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Five Ways to Go Wrong with Church Discipline

church-discipline

What is Church Discipline?

There is hardly a practice in the local church that is misused more than “church discipline.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have many answers and its misuse is understandable. I think there are three primary ways that we can find it misuse: 1) It is never used at all, 2) it is misused in an unbiblical way, and 3) people are brought in for discipline for “sins” that don’t require its use.

Matthew 18:15-17 is the primary passage that speaks to the practice of church discipline (even if we are still left with a lot of questions).

First, let’s say this: the purpose of church discipline is the restoration of the brother in sin (Matt. 18:15), to bring recognition to the seriousness of sin (1 Tim. 5:20), and to protect the church from the influence of sin (1 Cor. 5:6). This much is clear.

Here is what Christ has to say about it in Matthew

Matthew 18

15 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.

17 “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. (NAS)

Let’s try to take this step by step.

1. Discipling Every Time Your Brother Sins at All

If Your Brother Sins [Against You] (Matt. 18:15)

The very first thing that must be realized here is that this does not say, “If your brother sins, go reprove him in private.” Wait . . . I suppose it does. Reread the passage about. I added the text in brackets. However, while this is how it reads, this is not what is meant. To make a long story short, this here are the options of translation:

“If you brother sins . . .”

or

“If your brother sins against you . . .

See the difference? It is quite significant. The NAS, HSV, NIV, and NET all have the unqualified “If your brother sins . . .” The ESV, NAB, KJV, and NLT qualify it with ” . . . against you.” The best and earliest manuscript evidence points to the unqualified version: “If your brother sins . . .” Ouch. So, any time my brother or sister in Christ sins at all, I am to go through this process? Not only would that be an impossible task for anyone in church (can you imagine having to go take someone through this process any time any other Christian sinned?—that is all we would be doing!). However, I do believe this needs to be interpreted with the qualification “against you” due to Peter’s follow-up question in Matt. 18:21 (“Lord, how many times can my brother sin against me . . .). Peter obviously understood Christ as qualifying it, so should we.

Further Reading on this Subject: “Textual Problem: Matthew 18:15

Therefore, this is a sin against you. Thus the process begins.

2. Do Not Talk to Others About the Problem

Go to him in private (Matt. 18:15)

Let me say this as emphatically as I can: Don’t get this wrong. Incredible and sinful damage will follow if you do. God is very concerned about protecting people. The first engagement of the sin in question is one of privacy. Rumors spread, grow, evolve,  and damage people faster than anything on earth. James said this about the ability of the tongue to destroy a person:

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (Jam 3:6 ESV)

Just think about this . . . whatever sin your brother may or may not have committed against you would be be hard to compare to you spreading this offense to others (even one person) before you go to your brother in private. In this context, you discuss your problem, where you believe they sinned against you, and listen to the response.

Maybe after he or she explains themselves, you have more understanding and your anger either dissipates or is seen to be unwarranted. This is why private conversation is so important. Or, conversely, he or she may recognize their sin and repent. If so, case closed. You have won your brother. And the matter always remains between you and him or her.

However, their explanation may not be satisfying, they don’t repent, or they just don’t care about your problem with them. Then you take it to the next level.

3. Do Not Bring Your Wingmen to the Confrontation

Take Other Neutral Parties with You (Matt. 18:16)

Here, Jesus is taking from the Law of Moses (Deut. 19:5). The sin must be confirmed to be sin by others. There are a couple of things that must be kept in mind here. First, the issue is still private. You don’t go public with the sin. We are still protecting the accused if the sin has yet to be established. The second issue is that those you take with you on this next encounter are not your wingmen! They are not those who you have talked to, made sure they are on your side, then bring them with you to the confrontation. What good would that do?

The two or three witnesses are neutral parties, ready to listen to both sides (see 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). They are there so that they can make an unbiased judgement. If, having listened to both sides, they determine the brother has not sinned and the one making the accusation is in the wrong, then you do not repeat the process until you find those who will take your side. The matter is over. Leave it with the Lord. However, if the brother is judged by the others to be in the wrong and repents, rejoice! You have won your brother. But, still, keep it all private, not even telling your closest confidant about the proceedings.

However, if this person is determined by these neutral parties to be in sin, yet he or she remains stubborn and obstinate in their wrongdoing, then and only then is the next step is ready to be taken.

church-discipline-comic

4. Do Not Announce the Sin from the Pulpit

Bring it Before the Church (Matt. 18:17)

Bringing to the “church” is the final step. Exposing the sin to this larger gathering of believers is still to be seen as a somewhat private engagement (at least in modern terms). In other words, I don’t think we should see this necessarily as an announcement made from the pulpit (although that could be the case in smaller churches). The hope is still repentance as can be seen in the statement “and if he refuses to listen to the the church . . .”

