Disciplined Church Discipline, and the Dance That Is to Come

Dr. Ken Keathley, blogging at Between the Times, has written a helpful post reflecting on a case of undisciplined church discipline. In his article, Keathley addresses that, while it is appropriate in cases of obstinence and indifference, disciplining the weak Christian is not in order. He writes,

There is a world of difference between the one who is “stiff necked” and rebellious and the one who is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1-3). . . . Spiritual struggles and stutter-steps are not signs that one is unsaved. Just the opposite; it is one of the surest signs of spiritual vitality. Ask anyone who ministers to those who have been saved from a variety of addictive behaviors. They will tell you the old cliché, “Only live fish struggle to swim upstream; dead fish float with the current.” Spiritual battles indicate spiritual life. I’m not as concerned about the eternal destiny of those beleaguered with temptation as I am with the member who doesn’t give a rip.

Keathley’s distinction is an important one. I am reminded that newborn Christians are to yearn for the “pure milk of the Word” (1 Pet. 2:1-2), who are also encouraged to mature to the point where they can eat solid food (meat). Newborn Christians will do what newborns do–stumble, fall, and get back up again, and what they need is not to be corrected for stumbling but encouraged to persevere in learning how to walk. The problem Paul had with the Corinthians church is that they were living like babies when they should have grown up already, as evidenced by the jealousy and strife among them (1 Cor. 3:1-4; cf. Heb. 5:11-14).

While seeking to pursue congregational responsibility and integrity in church membership, we must never cease to be gracious people. The happy people are the merciful people, and the promise is they too will receive mercy (which we all need!) (Matt. 5:7). Interestingly enough, prior to those words by Jesus, he tells us that happy also are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6). Yet, could it be that there is a tendency for those who have a greater appetite to be more judgmental and possess an air of spiritual superiority than those who may have less of an appetite–you know, kind of like the mature father looking to his newborn son with disappointment, saying, “Why can’t you eat steak like me?”

We need accountability and a nurturing environment that reminds us that we are all in a pursuit of holiness, but we are not perfect. We are all under construction, and we are here only by God’s unmerited kindness towards us. A posture of humility and self-examination would do much to correct an undisciplined tendency to practice discipline to those who need a helping hand (i.e., those who are stumbling). Lest we forget, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and while it is never a license to sin (Rom. 6:1-2), the grace of God should always be on our lips and exhibited in our lives.

A community of faith that is regularly trusting and repenting, that is, applying the gospel to their lives, will be mindful to not wield the law in an unlawful manner. That is why a recovery of church discipline without the recovery of the gospel is so dangerous. Church discipline in the hands of those who have not be staggered by grace, administered by those without a limp, will think that standing tall equals good standing. Nevertheless, Jesus tells us that it is the one who could not lift up his face but beat his breast is the one he accepts in his arms (Luke 18:9-14). Good standing in the courts of heaven should be the grounds of good standing in the eyes of men. Disciplining spiritual performances among those just learning the song and dance is the very thing that Jesus condemned.

So if when we stumble and fall, let us sing the song of mercy and remind one another of the dance that is to come.

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5 Comments on “Disciplined Church Discipline, and the Dance That Is to Come”

  1. D.L. Kane Says:

    Very interesting post. I must admit that I have not personally experienced this to be the case (Timmy said):

    “Newborn Christians will do what newborns do–stumble, fall, and get back up again, and what they need is not to be corrected for stumbling but encouraged to persevere in learning how to walk. The problem Paul had with the Corinthians church is that they were living like babies when they should have grown up already, as evidenced by the jealousy and strife among them (1 Cor. 3:1-4; cf. Heb. 5:11-14).”

    In fact, I have witnessed the exact opposite. It is the newborn Christians that seem to be “on fire” and filled with a desire to walk righteously (almost to the point of legalism) and that they are the least likely to stumble. It is those who have been raised up in the church and/or those who have professed Christ as their Lord and Savior for years who are stumbling and need discipline.

    How I love being around and fellowshipping with “newborn Christians”. I have never seen a “stumbling” newborn Christian”! In my experience (among professing Christians), it is those who have been walking the longest that seem to stumble the most. I think the warnings of our Lord (to the Chruches) would support this observation 100%.

    For what it’s worth…..

    D.L. Kane


  2. D.L.,

    I agree with you that new Christians usually have higher affections or hotter passion than older Christians. But in terms of doctrine and practice, I think this is where it might apply. For instance, what if a new believer cannot accurately articulate the relationship of the Godhead in the Trinity. Should they be considered a heretic? No, but they should be encouraged and helped to have a better understanding. In practical godliness, should a person who has smoked all their live (say 40 years) be disciplined for smoking a cigarette in their process of trying to quit?

    I think there is a tension that can must be upheld–that is, one the one hand, we must be rigorous and unrelenting in our passionate pursuit of holiness (running so as to win the prize kind of olympic spirituality), and on the other hand, we should be meek and compassionate to our brothers and sisters who may not have progressed as far in their sanctification or know as much as we do. In the former, the temptation is to lower the bar and accept carnality, and in the latter, the temptation is to be too judgmental and critical, puffed up in pride, and condescending in our attitude. Both temptations I think we need to be careful of, and in the meantime cultivating personal spiritual discipline so that corporate (church) discipline would not be necessary.

  3. Thomas Clay Says:

    One of the keys in church discipline is a mindset of repentance. Regardless of what the sin is, be it murder or gossip or watching too much TV, if an obstinate, unrepentant spirit is exhibited by the church member, then it must be lovingly, humbly dealt with.

    I love how Dr. Jay Adams breaks it down. Most discipline cases are dealt with at the private (one-on-one or small group) level. Only after much work at that level has been done, and much resistance to correction on the part of the disciplined church member is exhibited, would that case go to the public, corporate level.

    In my experience, it is discipline cases with Christians who have been in the church as professing believers for a long time that present the most challenges.

  4. Chris Says:

    I think we need to remember that in most of our SBC churches we have many “old” Christians that are weak. They are weak because they have not been discipled; they have not been taught all that Jesus commanded. I believe that Keathley’s approach applies to many in our churches today (including the inactive and apparently indifferent). It is hard to hold someone to a standard of which they are unaware…just another reminder to move slow, show grace, and think about out efforts to redeem regenerate church membership from the perspective of members who may have never been confronted with this truth before.

    Thankful for the continued discussion of practical theology,
    Chris


  5. Thomas,

    I agree. Biblical counseling and church discipline go hand-in-hand. The majority of discipline-worthy issues, if properly dealt with in an interpersonal level, would not rise to the corporate level of discipline. I think if we can help members see how to counsel one another and apply a gospel-centered hermeneutic to life that we would see a lot of good things happen.

    Chris,

    You’re welcome brother. I do think that, as Rainer has often argued, churches have not clearly communicated the expectations of believers who are members of a church. This is where I believe developing a church covenant and preaching through it would be a prerequisite to church discipline. Those unaware or uninformed would either agree with the call to covenant together in faithfulness and holiness or not. If not, then it would be a case where the leadership would need to find out why this is the case. Whatever the situation, I agree that members need to know the “why” behind every “what” (in this case, responsible church membership).


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