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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121. Hesperus, CO. 81326




Every year many Christians leave the church community. Some are even leaders. What can be done to restore them to fellowship?

First, let's look at why they leave. Here are the common reasons:

(1) Their theology changes and they look for a more comfortable surrounding.

(2) They fail to feel a sense of belonging.

(3) They simply fail to keep in prayer, the Word, and fellowship.

(4) They get into conflict with another and leave rather than deal with the matter (or leave thinking they tried to deal with it and were let down by the church).

(5) Leaders get burned out and drop out, primarily from inability to handle the conflicts and needs of the people.

TO RESTORE YOU MUST DETERMINE WHICH SITUATION YOU ARE DEALING WITH. YOU WILL NEVER KNOW WHICH UNTIL YOU GO TO THE ONE WHO HAS LEFT. YOU GO TO THE ONE WHO HAS LEFT, AND ASK THEM WHY THEY LEFT, BEFORE YOU GO TO THOSE FROM WHOM THEY LEFT. You will get gossip in either instance, but you are trying to restore the one who left, not those who stayed. [See Dealing with Gossip and What is/is not Godly Investigation]


Before going further on the matter of restoration, I want to make some comments about these 5 types of people.

(1): First, these situations will happen. I believe we are called to deal with them by never allowing the leaving to terminate whatever our level of prior relationship with them had been. If he was my fishing buddy before, he should still be my fishing buddy.

(2) (3): If a church develops small groups who seek to care for one another, the number leaving will be limited and the ease of restoration enhanced. In the small churches we can "one another one another" which increases the sense of belonging, and encourages staying in prayer and the Word.

(4) (5): These are the result of fearing conflict and not knowing how to deal with conflict Biblically. Such things can be dealt with. [See Looking at Organizational Conflict; Some Thoughts on Small Group Conflicts; The Role of Leaders in Conflict; If I Were A Pastor; Confronting Church Leaders]

I conclude: Restoration is a matter of proper teaching in how to build a caring church and in how to deal with conflict. However, since conflict, of one form or another, is a guaranteed fact of life for every person, and since you can't deal with conflict in a caring manner without having a caring church, we can build a caring church by focusing on dealing with conflict.

Overseers for all, including pastors and leaders, is a part of the small caring-group church. One function of oversight is to intervene in conflict when knowledge of the conflict arrives, to be willing to enter into the conflict when called in, and to go after those who are leaving or have left.

I believe that churches do not deal with conflict in a Biblical manner due to ignorance, fear, and/or wrong teaching. We need to introduce sound teaching and training into the churches through: (A) training seminars/retreats for pastors, leaders, members, couples, etc.; (B) written materials for pastors as a sermon series; (C) written materials for adult and Junior/Senior level Bible study classes; and (D) books/tracts for general dissemination written so the lay person in conflict can begin to work on the conflict in a Biblical way. [See How I Try To Help People and Organizations in Conflict]

I also believe that dealing with conflict in a Biblical manner is not being taught in the Bible colleges and seminaries. We should develop some required curriculum.

We as individuals, the churches, and the colleges must discover who are the "wise men" (I Cor. 6:5) who can teach, train, or help us when there is conflict. When the church, as a whole, is in conflict -- such as: pastor vs elders; pastor/elders vs congregation; split congregation; etc. -- the "wise men" will, in all probability have to be brought in from outside.

Now, back to restoration.

TO RESTORE YOU MUST DETERMINE THE SPIRITUAL STATUS OF THE ONE WHO HAS LEFT. When you go to them, you may find them in one of several conditions: (1) at peace with God, man, and self, and maybe in fellowship elsewhere; (2) at significant peace with God but not with man as to the matter which led to their leaving; (3) at peace with God and man as to what led to the leaving but not yet restored to the fellowship; and (4) still at war with God and/or man and firmly out of fellowship.


This process of reconciliation is the same, and requires the same understandings, gifts, talents, actions, etc., as does biblical conflict resolution. You are an empty common clay pot. You may be called on to suffer pain, to sacrifice, and to make yourself totally vulnerable if you are to be used by the Prime Workers. God used The Man, Jesus Christ, in hopes of our reconciliation to Him, and it cost Christ pain, suffering, sacrifice, and vulnerability. [See On Being a Peacemaker]

However, I meet some who argue that there are some with whom we are to have nothing to do -- they are beyond restoration. I think this was the position of the Pharisees at the time of Christ towards the publicans with whom Christ ate!

