Church’s Responsibility to Its Own

No church wants to face what Crabapple First Baptist Church faced last week: news that one of its members had murdered eight people on a shooting spree. The church needed to determine its response, and communicate it not only to its own congregation but to the community and the world. Not easy to do while in shock and under media pressure to make a statement.

The statement that the church issued is carefully worded – but odd. The church condemns the sin, and expresses support for the victims. But the statement also condemns the perpetrator. It says that the shooter alone is responsible for his “evil actions and desires,” the result of “a sinful heart and depraved mind” for which he “is completely responsible.” It asks for prayer for the victims’ families, for the communities affected, for the shooter’s family and for the church family. It does not ask for prayer for the shooter himself, an obviously troubled young man.

The church seems to have given up on this young man.

In Matthew 18, Jesus outlines a process for addressing sinful behavior, recognizing that people don’t always repent when confronted with their sin. This passage is the basis for church discipline, a process spelled out in the bylaws of most churches. The process is reserved for serious ongoing sin, and its goal is usually stated as repentance and restoration. Although church discipline may culminate in separating the errant individual from the congregation, the goal is still repentance and restoration. In Matthew 18:17, Jesus said, “If he refuses even to listen to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” That sounds like we get to condemn the sinner—until we recall how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors: he shared the gospel with them and never ceased striving to show them God’s love.

Crabapple Church says it completed the process of church discipline with this young man. Usually the process is lengthy – it can go on for months – so the church has evidently been aware of this young man’s problems for a long time. The outcome of church discipline in this case was to remove him from membership, the ultimate step for an unrepentant member. A church may counsel its members not to have fellowship with a person who is under discipline, in keeping with I Corinthians 5:9-13, which exhorts believers not to associate with an unrepentant sinner. Crabapple Church cited I Corinthians 5 in explaining why it removed this young man from its fellowship. Perhaps this is why its statement distances the church from its former member.

In my church’s Conflict Resolution Policy, the section on dismissing an offender from membership is followed by a section headed “Restoration,” describing how the church will “warmly and lovingly restore” to fellowship a person who comes to repentance. This was by design, to remind both the church and the offender that the primary mission of the church is to seek and save the lost.

Although the official stance of Crabapple First Baptist Church towards this young man seems to be rejection, I hope there are individuals within the church who are praying for him and ministering to him. If he ever needed the support of a loving church, it’s now, when he’s broken.

 

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