Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 12: Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part C

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part C

Good, godly leadership is absolutely a must if a Church is to carry out the ministry of loving confrontation. Such leadership must be in place and evident to the congregation. This leadership will be visible both among the elders as well as the laity. Church Discipline is no place for a Lone Ranger. Going solo in this arena is suicidal. It is also unbiblical. Following the leader means there is a leader. It means establishing credibility and earning trust. When you have that you can act, act decisively, and act courageously.

Now, there needs to be a pastoral word at this point. Church Discipline should not be the primary focal point of the Church’s ministry. It should not require the neglect of other vital activities because of its necessity and practice. In fact I believe Paul envisioned it as a natural component of the very fabric of what the church is and does, a painful but essential aspect of Christian discipleship.

Paul could instruct Titus (Titus 3:12ff) on the principles of Church Discipline while at the same time giving attention to other ministries needing to be carried out. In all of this he needed the help of others, and others gladly lent their aid to their trusted leader. In all of this we see Church Discipline as a natural dimension of the multifaceted ministries of Church life. It is not preeminent. Neither is it an anomaly! Tony Evans is on target when he notes, “A Church that does not practice church discipline of its members is not functioning properly as a church, just as a family that does not discipline is not a fully functioning family” (Tony Evans, God’s Glorious Church, 222).

Church Discipline should be viewed as a good work, and this good work will meet the need and bear the fruit of 1) the glory of God; 2) love for the sinner; 3) restoration of the wayward; 4) the purity of the Church; 5) the protection of the fellowship, and 6) witness to the world. It is a good work of duty. It is a good work of necessity. Avoiding the ever present sins of legalism and judgmentalism, we testify to God, one another and the world that holiness and purity matter. We proclaim through Biblical Discipline that love cares and confronts. It can be tender but it can also be tough. What it cannot do is stand by and do nothing when one of the family is snared by sin. We do not discipline the world and have no intention of doing so. To them we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to ourselves we practice the ministry of loving confrontation. As the revivalist Charles Finney wrote, “If you see your neighbor sin, and you pass by and neglect to reprove him, it is as cruel as if you should see his house on fire, and pass by and not warn him” (Charles Finney, Lectures to Professing Christians, 45).

Now let me share a word of warning. Bitterness is an ever present enemy to those in the ministry. This is especially the case when we are called to the ministry of confrontation and discipline. Only God’s grace will give us balance, self control, wisdom and endurance. By God’s grace and for God’s glory we will be equipped and enabled to stand and serve, even when the odds are against us and the battle seems all for nothing. It isn’t, it never is, as long as the battle we fight is the Lord’s! His grace, His amazing grace, is what we need when the fire is hot or the water is deep. Such is often our lot in the ministry of confrontation. At such times only His grace will sustain us. Amazingly, we shall discover it is all we need.

Let me move to address and answer 2 questions. 1) Why do we practice Church Discipline? My friend Mark Dever provides 5 reasons: 1) For the Good of the Person Disciplined; 2) For the Good of the Other Christians, as They See the Danger of Sin; 3) For the Health of the Church as a Whole; 4) For the Corporate Witness of the Church; 5) For the Glory of God, as We Reflect His Holiness (Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 166).

2) How do we begin to implement Church Discipline? Let me once more be pastoral and practical in my response. First, we must teach the people in our church what the Bible says about Church Discipline. Second, we must begin to implement Church Discipline lovingly, wisely, gently and slowly. A cram-course and premature action is a certain formula for disaster. Third, we must apply Church Discipline to areas like absentee membership as well as the specifics we find in the various lists of Scripture. We will do this not to cause hurt, but to bring about healing within the body of Christ.

Bryan Chapell is correct when he writes,

“there is a difference between needing to divide and loving to divide. A divisive person loves to fight. The differences are usually observable. A person who loves the peace and purity of the church may be forced into division, but it is not his character. He enters arguments regrettably and infrequently. When forced to argue, he remains fair, truthful, and loving in his responses. He grieves to have to disagree with a brother. Those who are divisive by nature lust for the fray, incite its onset, and delight in being able to conquer another person. For them victory means everything. So in an argument they twist words, call names, threaten, manipulate procedures, and attempt to extend the debate as long as possible and along as many fronts as possible. Divisive person frequent the debates of the church. As a result the same voices and personalities tend to appear over and over again, even though the issues change” (R. Kent Hughes and Bryan Chapell, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, 364).

