Ezra’s Congregational Discipline
Part 1: Ezra 10:1-17
Back in the mid-1980s a Church of Christ in Oklahoma was sued over the congregational discipline of a member who had an affair with the local town mayor. This had a negative ripple effect among the brethren. Many elders refused to discipline members out of fear.
In the previous chapter Ezra learned of the Jewish leadership who had violated God’s command in Deuteronomy 7:1-5 by marrying pagan women. He demonstrated the proper personal response to this sin. Ezra chapter nine is recorded in the first person whereas chapter ten is written in the third person. This gives the Bible student two perspectives on this issue. Chapter nine tells how Ezra personally handle the bad news. This chapter explains how the Jews were going do deal with this as a corporate entity.
Chapter ten demonstrates that Ezra’s prayer for a revival is answered. The Jewish people have come to help and be encouraging to Ezra as he takes the lead to deal with this issue. All the people are commanded to attend. Those who chose to forsake this assembly are under great penalty.
Ezra begins by rebuking the sinners and calling upon them to repent. However, the rain is so heavy and the number of the guilty are great enough that it is decided for a committee of leaders to be constituted to convene over this crisis. Notice two prominent leaders decline participation. However this does not stop the proceedings. After three months, over one hundred men are found guilty of abomination of marrying the heathen. Those included in this number are priests, Levites, singers and gatekeepers. Ezra and the commission require the men to repent and put away their foreign wives and children. This would restore obedience of the nation before God and free it from continued contamination by paganism. Dangerous circumstances demand desperate remedies.
The responsibilities concerning congregational discipline over this malady infecting the nation is carried out by the leaders, congregation, and sinners as they fulfill their various duties.
The Duties of the Leaders
As Ezra was weeping and praying at the Temple “a very large assembly” (10:1) showed up in support at the outer court of the Temple. The issue was now in the open before the entire congregation of Israel. Ezra’s reaction to the sin as recorded in chapter nine has had its desired effect upon the people. Prayers of problems produce an infectious response by pricking the conscience of the people.
Never undervalue the power of the prayers of one devout saint. “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).
Respect and Do God’s Will
The covenant and the putting away of the wives was to be “done according to the law” (10:3b).
Ezra took an oath from the leaders that “they would do according to this word” (10:5).
Today, congregational discipline must be by God’s Rules in the New Testament. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth to deal with the man who had take his father’s wife, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4-5).
The leaders and the people told Ezra in verse four to “arise, for this matter is your responsibility.” They were willing to take responsibility for this problem. When it comes to church discipline Paul informed the Thessalonians of their need to take responsibility. “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6).
Be of Good Courage
The great assembly also told Ezra “we also are with you. Be of good courage and do it” (10:4b). It is encouraging to know that when dealing with sin in the congregation that one is not alone and can take courage in that fact. “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thess. 3:13).
Do Not Give in to the Opposition of the Few
Not everyone was in agreement with the plan for moving forward in dealing with the sinners among them. “Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite gave them support” (10:15). Remember, this is only four men out of some thirty to forty thousand people. Notice that the last two men who had given the opposition support had previously assisted Ezra in reading the Law before the people. Why did these men oppose these measures to correct the sinners? Perhaps, they did not want to wait or they thought the issue was not that serious. Regardless, the majority pressed on with unity from most of the community.
There will always be those who oppose church discipline and those who have opinions about the timing or the details. Paul noted that most of the Corinthian congregation was able to move ahead with church discipline. “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man” (2 Cor. 2:6).
Enlist the Assistance of Other Leaders
The task was big, the sinners many, and the weather was bad. It was not practical for the whole congregation to suffer with weeks or months of dealing with the details and determining the individual cases. Ezra wisely delegated a commission of leaders to help review each case. It was impractical to try to interrogate so many people in one place, especially when the weather was so inclement; and the work couldn’t be done in a day. “The heads of the father’s households” formed the committee. They began on the first day of the tenth month.
When Jesus spoke of the procedure of disciplining a sinning saint, He spoke of the need for examination by others before it was brought before the entire church. “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17).
Examine the Case Carefully
If the committee began its work on the first day of the tenth month and “by the first day of the first month they finished questioning all the men who had taken pagan wives” (10:17). So “on December 19, 458, they assembly. Ten days later (v. 16), on December 29, Ezra and the leaders sat down together and began to investigate the matter; three months later, on March 27, 457, their work was finished” (Coffman). If they did not meet with offenders on the Sabbaths during this period, the leaders would have about two days average to investigate each of the men listed in verses 18-43.
Today, when working with members of the church who have been overtaken in a fault (Gal.6:1), we need to be careful to take the necessary time to carefully examine the situation.
