Proper Church Discipline
Scripture - Matthew 18:15-20
One of the hazards of studying the Bible is that you sometimes discover things that erode some of your cherished, if naïve, beliefs. Just before this passage from Matthew, we hear the parable of the lost sheep. Comparisons between human beings & sheep are not really flattering. But when I feel lost, I do find comfort thinking of God as on the search for me.
But as I studied this text this week, I was reminded of its historical context. This chapter is an operating manual for 1st century church leaders. From that perspective, Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep is directed to congregational leaders: one of their jobs is to seek members who are in danger of being lost.
Actually, the word Matthew uses is not “lost” but “astray.” The Greek is planao, or wanderer. In the 1st century it frequently referred to people who wander from God’s ways into idolatry, injustice, & violence. As you know, when people stray, they hurt themselves & their communities.
So, Matthew admonishes Christian leaders to seek people who wander.
But how do we seek those who stray? Matthew answers that question with a 3-step procedure. 1) When someone sins, go by yourself to them & point out their fault. 2) If they do not listen, take 2 or 3 people with you. 3) If they turn away, bring it to the church, & if they still refuse, treat them as you would a Gentile & tax collector. This procedure is actually adapted from standard practices in Judaism for dealing with persons who violate a community’s norms & expectations.
Now, when I first read this passage I thought, “Uh huh. Yeah. Right.” Most of our congregations have been nurtured on the principle of unconditional acceptance. We value plurality & difference & respect for the other. Who has the authority to say what is right or wrong? Immediately my pastoral senses go on the alert. I mean, what kind of person so much wants to control community life that they devise a procedure that takes only 3 verses to put people out on the street?
Yet one of the highest values in Judaism - & one that carried over into early Christianity – is life in community that embodies God’s love & desire for justice. Every relationship & situation within the community is to radiate love. Every relationship & situation is to embody justice – that is, a community of mutuality & support & abundance for all.
This life in community is not for its own sake. As God said to Abraham & Sarah, I will bless you [so that] all the families of earth will be blessed. Later God said to the nation Israel, I have called you… as a light to the nations. The quality of our community life in the church is supposed to be a model for the way in which God’s love & justice make it possible for all people to live together.
The problem for Christians: we do not always live up to the best of who we are. We can lose sight of God’s grace & the community that God empowers us to be. Our text uses the heavy language of sin to describe such situations. If your brother or sister sins against you. To sin against, in this setting, is to create situations that prevent God’s love & justice from being fully expressed. Even when surrounded by stained glass, Christians can stray. A congregation can be less a light to the world than a mirror of the idolatry, injustice & violence of its surrounding society.
We must remember: People who stray are hurt. They are less than God wants them to be theologically, ethically, socially, or psychologically. Their presence makes a community less than God wants it to be. Such people are toxins in the social world of the congregation. Toxic people damage themselves & damage others.
So, what do you do when you encounter such a person or group in Christian community?
First, if someone sins, in other words if someone interferes with their own capacity to receive God’s love & live according to justice, go to them privately. Try not to bring public shame upon them, or upon the community. Try to help them see the danger of their straying. Try to help them see the direction that leads to blessing.
But if they do not respond, then take 2 or 3 others, & talk with the toxic person again. More people may be able to offer more perspectives from which to consider the matter. How many times has your spouse helped you see a situation in the family from a point of view that changes your own sense of what needs to be done in a relationship? Hopefully, I have the wisdom to do it!
Third, if the person still does not change, then take the situation to the community as a whole, & if the person refuses to listen, in other words refuses to repent, then treat them as you would a Gentile & tax collector. Remove them from the community.
I know this is strong stuff. Yet, those who can hear this teaching with their ears attuned to Judaism know that in the Jewish community, judgment is not an end in itself but is to awaken sinners to the seriousness of their actions so that they can return to God’s ways.
Saying “No” is actually a form of pastoral care motivated by the highest concern for the person & for the community. Matthew does not want a person like you or me to continue in the church under the illusion that they are living under the umbrella of God’s purposes, when they are really on a road to destruction. And Matthew does not want the whole community to be destroyed by the dysfunction of a few.
Clark Williamson, dean of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, puts it like this: A child with long hair is dancing around a kitchen in which someone is boiling water for spaghetti with the front gas burner on high. As the child circles near the stove, their hair is flying. One more turn, & their hair will pass through the flaming gas. What do you do? Before it is too late, you cry, “Stop!”
The act of confronting people violating community norms is filled with opportunities for abuse. Leaders can build up their own power & marginalize others. We can judge another person on the basis of our own preferences & tastes. A witch hunt mentality can easily start. Pastors can use such procedures to get rid of difficult members.
Jesus instructs his followers to approach a brother or sister who has sinned against them only after teaching them to pray, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. This prayer acknowledges that I am one sinner who is forgiven & is learning to forgive others. Indeed, The Lord’s Prayer seems to assume that the forgiveness we receive is bound up with the forgiveness that we offer. In our reading, Jesus tells his disciples that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven & what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This ministry of reconciliation is a breaking in of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Our reconciliation with God is bound up with our being reconciled with those who have wronged us. Before we imagine ourselves going to a brother or sister who has wronged us, we should imagine being approach by one whom we have wronged, desiring our relationship to be made right.
Is it hard to imagine that our church could carry out such in-house discipline? Not long ago, another congregation did this very thing. An interim pastor of a congregation in IN was reading through the church records, some of which dated to the early 1800s. She found several cases that are like that of Brother Harris.
Brother Harris had been a responsible member of the community but began to drink. They counseled Brother Harris. He had lost several jobs & depended upon charity for income. On the streets at night, his loud voice disturbed the peace of the community. He beat his wife & bloodied his children.
Church leaders met with him several times & admonished him to change his ways. When he refused, they denied him access to Holy Communion.
Several years later, Brother Harris appears again in the church records. “He has reformed his habits. He is no longer drinking. He is working steadily. He is contributing to charitable causes.” He was restored to the Lord’s Table. And if I recall correctly, the records state: “The light of the glory of God shines round his face.”
Church discipline as pastoral care. I admit that the idea of this kind of thing taking place here at Shiloh makes my stomach weak, my breathing become shallow, & my heart pound in my chest. What if I have to go to someone? What if someone comes to me?
So, here is how it works: I invite my brother to be reconciled with me in hopes that when I am the one who has sinned, some sister will love me enough to do the same. This is the lived reality of Christian community that makes us into an example of the kingdom of God here on earth.