Sunday 2nd of May 2021
Repentance and purity, a look at church discipline.
Grab your Bible and turn to 1 Corinthians 5. This week we'll consider what's commonly called church discipline. At this point you may be thinking two things: 1) "This is going to be awful", or 2) "what does that have to do with the process of sanctification that we've been discussing for the last three weeks."
Church discipline is another aspect of the church's role in the process of sanctification, but the discipline of the church should not be confused with the exhortation of the church that we talked about last week. Exhortation is for areas of growth. We should all happily receive exhortation from each other and we should all helpfully give exhortation to each other.
Exhortation should be par for the course in local church life because exhortation is about growing in maturity. We begin as spiritual infants and then we start to grow up. That's why 1 Peter 2:2 says, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation..." Our church has some spiritual infants, some spiritual children, and some spiritual adults.
I left out adolescents because it is an entirely fabricated and unhelpful category, the genesis of which is found in evolutionary theory and pagan psychology. Until very recently, you went from child to adult...there was no concept of hanging out in never land for four years before taking on the responsibilities of marriage and family, and taking on the burden of supporting and caring for people besides yourself. So, infant, child, adult.
How much exhortation do children require? A lot! Our worship services are filled with the sweet sound of faithful parental exhortations, often in the form of, "shhhh!" And a huge amount of the exhortations you give your children have nothing to do with sin... you're just trying to move them toward maturity. There is much that they haven't learned or don't yet know how to apply.
I frequently exhort my 5 year old at the dinner table to pay attention to where her limbs are in relation to her drinking glass as the two often meet unintentionally, resulting in many spills. This isn't sin, it is immaturity, lack of spatial awareness, and experience. Spiritual children require a lot of exhortation and instruction, so the adults should expect to be busy. All that to say that exhortation isn't about sin, it's just about growing up into spiritual maturity.
Discipline is about sin. Discipline is not encouragement unto maturity, it is correction or rebuke for sin. The difference between exhortation and discipline is the difference between helping the 5 year understand how they can make fewer messes and spanking the 5 year old for shoving her sister. One event reveals an immature lack of experience, while the other constitutes open rebellion against parental authority which has expressly stated, "do not shove your sister."
So, to frame discipline in terms of our teaching series, I'll pose this question: "What does the Church do, as individuals and as an institution, when some of her members are saying, "no," to the process of sanctification whether in word, or deed, or both?" How is a local community of believers called to respond when people among us refuse to be conformed to the image of Christ in objective and demonstrable ways? God's answer to that question in His Word, as we'll see today, is discipline.
By way of prologue, I want to impress upon you the importance of the Church having a response to open sin among her membership through discipline rather than ignoring said sin. The Church responding to open, unrepentant sin in her members is as important as a parent responding to open rebellion in their household. The church that will not discipline is as negligent as the parent who will not discipline.
See, what we tolerate, we normalize. If parents tolerate their children slamming doors, talking back, and asserting themselves over their parents, guess what will be normal in that house? Slamming doors, talking back, and children asserting themselves over their parents. Church discipline is given by God to make sure that we do not, by means of inaction, teach that sin is acceptable or not a big deal, or anything other than offensive to God.
It's been well said that a church with no discipline is like a body with no immune system. There are things that don't belong in your body because they are harmful to it, so your immune system neutralizes those threats to your health. We are the body of Christ, and there are things that do not belong in Christ's body, but too many churches have no immune system because they will not confront sin in the lives of their members even when it is on display before the church.
What happens when sin is public and no public denunciation of that sin occurs? That sin will no longer be recognized as a sin, so whatever that sin is will be assimilated into the normal life of the church. Without discipline, we will normalize sin in our congregation and excuse the presence of those things which Christ has said ought to be absent among His people. And when things exist in Christ's bride that He repudiates, we are no longer pleasing to our groom, which means that we are no longer fulfilling the purpose for which He saved us.
That being established, here's the plan for our time in God's Word:
Establish the purposes of church discipline (why do we do it).
Establish the practices of church discipline (how do we do it).
Establish the parameters of church discipline (what gets disciplined and what doesn't).
Establish the agents of church discipline (who does it).
We will likely not make it through all of those points, so this will probably be a two-parter, but we'll see how far we get. To the text.
1 Corinthians 5
So a grievous sin has been committed in the Corinthian church, "a man has his father's wife," in a, "sexually immoral," way. Whether this was a one time event or an ongoing affair is not stated, but what is stated is that rather than being repentant, the offending Corinthian, and indeed the Corinthian church is arrogant about it. I've taken this to mean that they acted as if the blood of Jesus so cleanses them from sin that they can continue in it, unrepentant, and unashamed, without consequence.
