Restoring Those Who Have Fallen sounds an alarm to the church about a neglected ministry. It calls us to a dynamic plan of action to provide spiritual restoration to those who have “fallen away from grace.”
Restoration as a vital ministry of the church is too often non-existent, haphazard, or – worse – devoid of grace and healing. These chapters transform church discipline from punitive and harsh to positive and healing. Discipline as a grace-filled act of discipling can restore lives and invigorate the church.
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Dennis Brown Ministries
Dust Jacket Press
In the December 22, 2003 issue, Infantry magazine published the soldier’s creed. Of all the good things that the creed declares, line 8 carries a particularly impactful message:
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
The image of soldiers stealing across the battlefield, enemy fire whizzing past their heads, to lift their buddies who have fallen has been portrayed by Hollywood almost as long as they have been making movies about wars and battles. The reality is, however, that untold numbers of soldiers have put themselves at risk without the incentive of cameras or any thought of fame and glory to retrieve those who have fallen, some too wounded to make it on their own, others whose lives have been lost in the heat of battle. Ask a soldier, and he will tell you it is his duty; and more, it is a matter of honor.
At Expo ’74 in the Cotton Bowl, the premier event of the Jesus Movement, I stood with the tens of thousands who had gathered from all over the nation and sang Peter Scholte’s lyrics “We are one in the Spirit, We are one in the Lord….They will know we are Christians by our love.” While the words were pointing to the hope for unity in the Body of Christ to be restored, they nevertheless remind us that the signature character trait of Christians, according to Jesus Himself in John 23:35, is their love for each other.
Yet there is a conspicuous flaw in our armor. The Church has become notorious for its lack of the very unity that Scholte’s song hoped would “one day be restored.” The problem is not the many theological differences we have, as divisive as we have let them become. The problem is not simply the social or cultural differences that are evident in the mosaic of the Church. The chink in our armor is our failure to love one another, unfortunately even those with whom we share few cultural, social or theological differences.
Nothing betrays that character flaw more graphically than our failure to restore those among us who have fallen. Perhaps you have heard the disturbing accusation that “the Church is the only army that buries its wounded.” I remember how I felt the first time I ever heard that statement. And, every time since then, when I hear it, there is that same unwelcome sting. It’s bad enough that we squabble and fuss among ourselves, leaving unsavory impressions in our communities, but the trail of those who have fallen leaves an all too graphic portrayal of our failure to love.
In the mid 1980s the spectacle of fallen Christian leaders being paraded across the television screens of America was met with a mixture of ridicule and disgust, and not just by the general public. Church goers across the country were justifiably dismayed; some were angry; many were simply embarrassed. Tens of thousands of followers had been “sucked in” by the popular brand of prosperity theology that those leaders and their followers had been spouting. They had eagerly attached themselves to a “Christian” experience of high emotional appeal only to be devastatingly disillusioned when the curtain was pulled back and the sordid details were displayed for all to see.
Far less publicized, however, are the spectacles of moral and spiritual failures that are strewn across the landscapes of local communities all over our country. Their spiritual demise is the talk of their small towns, neighborhoods, and families. Equally scandalous is the failure of their churches to reach out with the love they preach and sing about to bring restoration.
As I grew up in the Church, I was aware of those kinds of drama. People who had been visible in leadership as laity and pastors were suddenly no longer there. Later, as a young man in training for the ministry, I would notice that pastors or church leaders would simply drop off the radar, their absences the source of conspicuous whispers. Still later, in my years of ministry, I have had the unwelcome and certainly uncomfortable duty of being involved in administering some form of Church discipline to ministers and laity alike, some of whom were unprepared to receive it; tragically, so were the congregations to whom they had ministered.
What is striking to me is that I have seen very few occasions in which restoration has taken place. I have seen some situations in which people have re-emerged with a kind of spiritual scarlet letter around their necks as people tried to re-welcome them to the fellowship as if nothing had happened. Most of the time, however, those who had fallen simply were left behind as the congregations tried to “move on” and hoped the winds of time would blow the stench away.
In my files is the following letter from a pastor friend of mine.
As a young pastor I became friends with an older pastor in my denomination whose church was close to mine. I found him to be all the things one hopes for in a friend and mentor. He had helpful suggestions to make from time to time, but not too many. He gave me a place to relax, complain if necessary, and just plain learn the ropes.
He was a prominent leader in the district and had been for years. His church had experienced real growth and showed the signs of genuine spiritual life. And while he had a professional success story to tell, he had also pastored some small places where things didn’t work out nearly as well. He had known hard times and wasn’t judgmental of others.
So imagine the shock that came with finding out one day that this mature, respected leader had been arrested in a nearby city for solicitation. He had been caught by an undercover police woman. I couldn’t believe it. I thought perhaps his glib personality had been misunderstood; that the whole thing had to be some kind of mistake.
