We live in an anti-authoritarian culture that rebels against the thought of authority and discipline. We don’t even like the words. They have too many negative meanings for us. In fact, they are so intertwined with the notion of abuse here that it is hard to separate them. The problem, however, is that we find these words all over the Bible and so we had better find out what that teaches about this topic if we are to understand it in its truest sense.
An issue like this will throw up many questions. They are not all going to be answered in this blog post. This is the first of a four-parter and I am going to assume that the answers you want are going to come up at a later point. So, if you can, hang on and, if your question is not dealt with, you can email me. I will do my best to respond. Church discipline is such a complicated subject, in need of such an awful lot of wisdom, that I just want to build things up slowly and surely so that we are all on the same page.
We live in a world where a lot of authority is exercised by a lot of different people. The state exercises authority over its citizens through laws etc. In the home we have parents who exercise authority (or not) over their children. Police exercise authority. The Bible exercises authority over the Christian life. So, what place the church? What, if any, authority should the church have in our lives?
Is the local church merely a voluntary organisation? Can we just come and go as we please and do as we please? What do we look for in a church? Good preaching? Kids stuff? Does it make me feel good? When choosing a local church how many of us make our choice based on the fact that it is a place that exercises Godly discipline among its members? I am willing to bet that this thought has never crossed the overwhelming majority of church goers minds in the UK today. That’s because we like to think of our local church as a club and/or voluntary society. The thought of the church exercising any authority over our lives makes many of us squeamish. It screams heavy shepherding or cult like behaviour control. What gives the church or the church leadership the right to tell anybody else to do anything? Good questions. The answer to them lies in church membership. So, before we get into the nuts and bolts of discipline over the next four blogs, we need to spend some time getting to grips with the basics of church membership.
But, before that, we need to get to grip with the overall biblical picture when it comes to the notion of authority.
The Big Picture
Genesis 1:27 teaches us that God created the human race to be image bearers. It was there, in that perfect garden, that heaven and earth met together as man and God, enjoying a perfect relationship. The problem was that Adam & Eve didn’t behave as they should and so were excluded from the garden and denied the benefits of the kingdom of heaven. Heaven and earth lived together in Eden and then they were split apart after the fall. Now, instead of governing the earth as they were created to do, that particular authority passed over to whom?
Matthew 4:8-9 gives us an indication. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
After the fall God then commissioned a special people to display His glory to the earth. (Lev. 19:2). They were to be holy and obedient. They were even given authority to determine who was and wasn’t fit for the kingdom of God (Numbers 15:30-31). In displaying and protecting the holy name of God, Israel corrected and excluded people through the use of the law. Even Israel herself was cut off from God because of her abuses.
Then Jesus comes in Matthew’s gospel talking about bringing heaven and earth back together again. Jesus comes to be the perfect and sinless image bearer. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. But as Jesus shows up regime change is coming. Why is Israel being cast out? Mt. 23:13. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” They shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. So, who on earth is now going to represent heaven? Israel once represented God and his interests. Who represents God on planet earth right now? Who can people go to that speaks for God? Who can people appeal to as they approach the supreme authority in the universe?
1. Jesus. Matthew 3:17. “And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Heaven affirms Jesus as taking on God’s authority in earth. Mt. 11:27. “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
2. The Apostles. In Mt. 16:5 Jesus warns the disciples not to trust the leaders of Israel. Look at 13-15. When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” What is Peter’s response in v16? You are the Christ. Jesus affirms this in v17. Then we have Peter and the church line. Jesus then says some weird stuff in v19. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What is that all about? I will give you the keys! Jesus is passing his authority on to Peter. What authority? To make declarations on behalf of heaven about Jesus being the Christ, the saviour of the world. What does a judge do? He doesn’t make the law. He assesses people in light of the already revealed law. That is what the Apostles are to do. But the Apostles are dead now. So, does this authority pass on to anybody else?
