February 11, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:50 in the audio file.
Or, When the Church Can No Longer Affirm an Insider’s Forgiveness
Proper worship precedes proper expectations for relationships. Men do not know why they should treat one another in a particular way apart from knowing what God is like and how He treats His people. God is holy; He is patient but He does not wink at sin. He takes our sin so seriously that He sent His Son to die on the cross in place of all those who would ever believe. His mercy is a just mercy; He is both gracious and righteous. He loves relationship; the three Persons of the Trinity have always known eternal fellowship. But He will not buy relationship at the expense of truth. It is through our worship of Him and receiving of His Word that we know our priorities and practices for individual and corporate relationships.
How many misapplications of church discipline have occurred in church history? How many failures to discipline have soft churches neglected in history? How many cases of overextended discipline have harsh churches imposed? Not all leaders are godly, not all the godly are leaders, and not all godly leaders make all good decisions. This keeps us humble, fearing the Lord, and that is the only way to wisdom anyway.
The last couple weeks we’ve considered Paul’s instruction about discipline in the church from 1 Corinthians 5. A number of things are very clear from that chapter, but it seemed appropriate to take another message to address some as of yet uncovered application and some additional passages on the subject.
Let’s start by acknowledging that we live in a world of sin and that those inside the church sin, too. We cannot wish ourselves into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe where no one sins. And one of the first things we can and should do is cover sin. “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Sometimes it’s a sin to be offended. Sometimes we need tell Sister Bitter-heart, “Get over it.”
And sometimes we can’t cover it. The sin is a pattern, it’s public, it’s personal in a way that you can’t shake. Let’s also remember that even when sin must be dealt with, what we want is repentance and reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution. Whether or not a position of leadership can be restored is another related issue, but as regards individuals, we want them gained, not lost.
Jesus uses terminology about gaining in Matthew 18. The opposite of gaining is losing, and the loss is one of trust and joy and fellowship. Comparing it with Paul’s vocabulary in 1 Corinthians 5, when a man is removed and delivered to Satan and purged from the church, the congregation may gain health in one way but the so-called brother is lost.
As I said, we want our brother gained. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:13). The next few verses describe what should happen if the brother doesn’t listen at first, but the implication is that if he starts listening at any stage, we gain our brother back. Paul describes the desired result of handing him over to Satan as the salvation of his soul. This is gain.
But brothers are not always gained, and certainly not gained quickly, and sometimes the gain seems impossible. None of that, though, changes the goal.
In between the loss and the possible gain things can be somewhat confusing, and in some cases downright brutal. We love our brother, and sometimes that “brother” is a spouse, a son or daughter, a used-to-be-closest kind of friend. While we pray and pursue and wait and want fellowship restored through forgiveness, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to think? What is our attitude supposed to be?
These are important questions, sometimes difficult to answer as well as heavy to apply. Remember, though, that it is more destructive not to try.
Who does discipline concern? It is not about “outsiders” as Paul designated them. Outsiders are those who do not even claim to be Christians, those who do not profess to believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. To outsiders we speak wisely as with speech seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:5-6). We give reasons for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect and a good conscience (1 Peter 3:14-16). We tell them that there is salvation in no other name than in Christ (Acts 4:12).
When it comes to discipline, though, it is the “insiders” we’re concerned about. It is those inside that we judge. We are told, by outsiders and by some insiders, that because we are Christians we can’t judge. We get Jesus quoted at us: “Judge not.” But that is not all that Jesus said about judging (see Matthew 7:1-5), and when it comes to those inside, Paul affirms that we do indeed judge, and it’s obvious. “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12) To make a judgment is not to be judgmental, as in, characterized by being merciless or arbitrary. Proud men often make poor judgments, but the problem comes from the motivation and/or the manner of judgement, not from practice of judgment itself.
We have the “church,” the assembled body of Christ, the “congregation” as Jesus’ use of ekklesia probably means in Matthew 18:17. In the church we have repenting sinners, unrepenting sinners, and a kind of unrepenting sinner known as a heretic.
