The Political Incorrectness of Church Discipline

September 19, 2011

For the last two days I have been sitting on this next post, trying to decide which topic should come first: the legitimacy of Christian denominations or what one might do when/if one’s own denomination detaches from its roots. I am not procrastinating on these questions, but think we need to do a little more work from within Paul’s letters to gain some guidance:

The apostle Paul did not live in an environment of denominations as we know them; the church, from his point of view, was still unified in a loose association and he was one of its most visible networkers. “The Way” was still relatively small but growing, the Roman government increasingly hostile, and communication excruciatingly slow (by our standards). Paul demonstrated a deep reliance upon the Holy Spirit to keep Christian disciples safe in orthodoxy, but he recognized variances from city to city, rejoicing that even folks motivated by, say, ambition were still preaching Jesus (Phil 1:15-18).

On the other hand, Paul recognized that some other teachers were preaching a different gospel, one that required a person to become a Jew by circumcision before becoming a Christian by baptism. He saved some of his most colorful speech for the “Judaizers” who had “bewitched [the] foolish Galatians.” In Paul’s world, there were definite categories of truth and error. Truth was expressed in sound doctrine; error was promulgated through silly speculation. Faithfulness to the essential gospel—we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and not because of anything we could have done to appease God—put one on the side of truth; messing with that gospel put an opponent on dangerous ground indeed.

Beyond concern for sound doctrine, Paul’s most forceful judgment was saved for those who lived immoral lifestyles. He had heard that within the Corinthian church was a man who had committed incest with his father’s wife. Paul was incredulous that not only was he not disciplined, but his behavior was celebrated and approved within the Body (1 Cor 5:1ff). Unthinkable (Lev. 18:8)!

Paul was clear about two things: 1) Sound doctrine—he wanted all those identified with Christ to think rightly about the faith, to understand God’s will for them, to see the logic behind God’s unexpected grace, and to give credit where credit was due; and 2) Godly behavior—he expected that right thinking would lead to right living, which included sexual morality, honesty, humility, obedience to God and to parents (Rom 1:28-30; 1 Cor 6:9ff;Col 3:5-9; Gal 5:19ff).

Paul gave fervent advice to his readers about what to do when either false doctrine or unseemly behavior crept into the fellowship.  If the issue revolved around the content of the faith, such as in the church in Ephesus while Timothy was pastor, Paul’s exhortation was to stay, teach, and rebuke; continue to preach the Word in and out of season, and not neglect the reading of the Scriptures. Recognizing this is a tough sell in certain pastorates, Paul advised developing a thick skin (e.g. don’t let them dismiss you because you are young) and being willing to take the risks associated with staying true to the gospel. The reality, Paul said to his protégé, is that some people are not going to put up with your (right) teaching. Man up, and preach it anyway. Nobody said this ministry was an easy gig.

However, Paul’s advice about what do to when immoral behavior had crept into the fellowship was two-fold, depending on the listener’s particular situation.  In 1 Cor 5:15, he advised that the fellowship “expel the immoral brother” and “do not associate with immoral people.” In the next chapter (6:18), he exhorts the saints to “flee immorality.” In both cases, there was to be a separation between the moral and the immoral to ensure the spiritual safety of those who sought unhindered fellowship with God. If a saint wanting to do the right thing was particularly tempted by the ungodly behavior of the immoral close by, that saint needed to flee: exit that bar, get out of that red-light district, or “leave the building.” If remaining in that environment puts too much pressure on a person to stay faithful to Christ, it is that individual’s obligation to remove himself from “the occasion of sin,” as the Catholics who raised me used to call it.  Sound advice! Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Get out of harm’s way.

If, on the other hand, the shepherd of a (church) flock hears the Border Collies barking a warning about immorality in the midst of the sheep-pen, discipline of the wrong-doer is required. That protective and restorative discipline I talked about last time is aimed at the soul healing of the offender and the spiritual safety of the sheep. Church leaders are responsible for working out this process of discipline, to declare the wrong action unacceptable in Christian fellowship and to separate the wrongdoer from the rest of the flock. We Presbyterians are fortunate to have a Rule of Discipline and a judicial process in place to deal with those who by their actions violate Scripture’s moral teaching.

