors? How much do they trust me? How much capital do I have with them? What’s their spiritual state? Are they opposed to Christianity, but they just like me? Or, do they pretend to like Christianity, but are suspicious of me?

The answers to those questions will affect how obnoxiously biblical I would be. So if there’s a lot of trust and some residue of belief (say, a family member who nominally affirms the faith, even though they’ve been living together), I’m going to be a little more obnoxious. I might ask them to go through the biblical passages with me. If there’s less trust or if there’s positive, conscious disdain for the Bible, I would do less of that (maybe a few Proverbs or something), and simply more general, generic counseling.

Let me put it like this: with any non-Christian couple, I would view the marriage counseling as an opportunity to share the gospel and to help them to realize that marriages best succeed and flourish in the gospel, because the gospel teaches us to forgive and be forgiven. And if there’s any place in life where you will need those skills, it’s marriage. That should be the first thing and the last thing you say (as I hope it is with Christians, too). Other things like communication skills can help a marriage at a surface level. But if the heart is unchanged, good communication skills are simply mechanisms for negotiating our mutual selfishnesses. “So,” I would say, “I prefer you to have those communication skills. Let’s talk about them. Better to have them then not have them. But realize that, ultimately, good communication skills won’t save a marriage from two hearts that are selfish.”

Bottom line: Offer them good common-grace tools for their communication, budgets, setting expectations across the board, mutual care in intimacy, parenting, boundaries for extended family, and expectations about their respective roles as husband and wife (helping them to at least clarify those and offering a gentle biblical nudge). Give them a theology of marriage that explains why marriage can either be beautiful and glorious (even amidst the difficulties) or miserable and like-a-prison (even amidst the good). And point them to the gospel, which is the best way of ensuring a marriage is beautiful and not miserable.

I hope this helps.