Friday, May 24, 2013

The complicated matter of church discipline

So I have come to the passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul tells the Church to remove a man who was living in sin with his stepmother.  It's not the sin that so outrages Paul, but the Church's apparent toleration of it.  The man is clearly unrepentant about his sin, which is the eventual reason for anyone being excommunicated from the Church.

I've been a pastor for 16 years and exercising wise, biblical church discipline has been the most difficult task.  I know some churches have cut and dry ways of dealing with this or that sin.  In my experience however, no situation has ever been "cut and dry" or in any way simple.  From a distance, to some in the congregation, I am sure situations look black and white with a clear answer.  Up close however, things are messy, details not known to all, and there is always the anxiety about making the wrong decision as elders.  Frankly, I wish the bible was clearer on specific situations.  I am guessing the bible isn't more explicit so as to keep church leaders humble and dependent upon Christ for wisdom.  Yes, one can adhere to the steps of Matthew 18 closely, followed with some Galatians 6 and a little 2 Thessalonians 3 and James 5.  In most cases, in time, a reasonable solution or resolution can be discovered.  There are enough cases where the complexities and uncertainties seem overwhelming.  Studying 1 Corinthians 5 led me across Dr. Rayburn's comments, which gave me assurance I wasn't wrestling with some unprecedented pastoral phenomenon-

"The entire matter of the discipline of the misbehavior of Christians is complicated by the treatment of this subject in the Bible itself. There is no "Manual of Discipline" in Holy Scripture. There are some broad principles and a few instances of case law and many questions are left unanswered. Godly elders must deal with specific cases for which there is no specific biblical instruction. What is more, characteristically, the Bible's teaching bearing on this subject leaves us with principles that are in obvious tension with one another. For example, later in this same letter, Paul addresses the fact that there are couples in the Corinthian church who have divorced when they did not have biblical grounds for doing so. We might well have expected him to demand church discipline in these cases as he had in the case of the man living in an incestuous relationship with his step-mother, but he did not. He took a different tack with them. It is not always an easy thing to know when a sin is a frailty that must be born by the church and when it is a scandal that must be disciplined. If you had been present when the elders of this congregation worked their way - not always without disagreement - to a final decision in certain cases of church discipline, you would appreciate how difficult a matter this can be and how complicated a business it can be to apply the teaching of the Bible to a specific case."  - Dr. Robert Rayburn on 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

I am grateful to be with a team of elders who are committed to the difficult practice of church discipline.   I wish there was some way to plug in the details of a given situation and have God give a precise course of action, but in His wisdom that's not how it works this side of glory.  The situation in Corinth came about because there seemed to be no real confrontation of the public scandal.  Because the sinful situation was allowed to persist, Paul was indicating a widening corruption in the community.  Discipline situations will often be complex, messy, and perhaps even mishandled on occasion. Nevertheless, I do believe God expects church leaders to confront such situations unlike the Corinthian elders.

The necessity of church discipline is another reason I long for the return of King Jesus.


Woody Woodward said...

I remember back 8 years at a meeting of grave importance. Actually the most difficult issue I have ever had to face. Lovingly confronting a friend is tough, but when it’s your pastor… it’s really tough stuff. But as the saying goes, “When you love people you tell them the truth.” And when a pastor is preaching heretical doctrine, spewing out lies from the devil and when political correctness becomes more important than rightly handling the “Word of Truth, we must take a stand and speak the Word of truth in love. Great sermon, clear on the complicated matter of church discipline, lovingly but firmly presented.

Jack Sawyer said...

I completely agree, and, as a church officer, I too have wrestled much with these thorny church discipline matters over the last 30 years. I have also found something else quite liberating, epistemologically. The Westminster divines, who framed the Westminster Confession of Faith, used the phrase “light of nature” numerous times, demonstrating that general revelation and special revelation are concurrent, interwoven realities in the experience of God’s people (WCF 1:1, 6; 10:4; 20:4; 21:1; LCQ: 151). Since the light of nature is also God's truth, it seems to me that it is also useful in foggy matters relative to church discipline. In fact, it is an inevitable factor in discovering wisdom via God’s truth (consider its place in the wisdom of both Solomon and Jesus). Special revelation (the Bible) is the King of truth, but sitting beside this King, is the subordinate Queen of truth, the light of nature. If “worship,” to some degree, is “to be ordered by the light of nature” (WCF 1:6), surely there is also a place for the light of nature in matters regarding church discipline.