Allow me to give an example of the argument of those who would say, "do not attempt to restore". They cite: "Shun foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned." (Titus 3:9-11)

Some people love to argue about law, process, how churches are to be governed, etc. You find them in every church. I am often seen as, and maybe rightly so, one of them. Paul tells us to not get involved in such discussions, for they will never be profitable. "Shun" -- periistemi -- them (the discussions, not necessarily the person); i.e., turn yourself about from them; go from them. There is a banquet table in Heaven. If we allow discussions to divide us on earth, God just may, in His infinite humor, make us sit opposite each other at that table, and glare at each other for all of eternity. As we part, let's hug one another, laugh about how great but eternally meaningless the discussion was, and set up our next time to meet.

Paul says "reject" -- paraiteomai -- the person who does these things. We take this to mean that after 2 warnings we can give that person the boot from fellowship and never speak to them again. We equate this to I Cor. 5:5,11: "render him unto Satan for destruction of the flesh that the soul may be saved in the day of Christ Jesus; do not associate with any so-called brother." Then, we take the "reject", the "render", and the "do not associate", and sit back and wait for the sinner to crawl to us in brokenness and repentance, even then demanding "fruits of repentance".

When I was Judge, I had a father and son in chambers. The boy had been in rebellion and foster care for some time. He would get his act together, and hold it together, maybe for several months. Then he would blow it again. He wanted to come home. I asked the father to set the conditions, and he did so. The list was highly subjective (dealing with attitudes, rather than actions and seemed difficult to measure). I asked the dad how long the boy had to abide by the rules. The father refused to fix a time! The time was to be when he, the father, deemed the boy had learned his lesson. This guaranteed failure -- the boy could never meet the standards!

I tell this story because demanding some nebulous "fruits of repentance", over an unspecified period of time, is the way we often deal with the fallen. But that is not God's way. If it were, God would have, at the latest, cut Abraham off after the second time Abraham peddled Sarah off as his sister. God would have wiped out the nation Israel before they ever got to the mountain to get the law. God would have wiped each of us out a long time ago. And God would never have sent His Son to die for us in the mere hope that we would accept the gift and be restored.

All I think Paul is saying to Titus is: "Stop feeding this man's energies. When he starts on his soap-box-of-the-moment, stop him. If he won't stop, turn and walk away. Eat with him, play golf with him, fish with him -- all that is fine. Just don't stand and listen to his complaining. When he does it, rebuke him. As pastor, feel free to tell the congregation how to behave in this type situation." An interesting thing will happen if this is done: either he will wear himself out, or he will remove himself from fellowship.

On the other hand, Jude wrote: "And, have mercy on some who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh." (Jude 22-23). To me, "some who are doubting" is a person who is in danger of falling -- not one in the process of falling. This is the person with whom we fellowship, see wavering in their faith or commitment, getting burned out, etc. We exhort them to stand firm while assisting them as their needs indicate. If conflict with others is a part of the reason -- and it often will be -- we become peacemakers.

Then there are those we are called upon to "save, snatching them out of the fire." I equate this to what Paul wrote in Galatians: "Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass (sin), you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself lest you be tempted." (Gal. 6:1) I see this as reaching out to the falling one. This is, very often, the person who has dropped out of fellowship. There is a calmness about you, a quietness, open arms, pain in your face, constant contact. You are Christ, asking yourself to dinner with one who is caught up a tree. Acting rightly and promptly towards this person will, more often than not, restore them.

But there is another person who needs to be restored, through "mercy with fear". This one is fallen. This is the one who is flaunting his sin. This one may well have been all the way through Matt. 18:15-17, plus I Cor. 5 and still is in sin. Even this one we are to seek to restore. Now, however, our process is different. It is my belief that no person can ever fall so far, or sin so greatly, that we are allowed to treat them as dead or cease efforts to restore them. Paul says in II Cor. 2:6-8: "Sufficient for such a one is the punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary, you should rather forgive and comfort him lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him." I believe this person is the same one whom Paul wrote about in I Cor. 5 -- the man who was living with his father's wife. The majority, evidently, had cast him forth and were not fellowshiping with him at all, having cut off rights and privileges of citizenship -- epitimia.

Ponder this: no where in all of Scripture do we have any evidence that this man has confessed his sin, or repented. For all we know, he is still living with his father's wife. Paul does not say: "Restore him to rights and privileges of citizenship." Paul does say: "GO. Reaffirm your love for him, lest he perish. If you have shunned him -- no communication at all -- stop that and go call upon him. Show love. Point him to Christ. Don't let him perish."

I have spoken to many people who have plummeted downward on a slide of sin. Without exception, they point to the time when, early on, had someone boldly come to them in love -- Jude 22-23a; Gal. 6:1-2 -- they believe they would have turned back. But they also point to a time, much later and much deeper in sin, when they stopped and looked for a hand to snatch them from the fire -- Jude 23 -- and, seeing none, let go and slid deeper into the sin.