In Matthew 18 a brother is sinning against another brother, and the sinned against goes to talk to the sinning against. If the offender repents, hallelujah, amen. If the offender won’t repent, he gets more opportunities and more admonishing to repent from an increasing circle of brothers. At some point, not specified by a certain amount of time or conversations, he has maintained unrepentance for so long that he cannot stay in the fellowship. Likewise the man who had his father’s wife had plenty of opportunities to give up his sin and wouldn’t.
The church then sees this insider as a “so-called brother.” He “bears the name of brother,” he says he’s a Christian, but he’s trying to define what Christian means, when God defines a Christian as one who repents when he sins. When you sin and say you didn’t, you are a liar (1 John 1:8-10), and when you keep lying the church can no longer affirm that you’re a Christian because you aren’t acting like it regardless of your vocabulary. Jesus gave His authority to the church to make such affirmations about a man’s forgiven status (Matthew 18:18-20; John 20:23, 1 Corinthians 5:4-5).
A more specific kind of un-repenter is the heretic, the one who believes something contrary to generally accepted teaching, the kinds of beliefs that would keep someone else, if they believed what was said, from being saved. This heresy could be about the nature of God, often about the nature of Jesus Himself, or about the gospel, as in saved by faith plus, whatever the additional factor du jour is. The church is, and Christians are, to get distance from these men who can’t keep their mouth shut about false things.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)
As for a person who stirs up division (αἱρετικός, heretictos), after warning him once, then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)
See also 2 John 10, 3 John 10. The point is, watch out among the assembly.
When is discipline required? In Matthew 18 Jesus describes four stages. 1) Personal confrontation of the sinning brother in private (verse 15), 2) personal confrontation of the sinning brother with witnesses in private (verse 16), 3) public announcement to the whole church for their confrontation of the sinning brother (verse 17), and then 4) declaration that the sinning brother is no longer welcome among them and intent to evangelize the “brother” (verse 17). As I mentioned earlier, there is no mandatory amount of time but there is a proper progression.
In the case of heresy, there are only three stages, two stages of warning (“after warning him once and then twice”) and the final stage of removal (“have nothing more to do with him”) (Titus 3:10).
In 1 Corinthians there are basically only two stages: 1) obvious and flagrant sin, in their case sin that even the Gentiles didn’t tolerate and 2) removal. In Matthew the sin was not “well known,” it was private and damage was more contained at least initially. In Corinth the damage was already being done to the entire lump both in terms of their internal health and their external testimony.
What does discipline look like at this point? The church declares that she cannot say for certain what the spiritual condition is of the unrepentant person.
When a person becomes a member of the church he professes faith in Christ, often in the identifying waters of baptism. He says he’s with Christ, he commits to being with Christ’s body. The church, with the authority given to her by the Head, affirms the man’s testimony, hearing his confession and seeing his obedience, including repentance when he sins and faithfulness to assemble in worship with God’s people. The church does not make anyone a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, but the membership process does attest to it. “He’s one of us.”
When that man sins and refuses to make it right, when he continues in a pattern of sexual immorality (including adultery and divorce and incest and others), greed, idolatry, drunkenness, or cheating (see 1 Corinthians 5:11 for the representative list), then the church must judge and remove the unrepenting man. “He is not acting like one of us. We cannot avow his forgiveness.”
This is not an individual call, as in one brother judging a so-called brother, though there is a principle of application that may extend between individuals. But “church” discipline is a public, formal declaration by the church.
Where are the results of discipline visible? The effects of the judgment are public and from house to house. The announcement should be public, “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4); again, it must be a work of the church, not a pastor or even the elders. The leaders do not make this decision, and they ought not manipulate or expect their flock to follow them just because they say so. If it is discipline, so be it. If it is hard feelings, tough luck.
A public announcement means that the person is not welcome to think that everything is okay. They may come to church—though they probably won’t want to—but they may not come to the Lord’s Table. They have intentionally not repented from sins for which Christ died, sins that they have been confronted about. If they eat, they are eating and drinking judgment on themselves, and Paul says some are weak and ill and have died because of it (1 Corinthians 5:30).
Then there is Paul’s statement about not even eating with such a so-called brother (1 Corinthians 5:11). The elders spent a good amount of time talking about this last week, and I know at least one of the L2L groups did as well. This is where the rubber meets the road. We want to be honest with the text and also not creating rules for ourselves.
