Tuesday 22 February 2011

Church discipline: why it is difficult and why it is loving (1 Corinthians 5)

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 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.
1 Corinthians 5:4-5

These verses are hard to accept and even harder to apply. These are verses about church discipline.

It is one thing to warn of sinful behaviour. But to enforce punishment? Is it the place of a church – or anyone, for the matter – to act like the moral police?

These are hard words. But they are often misunderstood words. For here the bible is giving us practical counsel. Here, the apostle Paul is writing out of concern for the church and love for the individual.

A shared responsibility

Firstly, church discipline is the responsibility of the entire church. “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus,” Paul says. Meaning: it’s not just the pastor. In fact, it’s not even your entire board of elders. The whole local gathering of believers is called to take action.

Which is why you find Paul condemning not simply the individual who has sinned, but the church as a whole who have not responded to this sin. To be sure, the individual’s sin is serious. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.” (Verse 1) Even the non-Christians are shocked that such a thing could happen. Yet, the Christian believers in Corinth respond not with grief, but with pride.

And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?
1 Corinthians 5:2

According to Paul, the problem is pride. Pride is the reason the church has withheld discipline. Now, that sounds strange. Today, you would expect the reason to be indifference. “Oh, it’s really not that serious. I’m sure he can sort himself out. Who is to say what is right or wrong?” Indifference says: sin doesn’t really matter. In that sense, indifference sounds rather humble. “Aren’t we all equally sinful? Discipline – that’s just being holier than thou.”

Tolerating sin is not humble. It is proud. Paul says in verse 6, “Your boasting is not good.” It is a perverse form of pride that justifies the sin. That says: Actually, there a good reason for that sin. That says: I am free to commit that sin.

It is this pride that keeps the church from recognising sin as sinful. And it is pride that is condemned by the apostle Paul; over and above the horrendous sin of the individual. To be sure, Paul does not let the individual off the hook. “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing,” he says. Yet when it comes to taking action on this brother, Paul – an apostle personally commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ; the founding pastor of the church in Corinth – does not see his position above that of the church. He casts his vote (I have already pronounced judgement), but calls on the whole assembly of believers to do the same.

Why? Because church discipline is the responsibility of the entire church.

Just as an aside. Are you member of your local church? Yes, I know, I know – you come every week and you sit in the pews. You help out in the children’s ministry and occasionally play the guitar. But, are you a member? It is a formality – but I tell you, it is more than a formality. There are responsibilities given you as a member of the people of God. I know that approving the budget doesn’t sound exciting, nor sitting on some committee to plan the yearly church picnic (groan!). But when it comes to something serious – like church discipline, in this case – are you making it harder for the entire body of Christ to act on what is already a very hard situation? My question to you is this: Is it pride that is keeping you from taking that step? Washing your hands of sticky situations – which the bible says is part of our shared responsibility in the body of Christ? Is it pride?

Church discipline is the responsibility of the whole church.

In and out

Secondly, church discipline is a response to sinful behaviour in a professing Christian believer. The church in Corinth had got this dangerously mixed up. They stood in judgement over the world, but tolerated the sin that was within.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.
1 Corinthians 5:9-10

It is partly an encouragement; and partly a sobering reminder to me, that even the apostle Paul had to clarify what he said. He had written to these Christians in the past – warning believers of sexual sin – yet, even Paul was misunderstood. The Corinthians thought he meant: stay away from all sinful people. Condemn the world around you.

But Paul says: if that were true, you’d all have to be monks!

No, Paul says stay away from the brother or sister who calls himself a Christian but refuses to repent of his sin to Christ.

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.
1 Corinthians 5:11

Because I go to the Chinese Church, but don’t speak Chinese, I find it a constant challenge to remember Chinese names. It is so embarrassing when I forget - or worse, mispronounce - someone’s name (I often have to scribble it down quickly after each Sunday meeting!). Still, one trick that lets me get away with it here in the Chinese Church is by calling out, “Hello brother! Hello sister!” (Or if it’s back in Malaysia and they’re older – Hello uncle! Hello auntie!)

Here in verse 11, Paul says stay away from the sinful unrepentant man, who “bears the name of brother”. He is talking about the Christian. He is describing someone who wants to be in friendship with other Christians – he a “brother”. But he is talking about someone who takes for granted the privilege of being in the family of Christ.

He “bears the name of brother”. Paul could either be reminding us of the status we have as believers in Christ – that is, we become a family of brothers and sisters by virtue of an external privilege. Just as we bear the name of Christ (we are “Christians”); so we bear the name of “brothers” and “sisters” (we are one family in Christ).

Alternatively, Paul could be describing the unrepentant attitude of this Christian. He is in sin yet he wants to be known as a Christian. He calls himself a brother. He wants to be in the loving friendship and fellowship of other believers. But he still wants to continue in actions that destroys himself and endanger the Christians around him.

Paul reminds all of us as Christians – be done with sin.

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
1 Corinthians 5:6-7

Leaven or yeast is what you use in baking bread. Just a wee bit will do. Leave it in there and it grows, permeates and spreads through the entire dough. Just a wee bit will do.

