If you’ve been a member within a local church for any length of time, you know that being engaged with a church family has both highs and lows associated with it—much like your nuclear family.
This past week, as we gathered for our quarterly membership meeting, we reviewed items of business and heard from various pastors within our church on ministry reports and important service opportunities that are approaching on the horizon.
What came next were two conclusive church votes, one resulted in joy while the other resulted in sorrow, yet both brought about tears.
When I mention congregational voting, some people immediately have vivid images of churches slugging it out over the color of carpet, paint, or the increased budget line item of church supplies to cover more goldfish snacks for the nursery. If that’s your idea of congregationalism—you’ve missed it.
When we read in Matthew 16, we hear the words of Jesus addressing an idea of church leadership responsibility as he references the “keys” of authority. Notice what Jesus said:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).
Jesus later hands over the keys to the church, as we read in Matthew 18:15-20:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:15-20).
Notice in the first instance, he is speaking to the apostles. In the latter reference to keys, he is addressing the church. There is no reference to the office of elder or even apostles in the context of church discipline—hence the reason to call it “church” discipline rather than “pastor” discipline or “eldership” discipline. The responsibility of excommunication in the final stage of church discipline rests on the church as a whole.
Elders are called to lead in both oversight, shepherding, and visionary items, but the church has a responsibility by means of a covenant to care for one another and ultimately guard the church’s confession (doctrine) and membership (vote to receive members and excommunicate members). While the church can give over day-to-day operation decisions to the elders, there is still a responsibility of the church to guard and watch—often involving the non-authoritative deacon office to help manage the business of the church.
Vote to Send
This past Sunday, we heard the testimony of one of our pastors—David Crowe—regarding his heart to engage with a church plant that began last year in a nearby town. We have connections to this church through this brother, and we have prayed for this church work since it began. After bringing his desire to us as elders about six weeks ago and after prayer and discussion—we as elders gave our blessing on his desire to proceed forward.
A few weeks ago, in a prayer service with our church family on a Sunday evening, he made his desire known to the church family. After hearing a full report and rationale, we prayed for his family and our church that evening with the knowledge that one month later we would gather for the purpose of voting as a church to send he, his wife, and two little boys out from our church to engage in the work of church planting.
As we gathered together—we heard a summary report once again regarding the rationale, and then I led the church to vote. The vote was unanimous to send him out. As we raised our hands together as a church, in one sense we were voting to remove him from our church family—effective in January of 2020. It was a joyful release, one that we can celebrate together, yet one that brings about tears. David Crowe is a good brother, a strong asset on our pastoral staff, and he will be greatly missed. Church planting is not about sending people out from your church that you will not miss the week they’re gone, but it’s about sending out your best. In this case, while it was a joyful vote—it resulted in tears. The tears were both tears of joy and sadness.
Vote of Excommunication
As the meeting came to an end, as always, we have a line item on our agenda that reads, church discipline. Even when we are not engaging in any official church disciplinary situations, it remains as a fixed line item to remind our church family that we do practice church discipline—as directed by our Lord in Matthew 18:15-20.
As I moderated the meeting, I brought a full report regarding a specific member. His name was presented, although he was not present. His wife was present as our church gathered for the purpose of hearing the final summary of how we’ve arrived at this juncture. Through multiple private confrontations in specific connection with the biblical text, this man was warned, rebuked, and called to repentance—privately, with witnesses, and finally in our last membership meeting—he was presented before the church.
After giving the church an opportunity to do the work of the church and after giving him a few months to hear the church plead with him to repent through text messages, letters, phone calls, and personal meetings—we had to assemble for a conclusive vote. After a time of consideration and an opportunity to vote together as a church—I called for the church to vote. The church raised hands in another unanimous vote. It was not a joyful vote as was the previous one. It resulted in many tears.
We did not vote to excommunicate this man in order to smear his name. We had no sinful motives when we raised our hand. What we were doing was out of a broken heart—one where we had to agree that we have a lack of confidence in the genuineness of his conversion based on a perpetual pattern of unbroken sin. As Paul directed the church at Corinth regarding the man caught in sexual sin, we had to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). We voted to remove him as a member in order to guard the church’s purity and to continue to plead with the man to repent.
As members of all ages (some new members and some members who have been within our church for many years), we voted on two very specific membership items—they were polar opposites in many ways—one was joyful and the other sorrowful, yet they both resulted in a weeping church. A church must be willing to take the responsibility to send members out for purposes of church planting and to sever ties with members who persist in sin.
May the Lord do his work through both situations and may the Lord be glorified in both situations.