Ever since that disastrous day in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve decided that their knowledge was better than God's, we human beings have suffered from an innate disinclination to want to be told what to do. We Christ-believers know that we can't take one breath without God, yet that secular spirit of autonomy infects us too: because even Christ's elect experience the effects of a fallen world, and because our society is saturated with that spirit and we live in that society.
I've been thinking about this lately as it relates to the church. The Pew Research “Religion and Public Life Project” has documented the rise of the “Nones” in recent years: people who say they have no religious affiliation. Even among those who are “religious,” 19 percent don't think that their (or other people's) religion makes much difference in their lives or in the life of the nation. Once people start going to church, what are their expectations? To what degree are they made aware that conversion requires both a change of heart and of lifestyle? And what about life-long members? If they allow themselves to fall into serious sin, are they OK with the church “admonishing” them, to use Paul's word? Is it your church's business how you live?
An unmissed relic?
The church, Christ's Body on earth, is a very necessary fellowship of believers, says the New Testament. We are commanded to bring the gospel to unbelievers. But a large part of the church's task is to nurture believers in their faith, doing so through three primary means (say the Reformed confessions', based on Scripture): the preaching of God's Word, the administering of sacraments and through the exercising of church discipline, that last which is said to be so important that it is a key that can open and close the Kingdom of heaven.
Not many of us see our church “exercising church discipline” any more. And we may be just as happy we don't. When I was in elementary school, I recall a service when an unmarried couple who were expecting a baby agreed to publicly confess their sexual sin to the congregation. One of my own brothers, who had quit going to church, had managed to get a police record, living a dissolute lifestyle, was excommunicated in that church. He swore it didn't matter to him. Maybe. But it was a grievous trial for my parents (though they agreed it was necessary).
Church councils today certainly don't call public attention to individuals' or couple's sins, sexual or otherwise. So what should church discipline in our particularly undisciplined age consist of? Is it merely an unmissed relic of a less enlightened age?
The purpose of church discipline, including excommunication, is not punitive. It's not to tell members what to do, or to allow the church to control your life. It does, however, judge in one sense: it admonishes in Christ's name a person whose life and actions have become a consistently shameful witness to the Lord of the church, his Body and the world. It is meant to prod stubbornly unrepentant members to reconsider and repent. The goal is to bring grace, readmitting them into fellowship (including Communion) with Christ and all the members there. Has that always happened? No. Has the church always exercised wisdom when administering such discipline? Again no. The challenge is to get across to all members its biblical purpose and why it's still important for the church in an age like ours.
Properly, such discipline is and should be a long process, bathed in prayer and appeals to the Spirit's working. And sometimes God's timing in it all is inexplicable to us. In my brother's case, the prayed for repentance didn't come until years later, when he rejoined the CRC on the other end of the continent and publicly professed his faith; and when my parents were no longer alive to see it happen. But it made the ultimate difference in his life, and at his unexpected death not so many years later, it opened the Kingdom of heaven to him.
O let my cry be heard by you, LORD.
My lips will speak your praise and sing your goodness.
Be ready with your hand to strengthen me.
Like a lost sheep I long for restoration.
O let me live to sing your praises, LORD.
Your law delights me; LORD, be my salvation.
From Psalm 119, vers. Clarence P. Walhout; Psalter Hymnal, 1987.
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