A young man had been looking at pornography for years. He wept and promised to stop, but his pattern persisted. His church’s elders patiently, tenderly, and firmly walked with him for nearly a year. They tried accountability software, but he eluded it. They counseled him to get rid of his smartphone and remove Internet from his home, but he thought that was too extreme. He attended church but seemed unaffected by Scripture. He felt guilty and despaired about his circumstances, but it didn’t change the way he lived.
There is always mercy for repentant people, but how should a church respond to someone like this young man, who is unwilling to repent of viewing pornography?
What Is Pornography?
Finding an agreed-upon definition for pornography is becoming increasingly difficult. I recently spoke to a church member about watching a popular television series. I asked if the show had pornography in it. He said no. I asked if it contained scenes with naked people engaged in sexual activity. He said yes, but quickly added, “That’s just part of the show.”
Our culture’s saturation with sexually explicit material has numbed us to the nature and danger of pornography. Many have been convinced that watching people have sex on a screen is fundamentally different than watching them have sex on the floor in front of you. But Jesus assures us that virtual sin is not safe and carries the same danger of divine judgment (Matthew 5:28–30).
I typically define pornography as depictions of sexual subjects or sexual behavior in literature, art, or films that are consumed for arousal, escape, entertainment, and/or affirmation. Viewing people made in God’s image as subjects to be consumed rather than neighbors to be loved is a great sin against God and others. It trains us to desire evil and grieve the Holy Spirit who dwells in us (1 Corinthians 6:15–20; Ephesians 4:30). It degrades the image-bearer being consumed for adulterous enjoyment (Matthew 5:28–30). It defrauds one’s spouse or future spouse (1 Thessalonians 4:3–8). It defiles the marriage bed with adulterous memories, sinful comparisons, and evil expectations (Hebrews 13:4).
Worst of all, consuming pornography happens before the face of Jesus, our beloved Bridegroom (2 Corinthians 11:2–3). Imagine a wife’s terror if her husband watched porn before her eyes. How much worse before the eyes of Jesus?
Because of pornography’s seriousness, churches are right to take serious steps to eradicate it from the life of a believer.
Severe Act of Love
A local church is a committed group of believers who follow Jesus together by obeying his commands under the oversight of godly leaders (Hebrews 13:17). The church members are to love one another and help each other battle abiding sin. At times, however, some will become ensnared in sin, and Jesus commands us to seek them out and restore them to Christ and the church (Matthew 18:10–35; James 5:19–20; Galatians 6:1–2).
Sadly, some professing believers persist in resisting repentance. Because their hypocrisy blasphemes Jesus’s name (Isaiah 52:5; Romans 2:24), threatens their own soul (1 Corinthians 6:9–10), and endangers the church’s health (1 Corinthians 5:6), church discipline becomes necessary.
In discipline, a church reproves a believer for their sin — first privately, and then, if unrepentance continues, before the whole church (Matthew 18:15–17). The discipline process may include counseling the unrepentant to abstain from the Lord’s Supper for a season, removing them from areas of service (especially children’s ministry, youth ministry, and public worship), or removing them from leadership positions. The last stage of the process is to remove them from membership altogether (Matthew 18:15–18; 1 Corinthians 5:1–13; 2 Thessalonians 3:13–14; Titus 3:10–11).
This severe act of love serves straying sinners by warning them that their trajectory is eternal condemnation (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Ephesians 5:3–6). Any unrepentant sin may lead to disciplinary action by the church, including the sin of pornography.
When Does Pornography Lead to Discipline?
The church and her pastors bear responsibility to discern if a sinning person shows signs of faith and repentance. This is done on a case-by-case basis and requires wisdom to apply the proper combination of correction, encouragement, patience, and decisiveness. Because no two cases are the same, a church needs real, living, prayerful, discerning pastors who can process facts, patterns, and responses with wisdom and courage. They act as physicians of the soul, who diagnose spiritual diseases and prescribe gospel remedies.
So how might pastors gauge if a professing believer’s relationship with pornography is worthy of the later stages of church discipline? (For simplicity, I will use masculine pronouns throughout the rest of the article, even though pornography use can become a problem for both men and women.)
Discern his ensnarement.
Determining the person’s relationship with sin is important in determining his relationship with the church. The following questions will help to determine if church discipline might be necessary.
What material is he accessing?
The type of material he views indicates the level of darkness to which he is ensnared. Is it nudity? Sexual activity? Unnatural sexual activity (like violent sexuality, homosexuality, or bestiality)? Child pornography? The deeper the darkness, the more drastic the potential response.
How often is he accessing it?
The pattern of sin paves the way for the elders’ response. When was the last time he accessed explicit material? When was the time before that? Is he accessing it monthly? Weekly? Daily? Hourly? The more regular the pattern, the more cause for concern.
