The church can be likened to many things. It can be likened to a vineyard, or a human body. I will liken it to a hospital. In many respects the church is indeed a hospital. It is an institution that hosts lots of people with different types of spiritual conditions needing attention. Its medical staff would be the spiritually gifted members of the church led by the consultants, the elders. For spiritual healthcare, I cannot think of an institution better suited than the church.

One of the most painful decisions doctors have to make, in the course of their work, is dismembering a part of the patient’s body with the aim of saving his life. Such is the church’s pain in exercising church discipline, especially excommunication.

A time comes when even spiritual life may have to be saved through apparently harsh and painful means. The apostle Paul could not have depicted this more starkly: “hand this man [guilty of wicked conduct] over to Satan, so the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1Corinthians 5:5). He was proposing urgent and radical soul surgery!

Ironically, as churches we discipline in order to restore, we inflict pain in order to secure spiritual healing, we act apparently cruelly for our love and purity to sparkle.

It is imperative, therefore, that this ultimate aim should regulate the entire process of disciplining an offender, from first to last, as the following steps demonstrate.

Step one: Ensuring the restoration of the penitent starts long before he or she manifests any fruit of repentance. The manner in which the entire investigation of the alleged offence is conducted and deliberated upon, the disciplinary measure settled on and the manner in which the church’s decision is communicated to the subject of discipline, are all critical phases in facilitating the offender’s eventual restoration.

It is important to stress that the investigative process must not be hurried, careless, or driven by prejudice. It should inspire the confidence and respect, in its fairness and thoroughness, of even the very party that is ultimately proven guilty. Shoddy probes and unprofessional corrective efforts tend to harden and embitter the mishandled parties. Two key lessons from Mathew 18:15–17 are: the need for patience in seeking resolution to offences, and the need to strive towards private resolutions.

The church convened to deliberate the disciplinary case should avoid malicious expressions or trading in rumours or suspicion. Because the impenitent have a penchant for seeking someone to share their guilt with or to blame their punishment on, church members should be under oath not to disclose the meeting’s contributions or contributors, to the persons under discipline. The first and only people from whom the offender should hear the church’s decision is the elders’ spokesperson(s).

Equally important, the disciplinary measures agreed ought never to be disproportionate to the offence. Neither should they be applied in a spirit of hate or vengeance. Firmness can be communicated without callousness (Galatians 6:1). It is very possible to issue a guilty sentence and observe its terms in love. Sustained compassionate prayer for the offender is proof of sincere yearning for his restoration.

Step two: In order for the church to ascertain that the offender is truly penitent, when that time comes, two things would have to happen. First, the form of church discipline applied should be the kind whose impact is measurable. Thus Paul would declare, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him” (2 Cor 2:6, emphasis mine). This means that church discipline must lay achievable conditions to be met by the offender as indicators of repentance, beyond a mere “sorry.”

Second, the elders would have to maintain a thin line of communication with the offender, in order to validate any claims to repentance.

This means that church censures should not strictly be bound to time (e.g. six months expulsion). What does a church do with a person whose repentance comes sooner than the set duration, or sooner than expected, as did David’s (2 Samuel 12)?

Again, actions that completely banish the offender from church attendance will neither provide a window for assessment nor a “confession corner” in the event of repentance. Restoration is far from being served by such extreme measures. Whatever the offence and the disciplinary action, the offender must serve his punishment within the view, even if estranged view, of the church members, whose duty it is to constantly reassess the effectiveness of the chastisement (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:14,15. Note the phrases, “mark him” [i.e. watch, keep an eye on] and “not as enemy”).

Step three: When there is clear evidence of repentance and the elders have satisfied themselves of this, they will lead the gathered church to appreciate this delightful development. Unless there are contraindications, the church has a duty to endorse the penitent’s grafting back into normal church life. This would start with a public testimony of his repentance (before a members’ meeting that is).

Public renunciation of sin and pleas for forgiveness are important in that they do not only demonstrate the genuineness of the confession, but the resolve to have nothing to do with the sin publicly renounced. One who freely subjects himself to the shame of public censure would be one well-versed in the loathsomeness of sin.

Three responses are expected from the church, according to 2 Cor 2:7,8.

1. Forgiveness: The penitent must be forgiven consequent to his satisfactory public repentance. This means removing the charge of guilt off his head and treating him as cleansed of his sin, whatever the degree of its shame and however pronounced its consequences. Forgiveness helps the penitent deal with marauding guilt and it paves way for the bestowal of favour in form of acceptance or reinstatement to a full participation in the privileges of membership.

True forgiveness ought to be both stated formally and demonstrated practically. It is not enough to declare one forgiven and yet show reluctance to associate with him. One who is forgiven must sense this forgiveness. Understandably, welcoming a former offender coming out of isolation is quite a challenge in the initial stages. However, it must be done.

2. Comfort: With forgiveness must come comfort (v.7), literally, “calling to one’s side.” The penitent is coming out of much shame and sorrow. He has mourned over the reprehensible conduct that stripped God of his glory, the church of its dignity and his soul of its bliss. Having renounced the sin that gave these blessings wings for their flight, he needs our comfort, a comfort that springs from a heart of compassion, a heart that is distressed by the ravages of sin on individuals and churches (v.4).

The penitent needs words and attitudes of consolation and encouragement. He is not to be left to lift himself up to his former standing by his own bootstraps. He needs patient close escort. Sermon applications should not forget this bruised reed. Elders should not forget to draw a rehabilitation programme for him, if required.

Care should, however, be taken not to lavish the penitent with comfort that risks implying that an apology is being made for the punishment earlier meted. Everything must be done in moderation. Let us be clear about the fact that this is not comfort to one wilfully and foolishly suffering sin’s pangs, but comfort to one who is grieving over his sin and mourning the loss of the Spirit’s intimate presence.

Hence the penitent has a duty to reach out to the church by wholeheartedly plugging into all the means of grace with all humility, as part proof of repentance (cf. 2 Cor 7:10,11). Without this burning desire to regain what was lost, the penitent has himself to blame for receiving tentative welcome. It is through these vital connections that the church will reciprocate maturely with forgiveness, comfort and love.

3. Love: Love for the penitent (v.8) crowns his welcome. Love covers a multitude of sin, it is patient and kind, it is not proud, rude, or self-seeking, it keeps no record of wrong, it always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. This love will be shown through overtures of fellowship, acts of benevolence and much prayer support. That a formal or public statement is integral to the expression of this love is made clear in the edict, “reaffirm

[or ratify]

your love for him” (v.8).

The danger of being overwhelmed with sorrow (v.7) under Satan’s subtle oppression (v.11) is very real. We have noted in church experience that some who come back to the fold never regain their former standing. They come back with a permanently impaired spirituality. They fail to get out of their state of shame and self-pity. Sadly some go back to or stay in their vomit, having failed to overcome these. Love helps inoculate against this.

Two extremes need avoidance: first, do not be hasty in welcoming back every Christian claiming to be repentant. Only one irrefutably manifesting fruit of repentance must be restored. Second, do not delay the restoration of one truly penitent. Institutional bureaucracy is not sufficient ground for delay. A special meeting should be called to deal with this pressing need, otherwise Satan may outwit you.

Like one safely coming out of a serious operation necessitated by a condition brought about by irresponsible living, the return of a penitent brother, though sad and solemn in its own strange way, is really a time of serene rejoicing and thanksgiving.