Paul would say to our generation of church leaders, “Do not shrink back from disciplining the immoral in your midst! It is for their good and for the good of the church that you do so! You have the clear word of Scripture on your side. Man up, and hold fast to that which is good.”  Take the steps necessary to separate those behaving immorally from those who are repentant and obedient to God’s commandments as a sign of their discipleship.

Of course, as I write this and you read it, we shrink back. This is so not-politically-correct. It conjures up images of shunning, which “of course” is a bad thing, isn’t it? Or is it? Paul would say that purposeful shunning of an idea and a practice is a good thing. The Body must show disapproval of those actions and lifestyles that are not consistent with God’s revealed will. This course is followed not so self-righteous ninnies can keep their reputations, but so that God’s reign can be more fully demonstrated. This is not so one set of people can exert human power over another, but so that God’s Word can be heard and heeded by all who profess Jesus as Lord. None of us, in our own strength, has power over God’s will and way (to define or nullify it); we are the Lord’s servants and do what he says. Or repent when we fail. Period.

All evangelical Presbyterians are trying to do in the current environment—where immoral behavior (i.e. sexual practice outside the bounds of marriage between a man and a woman) is accepted and even celebrated—is differentiate themselves, either for their own spiritual safety or for the sake of vulnerable church members.

So, finally, tomorrow I will deal with the subject of “staying in or leaving” the PCUSA.

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8 Responses to “The Political Incorrectness of Church Discipline”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    Thank you Mary,
    Your posting gives a lot of clarity for the Church. God deliver us from so much political correctness and return us to true biblical discipline for the sake of the errant and all of the sheep, including me. I, as you must know, am looking forward to your next installment.

  2. Mary Fields Says:

    Man up, indeed.

  3. Jodie Says:

    “within the Corinthian church was a man who had committed incest with his mother.”

    When you take that much poetic license with Scripture to make a rhetorical point, it makes it hard to take the rest of what you say seriously.

    It’s just fighting as usual.

    Just FYI

  4. Ron Says:

    It might be worthwhile to look at doctrinal issues in a larger context than what Paul addressed with the Judiazers. A quick search through the NIV NT of the word “false”, shows abundant references from Jesus in the Gospels, Acts and the letters including Peter and John besides Paul. Most of these address the forms of false prophets and teachers. Confronting these with sound teaching about the Gospel and the Truth was an essential part of the Apostles calling. The Truth the Apostles taught is what we have now teaching us….we call it the Bible.
    But false prophets and teachers never go away…they seem to intensify in the Bible until the Day of the Lord.

    • revmary Says:

      Thank you for this helpful comment, Ron. My focus on Paul was a simplifying strategy to illustrate the broader point, but you are correct that he wasn’t the only apostle to encounter the problem. And I would concur that it wasn’t just a first-century issue, but is intensifying as The Day approaches.

  5. revmary Says:

    Jodie, forgive me. The text (1 Cor 5:1) says that “a man has his father’s wife.” This probably means his step-mother. That act is specifically prohibited (Lev. 18:8). My point is the same, whether it was his mother or step-mother. No poetic license there.

  6. Jake Horner Says:

    Great stuff! thanks. Read this week: There is no obedience without faith, and no faith without obedience (Bonhoeffer). Still a struggle 2000 years later.

    “But false prophets and teachers never go away…they seem to intensify in the Bible until the Day of the Lord.” I really wonder about the place of Islam in God’s eternal purpose. I wonder also if I am the only one to hear the neighing of horses behind the economic meltdown, AIDS epidemic, terrorists, and earthquakes over the last few years (but not to put too fine a point on it). The other thing I wonder about is Paul’s use of the aorist tense of PARADIDOMI in Romans 1:24 — it suggests that when you see the homoerotic behaviors that the handing over has already happened, regardless of whether Paul’s concern was simple aspect/external viewpoint, or action in the past. It’s kinda scary and breaks my heart at the same time.

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