3. The church. Matthew 18:15-17. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
There is sin among God’s people and we are told that they are to tell it to the church and remove the person from the covenant community. Look at the language used in v18: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Whatever you bind, whatever you loose. The 2 or 3 gathered in my name act on my behalf in these matters. It seems like the local church holds the authority of the keys of the kingdom. We stand in front of confessors and make a judgement on whether their confession is real or not. Who do you say Jesus is? Then we judge them as Jesus judged Peter.
Adam and eve should have imaged God but they failed when they sinned. Israel should have imaged God but they failed when they sinned. Jesus came as the perfect image of God and he did not fail because he never sinned. He represented the kingdom of heaven perfectly. He passed that authority on to the Apostles who passed it on to the church. So, then, what is the job of the local church? How do we exercise our Jesus given authority here on earth?
The local church has the authority to declare to the nations who belongs to Jesus and is a citizen of heaven and who is not. We cannot make Christians but we can declare whom Christians are. When we change our passports does the person that stamps our ticket make us a British (Irish in my case) citizen? No, we already are. They are merely confirming that which we already are. But if the person stamping the passport is not convinced of our status then they can refuse to stamp. That means we may continue to live in the country but we will have none of the benefits of citizenship in terms of flying to other countries. That is similar to the authority passed on to the local church when it comes to who is in the kingdom of God. People come to us and declare their heavenly citizenship and the local church stamps their spiritual passport (or not).
Once a right confession has been made we baptise people and invite them to the Lord’s table. So, in other words, we are not just a building or a voluntary organisation. We are much more than that. We are God’s people on earth. We are representing the kingdom of heaven on earth. That means we have more authority than any other power on the earth.
That means that we don’t get to say whether our conversion is genuine or not. The local church gets to say that. To be a member of a local church is to say that you are a bona fide Jesus follower. The Christian then submits to that local body. But what does that mean? It means more than just doing what the elders say. It means submitting to one another. To caring for one another. To watching out for one another. To sharing life together. Acts 2:44-45. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. They submitted to the church and lived together. That’s how the church should work.
Most Christians view the church as nothing more than a place to fill their spiritual needs. But it is so much more than that. We are a people who have authority and are held accountable. This is where discipline comes in. So, we model Christian authority to one another. I do it for the guests who visit my home as they watch me with my wife and children. What if I shout at my wife and the girls? What am I saying? What is the church saying if it doesn’t step in? I am saying that a Christian man can be abusive. Unless the church steps in and says you cannot behave like that. Then the witness of the church is clear about what a Christian is and is not. If the church ignores it then people think that this is acceptable Christian behaviour. If we are ambassadors for Christ who will pull our credentials when we bring shame on the kingdom? The local body.
That’s why church membership is a serious commitment. It has several uses.
(1) It helps preserve the gospel witness in a particular place. Gal 1:6-9. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”Paul is astonished that they are turning away. They weren’t doing their job of affirming and protecting the gospel. It is not just the job of the leaders. It is all our job.
(2) It affirms who is a Christian and who is not. Jesus has given this authority to us. 1 Cor 5:5. Paul addresses the church there. Hand him over to the kingdom of satan. Look at v4. When do we do this? When we are assembled. In the name of Jesus. When the Spirit is present. With the power of Jesus. In that assembly Jesus is both present by Spirit and we operate in his power. Look at v12. He is talking to the whole church here. The job of the pastor is to equip the sheep to understand the gospel so well, and how it works in our lives, that they can exercise their God given authority carefully and responsibly. We guard the gospel together.
(3) Disciple other church members
(4) Evangelise non-Christians.
Therefore, we do have an authority to judge one anothers gospel witness. We can say who is in and who is out of the kingdom. We can make the call because we have been given the authority to make the call. It is not just the job of the elders. It is the job of every member. It is a serious job. It is a job with eternal consequences. But we have the full authority of God behind us. Let’s keep that in mind as we get into the details next time of why discipline is even necessary in the first place.