The point of my current preaching series is to find our way back to God's design for the church. I have no doubt that the church has drifted or lost God's original design for how the church is to operate. And when we talk about losing what God wants us to do in the church, there is no topic that gets less press than church discipline. It is a subject that is foreign to most churches, particularly those in America. But it is one that we need to find our way back to, for the glory of His name.
Jesus gave us His opinion on the matter in Matthew 18:15-20, when He called for sin to be dealt with fairly and properly. As I walked through this passage yesterday, I shared four principles on the topic of Church Discipline.
Principle #1: The Process of Church Discipline Is to Involve as Few People as Possible to Bring about Restoration.
The steps that Jesus gives are for the purpose of helping someone deal with their sin. The process is to involve as few people as possible to bring about that restoration. More people become aware of the situation, only when the person refuses to be restored. Only when they refuse to turn from that sin.
The first step in the process is that as a Christian, if we see someone in sin, we are to go to them and point out that sin in them. This does not happen judgmentally, but graciously. Jesus' point is that we are to pursue relationships with one another. Our heart in this matter is to be like God's heart, who leaves the 99 sheep to pursue the one that has gone astray (Matthew 18:10-14).
Principle #2: The Heart of Church Discipline Is Not about Sin, but About the Response to Sin by a Professing Christian.
Way too often, we make this about some sin that someone has committed. Jesus' point is not that we put their sin on a scale to see if it is bad enough. His point is that if their sin is pointed out to them, will they repent? How do they handle confrontation? The normal pattern of someone who has been converted is to respond to confrontation of sin with repentance. The normal pattern for the non-Christian is to respond with anger, bitterness, or even dismissal.
This is why the circle of people who knows about the sin needs to be expanded if they do not deal with their sin. The more someone refuses to repent, the more they are showing signs of not acting like a Christian. That is why Jesus tells them to take a few people into the confrontation if they will not listen to the one-on-one. And then if they still refuse to listen, they are to tell it to the church so that the church can pursue them to repent. And if they refuse to listen to the church, they are to be excommunicated, or treated like someone who is outside the covenant relationship (I will write more on the concept of excommunication later in the week).
Principle #3: The Excommunication in Church Discipline Is about Declaration, Not about Judgment.
If a situation must get to step 4, excommunication, the message the church is communicating is that they no longer have the confidence in the salvation of that individual. In vs. 18, Jesus says that the church has the power of declaration (binding and loosing). Because of the way the person has lived and how they have responded, the church now declares that they no longer have the assurance that the person is truly saved. Only God knows the truth, but we continue to hope for their repentance which will help confirm that they are saved.
Principle #4: The Agony of Church Discipline is Eased by Christ's Promise of His Presence.
There is not a church leader that would take any joy or happiness in taking a case to step 4. It is a solemn and devastating time for the church. It is one that comes with tears. But the promise Jesus makes in vs. 19-20 is that He will be with the church that has to walk through this process. He says that He will be with them.