Church Discipline: A Labor of Love, Redemption, and Spiritual Restoration
15th Sunday after Pentecost - 9/10/2023 | Matthew 18:15-18
As we reflect on Labor Day, a holiday dedicated to honoring the significance of work and the contributions of laborers, it's crucial to recognize that labor extends beyond the secular world. Within the sacred realm of the church, labor is often overshadowed but of paramount importance is Church Discipline. Similar to secular work, Church Discipline is not pursued for personal gain but for the benefit of others (Ephesians 4:28). It is indeed a labor of love.
Why Should We Care about Church Discipline?
There are compelling reasons why church discipline should matter to us. Firstly, there are souls at stake. In contemporary Christianity, some hold the mistaken belief that mere acts such as baptism, confirmation, or membership in a Christian congregation guarantee a place in heaven. However, salvation hinges on faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, not just on these rituals. True faith in Jesus is characterized by genuine trust in Him as the atoning sacrifice for personal sins, recognizing that, without God's grace through Jesus, one would be eternally condemned under His righteous wrath.
The Role of Repentance in Christian Church Discipline
Authentic faith in Jesus cannot exist without genuine repentance. Jesus's call to "Repent and believe the Gospel" applies to all (Mark 1:15). Without repentance, there can be no forgiveness because impenitence rejects the very sacrifice that Jesus made for sin. Therefore, the absence of forgiveness condemns the soul to death and hell. The notion of "once saved, always saved" does not align with the biblical message. Every individual remains susceptible to the seductive allure of sin and the temptation to lapse back into impenitence and unbelief.
The Weight of Responsibility: "Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven"
This reality is echoed in the book of Ezekiel, where the Lord commanded His prophet to warn those among His people who had fallen into impenitence, stating, "When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood" (Ezekiel 33:8). A person entangled in sin, persisting in it without repentance, endangers their soul. Saving them from hell is reason enough for us to engage in the labor of church discipline. Allowing someone to march toward eternal damnation due to our hesitance to approach them is not an act of love but rather an act of selfishness.
Our Heavenly Father's Desire to Save Sinners
Moreover, we should care about church discipline because our Heavenly Father cares about saving sinners. Jesus vividly illustrated this concern when He spoke of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one that was lost (Luke 15:4). He emphasized, "So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish" (Matthew 18:14). Our Shepherd treasures each one of us and desires that none of us be lost in our sin. As His children, we pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," expressing our desire for His will to align with our own. How, then, can we neglect any necessary measures to fulfill God's will and rescue endangered sons and daughters of God within our midst?
Our Mission: Saving Souls
Lastly, our concern for church discipline should arise from the understanding that saving souls lies at the core of our purpose. Did you know that the only two instances in all four Gospels where Jesus used the term "church" are both found in the Gospel of Matthew and both within the context of exercising the Keys of the Kingdom, i.e., church discipline (Matthew 16 and 18)? The Greek word translated as "church" is "ecclesia," signifying "the called-out ones." Every authentic member of Christ's church has been "called out" from the darkness of sin and death into the light of God's forgiveness and life.
Approaching the Labor of Love: Church Discipline
In essence, we have been saved from the fires of hell ourselves. In deep appreciation of God's saving grace toward us, we should care enough to rescue others. We have been saved to save. Our mission is to save sinners, whether they are new converts or relapsed members.
How Should We Carry Out This Labor of Love?
Church discipline, this labor of love, encompasses two main aspects: warning the impenitent of their peril and restoring the penitent through the forgiveness of sins.
Warning the Impenitent: A Biblical Approach
Consider a story of a former park ranger at Yellowstone Park, who once led a group of hikers to a fire lookout tower. So focused on describing animals and flowers, he switched off his two-way radio, missing the messages about a grizzly bear stalking their group. A lookout, nearly breathless, eventually ran to warn them. Similarly, our fellow impenitent brothers and sisters have, in a sense, switched off their ears of faith to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In their impenitence, they have become oblivious to their eternal peril. The devil seeks to devour their souls, and warning them of their danger is an act of love.
Personal Admonition: The First Step
Jesus outlines the process of "warning" an imperiled brother. It commences with a personal and confidential approach: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone" (Matthew 18:15). In this context, "telling" doesn't mean scolding or accusing the sinner. The term "discipline" is derived from "disciple," which means to teach someone. When we approach a brother or sister caught in a sin, we are motivated by love to instruct them regarding the peril they face.