Paul says, "No, you ought to mourn when there is open sin amongst the people that Christ died to make pure!" It ought to grieve us when we discover that there is sexual immorality in our midst, whether it be the adulterous affair, the fornicating teenagers, the live in boyfriend and girlfriend, or the same-sex, or properly, sodomite, form of sexual immorality. But the Apostle prescribes more than grief and mourning doesn't he?
Look at the end of verse 2: "Let him who has done this be removed from among you." Paul just said that any brother or sister among God's people who arrogantly persists in sin without remorse or repentance is to be put out of the fellowship.
It seems that Paul did not receive, or failed to interpret, the message about tolerance. In truth, he did receive the message about tolerance, he interpreted it correctly, and then rejected it in the strongest possible terms. Paul was a Roman citizen. Roman was a pluralistic, licentious, culture with a, "free love," attitude toward sex and sexuality...indeed toward morality. And here's Paul in the midst of that environment saying, "hand the unrepentant sexually immoral man over to Satan."
Now, don't miss the statement of intent that follows; it helps us to interpret what that phrase means. He says, "you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Paul's intention is not to deliver this man to hell, but to Satan, who is the prince of the power of the air... the whole world lies in the lap of the evil one... Paul is saying, "if this man insists on acting like he belongs to the world, though he has been called out of it, then give him back to the world..." that is disfellowship.
In Paul's mind this handing over to Satan, that is back to the world, out of Christian fellowship, will have the end result of saving this mans spirit and destroying his flesh, that being his sinful nature. So Paul anticipates that if this brother is truly a brother, then being cut off from the people of God, the worship of God, the sacraments of God, the fellowship of God's people and the teaching of God's Word will cause this man to descend into despair as the prodigal son did which will induce his repentance. But if the church turns a blind eye, takes no action, continues to pretend that this immorality is acceptable then no pressure will be exerted to induce said repentance. So discipline is in this case, an act of kindness toward the sinner aimed expediting his return to obedience to Christ.
It is pure hatred and cowardice that leads a church to see someone in open sin and tacitly approve of it by providing no response, which only invites the sinner to continue destroying him or herself under the tyranny of Satan. Show me a church that practices biblical church discipline and you've shown me a church that is brimming with love for one another! Show me a church that refuses to practice biblical church discipline and you've shown me a synagogue of Satan wherein being a part of the church requires nothing more than is required to be a part of the world, which lies in the lap of the evil one.
Remove the leaven, lest it leaven the whole lump. Leaven is a frequently employed metaphor for sin in the Bible. It causes dough to rise when its baked- it doesn't take much to affect the whole batch of dough. Paul is saying, "don't think that inaction in matters of sin is anything less than action." Leaving the leaven is an action that produces a result. He's saying that every time the church over looks sin she's baking something...And the something that she's making is something other than what the Lord Jesus commanded her to make.
If we will not discipline, that is deal with the sin in our midst, we are altering Jesus' recipe; making something for Him in the Church that bears His name, that He did not authorize. It doesn't take much reading in Scripture to see how God responds to people making unauthorized offerings to Him...See Leviticus chapters 10 and 13 on your own time.
The command of Scripture is that the church be judgmental, that we assess one another's faithfulness to our common faith and Lord because we all agreed to it, particularly in our baptism. We were baptized into Christ and into the covenant community at which point we came under the covenant law to be judged according to it. Paul is saying, don't judge unbaptized pagans who aren't under the law of Christ as if they are! But inside the church, why in the world would be surprised or call foul when a brother or sister rebukes us for violating the law that we publicly promised we'd uphold? We all said, "I'm here... I'm in... Jesus is Lord... I'm on the team!" Then expect to be held accountable to playing by the rules.
We act as if this is a foreign or strange concept, its not. Join any group and then break the covenant, the terms, the rules of that group and expect to be confronted about it. Join a basketball team and then start doing layups that score points for the other team. Expect confrontation. Well that's what unrepentant sin in the lives of believers. There are two teams: Christ's and Satan's- we live righteously, we confess and repent of our sin, we grow in Christ-likeness, we're running up the scoreboard until Christ returns. We sin and flaunt it, and are unashamed by it, and exult in it, we make our team look bad and score points for the enemy.
If you don't discipline it's because you don't care about your team, and many modern churches simply don't. Paul says, "don't even eat with someone who claims to be a brother but is walking in open unrepentant sin." You think the guy who intentionally scored a bunch of points for the other team is going out to Cici's with everyone afterward? No! I'm not using that kind of analogy to be cute, or to minimize the seriousness of this text, or to make the teaching more palatable. I'm demonstrating a sinful inconsistency. That is, we know intuitively and in principle that this is right, the problem is that we often only grant it in things that don't matter, like sports teams, and will never apply it in the place where it matters most, the blood bought church of Jesus Christ. "Purge the evil person from among you."
