Discipline in the Church

A sermon preached 11 August 2004 on Matthew 18.15-17 – inspired by the comments, many thanks to you all.

A few weeks ago, in our regular Wednesday morning bible study, ____, ____ and I were discussing church discipline, and I quoted this morning’s gospel passage. The passage gives clear directions for how to deal with those who sin against you: first take your objection to them privately. Second, invite some others along ‘so that every matter may be established’ by a larger community. Finally, bring it to the attention of the whole church, whose judgement will be reinforced with heavenly power – whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Powerful stuff – the church determines what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and establishes eternal boundaries.

There are a number of things I would like to say about this. The first is simply to say that when I was quoting it, I thought that I was quoting a teaching from Paul. I find this teaching much more akin to Paul’s broader teaching than to Christ’s (I was thinking of the teaching Christ gives about how often you should be forgiving your brother for their sin, and He says seven times seven times, which comes immediately after this passage). Paul is much more concerned with questions of church discipline – the main tenor of Christ’s teaching, on the other hand, is about the nature of the Kingdom. But this is Christ teaching us about how to exercise church discipline, so we must pay especial attention to it.

Which brings me to my second point. It seems to me – especially if it has the authority of being Christ’s own words – that this is a very good teaching, and one that the church as a whole, and perhaps every parish church in particular, should pay especial attention to. The idea of church discipline can seem quite foreign to the Church of England, in that historically the boundaries of acceptable behaviour have been set so very broadly. But there are movements of the Spirit even in the Church of England, and although a recent proposal for strengthening clergy discipline was rejected by General Synod, I think that such a system will eventually be established. I, for one, would welcome that.

Such a system, however, would apply to the clergy, but what about the laity, the people of God, all the different church members? When was the last time that one Christian in this church admonished another for not living up to their faith, for falling short of Christian standards? I find that quite an unsettling thought in many ways, but perhaps that simply shows how very English I am, and that it seems an invasion of privacy or an intrusion into someone else’s business to be following Christ’s teaching. Christ was clearly not an Englishman.

It seems to me that we in the church really should take Christ’s teaching seriously and, in the words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, teach and admonish each other in all wisdom. I feel that this would be very healthy for a church – if there was a culture that embraced such mutual criticism and encouragement – I think that it would make us much more effective witnesses to our faith. Note that I said ‘and encouragement’ – simply because governing all these questions of church discipline is surely Christ’s teaching about motes and beams and the prohibition on judgement of each other….

Ah. Christ also teaches us not to judge. How can we not judge, when Christ also tells us ‘if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector’. Well, remember that one of the disciples was a tax collector, and that Zacchaeus was saved even without giving up his job. I’m not sure about pagans – they would certainly seem to be outside the faith community, and certainly this teaching has been taken as the sanction for excommunication.

I think that the key is that the admonishment and correction of one member by another is set in the context of forgiveness, not of judgement and condemnation. In other words, the reproof is on behalf of the one committing the sin. If the wages of sin are death then how is it that a loving brother or sister can allow another to persist in sin, when it destroys life? The forgiveness must already be present, otherwise the person making the correction only brings more judgement down upon their own head (which I think has happened at certain times in church history). So we are to correct each other in the faith, as long as it takes place from love and an assurance of acceptance and an acknowledgement that we are all sinners, and that we need each other’s support to proceed in the Way.

Yet there is still this hard question. What do you do when there is no agreement on what constitutes a sin? When one group in the church says that certain actions are sinful, and another group in the church says that they are not? Well, this is of course the question that some of the finest minds in our church are currently wrestling with, so I’ll leave a final answer until they have given their report. All I would say is this – there is a vast level of agreement on the important questions which face the church, most especially the necessity to seek justice in our world. I think the Lord will be with us if we pursued his teaching on those matters with our whole heart, rather than being caught up with a forensic pursuit of each other’s sin.

In the meantime I think our calling is a simple one. And I would finish by quoting Paul’s teaching from the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians, where he writes this: “Brethren, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.”