loving discipline

Church discipline is not about demanding perfect behavior. It is about rescuing sheep who are straying. In New Testament times, it was not done by some barely-known official showing up at your door in a suit and tie to tell you that you were a sinner. It was done by your good friends, maybe even some family members, or co-workers. People who loved you and knew you would come to you, because they were motivated by love.


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Matthew #63 Matthew 18:15-35

Let’s remember where we are in Matthew 18. Jesus has said that we must become humble and trusting like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He has said he has a special anger against those who lead “little ones” astray. Little ones means both children, and also those who trust Jesus with this childlike humility and trust. He also tells about how his heart is to seek the lost sheep. In is in this context, with the understanding that those who trust God are precious to Him, and that he pursues those who wander, that Jesus talks about what we like to call “church discipline.” Jesus gives us a kind of procedure for trying to bring back a lost sheep who is caught in sin. He has already predicted his death and resurrection before this point. He knows that he will not always be there in the flesh to bring back a lost sheep. So, he tells his followers how to go about bringing back those who are straying.

Jesus gives us a simple procedure. First, talk to the person alone. Appeal to your Christian friend to acknowledge his sin, and try to give it up. If that doesn’t work, bring along one or two trusted friends, and appeal again, along with them. Let them give their perspective, and also help you evaluate if your friend is really not repentant. If that that doesn’t work, bring the matter to the church at large. The whole community can appeal to your friend. And if that does not work, the person must be excluded from the church. During the Middle Ages, this last step became known as excommunication – exclusion from the Christian community. By the way, it doesn’t have to end there. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give us a picture where a believer had to be excommunicated, but was later restored to the church community after he repented.

I think it is fascinating to realize that modern psychology has adopted Jesus’ approach for tough cases of addiction. When the community comes around a person to appeal to her to give up an addiction, we call it an intervention – but it is essentially what Jesus said to do in Matthew 18.

I think it is good to get the big picture. First of all, this is generally for cases when someone who calls herself or himself a Christian is living in a persistent pattern of sin and will not repent. This is not something we need to do every time any Christian commits a sin. Someone who is sorry for her sin, who keeps seeking to live for Jesus even though she knows she fails, is not really a lost sheep. I have spoken before of repentance as a road, or a direction. You may fall down while you are on the road, going the direction of Jesus. But when you do, you get back up, still on the same road, still headed in the direction of Jesus. In other words, we don’t need to go around confronting church members every time they inadvertently say the s-word, or, whenever they have a bad day, and happen to speak unlovingly to someone else.

If you are not repentant, however, you are not even on that road. You are headed away from the kind of life Jesus wants to live through you. You are distancing yourself from God and other Christians. When you fall down, you don’t turn around and head toward Jesus, you keep going away. It is for that situation that Jesus tells us to use the procedure in Matthew 18. This is not about demanding perfect behavior. This is about rescuing sheep who are straying.

We have an example of all this from the church in Corinth, along with Paul’s instructions about how to handle it:

1It is widely reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and the kind of sexual immorality that is not even tolerated among the Gentiles — a man is living with his father’s wife.2And you are inflated with pride, instead of filled with grief so that he who has committed this act might be removed from your congregation.3For though I am absent in body but present in spirit, I have already decided about the one who has done this thing as though I were present.4When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus,5turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.

6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough?7Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.8Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

By the way, the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 are not talking only about times when someone personally sins against you. In verse 15, many English translations read “if your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private.” However the words “against you,” are missing from several generally reliable ancient copies of the Greek New Testament. My favorite translation has those words in brackets, in order to show this fact. Certainly, what Jesus says here applies in the case where someone has committed a personal sin against someone else; however I think both the textual evidence, and Luke’s gospel (which omits “against you” in Luke’s description of this conversation) and other relevant verses in the rest of the New Testament, all point to the fact that this procedure also applies more generally towards a Christian brother or sister who is caught in a consistent pattern of any sort of sin.

In case you missed it, I have been saying it applies to a Christian brother or sister who is caught in sin. The New Testament does not teach us to go to people who do not claim to be Christian, and explain how they are sinning. The idea itself is illogical. It is like telling me I’m violating the dress code for a prestigious New York preparatory school. So what if I am? I have nothing to do with the school, so why should I try to abide by their dress code, or indeed, even care what the dress code is? In fact, the way my biases run, I might find out more about the dress code there just so I could be sure and violate it. In the same way, if a person is not a follower of Jesus in the first place, why should he or she live according to the standards of Jesus?