The eating is more than communion, and it also seems to be more than just church potlucks. It applies to both of those settings, of course, but beyond them, into our homes.
You do not need to get up and leave a restaurant, or Starbucks, or a Coffee Klatch with the Mayor (since there are coffee and cookies) if a disciplined man comes in. You also do not need to shun him, as if he didn’t exist or as if he could taint you by his handshake. But you also shouldn’t invite him over to your table, laugh it up for old time’s sake, then pay his bill. Talk to him, ask how he’s doing, tell him that you’re praying for him to repent.
What about if the disciplined person is in your biological or legal family? What if the disciplined person is your spouse? Can you never eat with them? This certainly takes wisdom, and it seems that this is an instance where it’s important to recognize the responsibilities in the family sphere as compared to the responsibilities in the church sphere. If you are in one of these situations, you are already in a difficult place. It ought to be a burden, and no fun. Things are not okay, and you cannot act like things are okay. At the same time, you can still be kind and strong, speak truth in love, and spend time with them in such a way as they understand that they need to repent.
What if the so-called brother changes his profession? Then can we have them over to dinner? Does it change if a divorced man says he as never really married? “I had my fingers crossed when I said ‘I do.’” No, the formal and public affirmation matters, the vow cannot be unmade. Christians don’t get to relax because a so-called brother says not to bother calling him a brother anymore.
In these situations you are already passed the point where there won’t be any pain. Things are inescapably brutal when you love the hard-hearted. This is not how can you make it go away, this is how can keep the destruction from spreading?
So, do not eat together at the Lord’s Table, at the church potluck table, or even at the family table without clarity.
Why do we do all of this? I already mentioned this at the beginning, but it bears repeating.
First, we desire the holy health of the church. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. That principle applies to sin, but in context it also applies to the sin of unholy tolerance. Unrepentance is leaven, so is unjudgment.
Second, we desire the salvation of the brother’s soul and his reconciliation to the church. This is not separate from the first level. If the church tolerates destructive sin in her midst, why wouldn’t the sinner tolerate his own destructive sin? A holy and healthy church, in other words, a different kind of life, is the draw back to the sinner.
Third, we desire the honoring of God’s name in the world. One of the ironies in Corinth seems to be that the church was worried about her testimony, so she wouldn’t hang out with worldly sinners while at the same time tolerating “Christian” sinners. That undermines the witness first.
When the world sees something different in the church, and when the world sees the sinner giving up unholiness for the health of holiness, such testimony makes a significant impact. This is gain.
How should we do this? We are already doing it, and have disciplined a few so-called brothers from our body.
As the elders talked about it, we desire to add a couple procedural pieces to keep the gravity of our responsibility before ourselves and the body. So, when a so-called brother has reached the third stage, wherein we tell it to the church, and typically a smaller group within the church are directly in contact with the brother, the elders will add the discipline to our twice-monthly agendas, and an elder will pray for the person by name at least once a month during the corporate supplication on a Sunday morning. The goal is to keep the person before us without also rubbing it in. When the unrepentant man has reached the fourth stage and is removed, we will mention him at least once yearly, on the same day as our family meeting in January. These measures don’t guarantee anything, they are an intentional effort to care for those who are in Satan’s hands.
A couple things as we finish.
First, because you don’t see that anything is happening with a sinner doesn’t mean that nothing is. And also, if you think something should be, do something, and feel free to ask about it. That is a thousand times more helpful than complaining.
Second, God’s forgiveness is full and unbelievable. When Jesus finished instructing His disciples about the stages of discipline, Peter asked how many times he had to forgive his brother. Jesus’ famous answer was seventy times seven, but then he chased that formula with a parable about an unforgiving servant. We had a debt that could not be paid. We want forgiveness for our people, we want to affirm their status as forgiven people, and we want the fellowship that comes through God’s grace of forgiveness.
It is time to go, and all of you who have been made alive together in Christ have good works that God prepared beforehand for you to walk in. Make sure you take the proper supplies. You must not take certain things; don’t feed your flesh. Don’t pack lust a sandwich. Instead, abide in Christ. Ask the Father for all things in Christ’s name. Put on Christ, moment by moment, and encourage your brothers to do the same.
The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:12–14, ESV)