This text strikes at the first question we're answering, "what is the purpose of Church disciple (why do we do it)?" Particularly verse 5 "...you are to deliver this man to Satan..." Why? "...for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord." We discipline to induce repentance and expedite the sinners return to obedience to Christ. This is gracious and kind in the same way that it is gracious and kind for a parent to discipline his or her child. But, there is another reason. Turn to Acts chapter 4. Head backwards, you'll go through Romans and then land in Acts- then find chapter 4 and verse 32.
So the New Covenant church is brand new, still developing and taking shape, the Apostle's are preaching and teaching, the church in Jerusalem is forming, and as we see in this text the church begins to care for one another. Property owners begin to sell some of their resources to meet needs in the church and they bring the proceeds to the Apostles to be distributed for ministry use. This was not commanded, compelled, legislated, or as far we can tell up to this point, preached on...it was just the fruit of salvation working itself out in generosity. Let's continue in chapter 5.
Ananias sold his property. Probably because he saw that Jospeh was celebrated by the church when he did it and Ananias wanted to praised as well...maybe he even thought, "this could land me in the Bible..." and intend it did. So he sells the property keeps some of the money, and donates the rest to the church. A fine thing to do, except that he told the church that he was giving all of the money, not a portion of the money. He wanted to look more magnanimous and open handed than he actually was so that the church would praise him. Instead of receiving praise, God kills him on the spot.
Sapphira is complicit, she's in on the lie and continues to propagate it... God kills her on the spot as well. God just enacted church discipline. The most extreme form, and a kind that could only be enacted by God Himself. But this text teaches us about another purpose of church discipline: purity. It's in 1 Corinthians 5 as well with the admonition to sweep out the leaven to be a pure lump of dough, but here, the principle is even more dramatically displayed. Understanding God's cleansing purpose in church discipline is very important. When I ask modern pastors why they don't do church discipline here's what they tell me, "it doesn't work."
They say, "This isn't the 1st century where you have one church per town...getting kicked out of or otherwise disciplined by your church in the 1st century carried a weight that it doesn't carry today. Now-a-days they'll just go to the church down the road and bad mouth your church for being so judgmental- it doesn't work anymore." This response only takes one of God's purposes for church discipline into account. That response assumes that the only reason to do discipline is to induce repentance. Well if the person is just going to leave your church angry and have their sin affirmed by another congregation in town, why not just keep their tithe money coming to your church and let it go?
Because the Lord is concerned for the purity of His bride. And let me hasten to add that most pastors don't actually know if church discipline works to induce repentance in the modern age because they've never actually tried it due almost certainly to a serve case of invertebrate-ites (meaning that they are spineless, in case you missed that rebuke due to my made up compound word). We may be able to find the doctrine of church discipline tolerable as modern folks if we come to see that it's purpose is to induce the repentance of the sinner and restore the joy of their salvation. Who could be opposed to that?
But I want to point out that that is clearly not God's intention in the church discipline case before us in Acts chapter 5. You see, it's hard to repentant when you're dead. God enacted this discipline in this instance, to protect the purity of His Church and to make sure that things that He abominates, like lying lips, don't get introduced into His church as normal, acceptable, not that big a deal, or something we can kind of pretend didn't happen. God handles this publicly; He wants word to spread in order to produce a healthy and right fear of trampling His gracious New Covenant.
So we've seen now a dual purpose in church discipline: The induction of repentance, and the guarding of the church's purity before God and the watching world. Now let's turn to our second concern, establishing practices for church discipline, that is, how do you do it? Turn to Matthew chapter 18. Flip backwards through John, Luke, and Mark and you'll arrive in Matthew. Find verse 15.
We see a process prescribed here for church discipline that gives us our marching orders as a local body. God has not said, "do church discipline," and then left us without a guide for how it ought to be done. Now, when we think about church discipline we don't often think about it in phases as our Lord instructs us...we think of the final phase of the process that Jesus outlines, as if it is the sum of church discipline, but we don't often think of the first two phases: Personal appeal, and small group meeting.
God isn't trigger happy. He's patient, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, so ought his people to be, hence all of the apostolic commands to bear with one another in love, and the truth that love covers a multitude of sins. Discipline doesn't start with excising people from the body, it begins with a conversation. If someone sins against you, or you're aware of the sin, or it was perpetrated in your presence, you're responsible to go and confront that person for that sin. Jesus teaches us to start here, because He is wise!
