I am passionate about theology. I am passionate about doctrine and the church and, on my better days, I am passionate about the glorious God to whom all of these things point. Though at times, doubtless, I get caught up in the means rather than the end, I hope that he is glorified by my pursuit of biblical understanding and sound theology.
Over the past year or so, through a few close friends and mentors and a wonderful church, which God allowed me to be a part of, as well as through a particular class I took at school, God has put in me a passion for his church, globally and locally. One of the things that God has shown me through these people is the serious neglect of a very old practice called “church discipline.” Many others have gone into depth on this idea (see Jonathan Leeman’s works in particular) and this is neither the time nor place for me to do so, but in short, church discipline is the idea that God has entrusted to the elders and overseers of the church, and to each individual member, the task of lovingly correcting their sisters and brothers when they behave in a manner that does not glorify God or add to the fame of Christ’s name. If a sister or brother is caught in an addiction to pornography or has a habit of using illegal drugs or if a couple are having sex outside of marriage or any other number of issues, and it comes to the attention of their fellow church members, it is the responsibility of those fellow members to call the erring member to repentance. If the brother or sister fails to admit his or her sin and does not repent, more discipline is invoked. The ultimate act of church discipline would be excommunication from a local church, if that church can no longer attest in good conscience to the individual being a Christian.
“But that’s not loving.” “Jesus would never excommunicate someone.” “That’s why people don’t like Christians.” These are a few of the immediate reactions to the practice of church discipline, and this was my response at first. But through reading the Scriptures and being given wisdom from more mature believers, I realized this was not the case. I realized that careful church oversight and church discipline are, in fact, loving. They are loving because they seek to maximize God’s glory by not defaming his name, and they are loving because they seek to never allow a brother or sister to continue in sin to the point that they are no longer walking in faith with the Lord Jesus.
One of the strongest biblical references for the necessity of church discipline is found in 1 Corinthians:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 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 5:1-5 ESV)
While there are several important questions to ask about this short passage, the overwhelming theological understanding is that Paul is commanding this particular local church, when a member’s sin is blatant enough, obvious enough, severe enough, and when that individual is not sorry or repentant for that sin, to essentially kick that individual out of the church. The end goal is that, by “deliver(ing) this man to Satan,” kicking him back out into the world, excommunicating him, that he might come back to the Lord and “be saved,” that he might turn from his sin and be renewed and brought back into right relationship with the Lord and with the body of believers. With that said, it is clear that Paul has “pronounced judgment” on this man from afar and that he is commanding the Corinthians to do the same.
But how does this passage fit in with other writings of Paul? For example, how can 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and Romans 14:14-23 both be of equal weight and merit, from the same man?
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
(Romans 14:13-23 ESV)
A little look into the context of Romans shows us that Paul, whose letter to the Romans is written to both Jewish and Gentile believers and deals with a lot of tensions between the two, is referring in chapter 14 to issues of food cleanliness, issues which the Jews have dealt with as a result of the Mosaic Law for centuries. Now that Christ has come and established his new covenant, Paul knows that we are no longer bound by those laws, but are free to eat as we choose. However, if the actions of a believer are causing a less mature brother or sister to stumble as a result of his or her former understanding of those things, then that believer should stop doing those things in the presence of the other, out of love.
Nonetheless, this passage seems to be applicable to more than just this one topic which we rarely ever run into today. For believers today, it seems like this passage could be used to give us guidelines on certain issues such as recreational alcohol consumption and tobacco use, watching PG-13 or R-rated movies, listening to certain types of music, how far one goes with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend, etc. But my question is, at what point do Paul and the Scriptures stop commanding us to leave things up to the conscience of the believer, to stop “not pass(ing) judgment,” and to take action, correcting our brothers and sisters? How far does the judgment-free-zone go? It seems awfully clear that the sinning brother in 1 Corinthians 5’s conscience wasn’t defiled by his actions; rather, he was boasting about his sin! But Paul says in Romans 14 that if the believer’s conscience is not defiled, then we shouldn’t seek to correct him or her. What do we do with these passages? When do we cross the line from no judgment, to judgment?
