Tuesday, May 05, 2009

More on discipline

Membership versus relationship

I wanted to expand on my prior thoughts about Matthew 18: 15-17 and church discipline. So many people assume from a pragmatic standpoint that “church membership” is a necessary component of “church discipline”. The two must go hand in hand, the argument goes, because without formal church membership, church discipline is impossible. Is that what we see in the text and is that the reality of what happens in our modern view of church membership/discipline? In other words is the role of the local assembly to police and punish transgressions? What of the elders of the church? Is their role one of leading by serving, or is it one of enforcement? As a practical matter, are we following the admonition of Scripture to go to our brother who sins against us, or like so many other aspects of the church have we subcontracted out the task of church discipline to the “paid professionals”?

Church discipline seems to take one of two extremes. It is either an overreaction or an under application. Is church discipline about “Gotcha! Hah, caught you sinning! Now you better show me some contrition or Boom! you are outta here!”? I don’t think so but there are horror stories all over the place of people in authoritarian church organizations, that rightly or wrongly fell into a disciplinary situation but had it meted out in such a punitive way that rather than seeking to restore someone to fellowship, it caused them to be driven away permanently. The stories of people who are wounded through frontier justice style church discipline are heartbreaking.

On the other extreme is a more common problem, a lack of any sort of meaningful church discipline at all. The big culprits here are two-fold. In a larger church, it becomes so hard to really know someone that it becomes practically speaking impossible to have church discipline at all. Sure you might have a swell membership class but someone can be a member of a larger (100+ people) church, go to church every week, teach Sunday school and be living in a completely out of whack way. The larger the local assembly gets, the harder it is for those who have been charged to enforce church to do so. How well can a pastor know the people in a church of 250 members? The other issue is that in the traditional church structure much or virtually all of the leadership is abdicated to the pastor, who is often so overburdened with committees and budgets and petty complaints that he hardly has time to prepare a sermon on Sunday, much less build relationships with the other Christians he fellowships with. Unfortunately the biggest issue of discipline in local assemblies probably has less to do with outright sin and more to do with aberrant teaching. It is also unfortunate that so few people recognize something is wrong when they hear it. Shortly after we came to faith in Christ, my wife and I remember sitting in a Sunday school class at a Southern Baptist church and the teacher suggested that kids who were aborted weren’t really wanted anyway and maybe were better off being born. I remember being taken aback at that but no one else said anything and we were new Christians so we let it go. Besides, they were the “teacher” so they must know what they are talking about, right?

Here is the big question, the one that needs to be answered before looking at methods and modes. What is the goal of church discipline, what is the point of it? Church discipline, if rightly applied, is something that is done to restore fellowship and brotherhood between Christians. When a Christian stumbles as many, many (i.e. all) of us do, our goal ought to be loving restoration, not punishment. Look at 2 Thessalonians 3: 13-15:

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thess 3: 13-15)

The goal that Paul is getting at is to cause a person to see the error of their ways. We admonish and correct one another out of love as brothers. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. It is kind of hard to warn someone as a brother if you don’t have a relationship with them other than a contrived structural hierarchy through “church membership”. The analogy used by the New Testament in describing the relationship between believers is most often one of a loving family, but the practical expression in much of the Christian world is that we have far deeper and more personal relationships with friends and co-workers than we do with the other Christians we worship with.

Getting past the buzzwords of church discipline and looking at what the text is really saying shows that maybe we have misinterpreted the intent of church discipline and let our traditional views of “discipline” color how we view the Biblical doctrine. “Discipline” in modern language and thought involved punishing transgressions and enforcing behavior. If you are in the Marine Corps and are being “disciplined”, it probably is not something you would think of as being loving. In some ways, discipline has taken on a secular application in the church body. One area we see this starkly is the problem of “unregenerate church members”. I think we spend so much effort weeding out the unbelievers in our midst in the name of “church discipline” because we have spent so much effort trying to integrate unbelievers into our midst. If we got back to a view of the local body as a simple gathering of believers and got rid of the programs and theatrics designed to attract unbelievers and give them a false sense of security, we would have fewer issues with unbelievers and would be able to focus our discipline efforts on the restoration of wayward Christians who we know and love as family members.

As a side note, what I also found interesting is what follows the church discipline proof text found in Matthew 18: 15-17. Matthew 18: 21-35 comes right after the church discipline passages and details the parable of the unforgiving servant with the famous line when Jesus tells Peter that he must forgive those who sin against him “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” The point is not a hyper-literal accounting so what when your brother hits sin number 491 you don’t have to forgive him, but I think the real point here is that forgiveness is not something that the Christian begrudgingly gives out but is a central characteristic of the Christian life. Discipline and forgiveness go hand in hand.

Proper discipline is loving and restorative. What it really comes down to is a proper, Biblical understanding of the nature of the local assembly. If the pinnacle of assembling together is membership in good standing under the supervision of the hierarchy, then having a church discipline structure that seeks correction and control makes sense. But the pinnacle of assembling together we see in the Bible is fellowship. That fellowship leads to edification, to encouragement and occasionally to correction and admonishment. Without fellowship, correction is often administered in a punitive way. To quote Alan again from one of his comment responses: “it is impossible to "discipline" someone apart from a relationship with that person.”. In America especially, discipline without relationship leads to simply “going to church” somewhere else. We need to rediscover the Biblical mode of church discipline and see it reunited with forgiveness.

After all, how many sins has your Father in heaven forgiven you?

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