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Church Discipline

Introduction

The subject of church discipline is a difficult but important one. Many things must be understood regarding church discipline if we are going to faithfully carry out the task that Jesus has given to His Church.

Is church discipline culturally acceptable? Many people may say that church discipline is not acceptable now; however, that is not the question. There are many things that are not acceptable to our cultural but that does not make them right or wrong. The cross is not acceptable, it is foolishness! Yet we must never deny it. The question is rather: “Is it biblical?”

So, is church discipline biblical? 

Yes. Although, if you search for “church discipline” in your Bible it won’t return any results. But the teaching is there. It is found in both Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. 

Church Discipline in Matthew 18

In Matthew 18, we see the fourfold process of church discipline. It has been said that this passage is “severely practical as well as ruthlessly idealistic,” and so it is. So, this process, though used in formal church discipline, has practical insight for more common issues within the church as well.

If there is unrepentant sin, we are to first go to the offending party one on one and try to work things out on that level (Matt. 18:15-16). If we have not resolved the problem at that point, second, we are to go with one or two others (v. 16). Third, we see if the person does not listen, we are to tell it to the church (v. 17a) but if he or she is still impenitent then, fourth, he or she is to be treated like those outside of the church, i.e. excluded from communion (v. 17b). The next couple of verses talk about the authority that God has entrusted to the church, His representatives on earth.

Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 5

Paul is adamant that he does not want the “so-called brother” to have community with the church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5, 11, 13). Perhaps the three other steps of the church discipline process happened or perhaps they did not for whatever reason, that we cannot tell, but we do know that there certainly are times when it is appropriate to exclude people from church fellowship. The case in Corinth was clearly one of those times. Thus we see that the passage is not necessarilyprescriptive, unlike the principals laid down in Matthew 18, but descriptive. That is, Paul is writing a letter to tell the Corinthians what to do in that context at that time.

Putting Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 Together

I conclude from the two passages briefly looked at that pastor/shepherds and the church as a whole are to use biblical loving wisdom in each church discipline case. There is in fact no “cookie cutter mold” for each case but simply overarching principals to be applied to each different situation.

For instance, there are many passages that seem to reference church discipline besides Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 but some of them look quite different (Acts 8:17-24; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 5:11; Titus 3:10; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; 2 Jn. 9-10). Many of Paul’s letters deal with discipline and correction yet they look very different depending on the situation. Paul was always pastoral and wise in the way that he handled each situation (cf. Rom. 15:1; 1 Cor. 13:4-7; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Tim. 4:2).

Look, for example, at 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15: “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter… have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Paul says, “Have nothing to do with him” yet “warn him as a brother.” It is unclear what exactly this looked like in practice but it seems to me that it is a different approach to that in 1 Corinthians 5.

What I conclude then, is that church discipline is an important and clear teaching from Scripture. It, however, is not always as clear exactly how it should look in the local body in each specific case. So after we boil down all we have seen in these passages what are some overarching principals to keep in mind? (1) Keep the matter as private as you can. (2) Church discipline is done as an act of love to keep the individual from damning sin. (3) Church discipline should always be done with gentleness and love though that is not to say without boldly calling the erring person to repentance. (4) If unrepentance continues the person must be removed from the church. (5) Church discipline is ultimately done for the glory of God. We desire that Jesus’ bride be pure and holy (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27).

I believe we see from the collective passages that reference church discipline, that there is no exact formal that most always be followed. There are, however, principals laid down and a clear call to practice church discipline whatever each individual case might entail. Thus, in evaluating church discipline cases we do not simply have a list of sins, some warranting discipline and others not. Rather, we look at the witness that the person has before a lost world. We ask, Are they defacing the name of Jesus?

Jonathan Leeman talks about “A Gospel Framework for Understanding Discipline.” I think he gives a very helpful approach. The Church, as God’s representatives on earth, have been given the “keys to the kingdom.” The local church and the leaders within that church have been given the serious task of administering baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These things give credibility to the genuineness of one’s faith. In the same token, church discipline is the church removing that affirmation. It is the church formally denouncing the person’s faith. Thus, as Jonathan Leeman rightly says, church discipline is “driven by a single question: does the church still believe an erring member is really a Christian, such that it’s willing to continue declaring so publicly?”

The Manner and Motivation of Church Discipline

How should we approach church discipline? We must do so with much gentleness and humility (1 Thess. 2:6-7; 2 Cor. 10:1; Col. 3:12-14; 2 Tim. 2:24-25; Phil. 4:5). We must remember that we too are sinners, we are not above the very same sin they are being disciplined for. That is why Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” And then he says, “Keep watch on yourself.” Why Paul? (we ask), “Lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). We, you and I, are not above sin, any sin, and we should not act as if we are. As Paul says elsewhere, let the person that thinks they stand take heed lest they fall (1 Cor. 10:12).

We must remember that the goal in church discipline is restoration. We want those living in sin to repent and once again join the fellowship. If they do repent then we, as the church, must cheerfully welcome them back (I think of the prodigal son here). Notice, that after Jesus teaches on church discipline in Matthew’s Gospel he teaches on forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35).

Conclusion

We may not have an exhaustive how-to-book on church discipline but we are given principals that can and indeed need to be applied in each individual case. We, as the church, are God’s representatives on earth and so we must seek to have His church be holy and filled with true followers of Christ. Therefore, as is warranted by the situation, we must practice the steps outlined in Matthew 18, though of course with appropriate Christian sensitivity.

Suggested Resources

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The Regulative and Normative Principles of Worship

Brief History of the Principles 

Humans have been worshiping and thinking about worship since the beginning. We see this, for instance, by looking at the narrative of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Further, all of life is about worship.[1] The question we are considering here, however, is how are we to formally worship God as the gathered church?