In the final analysis, Church Discipline is a painful but necessary extension of Christian discipleship. We do it not because it is pleasant, but because we must. Why? I conclude with 4 concise observations: 1) Because overlooking sin is not gracious but dangerous; 2) Because confronting sin is not optional but essential; 3) Because dealing with sin is not judgmental but remedial; 4) Because correcting sin is not carnal but spiritual. Thomas Oden says, “Only those who take sin seriously take forgiveness seriously” (Thomas Oden, Corrective Love: The Power of Communion Discipline, 47). Our Lord did both, and so must we as we lovingly and faithfully follow the divine directions for Church Discipline.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 11: Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part B

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part B

Jesus spoke directly to Church Discipline in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul did so in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Note carefully the sin we confront. It is 1) public, 2) habitual, 3) serious and 4) lacking repentance. We are not called to be spiritual garbage inspectors or theological peeping-toms. When we become aware of a sinning brother or sister we go to them first individually, second with witnesses, and finally with the whole fellowship being involved if there is no repentance. If at any point the evidence of genuine repentance comes forth, the process of discipline stops and the ministry of restoration begins. Let me add parenthetically that restoration to fellowship does not entail restoration to leadership. God’s standard for the latter is higher than His standard for the former.

My friend Mark Driscoll has led his church at Mars Hill in Seattle to carefully examine and address this issue of church discipline. His church has adopted what they call nine guiding principles from Scripture on the matter of church discipline. (Mark has a whole chapter on church discipline in a forthcoming book entitled Vintage Church. It is excellent!) What are the nine guidelines that a church should follow?

1). When sin has come between people, the goal is repentance and reconciliation, along with recompense, if needed.

2). Church leaders must always pursue the protection of the gospel’s reputation and the well-being of the entire church, not just the interests of individual people who have sinned. This explains why sometimes individuals must be put out of the church.

3). Such matters in the church are entrusted to Christian leaders who must be careful not to abuse in any way the responsibility to oversee the obedience of its members.

4). Discipline is unpleasant but, in the end, produces a holy people by distinguishing between the world and the church.

5). All matters in the church, including church discipline, are to be done in a fitting and orderly manner.

6). Because the situations causing church discipline can be incredibly frustrating, it is important that those involved don’t let their anger lead them into sin.

7). For the truth to emerge, the elders must hear first-hand reports from all sides of a dispute before a decision is reached.

8). When at all possible, multiple witnesses should be required.

9). The fellowship of the church is a regular time appointed by God when his people are to be reminded that unrepentant sin and unnecessary division in the church are unacceptable to a holy God. It is a time to look at sin in light of God’s grace and commitment to help us grow.

The ministry of Church Discipline is mandatory, if we are to be faithful to our head who is Christ. We do it for the sake of the body and for the sake of the sinning brother. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the crucial nature of this when he wrote, “Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together – Prayer Book of the Bible, in Bonhoeffer Works vol. 5., 105).

Dealing with an individual in the manner noted above also has pastoral benefits. It will keep the issue on the level of principle and not personality. Personality battles result when we delay in taking action and are perceived to be showing favoritism. This is always a lose – lose scenario and must be avoided. We must move quickly in the initial stage when the sin is discovered. We may extend the “grace of patience” as we seek the repentance of the one living in sin. However, we must be clear, above board and timely. We cannot go once, and then walk away as if all is forgiven, if there is no change. Vigilance and steadfastness are required, all the while keeping Galatians 6:1-2 before our mind’s eye.

Now a crucial question: why must habitual, public, serious, unrepentant sinners be disciplined? Because they are dangerous. Paul describes them in Titus 3:11 as warped and sinning. Warped is in the perfect tense and means twisted, turned inside out. Sinning is in the present tense. Here is a man living life upside down and inside out. This is his settled state, heart and mind. It is his continuous habit of life. GOD FORBID THAT WE WHO LOVE THIS PERSON WOULD STAND BY AND DO NOTHING! Now an important question begs to be asked. What sin(s) require church discipline? Again I like the approach adopted at Mars Hill Church in Seattle because of their rigorously biblical commitment.

  • When a Christian sins against another Christian and it cannot be overlooked in love.
  • When a Christian who professes faith lives in sin without repentance.
  • When a Christian continually blasphemes God.
  • When someone encourages or promotes false doctrine.
  • When a Christian is a habitual doctrine debater.
  • When a Christian will only heed false teachers.
  • When a Christian is sincere but deceived.
  • When a teacher is in moral sin or doctrinal error.
  • When an elder is in moral sin or doctrinal error.
  • When a Christian appoints himself or herself to leadership.
  • When a Christian is divisive.
  • When a Christian is an idle busybody.
  • When a Christian promotes legalism.
  • When a Christian refuses to obey civil laws.
  • When an alleged offended Christian seeks legal recourse.
  • When a Christian has repeatedly rejected counsel by a church elder.
  • When a Christian is not consistently in community.
  • When a Christian leave the church to pursue sin or heresy.