This is only the second time the word “church” (ekklesia) is used (the first was in Matt. 16:18). Christ had in mind a small gathering of people (house church type). He may have only been thinking about the eldership of the church (those in authority), thereby upping the ante of non-repentance if guilt was found.

5. Do Not Kick the Person Out of the Church

Let Him Become as a Gentile and Tax-Gatherer to You (Matt. 18:17)

This is the final step if the accused is deemed guilty by the “church” and remains unrepentant. However, like so much of this passage, I think there are so many ways to go wrong here. For starters, what does it mean to be “as a Gentile and tax-gather.” This was a common Jewish idiom which simply means “unbeliever.” Christ was not affirming the idiom. In other words, he did not see Gentiles or tax-gatherers as unbelievers. This was just a common expression that Christ used that would have been well understood by his listeners.

To be treated “as if he were” or “just as” (hosper) an unbeliever is not affirming that the person was an unbeliever, but that he was to be treated as if he were. In the church, the implications would be severe for one who is involved in the church, but negligible for those who are merely pew-sitters.

What did it mean then? What are churches actually supposed to do when we have gone through these steps and the person is unrepentant? What do we do with those who are to be treated as if they were “Gentiles and tax-gatherers”?

First, we must realize that in the there was always a place for sinners and Gentiles in the synagogues (i.e. “church”). Even in Herod’s temple, there was a very important place called the “Court of Gentiles (seen below) for Gentiles to “attend” services and engage with God.

court-gentiles

So Christ was not saying that (except in extreme circumstances) there was to be a security usher at the door of the church making sure that said sinner could not get in. I think this has more to do with positions of leadership, influence, and authority. The guilty sinner could not hold such positions, exercising their spiritual gift. They could, however, attend church services. After all, don’t we let those whom we consider to be unbelievers into our churches? What better place for them to be!

Further complicating the matter are the words “to you” (Gk. soi). “Let him be considered as a Gentile and tax-gatherer to you” (not, as we like to say here in the south, “to y’all”). This is a singular, most definitely referring back to the person against whom the sin was committed. It is possible that it was only to this person that the sinning party was to be considered a “Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”

Either way, how to we treat “Gentiles and tax-gatherers”? Do we shun then, speak ill of them, say vile things about them behind their back, ruin their reputation, and never speak to them again? Far from it! We love them, care for them, and treat them with grace and mercy. Isn’t this what Christ did? Wasn’t he called a friend of sinners, tax-gatherers, and prostitutes? How did he engage unbelievers?

Book Recommendation: What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey

Conclusion

While we have not even touched upon the hardest question (what sins are worthy of this kind of discipline?), we have seen that this type of process has great value in the church. In fact, this is how we should approach anyone who has wronged us, in the church or not. Unfortunately, so often we go the opposite direction, bringing the sin to everyone’s attention and then ganging up on the suspected wrong-doer after his reputation has already been stained (often beyond repair). The sinfulness of going in this direction, not approaching someone in private, as I said before, rivals just about any sin that could be brought against the accuser.

I have had the reverse process happen to me twice. Once with a group of elders who called me into a meeting, all having come to agreement that I was in the wrong based on the testimony of one person. None of them approached me privately and I was not given a chance to explain myself. This was not too damaging due to the nature of the sin I was being accused of. The second was much worse. Again, no one approached me privately about the accusation that was being brought against me and none of the parties present were neutral. I was brought into a surprise meeting and given no chance to explain myself. And even after I had repented of a wrong that I had done (though nothing to the degree that I was being accused of), there was nothing private about it. The rumors had already spread and there was no way for me to get the toothpaste back in the hundreds of tubes that had been let out. It was very hurtful.

But, this process is a wonderful process when done according to the steps that Christ put forward here. Keep it private, listen to the accused, bring neutral parties, and make restoration the goal.

 

Why I am No Longer a Dispensationalist

My Dispensational Upbringing

I have been taught Dispensationalism from my mother’s womb. I was born in a dispensational environment. It was assumed at my church to be a part of the Gospel. There was never another option presented. It made sense. It helped me put together the Scriptures in a way that cleared up so much confusion. And, to be honest, the emphasis on the coming tribulation, current events that prove the Bible’s prophecy, the fear that the Antichrist may be alive today (who is he?) was all quite exciting. But what might be the biggest attraction for me is the charts! Oh how I love charts. I think in charts. And dispensationalism is a theology of charts!