Part 2: Ezra 10:1-17
Duties of the Congregation
Having seen the responsibilities of the leaders in this congregational discipline, it is obvious that the whole congregation of Israel was involved in dealing with this national tragedy. First, it is noted that “the people wept very bitterly” (10:1b). This reaction is due in large part to the example of Ezra whom the people looked to for guidance with these matters. This was an emotional situation for a variety of reasons. This sin had been a part of the reason for the Jews being led off into captivity for many years. Furthermore, it violated their covenant with their God. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). As Ezra did not exempt himself in confessing this sin in prayer, Shechaniah, in speaking for the people, does not say THEY have sinned; but WE have sinned (10:2). Shechaniah was not guilty of marrying a pagan woman, however both his father and his uncles were (Ezra 10:21). Furthermore, only a small fraction of the people were guilty, yet all the people confessed. After all, they may have recognized their negligence as a community. Many knew about these marriages, most tolerated them.
Ezra withdrew into one of the rooms of the Temple to fast and pray for God’s guidance. This burden and pain was great. His was a very rigorous fast in that he drank no water. The only time the Israelites were commanded to fast in the Old Testament was on the Day of Atonement.
When “the people wept very bitterly” they demonstrated the proper attitude toward sin among them. Paul warned the church as Corinth to change their attitude toward sin in their midst. “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2).
▸ Have Hope
The marriage between the Jewish leaders and the foreign women may have caused some to think the dealing with this sin was hopeless. However, Shechaniah said, “yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this” (10:2b).
Far too often when it comes to church discipline of one sinner some will lament “it will never work” or “you will only succeed in driving them further away from the church.” Paul said the sinner was to be disciplined “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5b). Jesus said, “If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15b). Perhaps, one’s lack of hope for the sinner is an indication of one’s lack of faith in God and His Word.
▸ Commitment to the Truth
Ezra took definite action, but first he secured the support of the leaders and all the people. “Let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them” (10:3). Once again Israel had been unfaithful and had broken the covenant with God. This is a time of renewal to the covenant.
Paul requires commitment to the Truth when dealing with Church discipline. “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14). And “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 5:4).
▸ Supporting the Leaders
Shecaniah was the spokesman for the people. For them he said to Ezra, “we also are with you. Be of good courage, and do it” (10:4b). In effect the people were saying “we will support you, so take courage, be brave, you are not alone.”
Church leaders also need encouragement to do their work. The Hebrew writer exhorts, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct… Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:7,17)
▸ Faithful in Attendance
In order for the congregation of Israel to deal with this danger, all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered at Jerusalem within three days. The punishment for failure to attend was severe. First, a loss of belongs and second a loss of brotherhood. “And they issued a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the descendants of the captivity, that they must gather at Jerusalem, and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the instructions of the leaders and elders, all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly of those from the captivity” (10:7-8). As tough as this may sound, remember King Artaxerxes’ decree to Ezra. This letter ended in a warning to all who opposed Ezra’s mission. The Medo-Persian monarch warned, “Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily on him, whether it be death, or banishment, or confiscation of goods, or imprisonment” (7:26).
In order to deal with discipline, it becomes necessary for the church to congregate. This is what Paul told the Corinthians to do. “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1Cor. 5:4-5). Attendance by members during congregational meetings has become more and more an optional command. However, the Hebrew writer warns, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Heb. 10:25-28).
▸ Be Serious
Notice in verse nine the people were “trembling because of this matter.” This was serious even though the average Jew could honestly declare his innocents by saying, “I did not marry a foreign woman.” This same sin led to the downfall of Solomon and resulted in the division of the United Kingdom of David and Solomon into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Eventually, the idolatry led to both the Assyrian and Babylonian captives.
Today, sin in the congregation is still a serious matter. The soul of the sinner is at stake. This is why the church at Corinth was to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Discipline is a serious situation because it can save the congregation from the infectious and spreading nature of sin. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened” (1 Cor. 5:6-7).
▸ Suffering Inconveniences
In contending with sin many inconveniences can arise. The people complained, “it is the season for heavy rain, and we are not able to stand outside“ (10:13a). Rainy season around Jerusalem was between October to mid-April. It can also be inconvenient due to the time involved. “Nor is this the work of one or two days, for there are many of us who have transgressed in this matter” (10:13b).
Perhaps, many congregations forgo disciplining the unrepentant sinner among them due to the difficulties of the time and fear, etc. which arises.
Part 3: Ezra 10:1-44
Duties of the Sinners
Negative Influence of the Few Sinners
According to the list of names given in verses 18-44 only about 110-114 men were guilty of taking pagan wives. This would have been no more than about one percent of the Jews in Judah at this time. Ezra could have been accused by some of making a mountain out of a mole hill.
However, the Bible is replete with examples of how a few or even a single sinner can bring upon an entire nation or congregation disasters. The cases of Achan in Josh 7 Israel suffered a defeat at Ai and Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5 were serious enough Peter dealt with it immediately. One person’s sins affects the whole community of faith. Again “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).
No One Is Exempt
Often when it comes to sin some people, especially leaders, might receive special treatment and be exempt from any disciplinary actions. Yet family name and fame does not provide immunity for those who were related to Joshua, the High Priest from Zerubbabel’s day (10:18). Notice there are seventeen priests, ten Levites along with the other eighty-four mentioned in the list.