Paul is saying: sin is like yeast. Just a bit is enough to affect the entire church given time and opportunity. The church is to be unleavened dough – bread without yeast.

But notice: Paul doesn’t say – get rid of the yeast in order to be unleavened. No, he says get rid of yeast, because you really are unleavened. This is a very important point. Christian don’t fight sin in order to be sin-free. Christians fight sin because Christ has freed us from sin. Paul is calling us as Christians to be who we are. Christ, our Passover lamb (the Passover is a reference to Exodus 12), has been sacrificed. He has taken our sin. On the cross, Jesus bore the punishment for our sin.

Paul is saying to Christians: be who you are. Sin-free and sin-fighters. Be who you are in Christ Jesus, who took our sin upon himself to give us freedom from sin and death.

In love

To recap: (1) Church discipline is a responsibility shared by the whole church. (2) Church discipline is a specific response towards sin in a specific Christian brother or sister.

Finally, church discipline is an act of love motivated by the good of the brother and the grace of God. Perhaps you read these verses and think: Loving? How can discipline be loving?

Notice that the discipline Paul calls for is not some kind of physical punishment. The unrepentant brother is not being stoned, jailed, abused verbally or psychologically. Instead, he is to be removed from fellowship.

Don’t come to our Sunday gatherings. Don’t even turn up at our mid-week bible studies. “Do not even eat with such people,” Paul says in verse 10. “Let him be removed from among you.” – Verse 2. Do “not associate” with this brother – Verse 11. No social gatherings. No lunches. No emails.

Meaning: it isn’t simply striking someone off the membership list. Taking his email off the weekly prayer bulletin. The whole church is to stay away from this individual.

Today, this is virtually impossible to do. You kick a brother out of a church here in Cambridge – he has ten others to choose from. It is impossible to get this message across. And it is serious, not so much for the church family itself – the individual leaves. But it is detrimental for the brother still in sin. He doesn’t get it! The purpose of this act of discipline is not allowed to take its full course. And the subsequent gathering of believers is unknowingly left susceptible to the same dangers as the first church. 1 Corinthians 5 is a very, very hard passage to put into effect.

And yet, God is sovereign and these are words given us for both prayerful contemplation and practical application. You see, church discipline isn’t simply an action taken by Christians in obedience to the gospel. It is the application of the power of God in the salvation of Christ.

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 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.
1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Notice that Paul does not leave any room for any action or thought, without clear, repeated references to Jesus. He is Lord. We assemble in the name of the Lord Jesus. We deliver this man in the power of our Lord Jesus. We do all this in expectation of the saving work displayed on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, I must admit I find these words very hard to swallow. You are delivering this man to Satan. Literally, you “hand this man”(paradounai) over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (sarx can mean flesh; often the NIV translates it as the sinful nature; or even the physical body). These verses are hard not because they are unclear. Quite the opposite – they are hard because they clear instruct us to deliver this brother over the Satan, whom God can even use for the cleansing of sin and the salvation of his spirit.

The same phrase is found in two other passages in the bible – one in the New Testament and the other in the Old. In 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul hands Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme”. The context there is false teaching and the denial of the gospel.

However, it is in the book of Job that we get a fuller picture of both the sovereign authority of God and the destruction caused by Satan. In Job 2:6, God says to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands (paradidomi, LXX).” Satan strikes Job with painful sores from head to toe. Was God sovereign? Yes. Satan has to ask permission from the LORD before he can lay a finger on Job. Did Satan destroy his body? More than that. His sons and daughters were killed. He loses his fortune. He entire body is afflicted with sores. But not without the sanction of God.

But was Job saved?

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.
Job 42:5-6

Job encounters the living God and turns to him in repentance and contrition.

These verses tell us: what you are doing in disciplining the unrepentant brother is not simply ignoring him and deleting his text messages. You are praying for his very salvation. “With the power (dunamei) of the Lord Jesus,” Paul says. The same power Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 1:18 – “The word of the cross... is the power (dunamis) of God” for us who are being saved. You are praying that God would save this brother by the power of the cross.

That last phrase “saved on the day of the Lord” reminds us of the certainty of a Day when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead, and that whatever judgement we may encounter this side of eternity pales in comparison with the judgement to come. To ignore the reality of hell is not only foolishness; if you are a Christian – ignoring the reality of God’s real and impending judgement in the light of your brother’s sin is profoundly unloving.

The reason we ignore discipline – church discipline, or any form of discipline for the matter – is the same reason we deny judgement. We are afraid. We fear the consequences of our sins. Even though everything in our own personal experiences and our deepest conscience tells us – it is foolishness. We are running from reality.

But the amazing truth of the bible is: God reveals the depths of his love and power of his saving grace through the judgement poured out on his Son.

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. He has taken our judgement for sin. There is no more condemnation in Christ. There is nothing that can ever separate us from the love of Christ. But only if we trust in him as our sacrifice for sin – in Christ our Passover Lamb.

And for Christians we look forward to that Day – not as a day of judgement – but as the final day of salvation.

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Hebrews 9:27-28

1 comment:

Joel said...

Still, one trick that lets me get away with it here in the Chinese Church is by calling out, “Hello brother! Hello sister!”

-Eh, cannot give away secret like that lah.