After Church Discipline: Comfort After Removing a Loved One from Membership

by Samuel Hood September 1, 2022

With a heavy heart, I walked into the church building knowing what was about to take place. As a church, we were gathering together to exercise the final step of church discipline: removal from membership. When the call to vote came, I cast my head down and raised my hand to vote for removal.

Some of the hardest moments in my Christian life have been removing someone from fellowship because of their unrepentant sin. Just hearing about removing someone from membership is discouraging and knowing that someone is living in disobedience towards God and pursuing their sin can discourage us in our faith. Having close friends, family, and pastors pursuing their sin brings despair that hits even harder. But through this heaviness of heart, we must fulfill the biblical command to practice church discipline. Our goal in discipline is not to condemn, but to restore. Thus, we don’t forsake church discipline just because it grieves us.

The first time I voted to remove someone from fellowship was a good friend of mine and it was devastating. Questions flooded my mind. Was there more I could have done? Are they lost forever? How do I speak to them? Will we ever have the same relationship? Why am I so burdened by this? Why haven’t I reached out since we removed them from fellowship? I asked myself many more questions that brought out shame, guilt, and further despair.

My desire in writing this is for the sake of anyone facing these same questions and feelings. We can take great comfort in God and His Word, trusting in His sovereignty over these circumstances. Here are some points of comfort for those who have, along with their local church, fulfilled their duty in removing individuals from fellowship with the church.

  1. They are not too far gone

My wife and I voted to remove a family member from our church a few years ago. The days that followed were heavy for us, but I’ll never forget what one of our pastors said, “They are not too far gone.” A burden was lifted from us by this statement alone. We were preparing to live the rest of our lives as if they would never return to the Lord. We wondered what this looked like as supporters of their disfellowship with the church when we were to see them at holidays, family gatherings, or even when we spoke about our faith. Would they be bitter toward us? Would they resent our decision to support Scripture, despite them being family? Yet, we were reminded of the fact that they are not too far gone. When pondering on those you’ve recently removed from fellowship, remember that though they are far from God now, we shouldn’t assume God isn’t working to bring them back. Take comfort in the fact that God brings his lost sheep back to himself.

  1. You’re probably not guilty of doing too little

Perhaps you’re in a position like the one that I have faced. You blame yourself for not doing enough; you could have met with them more, prayed for them more frequently and sincerely, or even rebuked and corrected them in the hope of their restoration prior to disfellowship. Although these efforts are commendable, doing more doesn’t guarantee you’ll be successful in your efforts. Rather, if you’ve been a faithful church member to them and if you’ve followed what is outlined in Scripture concerning church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:9-13), then you needn’t worry about having done too little. If by your witness they don’t repent, you are not guilty. If after confronting them with 2-3 witnesses they don’t repent, you are not guilty. If after bringing them before the church and they don’t repent, you are not guilty. You’ve been faithful to do what God has instructed you to do. Their unrepentance is not your guilt to bear. Take comfort in your obedience to the Lord.

  1. You are not alone

There are two comforts that exist for you to consider in helping you ease the burden of church discipline: the Church and prayer. The Church is a great comfort because you know that you are not alone in pleading to the Lord for their repentance. Because of the Church you are not alone in reaching out to those who are removed from fellowship. And when it feels overwhelming, you have the Church to lean onto for comfort. Ultimately, you are led to prayer personally and corporately. 1 Peter 5:7 reminds us that we can cast all our burdens on God because he cares for us. Take comfort because you have the Church to lean on and God to rest in.

  1. Discipline comes from the Lord

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” One line of the answer has provided immense comfort for my own personal life, and I believe it applies here. “[Jesus] also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.” How comforting is it to know that the Father’s will is actively engaged in working all things for our salvation? In purging the evil from among us (1 Cor. 5:13), our goal is not to cast someone aside for the final judgment.
Rather, our aim is to be the ones used by the Lord to ensure that all things are working together for their salvation. Personally, I see disfellowshipping a member not as a judgment on their salvation (though this act does remove those who clearly had a false confession of faith), but rather as a statement of discipline. Think of the relationship of a parent and a child. A child who is rebellious against their parents doesn’t lose the status of child. No, the parents discipline the child, and the child remains a child. In the same way, the Father uses the Church to discipline his children (See Heb. 12:3-13). Take comfort that the Lord disciplines those whom he loves (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6).

  1. Restoration does happen

Here’s the best news of all, God does restore those whom he is disciplining. A friend recently commented on 1 John 2:1, “John is more sure that Christ is forgiving than he is that you won’t sin.” Our forgiving God is restoring those who are his and forgiving them of their sin. Don’t be dismayed that all don’t return to the Lord, but take great comfort in the fact that the Lord is restoring his sheep to the flock. Find peace in the gospel, which leads us to trust that even the worst of sinners who repent and have faith in our Triune God are being sanctified (Phil. 1:6).
As time has passed, the Lord has used his Word and the Church to remind me that those who fulfill their duty of church discipline have great comfort in their time of lament. Whether we struggle with guilt, feeling alone, or doubt, we can have hope in the comforting, restoring God who is making sinners whole.