When considering discipline in the church, sometimes a prominent member, wealthy contributor, a member of a large family or a long time faithful worker will have their sins overlooked. However, “there is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:11). Paul warned Timothy not to exempt even an elder in the church who has sinned. “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality (1 Tim. 5:20-21).
Does the fact that many are involved in a particular sin make it a great sin or not so much of an issue? Ezra did not argue, “well, so many are involved in the sin and everyone is doing it.” Instead every individual who was involved in this sin was required to assemble for disciplinary action. “And let all those in our cities who have taken pagan wives come at appointed times” (10:14). Every one was to co-operate, especially those who were being examined in regard to their marriages.
When it comes to the church disciplining a member, we often hear the excuse that they will not co-operate with the process. They do attend meetings, answer their door or phone, they avoid the elders and others. However, this does not exempt the leaders of the church from trying to save a soul.
In verse eleven the guilty were encouraged to “make confession to the Lord God of your fathers.” Confession means to “say the same thing.” They were accused of breaking God’s marriage laws, would they agree this was true.
Jesus shows the purpose of church disciple was to get the person to agree their actions were sinful and repent. “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15).
Remember confession is not optional in public sin and sins against others. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Sincere repentance requires heartfelt sorrow before God for our sins. Twice Pharaoh told Moses, “I have sinned” (Exod. 9:27; 10:16), but he did not truly repent. Esau felt bad and wept over giving away his birthright, but he did not truly repent (Heb. 12:17). King Saul told Samuel and David that he had sinned. However, his repentance was a worldly type sorrow. Judas felt remorse over betraying Jesus and even said that he had sinned (Matt. 27:4), but he did not repent. King David confessed his sin with genuine remorse as seen in 1 Samuel 12; Psalms 32 and 51.
Genuine repentance involves a quick response to correct our sins. Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C., who was caught on videotape using cocaine in a prostitute’s room, “admitted that his cocaine problem came about because he cared too deeply, for too long, about too many other people’s needs” (cited by George Will, Newsweek [12/31/90], p. 72). In the recent trial of the Yosemite serial killer, his attorney argued that he was not responsible for his atrocious crimes because of his difficult childhood.
True repentance is seen when one takes the required steps to correct their sins. This is true even when it is difficult. Some of these men had children through these sinful marriages (vv. 3, 44). Remember Abraham was willing to give up Isaac out of faithful obedience to the will of God (Heb. 11:17). Moses gave up his identity as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He gave up the passing pleasures of sin (Heb. 11:24-25) The most important part of our lives is the relationship we maintain with our God, not our family. Jesus said, “he who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37).
Separate from Sinners
Marrying the Canaanites permitted the influence of idolatry to destroy their relationship with God. Therefore, they were told to “separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives” (10:11b). Most likely these women were returned to their father’s households. Perhaps, the men would continue to do the right thing and send a form of child support. When Hagar was sent away with Ishmael, Abraham made provisions for them. These marriages were forbidden from the outset.
Remember Malachi said that “God hates divorce” in response to those Jewish men who put away the wives of their youth in order to marry these foreign women. Poole wrote, “Marriages made between some prohibited persons; as suppose, between a father and his daughter, a brother and a sister, are not only unlawful, but void marriages, ..And therefore these marriages with idolatrous and heathen women, being expressly and severely forbidden by God, might well be disannulled.”
When all attempts to correct the sinner in the congregation has failed, there comes a point when they are to be separated from the flock, if not physically, then socially and spiritually. Paul said, “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people….But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a …“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:9,11,13).
Sacrifice for Trespass
Finally in verse nineteen a sacrifice for the trespass was required, “And they gave their promise that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, they presented a ram of the flock as their trespass offering.” When they presented a ram: “This shows that they sinned against knowledge; for a sin of ignorance the oblation was not a ram, but a goat.” (Trapp)
Today, Christ is our sacrifice for the sin. In the context of church discipline Paul wrote, “therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 15:7).
The purpose of Ezra 10 and these articles is not to provide an authorization for divorcing an unbelieving spouse. Jesus clearly prohibited divorce except in instances of fornication (Matt. 5:32; 19:1-10). Paul instructed Christians to refrain from divorce, even if married to an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12-17). However, he did exhort widowed Christians to marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39).
“A comparison of Nehemiah 10:30 (12 years later) and of Nehemiah 13:23 (30 years later) shows that the evil was not permanently eliminated. Long association with heathen neighbors made such a separation difficult” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 432). This might prove to some that congregational disciple did not work in dealing with this issue. Still more proof is the fact the prophet Malachi had to deal with this same disobedience. However, it must be noted that the continued disobedience of others does not justify our disobedience in not following the commands of congregational discipline. Yet in Ezra’s day over one hundred men were corrected by his efforts. “And they gave their promise that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, they presented a ram of the flock as their trespass offering” (10:44).
– Daniel R. Vess