A Question I Was Asked:

Should Elders Demand Repentance For Sin? Is it Really Within Their Office to Require It?

The Question:

Should Elders demand repentance for sin? Is it really their office to require it? A church [near where I live] has embraced such practices. Several years ago, this church supposedly repented of this practice and such folk that left the church or who were wrongly excommunicated, were invited to rejoin the church - the church acknowledging a wrong attitude towards these folk.

One person that I know decided to meet with the elders for purposes of reconciliation and he was met with a 5 second apology and then they brought out a folder listing his "sins" and questioned him regarding his repentance. Listed amongst those "sins" were false accusations attributed to him requiring a confession and repentance. The elders claimed that they wanted confirmation of repentance. He could not confess and repent of false accusations and when he stated this, they denied that they had made false accusations.

In my opinion, they were seeking to have him back under their control in total obedience to themselves. Suffice it to say, reconciliation was not realised. Whilst he previously met with these elders and being under "discipline," another minister from a nearby branch of the same denomination was invited to also attend these meetings. The man recalls one minister stating to him that he was trying to cause a division between the two ministers. (which was totally false.) This, he recalls, set it up for the elders to claim that he acted contrary to the word of God and this accusation was read out to the congregation to justify their excommunication of him. See Romans 16:17,18.

True to their colours, they demanded recognition of their authority over their members, often quoting, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." (Heb.13:17) This passage, they abused! One wonders if they had ever read 1 Peter 5:1-3..."not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock."

The part about sending him home from one meeting to examine his whole life and then come back and report every sin in his life to them was what got me. I could not find in Scripture where such direction from elders was justified.... they sound like Catholic priests taking confession, but such confession was not designed to help him and encourage him in his walk with the Lord, it was designed to justify these elders with their accusations and reaffirm their authority over him. Such ungodly attitude, I find reprehensible and unscriptural.

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, let us consider some of these points.

The legitimate church office of elder is covered by such Scriptures as Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2-6,22; 16: 4; 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Timothy 3:1-16; 1 Timothy 5:1, 17; 1 Peter 5:1-2. I will not go through through all those here and now, but the main office and responsibility of a Protestant elder can probably be summed up under three overall headings:

1) Elders must keep spiritual watch over the flock in all humility.
Peter wrote,

"I exhort the elders who are among you, I being also an elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed. Feed the flock of God among you, taking the oversight, not by compulsion, but willingly; nor for base gain, but readily; nor as lording it over those allotted to you by God, but becoming examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, you shall receive a never-fading crown of glory." (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Elders are the designated leaders of the church, and the flock is entrusted to them by God. They are not to lead for the pay (although there is usually not too much of that!), nor the prestige, nor the glory but because of their desire to serve and shepherd the flock. Neither are they ever to bully, nor to behave arrogantly, but, rather, to be meek in attitude and approach.

In general, there are elders (presbyters) and 'senior elders,' or pastors (presbyters or episkopos), the latter taking the major burden of spiritual responsibility. This second group are more particularly the 'overseers,' ('bishops' in certain denominations) who are primarily concerned for the teaching and spiritual welfare of the flock. Obviously, some denominations have separated the two but most nonconformists leave the two sort of elders as one overall group within a congregation although recognising that the 'senior elder' (or, pastor) will be more theologically and pastorally highly-trained and should take the spiritual lead.

2) The elders help to settle disputes within church congregations.
Frankly, certain disagreements/disputes will always occur:

"While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the Christians 'unless you keep the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.' Paul and Barnabas, disagreeing with them, argued forcefully and at length. Finally, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem, accompanied by some local believers, to talk to the apostles and elders about this question." (Acts 15:1-2). So this question was raised and thrashed out, being taken to the apostles and elders for a decision. This passage teaches that elders must be prepared to make decisions.

We return to this point later when we look more closely at solving problems within congregations.

3) The elders are to pray for the sick (if so requested).
This would normally involve actually visiting any seriously sick, anointing them with oil, and laying hands upon them, while praying for a healing to take place. James 5:13-15 shows us that this is a duty of the elders, though the senior elder, or pastor, should certainly take the lead in this.

Some say that the pastor should also, within a certain period of time, visit every single person within the congregation, meeting them and chatting to them within their own homes, but, except where the congregation is relatively small, this is now an often impossible demand on a pastor. Most pastors would necessarily have to confine themselves to visiting those who specifically request a visit; a good pastor, however, would regularly check with other elders and the deacons to see if they know of any urgent need within the congregation which the church should be responding to (knowing that the most needy are often the slowest to come forward).

