Missing a ‘mark’ without even trying (pt. 2)

I’m sure many of our churches miss the “mark” of church discipline for a variety of reasons — they don’t have the stomach for it, fear the consequences, lack confidence in the biblical imperative, etc. But I’m also sure that many churches flounder in their discipline because they intuitively know they lack the standing to exercise the authority granted to them by Christ himself (Mat 16:18-19; 18:15-20). Consider two examples:

1) Discipleship — This is an increasingly difficult feature to cultivate in today’s local church. Discipleship requires time, personal involvement, patience, and many other personal commodities that we loath to relinquish. But discipleship is the means by which we instruct, encourage, correct, and even rebuke a brother so that we spare him (and us!) the pain of a more severe discipline down the line.

When a local church fails to cultivate a spirit of discipleship in the body they will often find themselves at a disadvantage when serious discipline is required. By failing to care for a member in the midst of a struggle against sin it becomes that much more difficult to show our concern by turning him out (1Cor 5:1-5). Should we actually excommunicate a member without prior intervention we show ourselves to be half-hearted followers of Christ.

2) Meaningful membership — Ever tried to discipline someone else’s kid? Awkward to say the least. Why should we be surprised to find that the absence of meaningful membership in a local church would create a similar tension in the face of sin. The church is responsible to care for her own which means that something should be said for knowing who belongs to whom.

It only stands to reason that Paul assumed a church was able to identify its members when he instructed a church to put a man out (1Cor 5:9-12) or not to associate with him (2Thess 3:14). Furthermore, it also stands to reason that those who were put out or “disfellowshipped” were able to notice a difference when it happened. That can’t happen in a church with mere attenders.

Missing a ‘mark’ without even trying (pt.1)

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.
–Belgic Confession (1561), art. XXIX [emphasis added]

If we’re to believe historic confessions of the Protestant church, there was once a time when church discipline was actually considered a defining characteristic of the church. It (nearly?) boggles the mind of the 21st century churchman to consider that of all the practices which might define a church, church discipline would trump the others save preaching the Word and participating in the sacraments (i.e. baptism & communion). Why not preaching, sacraments, and fellowship? or making disciples? or mercy ministry?

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not church discipline is rightly considered a defining mark, at a minimum we can agree that Christ Himself prescribed such a mark as a normative part of church life. So do our churches bear this mark as part of the call to follow the commands of Christ (Mat 18:15-20; see also 1Cor 5:1-13)? I suspect the answer would vary drastically depending on the church but I also suspect such a question is increasingly irrelevant–maybe “unrealistic” is the better word. After all, it’s darn near impossible to hit a mark when you’re not even facing it.

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