Church Discipline for Repetitive Sin

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Rick came to see me because he wanted to make a confession. He had, he said, hooked up with another gay man for an evening. Rick felt bad. He wanted to find freedom in Christ and to live without the patterns of his past.

Amy had a different reason for meeting with her pastor. "I'm angry a lot," she said. "Especially at the kids, and I take it out on them."

Mike looked down at the floor as he admitted to me that he had gone back to the porn sites. It wasn't the first time we had met about this, so I asked, "I thought you got rid of your internet service at home."

"I did," he said. "But then I found out I could pick up my neighbor's wi-fi."

How do you respond to people who are sinning, who know they're sinning, and who (given the addictive nature of their sin) most likely will sin again? Is there appropriate church discipline for repetitive sin?

Our church has taken these questions seriously, and we have been learning along the way. Maybe our experience can be helpful to others who want to guide their people to greater holiness and amendment of life.

Create a Culture of Confession

Pastors generally have hope and fear regarding church discipline: we hope we never have to implement it, and if we do, we fear a tumultuous public process, with letters read in front of the congregation and possible lawsuits. This leads to an implicit "don't ask, don't tell" mindset. There aren't many places in church life for people to honestly confess their present-tense sins, and somehow that's okay with us.

We do not take either sin or grace seriously enough.

But confession to another Christian is not only commanded in the Bible (James 5:16), it's the door to healing and holiness. So our church offers a variety of opportunities for confession: general confession during each worship service, invitations to go to a prayer minister near the end of a worship service, "prayer cells" made up of three people of the same sex, small groups for "life-controlling issues," and formal confession to a pastor.

It's this last one that makes some people pause. With roots in the Reformation, Protestants fear elevating the practice to a sacrament or of introducing any mediator between the sinner and Christ.

But Martin Luther, when he reduced the number of seven medieval sacraments, at first landed at three—baptism, Communion, and penance (confession and absolution). Though he later dropped sacramental status for penance, he daily confessed his sins to another person for most of his life.

There's a reason why Luther, C. S. Lewis, and other faithful Christians regularly practiced private oral confession.

Confessing your sins to God, in the presence of another human being, humbles you. It's hard to say to another person, "I did this; I thought that"—at least, I know it's hard for me. But following the humbling comes great assurance. The person I'm confessing to assures me of God's forgiveness, and there's something about their tangible presence, the very sound of their words, that breaks me free from my circling thoughts and tortured conscience.

Just as we need evangelists to proclaim God's invitation to new life, we need pastors to proclaim God's forgiveness to those who repent.

A first step is to invite people to make a formal confession of sins to a pastor—starting, perhaps, on Good Friday. Many resources exist, such as the Book of Common Prayer, to give words and structure to these confessions.

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Spring 2009: Unhooked: Addiction Recovery  | Posted
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