The two classic Protestant views of worship are the normative principle of worship and regulative principle of worship. There is a lot of confusion as to what these principals mean and how they are worked out in the life of the church. For example, an article online said that those who hold to the regulative view do not use instruments in their church services.[2]

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8 Quotes from *Simple Church* by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger

1. “To have a simple church, you must design a simple discipleship process. This process must be clear. And must move people toward maturity. They must be integrated fully into your church, and you must get rid of the clutter around it” (Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church, 26).
 
2. “A simple church is a congregation designed around a straightforward strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth” (p. 60).
 
3. “Alignment is the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process” (p. 74).
 

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Why do we worship?

If “worship” means singing songs of praise, as “worship” is very often used, then here are some goals of worship: We strive to build each other up (1 Cor. 14:26), be filled with God’s Word (Col. 3:16), be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18ff), be a testimony to an unbelieving world (1 Cor. 14:24-15), and gives thanks to God for all He is and has done for us (Eph. 5:20). It is our joy to sing but we are also commanded to sing (e.g. Ps. 100:1-2). Singing is serious.

We do not, however, want to worship God merely in song for if our worship is only in song it is not true worship. We show what we worship by what we give worth. Jesus said, where your treasure is your heart will be also. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters, but we will serve one. So, worship is inevitable; it is not a matter of if but of what or who. We will serve one or the other. We will worship.

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Why celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

Jesus commands us to together partake of the bread and the cup in remembrance of Him, and so that is why we celebrate Lord’s Supper. We see this in a few different passages (Matt. 26:26-29; Mk. 14:22-25; Lk. 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-25).

We partake together and first remember Jesus’ propitiatory death for us and so the Lord’s supper causes us to reflect on the past. Second, the Lord’s Supper causes us to reflect on the current fellowship we together experience through union with Christ. And third, we look ahead to the future when we shall feast with Jesus after His return (we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” 1 Cor. 11:26). Scripture also points us to the importance of self-examination so that we do not take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner and thus bring condemnation upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28ff).

The New City Catechism says, “Christ commanded all Christians to eat bread and to drink from the cup in thankful remembrance of him and his death. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the presence of God in our midst; bringing us into communion with God and with one another; feeding and nourishing our souls. It also anticipates the day when we will eat and drink with Christ in his Father’s kingdom” (Q46).

The Lord’s Supper is a beautiful and amazing picture of the gospel for us. Jesus’ body was broken and His life was poured out so that we could have life. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are reminded of the amazing truth that Jesus—God in flesh—is the Lamb of God that takes away our sin. The Holy Spirit uses the God-ordained and Christ instituted means of the Lord’s Supper to help us remember with thankfulness Christ’s finished work on the cross.

4 Reasons Sermons are Essential

Why are sermons such a big deal? The Bible tells us to sing as the gathered church. The Bible also tells us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and baptisms. But why are sermons essential? 

Sermons are essential because they teach God’s truth so as to exalt Christ, encourage and build up, and exhort the gathered church.

First, the teaching aspect of the sermon is important. Its importance is seen all over Scripture (e.g. Neh. 8:7-8; 1 Tim. 3:2). God has spoken and so helping people understand and apply the revelation from Him is life-changing. God’s people, however, are able to understand His truth. This is because all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:22; 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16), Jesus has made all those in Him priests (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:5-6), and Scripture is clear on the things which are “necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 1). Qualified teachers are still vital, however, because sound (or healthy) doctrine is vital. That is, in part, why pastors must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24) and defend the truth (2 Tim. 2:25; Titus 1:9). We also see in Scripture that right teaching leads to maturity and the body of Christ being equipped for every good work. Believers may be able to subsist on milk but teachers are able to provide needed meat (2 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-13).

Second, communicating God’s truth in sermons is vital because the Bible is the authoritative word of God and it is uniquely profitable (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It is our sole authority for faith and practice. Scripture is a light (Ps. 119:105,130), a sword (Eph. 6:17), a hammer (Jer. 23:29), and a surgeon (Heb. 4:12). Scripture is more essential than bread (Matt. 4:4), better than gold (Ps. 19:10; 119:72), and we need it to live (Ps. 119:144). Scripture is perfect (Ps. 19:7), true (Ps. 19:9), pure (Ps. 19:8), and eternal (1 Pet. 1:25). Scripture contains the words of life (Jn. 6:68) and the words that are breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Scripture gives joy (Ps. 119:111; Jer. 15:16), makes wise (Ps. 19:7), equips (2 Tim. 3:17), guards (Ps. 119:9), guides (Ps. 73:24; 119:105), saves (1 Pet. 1:23), sanctifies (Ps. 119:9,11; Jn. 17:17), and satisfies because by it we know God (1 Pet. 2:3 cf. Ps. 16:11; Jn. 17:3).

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20 Quotes from Soong-Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism

1. “Diametrically opposed to the characteristics of mobility, and a spiritual numbness and apathy arising from mobility, are the characteristics of the body of Christ. Instead of upward mobility, there is the doctrine of the incarnation. Instead of a seeking of comfort through geographic and technological mobility, there is Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die on the cross. Mobility may be a high value in our contemporary culture, but the value of the kingdom of God and the example of Jesus Christ is the incarnation. The doctrine of the incarnation stands in opposition to our obsession with mobility” (Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, 151)

2. “The American church needs to face the inevitable and prepare for the next stage of her history—we are looking at a nonwhite majority, multiethnic American Christianity in the immediate future” (p.The Next Evangelicalism, 12).

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