Bonhoeffer was right, “When another Christian falls into obvious sin, an admonition is imperative, because God’s Word demands it” (Bonhoeffer, 105). We do neither the sinner nor ourselves any favors when we wink at or ignore. Why?

Because sin is destructive. It destroys. What it can do to a fellowship is serious. What it does to the sinner enslaved by its addiction is tragic. Sometimes a sinning brother or sister will claim the leading of the Spirit, even the providence of God, in their sinful actions. There are times when he or she may even say, “my head tells me this is wrong but my heart tells me it was never more right.”

With grief, humility, self-examination and a broken heart we must confront them and if necessary shun them and reject them. Following Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 we must turn them over to Satan with a hope and prayer that the discipline of the heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:5-13) will bring them to brokenness and repentance, and that they will give evidence that they are indeed God’s child after all. We have our duty. God has His.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 10: Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part A

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part A

The New Testament has a great deal to say about Church Discipline. Jesus addresses it in Matthew 18:15-20, and Paul does so repeatedly in Romans 16:17-18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 13:1-3; Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12; and Titus 3:9-15. This fact alone makes it all the more remarkable that no aspect of church life in our day is more neglected than this one. Indeed the contemporary church’s disregard for this clear teaching of Holy Scripture is perhaps its greatest visible act of disobedience to our Lord. This rebellion is not without significant consequences. John L. Dagg cogently noted, “when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” Without Christ at the center, there will be no Great Commission.

For Baptist this neglect is striking when you consider that we have historically viewed Church Discipline as an essential mark, “the third mark,” of the church, right alongside 1) the Word rightly preached and 2) the Ordinances properly administered. And yet, none of our most recent confessions, The Baptist Faith and Message 1925, 1963, and 2000, has a statement on this biblical teaching!

How did we get here? How did we get to a place where the “people of the Book” exercise such a blatant act of disobedience to a clear command of Christ and a crucial component of Church life? Certainly there have been abuses of the practice, though even the memory of this is so far removed from our own day that I seriously doubt one of us can point to a single example. No, we have been infected by a far more deadly disease.

I believe the genesis of the disease is 4-fold: 1) a loss of theological nerve, 2) a compromised morality, 3) biblical illiteracy and 4) practical expediency. In each of these instances the problem finds its origin at the top, with the leadership, with the pastors.

First, we have lost our theological nerve, the courage to confront as well as comfort, to admonish as well as exhort. Out of fear of offending, we have slinked away into the false security of silence.

Second, we have been overcome by moral compromise. Our churches look and act so much like the world we would hardly know where to begin if we did restore Church Discipline.

Third, we are simply and sadly biblically illiterate. Lay this deficiency at the feet of preachers who have jettisoned an expository model of preaching that allows us to avoid and neglect the hard doctrines of Scripture like Church Discipline.

Fourth, practical expediency and, I might add, personal ambition, has played an all too important role. A bigger membership means greater bragging rights. It affords a more attractive platform to make the move to a larger and more influential pulpit or denominational post. I wish I did not believe that there was any merit to this particular observation. However, too many conversations with too many ministers makes the case unavoidable. Furthermore, Southern Baptist’s fascination and fixation on numbers naturally enslaves us to this kind of mindset. It is all but hardwired into our DNA, embedded in the hard drive of our internal logic. Now, I do not wish to be misunderstood. Numbers and an “accurate accounting (!)” of those numbers is important. It is a matter of accountability and integrity. It is biblical (see Acts 2:41). However, their inflation and exaggeration, and our infatuation with them, dishonor Christ, robs us of our integrity, and calls into question our credibility.

Where then do we turn for an answer, a solution, a cure to this critical condition in which we find Christ’s Church? The answer of course is Scripture, and in two following articles I will direct us to the one source we should consult and then obey in this matter, as in all others as well.

Suffice it to say that strange as it may sound to some ears, a restoration of Church Discipline to its proper place in the life of the church is an essential component of a Great Commission Resurgence. Rightly practiced, it promotes health and holiness in the body of Christ. It goes hand in hand with a regenerate church and magnifies the glory of the gospel in transformed lives. It is not optional. It is an essential for a New Testament Church. It is necessary if we are to experience a Great Commission Resurgence.