Approaching with Gentleness and Humility
We do not approach them as moral superiors but as fellow sinners. The apostle Paul emphasized this when he wrote to the Galatians, "Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:1-2). We go to bear the burden of their sin with them.
The Hope of Restoration
The hope in personally admonishing a sinning brother is that they will listen, turn from their sinful ways, and seek forgiveness in Christ. If they do, Jesus assures us that we have "won over" our brother, meaning they have been restored to the kingdom (Matthew 18:15).
Involving Others: A Graceful Approach
However, what should we do if personal admonition proves fruitless, and the person remains unrepentant, seeing nothing wrong with their actions? Do we simply give up on them, ignore them, or shun them? Certainly not! Caring for an imperiled soul requires taking further action. Jesus instructs, "But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16). This step continues to offer grace and allows the unrepentant person more opportunities to reconsider their path. Involving other believers also ensures that the admonition is done correctly, preventing it from becoming a personal vendetta.
Excommunication: The Last Resort
If, even after involving others, the person remains unfazed and unrepentant, Jesus prescribes a more severe measure. He states, "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 collector" (Matthew 18:17).
In the context of Jesus's time, a tax collector was a Jew who collaborated with the Roman authorities to collect taxes from fellow Jews. In the eyes of the people, tax collectors had essentially betrayed their people, abandoned their faith, and become collaborators with Rome. Tax collectors were no different from unsaved pagans and unbelievers.
A Final Effort to Awaken Repentance
Therefore, when someone, despite all efforts, refuses to repent, it may reach the point where they need to be confronted with the truth about their unrepentant heart, leading to the declaration that they have forfeited their salvation. The church cannot forgive them; instead, the church must, as Jesus commands, "bind" them to their sin and impenitence. This means the church acknowledges the person's impenitence and declares them no longer a Christian but an unsaved individual. They are excluded from the Body of Christ, a practice known as excommunication.
The Unpopular Act of Love
In contemporary culture, such action is often seen as unloving, akin to corporal punishment when raising children. The prevailing sentiment is to "live and let live." However, Jesus did not provide us with that option. As children of the cross of Jesus, loving our neighbor means we are willing to do the hard work necessary to save a soul. Sometimes, excommunication is the only option to help someone realize the severity of their situation. Their continued impenitence in the face of loving admonition from fellow believers demonstrates a denial of God's truth and authority. Excommunication is not a punishment for their sin but a response to their impenitence. It is a labor of love, a last-ditch effort to awaken a sinner to the need for repentance and salvation.
The Joy of Restoration
On the positive side, when an individual does repent, even after excommunication, Jesus has given the church the joyful privilege of opening the doors of heaven to that sinner once more by pronouncing absolution. Jesus said, "Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). There is no greater joy on earth and in heaven than when a sinner is forgiven. The soul that the Father desires to save has been fully restored to His family, becoming a fellow heir of eternal life alongside all those who belong to Christ.
Embracing the Labor of Love: Our Responsibility
Church discipline is a vital and often misunderstood aspect of the Christian faith. It is a labor of love, driven by the deep desire to save souls and bring them back to the fold of Christ. We should care about church discipline because there are souls at stake, including our own. It is a reflection of God's love for sinners, as He desires none to perish. Moreover, it is the very mission of the church, which exists to save sinners.
The process of church discipline involves a careful balance of warning the impenitent of their peril and, when necessary, restoring the penitent through the forgiveness of sins. It is not a judgmental or self-righteous endeavor but an act of love and humility. Personal admonition is the first step, followed by the involvement of others if needed. Excommunication is a last resort, intended to shake the unrepentant from their spiritual slumber.
Our Call to Action: Embrace the Labor of Love
As believers, we must approach church discipline with love, grace, and the sincere desire for the salvation of souls. It is not an easy task, but it reflects our commitment to following Christ's teachings and fulfilling His mission. Through church discipline, we strive to bring lost sheep back into the fold, rejoicing with the angels in heaven over each sinner who repents.
May we, as members of the Body of Christ, embrace this labor of love, understanding its significance in the grand tapestry of God's redemptive plan. Amen.