The author of Hebrews writes,

"Yield to those leading you, and be submissive, for they watch for your souls, as those who must give account, that they may do it with joy and not with grief; for that is unprofitable for you." (Hebrews 13:17).

However, it is the senior elder (or, pastor), who has the primary role of spiritual teaching. Mostly, this is well recognised, lamentably, however, one has heard of all too many cases in which elders (and sometimes deacons too), rise up in rebellion against the senior elder (pastor). This should only occur on very, very rare occasions and where there is very extensive evidence of wrongdoing by the pastor. Apart from such rare occasions, it is those elders who may be said to be in rebellion if rising up against their own spiritual leader or leaders!

Okay, now let us take a closer look at solving congregational disputations:

The Matthew 18:15-18 'Recipe'

It is God's will that we live and work together in harmony. Jesus said, "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love another." (John 13:34-35). Due to human nature, we may at times irritate others, resulting in misunderstandings or strong disagreements. In Matthew 18:15-18 Jesus gives His formula for solving most (if not all) person-to-person church problems:

"If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

We should take careful note of the stages in this approach:

1: Confidentiality. Keep the matter confidential.

The very pattern of sharing the problem only with those directly involved establishes the principle of confidentiality. Nobody should make their interpersonal problem the 'flavour of the month' among the congregation - it is unchristian to gossip and to spread your real or imagined hurt to all and sundry. "...if your brother trespass against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone..." The first and very often the only step needed in solving a person-to-person problem is for one of the two people involved to initiate face to face dialogue. Most problems of the purely personal misunderstanding type should be solved at the two persons level.

2: Be Straightforward.

Avoid using clever arguments, just be straightforward. "...tell him his fault..." Jesus tells us to be forthright and to love honestly. Restoration of a relationship can often only come when issues are lovingly yet clearly presented. The Scripture says, "...faithful are the wounds of a friend..." (Proverbs 27:6).

3: Be Quick to Forgive.

"...if he shall hear you, you have gained your brother."

This implies that once the matter is resolved we should wholeheartedly forgive and restore the person whose fault has offended us. Galatians 6:1 reads, "...if a man be overtaken in a fault, you which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself lest you also be tempted. "

It is often said that "most problems are resolved at the two people level." I'm not too convinced of that, but if the two parties are walking closely with Christ they certainly should be solved at this stage. Forgiveness and restoration is the happy conclusion which should be expected.

However, some problems are not just some misunderstanding between two people and are much bigger and may be a matter of teaching, policy and approach over a long period - this is where the real problems may start. Also, the individuals may openly disagree with the version, or description, of the problem as it is being presented.
So possibly the two of have met and talked together but one party is not satisfied with the outcome of the discussion. What is the next step in the Matthew 18 principle?

4: The Two Should Agree to Share the Matter with the Pastor or a More Senior Elder.

At this stage it is plainly permissible for both parties to take 2-3 good reliable witnesses with them. It would be wrong to select a particular elder because one knows he agrees with one's argument/position. Without question, it is the senior elder, or pastor, who should be approached in the first instance.

Jesus said "...take with thee one or two more, then in the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word may be established."

From this point forward there should be no doubt about the position of the two disputing parties - the dispute should now be crystal clear.

Each person should come to the meeting in a spirit of prayer and humility, willing to submit to reproof and correction if needed. A wise pastor will usually show at least some appreciation of both sides of an argument, will want to pray with the disputants, and encourage patience. If the problem possibly concerns the teaching, or some teaching, which has occurred or is being brought in, the pastor must also examine his own conscience and motives. But, if being led by God's Holy Spirit, he will strive to be gentle.

What is the next step in the Matthew 18 principle?

5: The pastor should explain the problem to the full board of elders.

Maybe the problem directly concerns the pastor, but he should not bottle it, nor hide it, nor put a gloss on things (in a way which is favourable to himself). Depending on the complexity of the problem, it may be appropriate for the board to request all persons involved to be present at the meeting.

If this is plainly a spiritual, or teaching problem, the deacons should not be involved, since their role only concerns the physical needs of the congregation.

The goal of this high-level meeting is to fully solve the dispute/problem once and for all.

In summary, the Matthew 18 principle requires that individuals talk to each other about problems before they talk to pastors. If unresolved at the two people level, the matter is prayerfully and, in an orderly fashion, moved upwards in the organizational structure. Of course, the problem may between the pastor and one other person. In that case, the individual should obviously go straight to the pastor right at the beginning.