This reaching out should always be in person -- physically rather than by phone or letter -- as we carry Christ, the Great Restorer, with us and want Him seen. He does the work; we are the vessel.

This reaching out needs to be over and over and over again, although it is perfectly proper to allow time to lapse in between and allow the Holy Spirit to work.

This reaching out must include confession of our own fault, if any. Since we may have fault in this, or could cause harm by going in the wrong manner, we need to seek counsel and analyze our own actions, inactions, and attitudes before going. The analysis must be conducted in fashion so as to not be a gossip against the other.

When we go, I think we go in pairs of the same sex as the one whom we are calling upon. If at all possible, one of the pair should be a person who has fallen deeply in the same sin, or in a sin which can be readily related, or who previously dropped out of fellowship.

The attitude in which we go is not as judges of this person's heart. We are seed throwers, not harvesters of crops. We are God's emissaries, not man's. We have deep love for this person, and we are in pain over his separation from God and from the Body of Christ. The God Whom I know will, I believe, cry at the time of the Great White Throne Judgement, for He will, that day, forever separate some of His creation from Him, and He does not want to do that -- Matt. 18:12-14. I also believe this because I served 5 years as judge, and I often cried as I separated people from family and community and sentenced them to prisons which were, literally, Hells on earth.

If there is sin still present, we must be willing to clearly declare the sin of the moment, rather than the sins of the past. The sin of the moment may be simply being out of fellowship, or failure to confess to some person directly harmed, or failing to forgive some person for a wrong done. The latter two sins are very common reasons why people separate from fellowship and give the appearance of having fallen in sin. In fact, the heart may be repentant, the sin may have been forsaken, but the fallen person is still outside fellowship due to shame or pride. [See Confession and Forgiveness -- Keys to Reconciliation]

We do restoring by doing towards the fallen person the "fast" God told us to practice -- Is. 58:3-11. As we do so, we become: "rebuilders of ancient ruins (of life), raisers of (new) foundations, repairers of the breach (of relationship and fellowship) and restorers of streets in which to dwell (peace)" -- Is. 58:12.

IT IS THE ROLE OF GOD TO RESTORE THE FALLEN TO MINISTRY AND/OR POSITION. God restored: the temple (Jer. 12:15); the hearts of fathers to their children (Mal. 4:6); fortunes (Zph. 3:20); people from captivity (Amos 9:14); land (Jer. 42:12); and the past (Joel 2:24). I believe that one sign of a person who appears to be humbled, but is not, is that they are seeking their restoration to position, rather than awaiting God.

The future ministry of the restored fallen person will -- if all are patient, both fallen and the restorers -- be custom tailored by God to the gifts and life experiences of this person, including this highly negative life experience (Rom. 8:28). Some areas of ministry which we may want the person to enter (or reenter) God may keep closed. Some areas which we may want to close, God may open. The fallen person merely places and keeps themselves under supervision -- "subject to one another in the fear of Christ" (Eph. 5:21) -- and awaits the work of the Lord.

Those whom the fallen one subjects themselves to must not fall to the charisma or manipulations of the fallen one. These restorers are agents of oversight for the Lord. If this is done, one day, I believe, Christ will declare, through unity of the overseers, return to ministry. (See BeyondForgiveness, Don Baker, Multnomah Press, 1984.)

SOME PREVENTATIVE STEPS. First, we need some covenants to be entered into between pastor, leaders, and congregation, husbands and wives, business associates, etc. concerning how conflicts will be dealt with. These should even name the "witnesses" who will assist as needed, possibly empowered to make binding judgements (I Cor. 6:5). [See Conflict Preventing and Limiting Covenants.]

Second, we must have a process to which pastors can turn when feeling lay leadership or congregation are not dealing rightly with them. And lay leadership and the congregation need a place they can turn to when they feel the pastor is out of line. Again, there can be advanced declaration of who the "witnesses" (Matt. 18:16) or "wise men" are who be called. [See Confronting Church Leaders]

Third, conflicts must be seen as having such a priority that all other business and matters of the day are laid aside until the conflict has been dealt with -- Matt. 5:23-24. We must trust God to take care of evangelism and outreach and building projects and such while we get about the matter of healing.

Finally, you might ask: Why should we go to all this trouble?

DO YOU BELIEVE THAT REVIVAL IS NEEDED? Every time a person re-reconciles with God, or reconciles with another person, revival is a possible by-product. The settings for such reconciliations is conflict. And, we will be demonstrating that we are one, the world will see, and they will be drawn to Christ -- John 17:19-21.

But, also, God did it for you.