Monday, October 25, 2010

Church Discipline


Today I want to address an issue that is too often ignored by the church today.  Even among people I know to be solid Christians, they often disagree with what the Bible has to say about this subject.  I hope that we will see today that God's wisdom is not man's wisdom and we need to trust in Him.  I also hope we will see how essential it is to follow this direction for the health of the church.  Today I want to talk about church discipline.  Today our study begins in Matthew.
"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." Matthew 18:15 NKJV
We must keep in mind that each step of church discipline is meant for ultimate restoration.  This is the first step.  We must confront our brother or sister privately and let them know where they are going wrong.  We are to challenge one another when we see someone going astray.  Note this is very specific on bringing it between you and the other alone.  This is not a place for gossip and public humiliation, but a place of challenging your brother or sister on a one-on-one basis to show them where they are going astray.  If that person repents, it is over and 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.'" Matthew 18:16
If you go alone to your brother or sister and he or she will not hear you, you are to bring one or two others.  This is not meant to beat up on someone, but meant to give your charge credibility by the agreement of others.  Again, this is not a place for gossip or public humiliation but a place for two or three brothers to challenge the one who has sinned to prayerfully come to repentance. 
"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." Matthew 18:17 NKJV
And here is where the controversy begins.  Almost everyone is great at the first two steps, but they fail in the third and final step.  If two or three fail to convince the sinning brother to repent, that brother is to be brought before the church and given one last chance to repent.  Here is probably one of the more difficult jobs a pastor has as the pastor now has the responsibility to cast an unrepentant brother out of the church if that brother refuses to repent.  We are not to count that person as part of the body of Christ.  That person is ejected from the church family.  It is sad, but it is brought on by his own actions for his refusal to repent. 

Paul gives a specific example with some expansion on the last step in 1 Corinthians and so now with the steps of church discipline established, we will see how they play out in a real life example of a man who refused to repent.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father's wife! 1 Corinthians 5:1 NKJV
In the Corinthian church there was a man who was known to the church to be caught up in sexual sin.  He was in an incestuous relationship with his father's wife.  He was unrepentant and his sin was well known not just in his church but even to Paul. 
And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed.  1 Corinthians 5:2-3 NKJV
This unrepentant sinner was not only allowed to remain at that church, but the Corinthians were proud of it.  They were proud that they were so "welcoming" that they even allowed a brother in open and public sin to remain a member.  Paul chastises them for that attitude.  Their correct response was to mourn that this person was still among them.  The correct reaction would have been to judge his actions, as Paul has done without even being present. 

This goes against what so much of the church teaches today.  In fact, some churches not only allow sin in their midst but they bless it (as in those church that have a policy of "blessing" homosexual "marriages") and some even fully accept it as in those church that allow homosexuals to be pastors and even bishops.  Those are extreme examples, but they are becoming more and more prevalent.  Even if your church has not fallen in its seeing homosexuality as a sin, so many other allow people caught up in all kinds of sin to remain members.  They pride themselves on their welcoming spirit.  They make the same error of the Corinthians. Paul is about the share the correct action for an unrepentant sinner.
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 Corinthians 5:4-5 NKJV
The correct response is to cast that person out of the church, to hand him over to Satan.  While that may seem harsh, that man has become so far gone that any kind of gentle correction is not going to work.  That man needs to be chastised by the Lord.  Note the ultimate goal is still restoration, as the goal of removing the person from the church is for the destruction of the flesh, that is the sin.  May we never go so hardhearted that we refuse to repent.  May we never come to the place of even refusing to repent after being removed from the church.  May we never be faced with our Lord having to destroy the sin and works of our flesh.  It is not a pleasant experience though necessary.  When God chastises, you know it. 

