The analogy of the church as a body does so many good things, but there are numerous other ways to think about our relationships. We are also a family, brothers and sisters, and we are an outpost of heavenly citizens on earth.
When we think about “members” as body parts, we affirm our appreciation of and need for one another. When we think about “members” as fellow citizens serving the Lord of heaven, we affirm His calling and acceptance of one another. So church discipline doesn’t use the body analogy; we don’t amputate parts. In discipline situations we do use kingdom terminology; we nullify our affirmation for those in ongoing, unrepentant sin who refuse to listen to the church.
As a local church we’ve reached the fourth stage with three persons that we had previously recognized as members. We’ve also reached the third stage with two other men, the stage at which their names have been announced to the church but not yet the stage at which we will no longer affirm their profession of faith.
None of our pastors have ever been part of a church that also announced to the church when the third stage was over. This would not mean going back to the second stage, or even the first. It is being finished with discipline, even if the stages progressed more quickly in a returning unwillingness to repent.
But we want to be more careful and more clear with our communication. In a sermon in February I outlined some practices that we are still working to implement. That includes praying by name for those who are in stage three of discipline at least once a month during our corporate supplication. It also means that, though there is no fixed timeline, we need to decide when someone either moves to the fourth stage or is out of the discipline process altogether, and make that explicit to the church.
At such times we will reaffirm that they are part of Christ’s flock, and that should remind everyone that the only reason any of us share communion is because the Lord died, rose again, and graciously invites us to partake of Him.
A couple weeks ago I referred to the discipline not just of not being allowed to come to the communion table, but to the discipline of coming week by week. There are benefits for disciples, remembering the truths of the gospel about the love of God and the peace-making work of Christ on our behalf.
The discipline of communing is not only for individuals, but also for the entire church. There is discipline for my heart to make sure I’m ready to eat and drink with God, there is also discipline for my heart to make sure I’m ready to eat and drink with the sons and daughters of God. God has high standards, so His eating in His presence requires preparation, but He is perfect, so He’s never irritating or annoying. He lowers Himself to meet me at the communion Table. But if I start looking around the wrong way, I could think, “Whoa. What is wrong with all these people?”
When Paul said, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones…compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against one another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:12-13) this was an antidote to lawsuits, and bickering and bitterness and backbiting and bad-attitudes. “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14).
Don’t take your brother to court, take him to dinner. Or, at least remember that we share the same meal of communion here together because of the work of Christ. We are at peace in Christ. Let it be so in real time.
The Lord’s Table is a table of community accountability. By God’s grace, we have only removed a few persons from communion at our church due to church discipline. He has guarded our flock from gross, ongoing, unrepentant sinners. We have been able to enjoy the sweet fellowship here without too much bitterness.
This is fellowship worth preserving, worth protecting, and that means that not everyone is invited. In particular, when professing brothers refuse to repent from their sin after they have been personally, lovingly, and repeatedly pursued, they may be formally uninvited from participation.
The Lord requires one brother who sees another sinning brother to confront the sinner. The Lord instructs more people to get involved if there is not repentance and, eventually, the (local) church must acknowledge the immorality and discipline the sinner by removing him from fellowship. Those inside the church judge those inside the church. This is part of mutual accountability.
The church gets it wrong sometimes, more often than not by failing to deal with sinners. According to 1 Corinthians 11, God sometimes intervenes directly rather than through the church toward those who profane the body and blood of the Lord by unworthy participation at His Table. God is not mocked even if the church gets it wrong. Death is an even stronger statement than church discipline.
Of course, it is not much of a discipline to keep someone from something that we don’t value or enjoy. Our communion now sets the tone for later. The offender will miss out to the degree that we make much of this meal. We will give an account for how we participated, and it ought to be with righteous rejoicing.
There is a kind of worldling with whom believers can associate and another kind with whom we must not. We can appreciate all true image-bearing contributions from unbelievers and we can associate with them while recognizing their sinfulness. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians is clear on the matter.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—-not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. (1 Corinthians 5:9–10)
Unbelievers sin, they can’t help but sin, and we can still associate and mingle with them. That is, we can buy from and sell to, live next to, work with, and enjoy some of life with them. We can associate with non-Christians on the basis of common grace while proclaiming to them their need for redeeming grace.
But we must not associate with those who profess to be believing brothers, who claim to share redeeming grace but who give no evidence of redemption from sin.
But 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. (1 Corinthians 5:11)
We have different levels of association because we share different things in common with different people. Often our expectations reverse God’s Word. We disassociate with the world because they won’t act right while we continue to associate with any so-called Christian in the name of grace. This is our failure to understand the different types of communion God gives. We share likeness with all men, we share salvation with believers. Our time around the Lord’s Table means something because we have Christ, not because we have an appetite.
At least two things keep church discipline from being as understandable and appreciated as it could be. First, too often church discipline is driven by a motivation to punish the disobedient rather than train for obedience. The purpose for disciplining our kids should not be to prove that we are bigger, stronger, or better able to define their sin. We don’t discipline with pain as the end. We discipline to direct them back to the joy of fellowship that comes in obedience. Likewise the motivation for church discipline should be to bring the sinner back into fellowship through repentance and restoration.
A second thing that keeps church discipline from being understood and appreciated is that our communion is not a feast. When an unrepentant sinner is disciplined, what is the only thing that he is prohibited from? We do not prohibit him from attending services, though he usually won’t be interested. We do not stop him from hearing the Word preached. We do not keep him from any interaction with believers, though the nature of those interactions changes. What changes is that he is no longer welcome to have this supper of the Lord, to share the fellowship. That’s why it can also be called excommunication, ex-communion-ed.
A weekly, joyful, harmonious, celebrating time around the Lord’s Table should create quite a taste. The unrepentant should have something to miss. For that to happen, we ought not to miss our opportunity. Eating and drinking by faith is sweet today and strengthening for tomorrow. This meal both satisfies us and fits us for wanting it again. The pull of joyful communion with God through Christ and with each other in Christ should be worth repenting so that we can keep coming.
May God make our communion something that we want so badly that we’ll repent from whatever sin threatens it.