Making Fun of Dispensationalism

The first time I came across someone who was not a Dispensationalist was in 1999. I am not kidding. It was the first time! I don’t think I even knew if there was another view. It was when I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary (the bastion of Dispensationalism) and I was swimming with some guys who were at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Once they discovered I was a dispensationalist, they giggled and snickered. They made fun of the rapture, the sacrificial system during the millennium, and the mark of the beast (which, at that time, was some type of barcode). It was as if they patted me on the head and said “It’s okay . . . nice little dispensationalist.” I was so angry. I was humiliated. I was a second-rate theologian. They were “Covenantalists” (whatever that was). But they were the cool guys who believed in the historic Christian faith and I was the cultural Christian, believing in novel ideas.

The Novelty of Dispensationalism

This made me mad enough to start studying with great passion. And you know what I came to find out? Dispensationalism was a novel idea. It did not really catch on until the 19th century and was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible (the standard Dispensational Sword of Truth—oh, and always in the NAS). This disturbed me. But what disturbed me most is that so many of the great theologians and personalities made fun of it. The Left Behind series was in full swing at this time. I think I was on the third book eagerly waiting for the fourth. But when I listened to a popular Reformed radio personality make jokes about the books, using them as foils and examples of how radical Christians can get, I stopped reading them. I was embarrassed to even have them on my shelf.

I was very conflicted. Dispensationalism still made a lot of sense, but I did not like the fact that it was new and my reformed crowd distanced themselves far from it. I remained a dispensationalist through seminary, but I tried to keep it a secret. Continue Reading →

Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in Sola Scriptura?

Church_Fathers_Order_(left_part)_-_Google_Art_Project

Definition of Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura: the reformed Protestant belief that the Scriptures alone are the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. This does not mean that Scriptures are the only authority (nuda or solo Scriptura), as Protestants believe in the authority of tradition, reason, experience, and emotions to varying degrees (after all, “sola scriptura” itself is an authoritative tradition in Protestantism). It does mean that Scripture trumps all other authorities (it is the norma normans sed non normata Lat. “norm that norms which is not normed”).

Controversy of Sola Scriptura

Sometimes people get the idea that sola Scriptura was a 16th-century invention. While it was definitely articulated a great deal through the controversies during the Reformation, its basic principles can be found deep in church history. Take a look at some of these early church fathers who seemed to believe in the primacy of Scripture:

Related Resource: Six Myths About Sola Scriptura by C. Michael Patton Continue Reading →

When is Someone Disqualified from Ministry?

When Is Someone Disqualified from Ministry?

This is an unspoken question for many evangelicals. Most of us don’t know where the idea of “disqualification” comes from. We may be hard pressed to find anything definite in Scripture that says close to what we mean.

Peter Denies Christ and is Disqualified from Ministry

Peter Denies Christ and is Disqualified from Ministry

Sure, Paul talks about being disqualified from ministry if he were to fail. But what does he really mean?

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

— I Corinthians 9:27 (ESV)

But here, at least, context has nothing to do with moral failure as is so often thought. He is talking about becoming “all things to all men.” This is so that Paul might make the Gospel relevant in all contexts. Otherwise, Paul would be disqualified if he succumbed to any temptation to legalism, and a stilting of the Gospel.

Further Reading: Called Into Ministry? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

Am I saying nothing would force someone to step out of ministry for a time of restoration? No! But that’s an article for another day.

The Apostle Peter: Disqualified and Restored

I want to share a story most of you are familiar with. This story should be brought into all discussions of “disqualification.” It is included only in the Gospel of John.

John wrote his Gospel over twenty years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Its contents likely represent John’s many years of reflection. He certainly saw relevance something  that the other Gospels passed over.

All the Gospels record Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:68–72; Luke 22:55–62). It’s only John who records Peter’s restoration:

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

— John 21:15–17 (ESV)

Notice the odd series of questions. Christ asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” Many have focused on the differences in the Greek word translated “love.” This probably had little meaning to John. He always switched cognates for literary purposes, not theological.

Christ's Charge to Peter by Raphael

Christ’s Charge to Peter by Raphael

What I want to point out is the threefold nature of Christ’s questions. Remember, Peter had denied Christ three times. Now, Peter’s threefold and frustrated response, “I love you” reminds us of his threefold denial.

About ten days after Peter’s rejection of Him, Jesus restored Peter to ministry. The specific language is “feed/tend my sheep/lambs.” Let me repeat this a different way: Peter committed arguably the worst sin a Christian can commit, the denial of Christ. and Christ restored him just a few days later.

What’s going on?