First, I want to clarify that I am not talking about judging unbelievers. I am not advocating the tragic actions of many churches today who unfortunately are more known for picketing funerals and shouting through air horns than for mercy, grace, justice, and love. Unbelievers are not bound by the same things as believers; we cannot hold an unbelieving world to the same standard to which we hold ourselves. Paul says himself in 1 Corinthians 5, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.”(1 Corinthians 5:12-13 ESV) In light of those words from Paul, it is clear that when we move from not judging to judging, we are not to do so with those who are not followers of Christ.
With that understanding established, the question we still need to answer remains: what actions warrant corrective judgment and discipline towards our fellow believers? I want to answer this question with a few questions of my own.
1. Is the person in question striving to put to death the sin that still lives in him or her? Romans 8:13 says that “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Is the action in question a sinful action, or is it a matter of personal conscience? Is the person in question striving consistently to put to death the sin in their life by the power of the Spirit, or is he or she “making provision for the flesh?” If the action is indeed a sinful one, and the person is either blind to it or content with living in that sin, then 1 Corinthians 5 type action is required of his or her fellow believers. “But what do you define as sin?” you might ask. This leads into my next question:
2. Is the action in question contradictory to biblical teaching? There are certain things that believers from many camps of Christianity regard as sinful that Scripture does not teach to be sinful. For example, I grew up believing that all drinking was bad. However, the Bible does not teach that. Much to the contrary, there are several examples of wine or alcohol being permitted. Two of the most powerful examples are Jesus turning water into wine and Isaiah the prophet saying that, in the resurrection, God will provide for us a feast including “well-aged wine.” So if you see your brother or sister drinking, your first reaction shouldn’t be to tell them to stop because they are sinning. You should leave that up to the conscience of the individual. However, Paul commands the Ephesian Christians, among several other similar commands in the New Testament, to not get drunk. Drunkenness, along with sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexual practices, thievery, and greed, are listed in the New Testament (this list is from 1 Corinthians 6) as examples of behaviors of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Therefore, when someone is engaged in consistent, unrepentant behavior that Scripture says is sinful, it is the job of that individual’s local believing community to take corrective action against those behaviors.
So does that mean we should stop at correcting only the things that are clearly listed in Scripture as sinful? “There are so many gray areas,” you might say. I agree, and that leads me to the third question.
3. Does the action make people think more highly of Christ and his followers? The Scriptures, specifically the Psalms, are full of commands to “make much of God.” “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.” “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.” “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!”
These are just a few examples from the Psalms of God’s desire that his glory be made known in all the earth. Perhaps the best evidence of God’s desire to glorify himself through us comes from Isaiah:
“For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.”
(Isaiah 48:9-11 ESV)
It is clear that God’s desire for his people is to glorify him. That is why he saves us. “For my own sake,” he says, “for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned?” So the same question I asked above could be asked in another way: does the action profane the name of Christ? If our ultimate call as believers is to glorify God, then it is not loving to overlook the sinful actions of our brothers and sisters. Rather, by ignoring or overlooking these actions, we are giving the onlooking, unbelieving world ammunition for their attack against Christians and Christ. Instead, we should obey the commands of our Lord Jesus, and “let our light shine before men, so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 ESV)
We live in such a tension today. In Christian circles, if you condemn certain behaviors and actions and beliefs, you are judgmental, a fundamentalist, a Pharisee. If you let anything slide, you twist the words of Jesus and hide behind a facade of love, but have no concern for holiness. My desire, and, what I think is the call of Jesus, is to transcend beyond these two extremes. “Love one another,” Jesus tells us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” But love, as Paul shows us, isn’t about letting everything slide. It’s about striving ardently for the glory of God. It’s about desiring to make much of his name, not to defame his name. It’s about loving our brothers and sisters enough to let matters of opinion and personal conscience slide, but to not engage in them if they are going to cause our fellow believers to stumble. It’s about being willing to engage in healthy conflict, in a gentle and loving manner, for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of Christ’s name. “It’s patient and kind; it doesn’t envy or boast; it’s not arrogant or rude. It doesn’t insist on getting its own way; it’s not irritable or resentful; it doesn’t rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, paraphrase)
Let’s love one another in the way Christ has called us to do so.