Many do not like the idea of removing someone from the church.  The arguments given are usually along the lines of that person needing accountability and that person needing to be at church to hear the word.  We are so loving that we refuse to see that sometimes love is tough.  While our own love and logic dictate that especially a sinner needs to be at church, it goes against what the Word of God says.  Paul will now address why we need to be so strict.
Your glorying is not good. 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. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  1 Corinthians 5:6-8 NKJV
Allowing sin to remain in the body of Christ infects the whole body.  Leaven is a symbol for sin and Paul likens that leaven in our midst to the Passover feast.   One tradition that is part of Passover is the removal all leaven from the home and to make unleavened bread.  This is to symbolize purging sin from our lives.  Just like that tradition we are as a church to purge sin from our midst.  That little bit of leaven in a lump of dough infects the whole loaf in a short amount of time.  The only way to keep leaven from infecting the lump is to remove it.  The only way to keep our church clean is to remove sinners.  The feast Paul is speaking of here is the meals we have together as a church (something missing from too many churches today).  We are not to invite or tolerate those living in open sin to those feasts.  While we are in the world, we are to minister to sinners and preach the gospel to them.  While we are together as a church, we are to purge those unrepentant sinners from our midst.
I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.  1 Corinthians 5:9-10 NKJV
Paul further clarifies the separation between our fellowship in the church and in the world.  In the world, we have to be among those sinners that we would not tolerate in the church so that we can share the love of Jesus with them.  Jesus, as our example, directly ministered to the sinners he came in contact with.  We are to do the same.  Paul is making sure we do not take his direction too far in that we even avoid sinners outside the church.  Our relationship to sinners in the church and in the world are different.  In the church, we are not to keep fellowship with unrepentant sinners.  In the world, we are to reach out to them and share the Gospel with them.
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 person.  1 Corinthians 5:11 NKJV
I do not see how you can get any clearer than this.  If someone calls himself a brother in the Lord and that person is a sinner (sexually immoral, covetous, idolater, reviler, drunkard, extortioner, etc) we are not to keep company with that person.  We are not to fellowship with him as a brother.  We are not even to eat with such a person.  That person should be cast out the church until he repents.  It may go against what we see as love, it may go against our logic, and it should even be painful for us to do, but it must be done.  That is the only way that person will repent and it is the only way to keep him from infecting the church. 
For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person."  1 Corinthians 5:12-13 NKJV
We have no authority to judge those outside the church, as that is God's jurisdiction to judge those outside the church.  Inside the church, it is ours.  It is a solemn responsibility, but one that God has given to us.  This judgment is not one of salvation, but one of being qualified to be a part of the church fellowship.  We have the authority and responsibility to put away from the church the unrepentant brother. 

And that is where the church fails so horribly today. As I stated before, we glorify ourselves on how welcoming we are.  Churches have become outreaches which is something they were never really meant to be.  Our lives outside the church is the outreach to the sinner.  Inside the church, we are to be fellowship with other believers, holding each other to account, worshiping our Lord, celebrating the Lord's supper and agape meals, and training each other up.  The church is supposed to be our refuge from the world and not the place we invite the world inside.  Allowing sinners in our midst infects the church body and leads us to where we are today.  We have a church that goes so far as to celebrate sin.  While that is not pervasive, it is a leaven that continues to spread throughout the churches of our land.  I dare say that already many churches tolerate sin.  Sin is a cancer and the longer we allow it to remain in church, the worse the church is going to get. 

One thing I need to mention regarding correcting a sinner is that we need to check our own hearts first.  Jesus told us that we are not to help a brother with a speck in his eye until we deal with the plank in our own.  We are not to confront sinners in our midst while we tolerate it in our own lives.  We must repent of our sin and allow God to cleanse us first, then we can challenge others to do the same. 

What I wrote today may seem rather harsh.  Excommunication is something we often associate with cults or a scandalous Medieval Catholic church, but it is an essential function of the church.  Unlike cults or other churches, the goal is not to pronounce them already judged, but the goal is to ultimately restore them.  It is about rehabilitation not about judgment and whatever we do we must do in love.  Even the act of casting someone out is an act of love and we must remind ourselves of that if we are ever in a position where someone is asked to leave a church.  It is not about anger or revenge, but about allowing God to do the necessary work with the prayer that our fallen brother will ultimately be restored.  If that person does repent, that person needs to be restored to the fellowship.  It should be done in love and in a welcoming spirit.  God no longer holds that sin against that person nor should we.   Just as I wrote today that it is essential for the body of Christ to cast out the sinful brother, it is just as important to restore the repentant one.  By the grace of God, you could have been in his position.  By the grace of God, you were not.  And with the grace of God, we must celebrate with the angels over the sinful brother who repents and rejoins our fellowship.
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  Galatians 6:1 NKJV

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