How is he accessing it?
How he gains access to the material is also important. Is he using his phone? Computer? Television? His children’s or spouse’s devices? Devices at work or elsewhere? These questions reveal the lengths to which he is willing to go to gain access to sinful content.
What other sins are associated?
If someone is looking at porn, other sins are likely nearby. Whom has he lied to about his sin? How is he covering it up? Has he contacted anyone inappropriately online? Has he exchanged photos or videos with someone else? Has he met with anyone for a sinful rendezvous? Is his spouse being abused? The level at which sin has metastasized will determine the level of intervention needed to remove it.
How were his sins exposed?
“There’s a big difference between being caught in sin and voluntarily coming forth because of the Spirit’s conviction.”
There’s a big difference between being caught in sin and voluntarily coming forth because of the Spirit’s conviction. Was he caught? Did he freely acknowledge his sin, or did you have to drag it out of him? Was he grieved by God’s Spirit or forced by circumstance? If he is surrendered to God’s work in him, he will freely offer answers. Consistent dishonesty is a huge red flag.
Administering these questions can help to reveal the state of the person’s soul. Is he devoted to his sin? Is he committed to excusing it? An entrenched commitment to sin is deeply concerning and possibly moves him into the category of formal discipline.
Discern his repentance.
True believers will be marked by sorrow and a willingness to sacrifice anything to repent of sin in order to enjoy fellowship with Jesus. Discerning the sincerity of someone’s repentance is key in discerning the need for church discipline.
Not all sorrow over sin is the same. Paul told the Corinthians, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Worldly grief sheds tears over sin’s consequences, like losing a job, destroying a relationship, or being publicly humiliated. But worldly sorrow has nothing to do with God. It is concerned only with self, which is the same root that feeds the commitment to pornography in the first place.
Godly grief, however, is vertically oriented. It sees sin as first and foremost against God (Psalm 51:4). Godly grief realizes that sin is a personal offense against Jesus, who has done us no wrong. Godly grief produces earnestness to make changes, fear of eternal judgment, longing to be more like Jesus, and zeal to pursue holiness at all costs (2 Corinthians 7:11). If these fruits are present, we have reason to hope and reason to slow down any talk of church discipline.
While we may discern a mixture of worldly and godly grief, an absence of godly grief is gravely concerning. If a person can sin and not care that it grieves God, he may not have a relationship with God.
True repentance will be marked by clear, often drastic steps to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). As one friend asked, “Is there a [metaphorical] trail of blood following him as he cuts off whatever he must in order to obey Jesus?”
Is he willing to delete beloved apps or social-media accounts? Will he downgrade to a non-smartphone? Will he get rid of his television or Internet in his home? Will he quit his job or change careers to avoid temptation?
Some will supply countless excuses for why these steps are too extreme. But Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). Genuine believers are willing to do whatever it takes to stop sinning. If someone shows that convenience is more important to him than obeying Jesus, it calls his profession of faith into question and may give reason to proceed to church discipline.
His joy in Jesus.
While grieving over his sexual sin and murder, David pleaded for joy. In his famous psalm of repentance, he asks God, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). The truly repentant also seek refreshed joy in their salvation because they want restored joy in Jesus. Jesus is the reward of true repentance. Does the person want to be pure in heart because he wants to “see God” (Matthew 5:8)?
There is no clear formula to determine when exactly formal church discipline should start or how long is necessary until the last step. Prayerfully plead for wisdom from God (James 1:5). Bear the burden of the struggling sinner while being careful to avoid sinning against him out of bitterness, self-righteousness, or exhaustion (Galatians 6:1–2). Consider excommunication as the last resort, though do not be afraid to carry it out. If you do move forward, prayerfully hope that God will bring the person to repentance (Matthew 18:10–35; 1 Corinthians 5:5).
Messenger of Mercy
Let me return to the man’s story I mentioned in the beginning. After a long season of continued unrepentance, his church finally removed him from membership. In the months after his excommunication, however, he was diagnosed with a grave illness.
“Church discipline is a messenger of mercy to prepare people to stand before a holy God.”
As his condition worsened, he was haunted by the fact that his sin had pushed his church family to discipline him. God used this love-inflicted wound to move him to repentance (Proverbs 27:6). He visited the pastor and asked for forgiveness. He reached out to others and attempted to make amends. On his deathbed, he professed faith in Christ and acknowledged that God used the severe love of God’s people to prepare him to stand before Jesus.
Church discipline and its final step of excommunication may seem harsh to some, but it is actually a messenger of mercy to prepare people to stand before a holy God. The process may be grueling for all involved, but trust God’s wisdom and know that the pathway to true joy is paved by his word. He will walk with you, whatever part you play.