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The Healing Discipline in Christ's Church
"Every branch of Mine that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes,
that it may bear more fruit."
John 15:2
WHAT? 
WHY? 
WHEN? 
HOW?
Considering –  Matthew 18:15-22;  1 Corinthians 5:1-13;  2 Corinthians 2:1-11;   1 John 5:16-17.
The overriding
purpose of all discipline within the Christian Church is restoration to spiritual 'fruitfulness' –
restoration to God's full plan for that life, not simply reversion to its pre-erring state!
 
  Biblical discipline is never punitive, its purpose is always redemptive or it is simply not Christian.  
If this
is not true, then the discipline applied is not Christian discipline, and it therefore has no place in the practice of the people of God. Unfortunately, the history of Christianity has greatly blurred this issue.
 
 
On the one hand, where the essence of the Church is seen as its ministers, Holy Communion or the Mass has been the dividing line and so the discipline is to deny this sacrament/ministry to the erring.
 
 
On the other extreme, 'shunning' or social rejection has been applied as a discipline to such an extent that families have been broken up and even (in Calvin's Geneva) expulsion into exile or physical execution.
 
It was
never the Lord's intention that the process of discipline should in itself cause damage, yet this is its sad and ineffective history of its malpractice in a corrupted Christianity many of us have inherited.
 
What?
Christian teaching flows from the principles that Jesus taught, and which the Holy Spirit illuminated in His early church. These are contained in Christianity's foundation documents – our New Testament.
 
Christ's
founding statement on the practice of discipline is recorded in Matthew 18 verses 15 to 20. It consists essentially of a process of three steps. Each step is to be completed at the lowest level possible before it may be escalated to the next. This was the practical framework within which Jesus set the standards of mutual caring in dealing with any kind of division or sin between Christians, for nothing was to be allowed to destroy the unity of God's spiritual family. 
 
Step
one in this process starts privately, at the level of the personal relationship between those divided/separated/offended by the offence.
 
Step
three in this process ends publicly with the withdrawal of all believers from personal association with the continuing offender/rebel; not simply the originating congregation, but all Christian congregations, if the process followed was in line with the principles and purpose of this healing discipline of Christ!
 
Note:
The tactic of the erring person leaving one church/congregation to go to another does not exempt either congregation from its duty in this regard! Neither geographic nor denominational divisions may be allowed to nullify Christ's command concerning discipline in His Church. If not, the congregations concerned need to communicate accordingly if they consider themselves as part of Christ's Church.
 
 
In His teaching, Christ expresses this ultimate act of public disassociation in the cultural terms of His social circumstance at that time – by the rebel being treated "as a Gentile and a tax collector". Remember, it is an ex-tax collector for the Romans who is reporting this to us and he really knew what that meant in practice from his Jewish countrymen.
 
 
Yet even the completion of this final step does not end the local Church's responsibility. It never ends!
 
 
Discipline applies because that person is a fellow believer. Nothing can end the Church's responsibility in this relationship. Final withdrawal from the person is simply a public holding-action that draws the line before the watching world on what is acceptable behaviour and also holds the unrepentant erring one up for the Lord to ultimately take in hand (by the 'destruction of the flesh' such as by 'weakness', 'sickness' and 'death', 1 Cor.5:5; 11:30-32).
 
But,
the separated one is still a member of Christ's family or there is no basis for this discipline.
1 Corinthians 5:9-13.
 
In addition and importantly, it is for this reason the local congregation and its leaders owe it to God to apologize to the Lord for the behaviour of their family member. This is the 'grieving' that Paul had expected from the leaders of the church in Corinth. This spiritual climate would then have allowed the Lord freedom to do whatever was necessary to turn the person/s or to remove them from the field of play (as He did with Ananias and Saphira, Acts 5:1-16).
 
 
It has also sometimes been stated that no Christian may ever take another Christian to court because it is forbidden by 1 Corinthians 6:1-10. This is a perverse interpretation.
 
 
The reason why one Christian may not take another Christian to court is because there is an alternate method of reconciliation with the fellowship of the family of Christ. It is not a blanket ban! If there is a consistent refusal to deal with the conflict within the teachings of Jesus, recourse to this world's courts in the interest of justice is fully legitimate in God's sight.
 
The Aim:
Why?
 
Yes,
UNITY OF CHRIST'S PEOPLE
for two immediate objectives: personal restoration; and, public reputation
 
but ultimately to maintain and protect the unity of the Body of Christ!  
The fruit of all successful Christian discipline is the spiritual unity of God's people, and not doctrinal or nor organisational unity for that is subject to human definition, whereas the people of God are intrinsically those to whom the Spirit of Christ is given. It is personal, in direct individual relationships among the spiritual family of God. This objective of spiritual unity, in terms of the nature of Christ's Church, is to be treasured at each step of the way.
 
