Fifteen years ago a group of us ex-communicated, or exercised Christian discipline on a close friend.
Yes, you read that correctly! It came to our attention that a married Christian man who we’d all known for years, with whom we’ve been in Bible studies, vacationed and even done ministry together was apparently having, at least an emotional affair with another woman. He (I’ll call him John.) and his wife weren’t technically members of any church, although they faithfully attended church. Rather than let this problem fall through the “who’s responsibility is this?” crack, we, “the church” around them stepped into his life. Here’s the story…
Wanting to respect this couple’s privacy, I’ll be purposely vague and brief on the details of this emotional infidelity. However it was clear to his wife and those who occasionally saw John with the other woman in public that something clearly inappropriate was going on. This was way more than a business relationship!
His wife approached several of us men she trusted and expressed her concerns and asked for our help. For over a year, a number of us individually and in pairs confronted John with his wife’s concerns and the reports that came our way from others and our own observations. He denied any romantic interest at all. We never accused him of actually committing adultery because we had no proof, but for sure his wife was being humiliated and Christ’s reputation was taking a hit.
Finally, in the spirit of Matt. 18 and I Cor. 5, the group asked John to meet with our entire group, which he refused to do. We then individually wrote or met with him and gave him a 30 day ultimatum: either he breaks off this relationship completely, or we would end our relationship with him. To further get his attention, we also told him that we and some of our wives would fully support his wife if she decides to temporarily separate from him, but not file for divorce.
To say John was not a happy camper is an understatement. “You self-righteous hypocrites…” Our response was, “That may very well be true, but right now we’re taking about you, not us.” Most of us agreed to meet with John but only if he was willing to discuss this issue. Several of us met with his wife’s attorney to make sure she was taken care of and felt supported.
The Power of a Faithful Spouse
John’s wife was amazing! All she wanted was her husband’s love and faithfulness and her family back together. They lived apart for nearly a year but finally, by the grace of God, he powerfully moved in John’s heart to confess his sin, end the relationship, and ask his wife’s and his teenage children’s forgiveness.
Six months after his reconciliation, I asked to meet with John to ask what we, the group, could have done differently to be more helpful to him. We truly wanted to learn. Aside from some frustration over how an older child found out what we were doing from one member of our group gossiping, he had this to say.
“I truly just couldn’t see the problem. It’s hard to imagine, but I was simply blind to it and there’s nothing you could have done painlessly to get me to understand. I wanted you to accept my decision, stay out of our business and your refusal was an affront to me. I was hurt and angry. But, I’m so thankful you loved me enough not to let me destroy my family and embarrass God. Thank you.”
The Rest of the Story
Today John and his wife have a personal ministry working with other couples in similar situations. He’s become an elder in this city, courageously calling men right out of the blue, who he’s heard have made similar, sinful or foolish choices and helping them realize their offense to God and the potential damage to their families. He is one of my heroes and a great friend.
I wish every attempt at discipline was as successful. But, it’s not. Over the years, whenever our church tried to formally exercise discipline, when it got almost to the point of severing a person from membership, most people would simply resign from the church, begin going to another church and effectively ending the process.
However, in my church where I’ve been an elder, we try to gather family and friends and urge them, rather than the formal church, to warn, pray, encourage and eventually, if necessary, to exercise discipline first, before the church gets too involved. They are “the church” in their friends’ lives and it’s been our experience that this method of exercising discipline is far more effective than our formal church discipline. When family and friends are involved, the pain of loss of friendship is a constant reminder of their sin and hopefully, they’ll be brought back to the “wisdom of righteousness”.
Question: What has been your experience with this method of exercising discipline, if any, or are there questions you have about it?