As we came to find out later, the legal case against him wasn’t exactly air tight. The issue of entrapment was a possibility. But what also became clear was that he had clearly crossed the line. In a matter of days, he was without a church; a church was without its pastor. And the district was in a bind. Even as a young pastor, it was obvious to me that the leadership of the district was simply not prepared for what they were facing.
Fortunately, they did not panic. Over time they hammered out a process to work with this obviously repentant pastor. To his credit, he did not posture or try to bluff his way out of this.
The local authorities dealt with him quickly; there was a fine and probation. The professional side of things took longer, a lot longer. Eventually, a process for his discipline and restoration was worked out. The now former pastor followed the process to the letter. There were days of humiliation, obvious absence, avoidance by former friends, and a hurting wife and family, including his church family.
It took two or three years, but restoration was eventually achieved. He never pastored again. He was already nearing retirement and was at last allowed that official status.
What struck me about it all was that there was nothing in place to guide anyone through this painful matter. Some mistakes, mostly minor, were made, corrected and worked through. The end result was fairly positive. But the whole district – from the superintendent on down – was simply unprepared for such an occurrence.
Unfortunately, the situation described in his last paragraph is not the exception. In many church environments, efforts to exercise church discipline are either poorly managed or in some cases virtually non-existent.
Churches that experience this kind of crisis often find themselves in disarray. Some members leave in anger; others just leave. Congregational splits occur as members, embroiled in confusion, misinformation, and a lack of grace-filled leadership give rise to carnal reactions that force them to choose sides.
But, the worse tragedy of all is that too few people who have fallen are genuinely restored. Some of them may find their way back into fellowship with a local church, often not the one in which the problem occurred. A few many even find limited ministry roles, but true restoration is far too rare. Those who experience some measure of recovery more often than not carry with them the stain and strain of unresolved issues and relationships.
In our society, agencies and resources – both private and public – are designed to respond to everything from homelessness, natural disasters, and emotional and financial distresses people experience as a result of self-indulgence. We are called on to provide comfort and counseling and millions of dollars to aid those who are suffering and give a hand-up to those who have been knocked to their knees.
In the Church we have responded to meet the needs of those among us who are hurting as well. In small churches, the social networks respond with carry-in meals, phone calls and visits, used furniture, and helping hands. Churches with more resources have set up counseling offices, classes for addictions, grief support, disaster response teams, single parenting assistance, home remodeling, and more. We are caring people who see and respond to those who are among us as well as around us.
In spite all do, we are notoriously inept at knowing how to respond to those among us who have fallen spiritually. We can generate empathy for the emotionally wounded, but for the spiritually wounded we seem to stammer and stutter. Perhaps it’s because we see too much of ourselves and our own failures that we find that picture too uncomfortable to confront. Maybe we simply confuse spiritual failure with poor character and figure that “if they made their bed, they can lie in it.” On the other hand, there may be a reluctance to “judge” others, to pick up the first stone when we ourselves are not without sin.
In many cases, we simply do not know how to respond. If a family loses its house in a fire, we can share materially. If an individual experiences a death in the family, we can take steps to ease their daily routine with carry-in meals as well as flowers and hugs to express our sympathy. If someone is financially strapped from the loss of a job, we garner our resources to get him through the short haul as well as help them find work. When there is a need to which we can respond in some tangible manner, we tend to be ready and able.
What happens, however, when there is a spiritual disaster, when spiritual failure injects itself into an otherwise orderly church program? Somewhere between pure panic and hoping it will all go away quickly, there needs to be a plan, a response that brings restoration to those who have become separated from the Body and healing to the Body who has lost one of its members. That response comes in the form of what is commonly called Church discipline.
I dare say the average church member has rarely if ever even heard of Church discipline. They may have heard of the disciplines of the Church, meaning the specific spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, giving, or study, but “discipline” that refers to correction is probably a foreign subject to most Christians. Most would be shocked to know that their churches or denominations have specific statements in their governing documents regarding disciplinary action. There is little or nothing in the life of most local churches that discloses such information to its members.
This book will examine the topic of restoration from several perspectives. The first chapter deals with the matter of discipline in general. The title of chapter 1 (“Discipline! It’s not a Four-letter Word”) sets the tone. Hopefully, our perspective on discipline can be tweaked, so we no longer avoid something that has such wonderful benefits. Chapters 2 and 3 defines what Church discipline is and under whose authority such procedures fall. Chapters 4 and 5 examine who is subject to Church discipline and when or under what conditions official steps are needed. Chapter 6 examines common practices in Church discipline that do not restore. Finally we look at steps to develop a plan for restoration.
My hope is that this whole discussion will allow pastors and church leaders to develop a thoughtful and deliberate plan to provide restoration for those of their brothers and sisters who have fallen.