•  Firstly – Personal Restoration  
 
To restore the spiritual status of that person as if that person had never sinned.
True discipline never jettisons any person as an embarrassing failure – either to save the church's reputation, or for anyone else's sense of justice (punitive action). Its purpose is always to do everything possible to restore the erring person to be a fully productive and serving Christian in the unity of the Body of Christ, within the same framework of Christian fellowship where their failure had occurred.
 
•  Secondly – Public Reputation  
 
To maintain the public character of the fellowship or congregation of God's people.
When the Church looses its public character it has lost the purpose of its existence – as salt that is no longer salty.
 
 
One of our sad weaknesses, particularly among evangelical/charismatic churches due to their commendable expectation of greater purity in the life of God's people, is their immaturity in handling moral failure by leaders. Leadership, by its nature as being a trusted function, must immediately end when that trust is betrayed in moral failure. But that church's responsibility is more than a resultant administrative change/adjustment. It is also restoration for, as a church, it represents Christ's purpose: namely, redemption; reconciliation; restoration, if it is Christian! The congregation in which that failure occurred is therefore always responsible for assisting toward the full spiritual restoration of that previous leader, or it itself has then failed to be Christ's church in the circumstance and so endangers its own continued existence as a congregation.
Revelation 2:5
 
The pain of a congregation's disappointment requires then more than forgiving and forgetting for its healing to be complete. At the very least by prayer it remains part of God's restorative process for that fallen person.
 
Too
often the failure of other leaders to set up a process for that individual's restoration to fellowship, even after the offending behaviour has completely ceased, further compounds the damage to Christ's church; confusing repentance with remorse in the public mind; and the congregation's disappointment then tends to become punitive. This is sin before God, and the Spirit of God is grieved, with the attending consequences!
 
 
Restoration is and must always be the aim of healing discipline for the full spiritual unity of God's people in this present world.
 
 
When?
 
Anything
that disrupts the Christian character and spiritual oneness of Christ's people is a summons to action. Yet, not by nitpicking!
 
 
Knowing the tendency of our fallen nature to make ourselves feel better by focusing on the failures of others, the Word of God clearly states that –
"If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to [physical] death,
he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death.
There is sin that leads to
[physical] death; I do not say that one should pray [for forgiveness] for that."
1 John 5:16
We
are not told to correct everything that is wrong in our Christian brother or sister! Things that may be really wrong should always send us to God first – to ask for His mercy (forgiveness) toward that person, not for His correction of that erring person, for there is no healing with God's mercy.
 
 
Only then and not before (if the matter cannot be dealt with at the level of private personal prayer), only then should we personally approach our brother or sister, and the process of Matthew 18:15 must then begin.
 
In
other words, discussing our disquiet with any third party for 'confirmation' is a violation of –
  • the mandatory private prayer response (1Jn.5:16);
  • the first stage of the correction process (Matt.18:15);
as well as being a betrayal of the reputation of that accused person.
 
When
offensive behaviour refuses correction/reconciliation, then and only then may a third party or parties become involved. Because the purpose cited above always remains the objective, it will always be best that the third party or parties involved be those trusted by both sides of any dispute between believers.
 
The Method:
How?  
  The disciplinary process toward restoration remains a three step process –
1. 
One-to-one. If this fails after exhaustive attempts, then –
2. 
With witnesses. If this fails after exhaustive attempts, then –
3. 
Before the congregation. If this fails, then dissociation.
 
1. 
One to one – seeking to restore a godly relationship by putting away any hindrances privately.
 
 
The purpose of this Healing Discipline must always be keep in mind throughout each stage in the process. Preoccupation with the rights and wrongs of a situation must never be allowed to cloud the conscious of this purpose in the minds and attitudes of those responsible for the disciplinary process.
 
This
This is particularly difficult when the accused party is a leader of the congregation in which this process is implemented. Feelings of betrayal and understandable righteous indignation that this person, who taught them God's way or led them in it, should have so let them down create dangerous blind spots in the outlook of those responsible for the process of discipline. For this reason the Holy Spirit instructed us through Paul –
"Do not rebuke an elder, but exhort/entreat him as a father; and younger ones as brothers,
older women as mothers, younger ones as sisters, in all purity.
perspective is particularly important when that senior person ("elder") is a leader among the people of God.
1 Timothy 5:1-2.