What about these words of Christ?

[B]ut whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

— Matthew 10:33 (ESV)

Didn’t Peter deny Christ before men?

What Were the Apostles Thinking?

I wonder what the other Apostles were thinking.  I can just hear their thoughts (that is, if they thought like us today):

“If you restore him too quickly, this will be an implicit approval of his sin”

“Let us all sin more so that grace might increase!”

“Jesus does not know human nature. You have to draw attention to his sin or he will never change.”

Peter is certainly sorry and repentant for what he did that day. I am sure it haunted him for years to come. And you may think he never did this again. But Peter never really gets over this issue. He is always afraid of what his countrymen might think.

From Act 2–10 (a ten year period) Peter lived with a terrible sin: prejudice. Remember, in Acts 2 the Holy Spirit filled Peter. But it is not until Acts 10 that Peter finally let go of his prejudice (to some degree). He finally allowed himself to enter a Gentile’s (non-Jew’s) home. Before this he held to the unbiblical belief that:

  • He wasn’t to step foot inside a Gentile’s homes.
  • He was forbidden to eat with them.

Can you imagine someone doing this today? My dad hated Japanese people. He wouldn’t hang around them or befriend them. This lasted his whole life (a WWII thing). We recognize how sinful this was.

Peter had this attitude for almost twenty years. This is after the Holy Spirit filled Him at Pentecost! He was always afraid of what the Jews thought of him. So much so, he would change the message of the Gospel throughout his life in the way he lived. Paul ended up having to have a difficult discussion with Peter about this (Galatians 2:11–13).

Further Reading: Why Paul Should Not Always Be Our Example in Confrontation

The Imperfect Lives of Christian Ministers

I’m not trying to jump all over poor Peter. Peter held the lofty position of Apostle. We would be blessed to have lived his life; including his upside down crucifixion.

My point is that those who minister for God don’t live unimpeachable lives. By “unimpeachable” I mean perfect. But the sins we are often quick to use to disqualify someone from ministry are far less severe than:

  • Denying Christ
  • Adjusting the Gospel to make it square with our prejudice

We look only at the most tangible (and often unbiblical) moral failures. We fail to realize the heart issues we live with. These go unnoticed.

Do the Unexpected: Forgive

This is my thesis: If Christ restored Peter to ministry so quickly, why don’t we? Who are we to have such an itchy “disqualification” trigger finger? Isn’t being gracious one of the ways we should be like Christ?

Maybe you’re like me and are tempted to think:

“This sin has to be pointed out! He must go through a ’time of restoration.’ The seriousness of his sin needs to be exemplified through punishment and a long time of restoration.”

Maybe the best way to exhibit grace and affect change in others is to show mercy. We should be like Christ and do the unexpected, forgive. In all honesty, I do believe there are character issues and sins that can and should “disqualify” people from ministry. These are listed in 1 Timothy:

1 Tim 3:1-7
A bishop then must be blameless [was Peter], the husband of one wife [which does not mean “not divorced, but faithful], temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable [was Peter to the Gentiles?], able to teach [in my experience, few have qualified]; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well [what if the wife is not following the Lord or has children that don’t believe?], having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside [did Jesus have a good testimony with the religious leaders? This begs the questions, “Who are those who are “outside”?], lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

All I am saying is that this story about Jesus’ restoration of Peter and his continued problems does give me much pause. Things are not as clean as we would like them to be. Grace may be the default in so many things.

Where am I going wrong?

Shameless Plug

Check out the Ecclesiology and Eschatology module if you liked this article. You’ll get 10 sessions on 10 DVDs plus a workbook.

Ecclesiology and Eschatology DVDs and Workbook

Should We Trust People’s Near-Death Experiences?

stairway

There is hardly a more popular genre of religious literature today than that of Near Death Experience (NDEs). I often tell people that if they want to become a millionaire, all they have to do is die, come back to life, and then write about what they saw (if Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts could do it in Flatliners, why not?).

The fascination with this subject is certainly understandable.  After all, we are talking about people who assert that they have had first hand experience with the afterlife. Their testimony, were it to be true, could overturn atheism and give us the most insider information that we have had since the Apostle John (so long as they saw something). Who wouldn’t want such confirmation. After all, for most of us, our experience of God is filtered through so many events that are hard to interpret and, frequently, over-interpreted. How many of us haven’t asked God to do something for us personally that breaks through the often boring mundane, in order to show Himself and His will to us in a definite experiential way? I know I have.

