Church Discipline and Restoration as Missionary Care

Image-1The following is an excerpt from the new book, Receiving Sent Ones During Reentry: The Challenges of Returning “Home” and How Churches Can Help. Used with permission.


We need to hear stories about the real struggles and joys of missions work. These kinds of stories have the power to improve our missiology; unless we are honest about the challenges missionaries face, we won’€™t find realistic solutions.

– Amy Peterson, “Farewell to the Missionary Hero,” Christianity Today

Ok, let’s get honest then. Sent ones don’t always return for noble reasons.

Even if you haven’t experienced it in your church, odds are you’ve watched a tragic situation or two embarrassingly trumpeted in the media. Whether it’s a family torn apart when the husband was caught viewing child pornography, or a missionary doctor who sexually abused dozens of women over his thirty years abroad, the stories of failure are in our midst. Other common reasons that bring abrupt ends to the ministry of sent ones include:

  • adultery
  • conflict
  • financial mismanagement
  • family neglect
  • deceit
  • drug/alcohol abuse
  • unhealthy relationships
  • substandard performance
  • perpetuated unbelief
  • theological waywardness
  • child abuse
  • disunity
  • emotional illness
  • refusal to acculturate
  • escape

Because sent ones are real people, churches must get real about their fallibility. We need to embrace the sobriety of the seasoned pastor, who says tearfully and genuinely, ‘There is no sinful behavior that surprises me anymore.’ We may skillfully identify, assess, develop, and commission our very best leaders to hard neighborhoods and nations, but it won’t prevent some of them from coming back in deep trouble. In our broken world it’s actually inevitable.

Why Church Discipline and Restoration?

The healthy church, who properly values the biblical necessity of covenant community, recognizes their responsibility to “care for every individual member of the church…[saying], ‘If you wander from the Lord, I’m coming after you, and if I wander from the Lord, I want you to come after me’” (Platt, 247). The sending church, then, recognizes that this kind of shepherding also includes any of the sheep who go astray, even the ones who have been sent far away. And, arguably, they require even more concern in light of the higher standard to which spiritual leaders consciously submit (1 Timothy 5:20, James 3:1) (Strauch, 217).

I write this knowing that church discipline has been and continues to be a buzzworthy phrase among Evangelicals. Responses to the loaded topic range from scoffing church leaders to trembling church members. Surprisingly, this ecclesiological omission represents a dramatic shift over the past 100 years:

Two generations ago the churches were applying discipline in a vindictive and arbitrary fashion that justly brought it into disrepute; today the pendulum has swung to the other extreme—discipline is almost wholly neglected (Dana, 244).

However, it is difficult to ignore the presence of church discipline in the Scriptures. Though it would be easy to begin with Jesus’ directions in Matthew 18:15-20, or Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 5:1-11, one of the most famous stories of the Bible may actually provide a less intimidating sense of church discipline’s purpose. It’s the Parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15:11-32. Here, God’s extravagant and controversial grace is displayed through the father who welcomes home his prodigal son. Imagine the similarities of the filthy son in the story and the failed sent one in real life, both on their way home knowing that a successful return is not inevitable. Why? Because their “sins have created a barrier and [they] do not know how that wall can be breached. [They] know [they] might be rejected and forced to stay in exile” (Keller, 98).

Yet, thankfully, this is not the end of the possible parallels. Keller goes on to say that the true prodigal of the story is God the Father, who lavishly wastes his Son on worthless men and women. Wow. Because of this stunning gospel truth, there is hope for restoration to God for all of us. It’s also the basis for the hope that a prodigal sent one can be restored to spiritual health through loving church discipline. This is the responsibility and privilege of sending churches.

In addition, Mark Dever gives five substantial reasons for performing biblical church discipline:

  1. For the good of the person disciplined
  2. For the good of other Christians, as they see the danger of sin
  3. For the health of the church as a whole
  4. For the corporate witness of the church
  5. For the glory of God, as we reflect his holiness (188-190)

Just as God designed, carrying out this thorny function involves much more than merely purging the church in culturally awkward ways. When properly conducted, it ultimately provides benefits to everyone involved, and even those outside the church. Most importantly, it points powerfully to a God who will enforce his discipline justly, and yet is willing to offer his grace freely, healing “the broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).

How to Go About It

First of all, it’s critical to be familiar with all the angles in which the Bible addresses church discipline, not simply for knowledge, but for humility. As one church has publicly admitted, it’s unloving to weigh in to such delicate matters with impulsive, heavy-handed decisions. Instead, churches must realize that “every encounter [they] have with a person in crisis requires total dependence upon the Lord. Prayer is the preparation, the connection, and the sustenance that will enable [them] to be effectively used to God’s glory” Cutrer, 12).