You may think someone is in sin and be wrong. Perhaps there is an explanation for what you heard or saw, or the context was not clear to you, or you didn't have enough information at your disposal to make a proper judgement. So, rather than going to your circle of friends and immediately trotting out the sinfulness of this person and planning your intervention, or taking it immediately to the church and dragging this person before the ecclesiastical court, you make sure that you don't have invertebrate-ites and go talk to that person yourself.
We have a biblical word for people who say things about people that they would never say to them...we call those people gossips. You could be wrong, you could be overly sensitive, you may have misunderstood...go to your brother. Go to your sister and say, "hey, I heard this...I saw that...help me understand."Give them an opportunity to explain.
Of course sometimes, it's cut and dry and no clarification is necessary. If you walk in on your roommate and there is pornography on the screen skip the step of humbly seeking to understand, and go straight to the confrontation. But a personal call to repentance from a brother or sister whose sincerity is evident can go a long way when blessed by the Lord.
Then our Lord moves to the next step- say this person you confronted was really in sin and is unreceptive and excuses it, minimizes it, etc...then you go to your overlapping circle of Christian friends and bring the 2 that you trust the most with you for a second confrontation. Notice that the intention at this point is the intention outlined in 1 Corinthians 5:5...to save the sinner from continuing in sin.You're not trying to publicize, shame, or otherwise demoralize, quite the opposite. You're trying to keep it from having to go public, mitigate shame, and remoralize!
If this second sincere effort is disregarded, then it ceases to be interpersonal and becomes institutional... you take it to the church, which, because of Paul's instructions about orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14, I do not take to mean that if you know of someone in unrepentant sin that it is appropriate for you stand up and interrupt the service in order to fulfill your Matthew 18 duty. I believe this implies that you take the matter the elders of the church who will, in an orderly fashion take it before the congregation that it might be known and demonstrated that the church is holy, pure, bought by Christ's blood and cannot allow that which killed our Savior to go unaddressed by those He saved. Remember, what we tolerate, we normalize.
Now, to our third concern: establishing the parameters of church discipline. What does and does not warrant discipline? Three criterion to determine whether or not discipline or exhortation is in order. Remember, not everything that needs to change in a believers life is necessarily sinful, sometimes it's just run of the mill immaturity that requires exhortation and patience, not discipline.
So here are the criterion for discipline:
If discipline is to be enacted, whether interpersonally or institutionally, the offense must actually be a sin.
Let me read a section of 1 Corinthians 5 for you again: "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one."
All of the sins listed there by Paul that could warrant discipline are sins that are categorized as such by God Himself. Paul isn't just picking things that he finds personally objectionable. He is zeroing in on things that God has said, objectively, are objectionable.
Scripture defines what sin is, not the elders, or the church body, or the biddy in the back who is quite certain that happiness and laughter are themselves a slippery slope to sin that should likely be avoided. A church is not permitted to discipline for offenses that are not defined as sin by God's Word. It is Jesus' Church. He is the head, so he determines what should and should not be present among His people.
If discipline is to be enacted, the sin must be an external sin.
Again, the sins listed by Paul are sins that manifest themselves in observable ways. I'm not denying that there is such a thing as a sin of the heart, but Paul doesn't include internal sins in his list of disciplinable sins, because how would you know of an internal sin unless it became manifest externally? The church doesn't get to discipline people because they've got a sneaky suspicion that so and so has a lustful heart, or a greedy heart, or whatever... The lustful heart must have manifested itself in some action that is objectively sinful before discipline is sanctioned.
If the final phase of discipline is ever to be enacted, the sinner must be impenitent.
Public discipline and or excommunication is for the unrepentant. It is not for those who confess and repent and humble themselves before the mighty hand of God. Those saints get celebrated as the returning prodigal was celebrated! In Matthew 18, if you go to your brother and confront him about his sin and he repents, "you've gained your brother." That doesn't need to go public, no one else needs to know about that (unless restitution requires it), it's done. The only thing that would take things to the point of publicity and a putting out of fellowship is if those private confrontations yielded no repentance at which point, the purity of the church, not the repentance of the sinner, becomes the primary point of focus.
Well, that's probably enough for today, we'll pick it up next week with the agents of church discipline answering the question, "who does it?" Answering that question will require that we understand church governance which means that next week we will touch on Elders and Deacons, at which point we will also disclose how those men will be raised up, identified, and installed within our own congregation. But in closing today, I'll let a great 19th century preacher summarize the message about church discipline for us: "If Christ died for me, I cannot trifle with the evil that killed my best friend." I would simply add to that, nor can we allow those who claim His name to trifle with it un-confronted.