 
Our own hurt at the loss of example in those whom we trusted and who should have known better, especially when it is an anointed leader among God's people, is a serious hindrance to us hearing the voice of God's guidance in a particular situation and so natural reactions need to be diligently guarded against by a carefully controlled need-to-know confidentiality in order to secure the health of Christ's Body and not give opportunity to our enemy to cause more damage.
 
In
such a case, great care must also be taken not to use the failure of the offending leader to humiliate and dishonour him because he 'deserves it', had previously denied his guilt, or now 'needs to be exposed'. Of course, loss of trust will require immediate remedy and most often at least an ending of all leadership responsibility until that trust can be restored again.
 
 
But the purpose of this healing discipline is restoration, not amputation of the offending part of the Body of Christ!
 
2. 
With witnesses – leaning upon the wisdom of trusted witnesses to support this process.
 
 
This only becomes necessary when there is an obstinate unwillingness to hear the issues involved. Again, it is not a judicial hearing. It is part of the process of healing discipline and must be persisted in without deviation until its holy purpose is achieved in the full spiritual unity of God's people.
 
Here,
it should also be seriously noted, concerning God's instruction –
•  "Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established" (Deut.19:15);
•  "...that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matt.18:16); and,
•  "Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three [independent] witnesses." (1 Tim.5:19);
that these 'witnesses' are direct witnesses on the specific issue concerned, and not the simply story-tellers about it. Neither are they a 'jury' to actively decide on the issue, or even passive witnesses of a decision made by the leadership, as has often been erroneously done!
 
They
are at least two separate sources of information concerning the wrong, which is ultimately to be brought before the congregation of God's people for their decision based upon the testimony of these witnesses, should the erring one refuse eventually to hear the congregation on the matter.
 
In 1
Corinthians 6:1-11 the Apostle Paul rebukes those who turn to secular courts of law to resolves issues between Christians. He turns them to the principles of reconciliation, in which at this stage, when it is no longer a private discussion, to the use of a third party (Christian) to act as mediator in resolving the conflict. This is important to remember, for this passage is not a blanket ban on the use of legal instruments by Christians to obtain justice in disputes with fellow Christians. It is an instruction to take Christ's instruction seriously and fully implement its principles toward reconciliation of disputes and grievances between them.
A Mediator is more than a referee between the parties involved. He/she mediates!
3. 
Before the congregation – submitting the issue so as to involve all the church in this healing process.
 
The
above then continues until full restoration or complete public dissociation –
"Let him who has done this be removed from among you. ...now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one... Is it not those inside the church [congregation] whom you are to judge?"
1 Corinthians 5:2,11-12
However,
not everyone disciplined submits to this discipline of sanctifying love, which then in itself also reveals –
 
 
"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.
But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us
[do not belong to Christ]."
1 John 2:19
When
the problem is not a relationship issue between persons but one of continuing disgraceful public conduct, the process obviously omits stage one, and may move quickly to stage three. No unresolved continuing conflict of moral character omits stage three, ever!
 
 
For that reason, Paul, writing to the Corinthians from the distance of Ephesus, instructs that the dissociation is to be implemented before the whole congregation. That is, not by any smaller group: such as a committee, council, board, panel, synod, pastors or bishops, etc. Because of its public nature, all believers that are aware of it are necessarily part of the process of this discipline.
 
The preservation
of the spiritual oneness and Christian character of the congregations of those that believe is an absolute essential!
It is never a denominational issue, except to reinforce the godly character and loving obedience of the local congregation to these principles of Holy Scripture.
Not conformity to leaders!
It
is important here also to remember that restoration is first restoration to a spiritual relationship and not a leadership relationship (deacon, elder, pastor, etc.). Therefore, where the person disciplined has been restored to full spiritual fellowship, that person's behaviour must then earn again the trust that it once enjoyed, as if it were beginning new. This does not disregard the merit of the past. The issue of leadership is always an issue of trust and not of ability. The ministry is not discarded. It remains useful, but must be proved again because it involves leadership (1Tim.3:10).
 
Finally,
when the nature of that disgraceful conduct is in flagrant continuance, the disciplinary process leaps to stage three (even the hearing before the church/congregation is suspended) and the congregation is informatively involved in implementing the ban on any social identification with the offending person until... – as their part in continuing correction, still with the purpose of all discipline in full view: the restoration of the spiritual unity of all God's people. (See 1 Cor.5:3-5; 1 Tim.5:20).

 
  "There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the Way; whoever hates reproof will die." Proverbs 15:10
  "For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us,
what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God?"
1 Peter 4:17

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