Regarding litigation, the world's methods of solving problems is inappropriate. The idea of suing the church or persons in the church is a secular idea that has no place in the Lord's work. The Bible is clear on this. "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to the law before the unjust, and not before the saints?" (I Corinthians 6:1).

More On Pastor Problems...

One problem which sometimes arises (in all honesty, it shouldn't, but it sometimes does) is when the Pastor has made accusations against an individual in the congregation (which that individual believes to be false). If the principle of meeting him on a one-to-one basis is applied, it can be met with "Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses." (1Timothy 5:19 NIV). Elders and Senior Elders/Pastors can hide behind this verse knowing that it is most difficult to bring accusations against them. Of course, this should never happen but one has heard of rare cases where it has.

The problem exists when the Senior Pastor makes such a false accusation privately against the individual and there are no witnesses to verify such accusation. The accused may bring two or three friends (witnesses) to hear him confront the Pastor, but such a meeting may not be allowed by the eldership. "If the purpose of the meeting is to bring accusations against the Pastor, then the elders of the church will not condone such a meeting." They then cite 1 Timothy 5:19. They would possibly claim that the witnesses had to be present to hear the Pastor make such an accusation, otherwise, it is invalid to bring two people that were not involved. Obviously the "witnesses" in this case could have two meanings: (1) Those that actually witnessed the Pastor making an accusation, or (2)Those that are brought along to hear (witness) the accused confronting the Pastor with his false accusation against the individual.

Again, these are very difficult areas and there is little doubt that - in some cases - elders have not behaved with fairness, integrity and dignity in such areas, but elders and pastors should just remember that verses such as 1 Timothy 5:19 were never intended to be a snare nor a trap to those with sincere concerns but only to protect the ministry from false and time-wasting reports of a spurious or mischievous nature.

But What About Disfellowshipping?

This should never - I repeat never - be necessary if the disputing parties are truly walking in the Faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. It should only occur where one has very seriously fallen into sin - and I really mean 'seriously' where - if nothing is done - the whole congregation will suffer. But anyone suffering from certain personal sins and/or weaknesses should be able to freely counsel with the senior pastor in complete confidentiality without any fear that that senior elder/pastor would jump onto the gossip mill about what is mentioned in confidence. So (in my honest opinion) disfellowshipping is not even applicable to true believers in 99.9% of cases, it is only applicable where one has shown - by his or her fruits - that a particular person is not walking in the Faith and is pretty outrageous in behaviour. But - even there - the ideal would be for such a person to repent and return.

The principle of disfellowshipping has been horrendously abused by the cults and sects with leaders sometimes behaving like 'pocket Hitlers.' Biblical and evangelical churches are prohibited from following such examples.

'To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ's sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them - not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.' (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Yet Paul wrote,

'In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.' (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Paul wrote 'believer.' Many congregations will contain people who are not the most sterling examples of righteousness. Paul is possibly not referring to full disfellowship here but just giving a gentle warning as to who we tend to keep company with. We should take the point, though without setting ourselves up as a congregation's judge and arbiter of righteousness!

Avoiding Donatism

But we should just contemplate that it was established long ago (in the days of Augustine, bishop of Hippo), that the institutional church upon earth can never be a church of only the truly pure and converted, without going into the heresy of Donatism; The Church, which is visible and societal, will be necessarily made up of "wheat" and "tares," that is, converted and unconverted people (see Matthew 13:30), until the end of time. This concept countered the Donatist claim that only those in a 'perfect' state of grace and who were happy to undergo martyrdom were the "true" or "pure" church on earth. Of course, there is indeed a spiritual, pure Church in Heaven (those whose names are entered in the Book of Life), but at earthly, congregational level the church can never exactly mirror that and it must be accepted that we must rub shoulders with some of those who are either still on a path to true conversion, or, in some cases (sadly) may never be converted, despite the fact that some local church may accept them as "members."

Paul wrote,

'...I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval.' (1 Corinthians 11:18b-19).

So here, and in other places, the New Testament accepts the fact of a 'mixed' church here on earth. It can function in no other way. So any idea that one can eventually have a truly "pure" congregation by disfellowshipping those perceived as 'deadwood' is a nonsense and is, in fact, the recognised heresy of Donatism, sometimes also called 'perfectionism,' an error of the cults and sects.