With this perspective, churches may be surprised not only with how the process affects the returning sent one, but their entire body:

Any crisis is disorienting and painful, but crises also provide an opportunity for growth. Every church that is prayerfully guided to responsibly address the pain and devastation of moral failure of one of their ministers/missionaries will usually find a better path and a healthier way to function (Holton, 5).

It will also help them to discern the difference between sent ones being DISqualified and UNqualified. Often churches may enter the situation while the sent one is still on the field. This means leaders will have to sift through the complex process of deciding if the sent one should come home or not. Disqualifying behavior, such as child abuse or embezzlement, obviously means it’s best if they return and walk through church discipline (and sometimes legal matters—some countries may even require a criminal report depending on the infraction). Unqualifying behavior, such as emotional illness or substandard performance, may simply need to be addressed on the field, and can lean more in the direction of care and restoration than discipline. In those cases it’s probably better to not even internally or externally use the phrase “church discipline” as it may be ominously interpreted and increase wounds.

Unfortunately, disqualified and unqualified behavior often overlap without clear distinctions. Cross-cultural stress, lack of community, and spiritual warfare can lead even strong Christians into abnormal behavior. A sent one may secretly seek escape by looking at pornography during reoccurring bouts with depression. Their church may be tempted with an over-simplified response, only blowing the whistle on the disqualifying actions, end of story. But the depression is at play too, which isn’t necessarily even unqualifying for sent ones, unless it’s constantly debilitating.

Biblically, however, the church is called to draw near and search out what’s going on at a heart level (Proverbs 20:5, Hebrews 3:12-13). Does the depression lead to porn, or porn to depression, or both? Is the depression clinical or situational? What lies are the person believing about God and themselves? How does the gospel specifically apply to their nuances of unbelief? Does the person need counseling and therapy beyond the church’s capacity to provide? Answering these questions will take time, trust, and tenderness.

Honestly, as a missions leader, it would be a nightmare to try figuring all this out on my own. Rather, it’s best to lock arms with the sent ones’ partner organization. This, of course, assumes that the sending church partnered with a missions agency and has cultivated some level of familiarity and relationship with them. In this regard, Dr. Becky Holton has a terrific step-by-step guide to triaging the situation, including how to discover the truth, how to communicate, and how to care for the missionary, their family, and their team. Churches need to keep in mind that they may also have to work through HIPPA regulations to gain full disclosure of the situation from the agency. If the church hasn’t partnered, they will need to work directly with those in relationship with the sent one on the field. They also may consider sending a representative to inspect the situation or hiring a Christian investigation firm.

As churches move forward in church discipline and restoration, it’s best to do it in community. Because a sent one has taken on spiritual leadership, and has been confronted with his/her sin to the point of returning home, a sending church may decide to skip the initial private confrontation described in Matthew 18:15, moving directly to group care and their call to repent. Churches who already have a structure for church discipline, whether it’s led by a plurality of elders, a missions care team, or a congregational procedure, should utilize that process. Churches who do not have such systems or experience can select a group of members who are “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) to walk with the offender. This is not for the sake of gossip or jury, but wisdom, discernment, accountability, and unity. The book Restoring the Fallen offers further insight on this kind of care team approach.

Finally, a sending church needs to develop and present a clear plan for restoration, which gives the returning sent one a vision for renewed health and how the church will longsuffer with them to arrive there. This begins with earnest prayer and expectation that the returning sent one will repent and be restored to fellowship with God and others. Discipline only needs to be escalated if they are unresponsive, and slowly at that, patiently giving them every chance to repent just as our Father gives to us. For more on this, see Robert Cheong’s handbook on church discipline, God Redeeming His Bride.

In an ideal world, or perhaps a superficial one, this article would never have to be written. Unfortunately, reality begs to differ. For the sending church who has chosen to love the neighborhoods and nations by sending their members into them, a situation of disqualifying sin may well put that love to its severest test. Yet may the God who loves all believers enough to discipline us as sons and daughters, give every grace to his churches to boldly love as he loves.

4 thoughts on “Church Discipline and Restoration as Missionary Care

  1. Great post. As a lifelong missionary (30 years) I crave to see more care given to those serving overseas. The cracks in the characters of those coming/serving overseas become crevices that can be, and has been, the undoing of many missionaries and their families. Thank you for shining a light on a much needed subject.

    Liked by 1 person

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