Okay, I know I’m a bit late. The Driscoll hysteria has passed. But I was asked in a final exam for one of my seminary classes about the concept of Church Discipline. And having been on the pointy end of that stick myself in the last year or so, I thought I might share my two cents here as well.
There are many varying views of the subject, and, in my opinion, there are many abuses of the idea going around in the contemporary church. Let us begin with the words most commonly used to describe how we ought to carry out discipline in the church. Those words are the words of Jesus in Matthew 18. Jesus says,
“If your brother or sister sins,go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
So, what we see here is that Jesus tells us a sort of hierarchy for how to carry out Church Discipline. We first go individually. Then we take one or two others. Then we tell it to the church. Then we treat them as the pagan or the tax collector. In contemporary church circles – specifically that of the neo-reformed movement exemplified by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle – this has come to mean that we ought to call people out harshly. If that doesn’t work, we send in the church’s elders in to beat them up a bit tag-team style. If that doesn’t work we kick them out of the church and tell anyone who is a member that they ought not talk to them anymore.
Instead of this scenario, I think we ought to approach this subject by taking these verses in their context. Prior to Jesus speaking these words he had been talking about who will be first in the Kingdom. He says that children will be first. He says that whoever wants to be first in the Kingdom ought to become like a child. And he then continues to say that anyone who causes one of these children to stumble, it would be better for that one if they had never been born. Then he further gives a parable that illustrates God’s love for those children. He shows God pursuing the lost child like a shepherd pursues the one lost sheep while leaving behind the 99 to do so.
Then he gives the statement of “church discipline” as a way of preventing abuse by religious leaders. He lays out a way of dealing with those who “offend” by doing it in a loving and kind way. After laying out the loving way to deal with “one who sins against you” Peter – apparently looking for a loophole – asks, “how many times do I have to forgive one who sins against me?” And Jesus answers by telling the parable of the unmerciful servant. In this parable a servant of the King is forgiven an unpayable debt. The servant then goes out and demands payment by one of his fellow servants for a minor debt. The unmerciful servant is then punished because he would not forgive little when he had been forgiven much.
So, the idea of Church Discipline, in this light, consists of lovingly and privately calling out the offense. Then taking a few people as witnesses if that doesn’t work. If that doesn’t work, we then involve the church community. If that doesn’t work we treat them as tax collectors and pagans. However, this doesn’t mean we kick them out and avoid all contact. Instead we treat them the way Jesus treated tax collectors and pagans. We leave the 99 and pursue the 1 who is astray. We love them and love them and love them no matter what. We have dinner at their house. We ask them to change their ways. But we also never stop inviting them into community. In no way do we shun them until they get on board with our way. It is not our job to convict of sin. That is the job of the Spirit. It is our job to show love and forgiveness. And if we must call out sin, then we do so in a loving and forgiving and understanding way.
So, instead of kicking people out who disagree or offend, we love them back into the group. One of the greatest offenses that Christianity has committed against a dying and lost world is that we have systematically removed ourselves from society by segregating ourselves, and by kicking out anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. If we follow the model of Jesus then we will draw people to us. Without compromising Truth, we can at the same time not compromise Love. Our witness to the world consists in our being the type of Christians who the watching world will see and say, “Wow…look at how they love…I need some of that!” Instead I’m afraid that they know us by who and what we oppose. When Jesus ascended into heaven he left us one final legacy. He said that the world would know we are his and that he was sent by God if we love one another. At one time the Roman historian Tertullian said, “See how these Christians love one another!” When you ask someone today what they think of when they think of Christians, that is not the first answer you will get!
So, the challenge I issue today to you and to myself is to make an intentional effort to love someone you disagree with. Find someone who has harmed you and make an effort to forgive them. Make every effort to reconcile with them. And even if you can’t, make every effort to let go of the hate. Make every effort to be the sort of person who others will look at and say, “Wow! Look how that person loves!”
Love is the Word,