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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Church Discipline

You know, there are things in the Bible that just aren't talked about much. Some of them seem a little benign, like all of the begats in Genesis 5-10. We rate them as benign and think it's okay not to talk about or study them because they don't seem to have a lot of relevant application in today's life. (And that's probably true!) However, there are other things in the Bible that seem to be very important to life today. Yet those are not talked about much either. And I wonder why.

Church discipline is a very good example of solid Biblical teaching that seems to get overlooked in modern-day Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul gives very clear instructions for what is to be done when there is blatant sin in a church. Yet in all my years of church-going, I've never seen these things being done. I've also not heard of them being done except in rare cases --- where the media and others seem to write off the practitioners as extremists.

1 Corinthians 5:11-12 puts it this way, "What I meant was that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a Christian yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Don't even eat with such people. It isn't my (our) responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your job to judge those inside the church who are sinning in these ways." What do you suppose is meant by this? Could Paul be any more clear about what we are supposed to do? Can good Christians honestly say things like, "Well, it's not our place to judge"? In fact, Paul says that it is our place to judge those who claim to be Christ followers. We (the church) are to hold them to a standard of living, a moral code of conduct. And if they don't comply, we are to disassociate from them.

I've always gone to fairly contemporary churches. I daresay that most of the contemporary churches operating in the U.S. today look alike (I've visited several). They are filled with sinners, to be sure. But that's not what Paul is talking about. We are, in fact, to offer grace to those who repent --- who agree with God that their behavior is wrong and struggle against their sinful ways. Rather the issue is those who will justify their sinful ways.

Look at affluent churches today, and notice the terms Paul uses, such as sexual sin, greedy, worships idols, drunkard and swindler. Let's see, is anyone in your church shacking up with someone else, or regularly looking at soft porn, such as the swimsuit edition of the popular sports magazine or the women's lingerie catalog? (Sexual sin.) Is anyone in your church lusting after material goods or failing to tithe? (Greedy.) Does anyone in your church put the lake house, the career or sports before God? (Worships idols.) Does anyone in your church like to drink to much? (Drunkard.) Does anyone in your church cheat on their income taxes doing contract work for which they are paid "under the table," or by writing off personal items as business expenses? (Swindler.)

Folks, the message is clear here. If any of these conditions exist, there is cause for church discipline. Why aren't more churches engaging in the Biblical discipline that Paul prescribes? My guess is because the leaders of the churches are weak. Perhaps they have some of those same sins themselves. If they start applying a higher moral standard, everyone would have to live by it! Possibly the old adage of "don't judge, lest ye be judged" sparks fear in their hearts. If the church disciplines you, then it might also discipline me!

Now, lest you think I'm cynical, bitter, judgmental or uncaring --- go slowly with such thinking. I am not. For the believer who struggles with an addiction to pornography and masturbation --- and comes to church to confess it, ask for prayer and enlist help in the struggle against it, we are commanded to offer grace. (Sexual sin.) Similarly, we are to offer grace to the believer who is not tithing and may be addicted to shopping --- and comes to church to confess it and seek help in correcting these sin patterns in their lives. (Greedy.) For those who sacrifice their family for their careers --- and come to church to confess it and make changes, we are to offer grace. (Worship idols.) For the believer who is addicted to alcohol or drugs --- and comes to church to confess it and seek help in recovery, we are to offer grace. (Drunkard.) For the believer who asks his pastor to pray for him as he tries to make amends with the IRS, we are to offer grace. (Swindler.)

Do you see the difference? The church is supposed to offer grace to the sinners who are in the process of turning from their sin. However, if there is no evidence that the sinner is making an honest effort to turn from his or her sin, then church discipline is the order of the business. Unintentional error or private sin are included here. Intent is not the criteria that the church must look for. People unintentionally commit sin. The rubber meets the road, so to speak, when the church obediently identifies sin. (Your church is doing that. Right?) Is repentance and corrective action on its way? If not, the church must deal with it. Simply put, the church has to be willing to throw the unrepentant sinners out! Do you know any churches that do that?

So what is church discipline and how should it be carried out? Matthew 18:15-17 tells us, "If your brother sins ... , go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he (still) refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (disassociate with him or her)."

So the process is simple for today's modern churches. A foundation of truth must be laid. This is done by effective preaching in the pulpit, where the people are taught what sin is. Then when church members are observed to be in sin, the church discipline is taken.
  • Go to the brother or sister, and privately speak to them about the fault.
  • If they do not listen or try to justify their bad behavior, take two or three other people with you and confront them again.
  • If they still do not listen, take the matter publicly before the entire church congregation. Accuse them publicly.

After these steps are taken, the church publicly, such as in a business meeting or a specially called meeting, removes the one in error from the fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:2-13). Their church membership is revoked. Any leadership roles they have in the church are revoked. Members are not to have anything to do with the unrepentant sinner until he or she shows signs of repentance, if ever.

If, for business or other reasons, members find themselves having to communicate with the ex-member, that dialogue is to be strictly business. They are not to be welcomed back into any sort of fellowship with the believers until they are repentant ... turning from the sin.

So there you have it, the ugly truth about church discipline from a Biblical perspective. Now I'll leave you to contemplate why we don't have more of it.

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