Members and Membership

This is too big a matter to add to what is already quite a long article, but I am appalled that so few pastors seem to point out that all who have made a commitment to Jesus and to His Gospel through an open profession of the Faith and the act of baptism, become members of the Church of God, and should be assumed as such (until the sheep are divided from the goats by Christ Himself). More than once my wife and I have started to attend some local church when, after a few weeks, somebody has said, "Would you like to become members of our church?" I immediately tell them that we made that particular commitment a long time ago and are now indeed members of the Church of Jesus Christ (even if not of "their church"). Even worse, in some cases, and almost unbelievably, only the tithers are considered "members."

The Specific Case

Okay, I have digressed a little but now come to the specific case which is presented to me. In this case, an over-eagerness to disfellowship had apparently taken hold of the leaders of a congregation. This is sometimes a kind of spiritual laziness, it can be easier to disfellowship rather than to really solve some deep, root-level problem or problems.

Again, except where one is plainly and openly sinning in a gratuitous manner, arrogantly justifying one's sinfulness, disfellowshipping cannot be the answer, except perhaps on the very rarest of occasions.

In this case, the elders were virtually placing themselves in the position of priests taking confession, something which has no part in Protestantism. Protestants are taught to repent to God alone. Catholics, however, are taught that the priest has the authority to stand in God's stead and - effectively - directly forgive sin (through a misunderstanding of Matthew 18:18). For sure, within Protestanitism, the most senior elder (or pastor) does have more of a right to go deeper, even possibly suggesting repentance as a way forward.
In this case, the following Scripture was apparently used as a reason for disfellowshipping/excommunication:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. (Romans 16:17-18).

Yes, there are such people and we have probably all met them, but it is doubtful whether Paul is referring to full disfellowshipping here purely by his use of "keep away from them." However, such people may be warned and might eventually be disfellowshipped if persisting, but Paul seems to be referring here to people who are questioning of correct doctrine (rather than openly sinning in a most gratuitous manner), one could probably never say that disfellowshipping should never be used here, but it should be a last resort. Sometimes one might simply suggest that another denomination is more suitable for such people. I know one case where this happened and the man concerned did indeed change his denomination. The problem ended. I know of another case where a pastor, exercising excellent tact and compassion, suggested a somewhat troublesome questioner take 3-4 months off from services, using the time to study a particular doctrine very deeply and closely. That too worked perfectly. The man seemed renewed when he returned and was never again somewhat troublesome. Actually, of course, the pastor had indeed temporarily disfellowshipped this individual, using amazing wisdom and discretion in how he did it. It worked!

Disfellowshipping must aways be an absolute last resort because it is divisive, it can split families, split congregations and/or cause difficulties and repercussions for many years. Some groups have used it too easily and readily, justifying what is actually self-righteousness and a refusal for self-examination on the part of leaders who have become arrogant and no longer ready to listen.

Elders (as a group) usually have no right to demand "repentance," but may ask a disputant to examine his/her conscience. Neither do they have any right to demand a list of any individual's "secret sins," and in the case of alleged "false accusations" which are several years old, it would surely be the Godly way simply to forgive, and to bury the hatchet. The Spirit of Christ should be ruling here, not the spirit of condemnation!

In the last few years I seem to have witnessed a very odd thing: deacons and elders seem to have been taking more responsibility upon themselves, even treating the pastor as almost a 'junior partner.' But, in fact, the preaching elder, or pastor, has to take the spiritual leadership of a congregation. After an appropriate probationary period, any new pastor should take full spiritual leadership of a congregation. If the elders and deacons are found to be continually carping and finding fault, then they are in serious danger of being in rebellion against Christ!

Two Final Comments

As a friend remarked to me a few years ago, the difficulty comes in because when the New Testament was written, the elders were truly converted men who were being led by the Holy Spirit. Today, lamentably, too many church leaders have become seriously compromised by the world and by worldly standards. In all too many cases we simply cannot assume that they are using righteous judgment - this makes the solving of church disputes much, much harder.

The second point is: I have to say that there are many grey areas in this whole matter and I would not claim that my answer here covers everything which might occur and is the complete answer to any particular problem or dilemma. Perhaps my comments here, and especially a careful reading of all the relevant 'elder Scriptures' which I list at the beginning, should be considered as a good starting overall approach. Prayer is also always of paramount importance in this whole area. So I am not claiming that my reply here is the definitive explanation, but I have tried my best.

Robin A. Brace. March 20th, 2013.