There are certainly points in Scripture that we wish were better defined, whether they be doctrinal or moral. But when it comes to church discipline, we have a pretty clear response. Unfortunately, that fact alone is still not a huge motivator for us to do the act of church discipline. Maybe because it’s difficult. Maybe it’s because we live in a culture that attempts to be non-confrontational. It’s true, though, that Paul is disciplining the churches by sending letters which serve as responses to various points in crisis and question, on the ground, in their daily lives. We probably can agree that people then and now need direction, accountability… and rebuke. I’ve provided a quick rundown of a few passages with one main question in mind while I collected them: can there be church discipline in an undisciplined culture?
Can There Be Church Discipline In An Undisciplined Culture?
In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus tells us to point out the sin in a brother and if he doesn’t listen, take a few more people with you and try again. In the grievous case presented in I Corinthians 5, Paul says to the church, “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (vs. 5). 2 Corinthians 2: 5-10 shares a different scenario and suggests that forgiveness is in order – “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (vs. 7). Titus 1:13 talks about reproving the brother in an effort to bring about sound faith.
Let’s look at the eternal principles we see and how those can inform us about today’s undisciplined culture and church discipline.
Sin has no room to stand in the church
Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It’s an impossible, disparaging command but we shouldn’t water it down. The first response to the first sin was to run and hide. Maybe he won’t find us; maybe he won’t notice the missing fruit or our blackened hearts. In a church, sin eats away at community. As you know, that’s why our church services invite a time of confession. We stand broken. Today, sin can seem to stand aloof of definition. Nail it down to the Truth of God’s Word and then nail it to the cross. Don’t let it fester. If we do, we’re inviting the handiwork of Satan into our congregation, since our battle is with, “the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12).
Tolerance is not a Christian word
Tolerance is the river’s tide for today. If we let it, it will carry us down into the mouth of Hell. The church’s command remains the same. It’s not to tolerate each other, but to love. Love means being more generous, patient and kind. The dictionary places tolerance as synonymous with acceptance. That’s certainly not what Scripture teaches us to do when confronting any misgivings in the church. Jesus says that if we fall on him, we’ll be broken, but if his judgement falls on us, we’ll be crushed (Luke 20:18). The mission is to be broken. Rich Mullins suggests that we should hobble, not sprint, into Heaven because of our service and God’s good grace. Tolerance ignores the truth and our dilemma with sin altogether. Protect yourself and your congregation from tolerance and love instead.
Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). As you might know, this is the traditional reference to the work of confession in the early church up through the time of the Reformation. Since then, confession as a sacrament and weekly duty, priest to parishioner, has been abandoned except for the Catholic Church. Many of us invite individual confession within corporate worship and also urge accountability through a Sunday School class or small group. Perhaps this is enough, but I wonder if we’re subtracting from the call of pastor when we delegate the responsibility of confession, and by confession I’m including the thicker, more untidy word of discipleship. Should we set up individual meetings with families in our church so we can better understand who they are–their struggles and strengths–so to open the door to more closely honed in confession (accountability, if it’s helpful to exchange the word) in the future? It might be a good idea.
Paul tells us we are a body, with various parts to play, working on behalf of Christ’s kingdom (I Corinthians 12). What a revolutionary thought for today’s wound-up, topsy-turvy world! We know community creates relationship that yields an environment where there is more confidence to enact church discipline. If we act without it, we often act on pure assumption or hearsay or worse. Community is difficult and messy and always dangerous. It invites others in the singularity of our life and says, “Walk beside me, tell me where and when I fail… and how to love Jesus rightly. Give me a bloody nose if the straight-and-narrow becomes a crooked path. Know my heart and let’s minister to a broken world together, asking others to join us in the journey.” If we embrace the vulnerability of community, we will be so completely in contrast to our culture, it will be scary at times, but the works that Christ will be able to accomplish through our hands and feet will be our reward.
I encourage you to look again at the churches in Revelation 2-3. I turn to these seven examples more often these days: (1) Ephesus didn’t tolerate wickedness but lost their love for Jesus; (2) Smyrna depended on their riches and were untested by hard times; (3) Pergamum combined biblical Truth with the ways of culture; (4) Thyatir allowed an immoral person to be in their midst and deceive them; (5) Sardis put on the mask of a lively church but they were dead behind it; (6) Philadelphia remained faithful despite the cultural push-and-pull; (7) Laodicea thought themselves better and relished in their smug self-righteousness. In each example, there’s a call to awaken and move away from the sin that has crept into the church and into the justifying hearts of the believers. It’s the prophetic call to repentance. Will we heed the warning? Will we discipline our congregations in humility or just pass the time, afraid of offending anyone?
Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects including films and educational resources.