Shameful Alternatives for Church Discipline pt. 2
Especially in this age of tolerance, the world is repulsed by the idea of church discipline. Churches know the world doesn’t like it, so they have a choice. Will they go ahead and practice it the way Jesus laid it out in Matthew 18:15-17 or will they try something that they think the world might like more?
Scripture is sufficient. God knows more than we do. And yet we still innovate in areas already settled by God’s Word. In the first part of this series, we looked at what the Lord Jesus Christ taught with which the rest of the New Testament corroborates. And then we considered a first and shameful alternative that churches have opted to handle church discipline instead. Now for more.
When pastors preach to the church, they must make application to the people in the room, not the ones outside of it. We’re not preaching the Word to the rest of the world. The ones inside the auditorium might enjoy never getting preached at, but it isn’t God’s will for the preacher. The pastor must think of individual members of the church when he considers the application of the scripture he exposes. I believe it is proper to preach to a particular shortfall in biblical obedience, even as we think of it in one person in the church. If it is the proper application, a church member should welcome it into his life. He should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).
Despite the need to apply the Bible to his people, a pastor should not use the pulpit instead of one of the scriptural steps of church discipline, and especially the first one. I understand the temptation to do this, but it isn’t right. The first a church member hears about the specific sin he committed, and I’m referring to obvious details of the offense, should not be in a sermon. Making a sin public occurs on the third step, not the first or second. Our goal, again, should be to make this sin as private as possible. Love covers a multitude of sins. With a goal of repentance, we talk to the individual first.
A pastor may take cover in the fact that he hasn’t mentioned the person’s name. Right. But many people know who he’s talking about, and that’s part of the reason for doing it, to shame an individual before he has even been given the opportunity to get it right. Leaving the name out gives a form of deniability that is really a kind of dishonesty. A pastor can say that he wasn’t talking about that individual—he was only giving an illustration of a scriptural point. Again, right. Actually wrong.
I could give numerous illustrations for this, but I had a family member who talked privately to his pastor about a concern he had about the music of the church. His point was about the use of the microphone. He talked to the pastor privately. If the pastor thought it deserved a rebuttal, he could have told him right there in private. He acted with ambivalence to the criticism from my family member when in his presence. The very next sermon, the pastor blasted my relative with the specifics of this particular confrontation. He mocked his criticism, attempting to make it seem as silly as possible.
This kind of pulpit bombardment begins to verge on paranoia on the part of the leadership. He is afraid that perhaps this church member is talking. He is afraid perhaps only that he might talk in the future. He imagines some kind of conspiracy and wants to stop it before it gets out of hand. It isn’t happening at all, but what if it does happen? So he fires some preemptive warfare from the pulpit.
I understand imagined monsters. I think every pastor is prey to these. He doesn’t do better to disobey God’s Word in order to solve his problem, even if he thinks it’s more practical to do so. You might look out at your congregation and you think that someone doesn’t like your preaching. He’s just listening very closely and gets a scrunched up face when he does, that makes him look angry. He really does love the preaching, but shows it in a different way than the bobble-head doll that never stops nodding and smiling.
All of this might be what Jeremiah was considering when he said that he wasn’t afraid of their faces. Fear is at the root of this problem. And God, of course, as Paul told Timothy, hasn’t given us the spirit of fear. So the fear is coming from us and it is out of the human fallenness that still resides in our flesh. We need some weapons verses to defeat this sin of fear.
Ironically, a pastor may feel courageous when he practices pulpit bombardment, viewing what he is doing as some kind of public boldness. Maybe he thinks he is filling some kind of prophetic role, like an Elijah or a John the Baptist. It isn’t bold; it’s cowardice. We pastors need to get that in our heads and hearts. Courage would confront the sin privately to attempt reconciliation. Courage would trust God with the care of the church. Courage would only judge what it sees, not what it imagines is happening. Courage accomplishes discipline face to face first. Courage wouldn’t use the ministry of preaching as a cover for disobeying what scripture tells it to do.
Many churches have become conditioned into thinking that this kind of pastoral behavior is right. Whatever they’ve heard, they may even assume is correct. It might not be. It could be a situation where the pastor has an inaccurate assessment of what has happened. He may be firing in some shade of grey. He doesn’t know all the details. But flood the tubes and send the torpedoes.
For any church member to whom this looks familiar, before you launch your own form of explosive, consider the possibility that we have a pastor that has tried to confront church members in the past with very little success. Maybe they say something like this, “How dare he confront me for that sin?” And soon after the confrontation, a gossip campaign was started to harm the credibility of the pastor, especially to affect his believability as it relates to the sin he has addressed privately. He feels like having been burned in the past, he needs to take other action in order to head off damage to the whole church. A pastor shouldn’t be blowing away individual members from the pulpit, but if he is, we aren’t doing better by not talking to him with a few others in private before we have started a campaign to stop him.
The first shameful alternative was members turning people into the pastor or pastoral staff without themselves first confronting the sin privately. Sometimes this act is followed by the pulpit bombardment. They often go together. When the informant hears the public condemnation of an individual without initial attempts at private reconciliation, he might feel proud of himself that he was involved in such a noble deed. He should be ashamed of himself. He is a partaker in an evil deed.
The cure to all this, of course, is to get back to what Jesus told us to do. If we don’t, on a very root level we are disobedient to God. And as practical as we might think our unscriptural methods, they aren’t. The whole idea of practical is the practice of what the Bible says to do. When we do what we want, instead of what He said, we’re as impractical as we possibly can be.
(to be continued)