In come NDEs (of others) to the rescue. From the claims of a  little  four-year-old boy’s meetings with John the Baptist and explanations of the Trinity to a neurosurgeon’s personal Journey to the Afterlife, we can’t miss a demographic here (although the first is not technically an NDE). We now even have anthologies of this stuff.

Many devoted Christians have begun to see the light (pardon the pun) as more and more of these stories surface. At the very least, we are left scratching our heads, slowly developing a love-hate relationship with NDEs. While most of the NDE stories come from either Christian, or atheists, who are encouraged to become Christian, we do have others joining the conversation. As of 2005, close to 95% of the cultures of the world have documented some sort of near-death experience (The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences [yes, they have a handbook on these things] pp. 1–16). But more significant than this (to me) are the conflicting testimonies of Christians and/or converts who describe the afterlife. While there are some common elements in their stories (discussed below), the details are more difficult to reconcile. Continue Reading →

Top 25 Theology Blog Articles from 2014

Top 25 Most Popular Theology Blog Posts from 20142014 was an amazing year for the Parchment and Pen. To wrap it up with a nice bow we’ve curated a list of the 25 most popular theology blog posts from 2014.

Theology blogs are a curious thing. They have to strike the right balance between advocacy and disinterested reporting. But when you hit this balance you risk drawing fire from all sides which makes it an interesting pursuit.

We’re always fascinated to see what piques the interest of our readers. This year was no different.

In any case, we’re very excited about what we have planned for 2015 but please check out this list to see if you missed any of the popular gems from 2014.

Top 25 Theology Blog Posts from 2014

  1. Taking the Lord’s Name in Van – What Does it Really Mean?
  2. 21 Things Christians Say That Hurt Their Credibility
  3. Eight Diagnostic Questions I Ask of those Who Are Doubting their Faith
  4. 5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist
  5. Six Factors that Do Not Affect Inerrancy
  6. The Creation Debate in a Nutshell
  7. How Jesus Became God—or How God Became Jesus? A Review of Bart Ehrman’s New Book and a Concurrent Response
  8. Avoid Every Appearance of Evil
  9. Can I Reject an Eternal Hell and Still Be Saved?
  10. How Not to Debate a Christian Apologist
  11. Are We Really Held Guilty for the Sin of Another?
  12. Why I Am Not Completely Certain Christianity is True
  13. Another Protestant Converts to Catholicism – Why?
  14. Scared
  15. More Young Foolish Leaders Please
  16. Seven Reasons Why Christians Doubt
  17. How to Blow Any Theological Conversation?
  18. My Second Round with Depression
  19. Can Homosexuals Be Saved?
  20. Suicidal Thoughts on Suicide
  21. 3 Mistakes Our Definition of God Must Address to Avoid Atheism
  22. Will God Protect My Children?
  23. When We Misinterpret God
  24. Five Views of Tradition’s Role in the Christian Life
  25. Theism, Atheism, and Rationality: Some Reflections

3 Mistakes Our Definition of God Must Address to Avoid Atheism

It’s important for a Christian ministry to have a good definition of God (tongue in cheek). In fact, the definition I’m proposing will turn billions of religious people into atheists by the end of this article. How many people in the world are already religious? How many profess a belief in a divine being?

The way we define our terms will take center stage in our athe-izing much of the world’s religious population.

The Definition of God Determines Who's An Atheist

Further Reading:

Atheists comprise about 2% of the world’s population. Those who claim no religion at all (or “non-religious”) make up 16%. Atheists number close to 140 million. Combined with the non-religious, this add up to just over 1.2 billion. Christians make up close to 2.2 billion of the world’s population. Muslims hoover around 1.2 billion. The next largest religious population is Hindus at one billion.

Half the world’s population believes in God and half does not.

It looks like the those who believe in God greatly outnumber atheists, but I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I think half the world’s population believes in God while half does not. That’s about 3.5 billion people on each side. How do I come up with such figures? Let me explain.

Continue Reading →

21 Things Christians Say That Hurt Their Credibility

Michael Patton (President of Credo House) has written a series of 21 articles called, “…and other stupid statements”. Obviously the title is meant to provoke curiosity. But the issue of credibility is one that Christians are well aware of. The Bible, after all, is full of miraculous events and people.

But there are some things Christians say that Michael believes are “stupid statements”.

Credibility Problems of Christians

The reactions to Michael’s articles have been quite varied.

After reading some of these articles you may even find yourself saying:

  • What could he possibly mean by that!
  • I’ve said that before!
  • I’ve heard that so many times and it always annoyed me!
  • What the big deal with that?
  • Who cares?

Whatever your reaction is, we hope that you’ll find one that piques your interest.

21 Things Christians Say that Hurt Their Credibility