Paul, implementing church discipline in Corinth, writes this:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people.10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world.11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside?13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:1-13, HCSB; I italicized one part for emphasis)

So we see very clearly, we do not waste time and energy imposing our moral standards on those who do not claim to be Christian. At the same time, when someone claims to be a Christian, and yet engages in a persistent, ongoing pattern of sin, we most definitely have a responsibility to the straying sheep to bring him or her back; if necessary through this pattern of “discipline.”

I want to make sure we understand the cultural and church context for all this. Churches in the New Testament met in homes, and they ranged in size from about four to about fifteen adults. Some cities had multiple churches of this size, and all the groups also considered themselves as “belonging” to the others in one big “church,” but their regular fellowship and worship took place in those small group gatherings. This is important, because it means there was a relational context for this kind of church discipline. These were people who had grown to know and love each other in small-group communities. Church discipline was not done by some barely-known official showing up at your door in a suit and tie to tell you that you were a sinner. It was done by your good friends, maybe even some family members, or co-workers. People who loved you and knew you a little bit would come to you, because they were motivated by love.

Now, I want to be honest. I have had to engage in this kind of church discipline a handful of times during my ministry as a pastor. I have never enjoyed one minute of it. And unfortunately, it does not always lead to repentance. I have known two different men, who, caught in an affair, claimed that the real sin was that his wife “gossiped” to me about the affair. Sadly, in those cases, the men chose to leave the church themselves even before the process had come to bringing in more of the community. Though I believe we approached them in real love and urged them to receive grace in repentance, they chose differently. Even worse, they went to churches elsewhere in town and pretended to be walking with the Lord. It is very discouraging when things like this happen. However, I am reminded of the Lord’s words to Ezekiel.

4The children [of Israel] are obstinate and hardhearted. I am sending you to them, and you must say to them, ‘This is what the Lord GOD says.’5Whether they listen or refuse to listen — for they are a rebellious house — they will know that a prophet has been among them.6“But you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words, though briers and thorns are beside you and you live among scorpions. Don’t be afraid of their words or be discouraged by the look on their faces, for they are a rebellious house.7But speak My words to them whether they listen or refuse to listen, for they are rebellious. (Ezek 2:4-7, HCSB)

Results are God’s business. He says “but speak my words to them whether they listen or refuse to listen.” Our business is to be obedient to what we know to do, and speak what he has told us to speak, and do what he has told us to do. Though I am sad about what happened on some occasions of church discipline, my conscience is clear, and I know that at least my friends were given the opportunity to repent and do something differently.

Paul writes to the Galatians about church discipline:

1Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.2Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

Here, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, reminds us that we need to approach this task with extreme humility, not setting ourselves up as better than anyone else. Another important part of the task is to try to help the lost sheep bear their burdens as they travel down the road of repentance. In other words, we aren’t just laying down the law on someone, and leaving him to feel awful – we are also coming alongside him, helping him however we can as he travels back to a place of restoration.

In 1 Corinthians chapter five, which I quoted earlier, Paul reminds them of their duty to follow this procedure of discipline given to us by Jesus. By the time he wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians, the individual had apparently repented as a result of their actions. So Paul writes to remind them that the goal of all of this is restoration and forgiveness:

5Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.6For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough,7so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.8So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (2Cor 2:5-8, ESV2011)

That is the joyful goal of church discipline. It isn’t about controlling. It isn’t about making someone conform. It is about love. Suppose I see a family with small children floating down a river in an open canoe. I happen to know that not far away are some vicious, killing, unnavigable class V rapids. Not even the world’s best kayakers would attempt them. The most hateful thing I could do would be to say nothing. The most kind, compassionate thing to do is to call out and warn them. That is all Jesus is asking us to do: Warn those who are headed for spiritual disaster, and help them get out of the river in time.

Jesus ends his instructions with some encouragement:

18I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.19Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.20For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:18-20, HCSB)

He is assuring us that we do have the authority to engage in this sort of church discipline, and that it does accomplish real things, spiritually speaking. Also, he promises that when two or more of his followers are gathered in his name, he is there in a special way. We already know that the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts as we trust Jesus (Titus 3:6-7; Ephesians 1:13-14; Romans 5:5), so the Lord is always with each individual believer. However, Jesus seems to be saying here that he does something special when believers come together; that he is present in a special way that does not occur when believers are alone. Certainly, in regard to church discipline, he is encouraging us to do this together as a group, to present a united front as a loving community.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.


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