Loving discipline makes a healthy church

I recall sitting in a room at the Army Ammunition Depot in McAlester, Okla., on a Sunday morning in the early 90s, listening intently as a fellow Navy Seabee, perhaps 15 years my senior, spilled his guts.

The night before, this married man with kids had hooked up with a barmaid from the NCO club and was apparently feeling guilty. The only reason I can imagine that he was telling me his transgression is perhaps he sensed that I was a believer and he needed to unload.

I can’t recall anything I said to him, but I do remember his words like it was yesterday. “Once you jump over that fence,” he said, comparing himself to the neighborhood cat, “it gets easier and easier to jump over again.”

Sin is like that–even for the believer. We must guard ourselves, lest we fall. Amid moral chaos such as what we see today, that pagan man’s warning rings ever true.

It’s not unlike what Paul warned the church in 1 Corinthians 5.

A man in the church was sleeping with his father’s wife, likely his widowed stepmother, though the Scripture doesn’t say for certain. Regardless, such an act was illegal by Roman law. Even the pagans found such a thing anathema. Yet it had invaded the Corinthian church.

Paul instructions were clear: expel the unrepentant man from your midst for his own good. And it came with a warning: A little leaven ruins the whole lump.

In other words, once one cat jumps over the fence and seemingly survives the fall, it gets easier for others to do likewise. Desensitization follows, and before long, sin gets tolerable in the church. Not that anyone would dare endorse it. Yes, we might even grieve over it. But the danger is that we’d tolerate it.

The Corinthian church was at a crossroads, and many of our congregations today sit at the same intersection, opting to do nothing with the couple contemplating unbiblical divorce, or the layman who year after year cheats on his taxes, or the patristic family that rules the church with a jackhammer.

The current cultural climate screams for a disciplined church, yet the very idea is foreign to many church leaders, let alone laymen. Mention the idea of church discipline, as outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18, apply it to the above scenarios, and watch your fellow Baptists squirm in discomfort.

We’ve become so accustomed to our society’s values–be a good neighbor, but butt out of private matters–that we fail to be, in the truest biblical sense, our brothers’ keepers.

Discipline in the church is all about the love of Christ. A church that doesn’t practice loving discipline in its positive, preventative form and in its corrective form is not a loving church. Not really.

By the way, church discipline encompasses more than just rebuke and the steps that follow it. For the church member, it begins upon entering the local church family and embracing the responsibility, not unlike a marriage, to love, cherish and care for Christ’s church.

In shoe leather application, that means the men and women in the pew next to me are family, and I owe them my best Christian service. I owe them Romans 12:1-2. “Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” (HCS)

The positive aspects of a disciplined church begin with meaningful church membership and the understanding by both church and prospective members that this is more than moving one’s “letter” from the church across town.

In fact, a Dallas-area pastor told the TEXAN he asks prospective members to affirm a series of membership expectations before the congregation. Such an understanding would perhaps slow church growth, but it might head off problems with unregenerate church members too.

Those who seek our fellowship should know what they are signing up for.

The suggestion that more churches need to practice corrective discipline comes with some pause, I must admit.

It wasn’t long ago that legalism ran rampant in many Southern Baptist churches. In the early 1940s, I recall my mother privately voicing her discomfort about several women in our church who were wearing slacks to Sunday services.

Bless my mom, she’d admit now she was being petty and would probably laugh, but it was the mindset of the day. Such legalism on petty secondary issues has no place in the church.  The danger is that some might see corrective discipline as a license to stamp out every perceived offense.  It’s a danger worth guarding against, for legalism, too, is leaven.

Which raises another question: What rises to the level of loving confrontation?  Do I run amok like the preacher who was bent on curing his flock of cigarettes?  Every time the pastor saw a church member standing on the sidewalk smoking, he snatched the stogie and stomped it out with his foot.  Never mind that he died later—of foot cancer.

A useful sampling of appropriate scenarios where corrective discipline is warranted is found on the website of 9Marks Ministries, led by Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. According to 9Marks, rebuke is necessary when:

>The sin is private and the sinner in unrepentant.  “For private sins committed again private individuals, the steps of Matthew 18 should be followed.  Private warning, rebuke, admonition, or correction would be appropriate here, depending on the nature of the sin.  If repentance is expressed at either of the first two levels of confrontation, the next level is unnecessary.

“Only if the sinner is unrepentant after the visitation of two or more brothers is it legitimate to bring a privately offending brother before the church for public rebuke or excommunications.”

>When the sin is serious and public, and the sinner is unrepentant. “This is perhaps the most urgent situation, because the church’s public witness is most visibly at stake.”

>When the sin is public even if the sinner is repentant. “Sometimes sins are committed by Christians in public that are so heinous that even if the offender is repentant, some disciplinary action must be taken by the church to vindicate her corporate witness by showing that Christians do not condone such behavior or sweep it under the rug.”

>When a member is negligent in attendance for an extended period of time.  “Discipline for non-attendance is necessary because refusing to show up for months in a row is usually a mask that covers other more serious sins.  The necessity for removal form the membership rolls in this instance arises even more fundamentally because of the nature of membership as the local church’s affirmation of the member’s salvation.”

> When the sin is of a nature that is scandalous even in the eyes of the unbelieving community.  “This is the situation of the sinning brother in 1 Corinthians 5, who was committing a kind of immorality that even the pagans of the day didn’t normally commit.  This kind of sin must be met with swift excommunication (Exclusion from communion and removal from the membership rolls) until genuine repentance is observed with fruits to back it up.”

Understand these are guideline, not Bible, though one could make a case biblically here. The bottom line:  We are our brothers’ keepers.  We are to lovingly pursue our fellow pilgrims and rescue them when we see them drifting toward danger.

I can think of one instance several years ago in which a couple we were friends with began to miss church, then became absent altogether. They assured everyone they were busy building a business and would be back.  We knew they were experiencing some grief over infertility, so the inclination was to back off and give them space.  We didn’t press them.

We found out last year, a few months after we’d moved to Texas, that they were divorcing. I’d give my right arm to lovingly press them now.

TEXAN Correspondent
Jerry Pierce
Most Read

Jesus film entirely in sign language is historic first for Deaf community

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (BP)—When Joseph Josselyn of “Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film” lost his hearing as a toddler, life became “a little painful at times” as he grew, accepted Jesus and worshipped God in the hearing …

Stay informed on the news that matters most.

Stay connected to quality news affecting the lives of southern baptists in Texas and worldwide. Get Texan news delivered straight to your home and digital device.