Love Steps

Reflections on a disciplinary experience

Ramon J. Canals
Love Steps
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

In one church I pastored early in my ministry, I encountered a well-educated, well-connected engineer from a very well-to-do family. Apparently the pastors that had preceded me had never addressed an issue concerning this individual that everybody in the church knew about. They simply hadn’t found a way to address it. The issue was about Sabbath observance—this person was working on the Sabbath. He would come to church whenever he could, but most Sabbaths he would be working. And the church knew this.

There were some in the church who said, “We need to do something about this. This person is violating the Sabbath. How can we ask people to follow the law when we allow this person to break the law, and nothing has been done for years?” Then there were those who felt less strongly about it. “He’s still young,” they reasoned. “Besides, he’s very faithful to the church in tithes and offerings,” they would add. Needless to say, it was causing some issues in the church.

Taking Steps

When I came in as the pastor, I heard from both sides, and I had to ask myself the question “What do I do? What is my responsibility?” As I studied the Bible, the Spirit of Prophecy, and the Church Manual, I realized I had to do something. Not because of those who wanted me to take his name off the books or to bring him to the church for discipline, but if I were to do something, it had to be to help him. That was the approach I chose. Not to come down hard on this man, with threats of consequences if he did not get in line, which was what one group in the church was pushing me to do. They had pressured the previous pastors until the pastors decided not to touch the issue. That was not an option for me.

First, I began to pray for him. After some time I told him I wanted to visit him at his home. He was a little nervous, because he surmised the reason I wanted to visit. Ultimately, though, he agreed. On my first visit I didn’t even talk about the Sabbath. I just had a friendly conversation with him, prayed with him, and left. He was very pleased, because he had been bracing for a confrontation. At my next visit we chatted, I prayed with him, and again I mentioned nothing about his situation with the Sabbath. We did, however, talk about his spiritual life and the importance of growing spiritually. We also talked about the importance of God’s law. As I kept visiting, we established a visitation pattern.

Eventually, during one of our visits, I brought up the Sabbath issue. “Well, you know,” he retorted, “I’ve been doing this for years, and many pastors have come through here and they’ve never talked to me about this.” Apparently the company he worked for had refused to accommodate his request to have Sabbaths off. “They said no. They can’t give me that privilege, because if they give it to me, then they have to give it to other people.”

“Are you willing to try again?” I asked. “Let’s make this a matter of prayer,” I pleaded. “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what God wants for your life. It’s not about the church telling you what you should do. It’s about you being able to come to church on the Sabbath to worship God.”

“No,” he insisted. “I don’t really care for that. I don’t want to try again.”

At that point I let him know that I was compelled to address the matter to the church. The church would then decide what to do with his case. “You can do nothing to me!” he said defiantly. I assured him that I wanted only to help him and his family. Bringing it to be addressed by the church was the next step. After praying with him, I left.

Sometimes It Works

The next Sabbath he was in church. Mind you, he had come to church only once a month or so before then. That Sabbath he came and asked to talk to me in private. “I want to thank you,” he began, “for helping me see what I was not seeing. For years I have been violating the law, knowing that I was doing something wrong. Although I felt guilty about it, nobody ever talked to me the way you did, so I got upset with you! But now I realize that you were only trying to help me spiritually, and I want to thank you for that.”

From that day forward he came to church enthusiastically every Sabbath. He even shared with other church members how pleased he was that we were able to talk things out and resolve the issue without escalating it to a discussion by the church.

My experience taught me that steps can be taken to help an erring brother or sister before you get to the point of church discipline. I call them love steps, where you really love the person, you pray for them, visit them, study the Bible with them, and care for them. When you do that, you may not have to go to the extreme of church disciplinary measures. Does it always work? No, it doesn’t work all the time. There may be some people who say, “No! Forget it.” But sometimes it works. And it’s the proper way of doing it, because disciplining is about redeeming people. It is not about punishing people for their wrongdoings. It’s about calling them back to a right relationship with Jesus. And when they heed the call, heaven rejoices, and people are happy. There was a time that the church disciplined people for every minor offense. Today we are more likely to let everything go. But we have to be honest with people. Avoiding the issues does not help anything. Yes, the church is a community of broken people. We all have issues; we all have our forms of dysfunction. We come together as a church to form a family in Christ, each bringing our dysfunction that needs healing. So we need leadership that knows and understands grace from personal experience to administer grace, love, and forgiveness to erring members. Is it not better to try to help someone lovingly than to let them continue down a sure path to destruction?

Ramon J. Canals