Q&A: Many churches adopt confessions, why then do leaders and laypersons often stray from orthodoxy? What lessons can we learn from this?
Q. Many churches adopt confessions, why then do leaders and laypersons often stray from orthodoxy? What lessons can we learn from this?
A. Confessions are good and have biblical precedent. Humans, however, are fallen and as 1 Timothy 4:1 says, “some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” People are lovers of self rather than lovers of God (2 Tim. 3:2-4). That is why there are problems with heterodoxy and heresy, even where there are solid confessions in place. Confessions may not keep false teaching from emerging but it is helpful to have them in place to quench the spread (like gangrene) of unhealthy teaching.
One lesson we learn from the prevalence of unhealthy belief and teaching is the importance of qualified leaders. It is vital that pastors/elders be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2) and correct opponents of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25). We also see the important place of church discipline. The church is set apart as the light of the world and the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) if the truth is not proclaimed and protected by the church how dark will the darkness be?!
The second lesson is that churches must work hard to be watchful and stand firm in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13). If someone is contradicting orthodox teaching and causing division then they should be removed from the church community (1 Tim. 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 3:5; Titus 3:10). The church is to be the set apart people of God (Eph. 1:4; 5:27). Thus, Paul writes “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
Peter refers to this Davidic Psalm in Acts chapter 2. He said: “Fellow Israelites, I can confidently speak to you about the patriarch David: He is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us today” (Acts 2:29). In short, David’s dead and his body rotted. David did, however, as a prophet tell us that one of his descendants would sit on his throne (v. 30). So, David seeing that in advance “spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: ‘His body was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did His body see decay’” (v. 31).
Paul says it a little differently. He says King “David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). King David saw corruption. His body decomposed. So, David is not the “Holy One” that the Psalm refers to.
Paul goes on to say, “But He whom God raised up did not see corruption” (v. 37). Ding, ding, ding! Jesus is the Holy One! He is the long-awaited Messiah and forever King!
David knew that the LORD would place one of his descendants on the throne. How did he know this? Because…
Psalm 22 has an amazing amount of parallels with Jesus’ experience on the cross on Good Friday. It says he is surrounded by rough enemies that want to harm him (v. 12), he is attacked by their words (v. 13), he is exhausted and close to death (v. 14), he experiences fatal dehydration (v. 15), his hands and feet are pierced (v. 16), his bony frame is exposed (v. 17), and his garments are divided and cast lots for (v. 18 cf. Matt. 27:35).
Reading this Psalm you almost expect David to say something close to “Father, forgive them” because the account of Jesus’ crucifixion is foreshadowed so many times (see also Ps. 69:4, 9, 21). Instead, in somewhat of a parallel passage to this Psalm and in great contrast to Jesus, David calls for God’s burning anger to overtake his enemies (69:24), he pleads that God would “add to them punishment upon punishment” (v. 27), and that they would be “blotted out of the book of the living” and “not be enrolled among the righteous” (v. 28).
Messiah Jesus instead Himself receives punishment upon punishment, His life is blotted out, and He joins the unrighteous on a cursed cross (see Is. 53:9 and Matt. 27:38) to save His enemies, those who are far from Him. Jesus is the perfect lamb of God, the lamb without blemish, that takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:19).
There are a variety of practices regarding the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. Some celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and others only once a year. The Westminster Directory of Public Worship says “The communion, or supper of the Lord, is frequently to be celebrated; but how often, may be considered and determined by the ministers… of each congregation, as they shall find most convenient for their charge.” I agree that the Lord’s Supper is to be frequently celebrated and I appreciate the leeway that the Directory acknowledges.
With that being said, I think it’s ideal that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated every Sunday. There is no command in Scripture for this but it seems from my reading of Scripture to be the practice of the early church (see Act 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:14ff; 11). It is also a vital element of the gathered worship of the church and is a picture of the gospel so I think we would be wise to include it in the gathered worship of the church every Lord’s Day.
Notice that in Acts 2:42, it says “the bread” (the definite article in Greek precedes the noun bread) and so this seems to refer to more than just eating together. It should also be noted that “breaking of the bread” is listed along with other practices that were common or characteristic of the early church. Also, upon studying 1 Corinthians 11 my understanding of the text is that Paul expected that the Corinthians were and should partake of the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day. But they should do it in a worthy manner.
We will worship so we must worship wisely. Intentional liturgy is vital. As the gathered church we purport to worship the Lord, we must do so in an intentionally biblical and wise way.
By my calculations, most Christians probably spend around half a year of their life participating in the gathered worship of the church. It’s important that we make the best use of that time! Especially when it’s time that’s intentionally set aside to worship the LORD. Further, the Sunday gathering is one of the primary ways that the church gathered can be equipped to be the church scattered.
It is of utmost importance that the liturgy of the gathered church be very deliberate. Even simple, seemingly insignificant, things in worship communicate doctrine and teach people. This is true of terminology (e.g. “priest” or “pastor”), architecture (simple or elaborate; God’s people are the temple or the building is the temple), positioning (where the person stands when doing the Lord’s Supper or the prominence of the pulpit), and furniture (altar or table). These are all important things to consider and have implications because they communicate certain things even if not explicitly.
The Meaning of Liturgy
Liturgies have been in use in Christian worship from the earliest of times so it’s important that we consider what liturgy means and its place in the life of the church. Allen P. Ross says “liturgy is a perfectly good biblical word and need not be avoided as something foreign to historic Christianity. The noun is leitourgia, literally ‘the work of the people’; it means a service or a ministry.” The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms says, “Liturgy came to designate the church’s official (or unofficial) public and corporate ritual of worship, including the Eucharist (or Communion), baptism and other sacred acts. Certain ecclesiastical traditions (such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican) follow a set pattern of worship (the liturgy), whereas many Protestant churches prefer a less structured style. This gives rise to the distinction sometimes made between ‘liturgical’ and ‘nonliturgical’ churches.”
Spectrum of Liturgy
All churches have a liturgy but some churches seem to be less intentional about their liturgy. It seems some churches operate on a default liturgy. A pastor may inherit a liturgy from the previous pastor and it remains essentially unchanged for a few generations. That, however, is problematic for a few reasons. As Timothy C.J. Quill has said, “Worship practice reflects and communicates the beliefs of the church. Liturgy articulates doctrine.”
Worship must be carried out according to God’s revealed will. We want to worship God in the way that He has prescribed as best as we possibly can. So, we want our worship to be drenched in Bible. We want every aspect to pour out biblical truth.
Public worship must succeed as much as possible in carrying out what God has given us in His word to do. We should acknowledge, however, that “The New Testament does not provide us with officially sanctioned public ‘services’ so much as with examples of crucial elements.” Even though it is true that the New Testament does not give us “a complete manual of liturgics,” it does gives us clear things that we are to do.
The Great Commission in Matthew 28 tells us a few things that are essential for disciples of Jesus. Matthew 28:19-20 says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We will look at implications from the Great Commission first and then turn to other crucial aspects of what it means to be the called out ones of God.
First, the church is given a command. Something we must collectively work at carrying out. We must make disciples and that includes sharing the good news of Jesus with others (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). Public worship then is to facilitate discipleship (which includes encouraging evangelism).
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).
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.