One of my favorite SNL skits of all time is "Debbie Downer." It's hilarious to watch the actors try to make it through the skit without breaking into laughter themselves. That's because the amount of negativity is so over the top obnoxious that it becomes a riot. For those who have never seen it, Debbie is one of those people who always brings up some tragedy. Everyone else is having a good time, but Debbie manages to bring them down with some negative news. I think this is largey the way Reformed Christians are perceived today. I know that I am perceived this way. But if I may, let me share some of my heart here, and perhaps, you'll see the heart of other Reformed folks as well. As we always seem to be blamed for emphasizing the negative, let me tell you why that is by discussing the nature of the Church's duty in judging Christians (yes, it is to judge Christians, in case you were thinking that Christians are not to judge other Christians: "It isn't my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning" [1 Cor 5:12 NLT]).
According to Matthew 18, there is really only one reason for the church to exercise church discipline and shun a so-called brother, who is not acting like a Christian. It is the most serious of sins. In fact, it is the root of all other sin. This is the sin of rebellion, a disregard for the authority and fear of God, so as to not fear His Word and His Church that proclaims it. In other words, it is really idolatry of the Self, a lifting up of oneself and one's desires, above the will of God as it is expressed in His Word and through His Church that faithfully adminsters that Word.
The Church rebukes for all false teaching and sin, but this is a desire to restore the individual who is considered a brother or sister in Christ. If there is genuine repentance, there is no need to exercise church discipline, simply because there is no rebellion there. The person has submitted him or herself to God's authorities. He or she has humbled him or herself in the sight of the Lord. Hence, he or she shall be exalted as a Christian, not shun as an unbeliever and an apostate. Holiness, forgiveness and redemption is our goal.
The holiness of the church is the primary goal for correcting someone in sin. Hence, it is the primary goal for exercising church discipline when one does not humble him or herself before God's authorities. Bad company corrupts good morals, as the Scripture says, so rebellion in one's theology and ethics is an attack upon the church. This is why heretics (i.e., those who divide) are those who depart from the truth and thus split the unity we have therein, not those who seek to restore all to the truth through argument.
The second goal, however, is to save the individual from himself, from the devil, from damnation. So if he repents, we accept him as a brother in Christ. There is no more need for one to institute church discipline. What is often called "church discipline" when someone seeks to restore someone who has repented by getting involved more in his life through accountability is called "discipleship," not "church discipline." No one who has humbled himself to ask forgiveness should be placed under church discipline. No one who acknowledges his sin and seeks to overcome it should be placed under church discipline. Church discipline is for those who rebel and refuse to repent of their sin(s).
This becomes important for anyone who reads this blog, as one might get the impression that I would just shun everyone who falls short of what I say here. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have great compassion upon people who struggle with sin, as I am one of those people (last time I checked everyone on the planet is one of those people). I also have great affection for those who humble themselves before God and admit the evil of their sin and need of restoration. In fact, such an obvious indication of the Spirit of God endears that person more to me than one who I have never seen believe something false or commit a sin in front of me. An arrogant man can look perfect, but a man who admits his sin and makes way for the Word of God to be exalted above him is a miracle of God standing before you. There is just something special about that.
All of this is important to me, precisely because this is where my heart is when I argue for what is right and true. We cannot correct and bring repentance about if we distort what is true and good. We cannot be restored to God. We perish without correction and without love for the true and the good. As I said before, how will one know in which direction God wishes him to go if we do not stand up for what is true and right and make it the standard in the Church of God? Anyone can make rebellious people feel better about themselves and the "church" by conforming godliness to accommodate their sin; but it takes the Spirit of God to cause one to love His Church for the very rebuking and correction that seeks his repentance and restoration to God and His people.
Let no one, therefore, misread me. I'm not here to simply decry the sins of everyone else. I'm not here to complain. I care about your relationships with God and each other in what is true and good. I care about rebellion against the truth and humility toward it. When I speak of distortions of the Trinity, false gospels, abortion, homosexuality, etc., I have no condemnation for the person who has committed or is struggling with these things. He has only my sympathy and any support he may need from me. I take issue with the rebellious man who justifies the drinking of the poison of rebellion toward God's Word and Church, and attempts to get others to drink it as well. I have no issue with those who do not believe aright concerning the gospel, Christ, and God. No man is born in Christ with complete knowledge of the truth, but grows into it as he humbles himself to Christ's Church; but I take issue with those who would exalt their own experiences and opinions above God's proclaimed Word, as they are introducing the deadliest of cancers that steals life away from others and from themselves. If the way we are saved is through Christ's Lordship over us, then rebellion is the path to damnation. It reflects the primary love of one's life as being the Self, rather than God. It is idolatrous to the core, and a complete rejection of Christ as Lord. Hence, one cannot be a Christian if he persists in rebellion. Thus, the need to push him out of the community for the sake of others who might be deceived into thinking that one can be a Christian and be rebellious and for the sake of himself, if he is to be saved through tough love. In contrast to this, humility and submission to Christ as our Lord is displayed, as Christ said Himself, by accepting His Word and His Church to rebuke, correct, reprove, admonish us in the truth. But if we do not know what is true, we cannot be corrected by it. If there is one single, dominant reason why I do the minstry I do, it is that God might be glorified first in being exalted above our lies and that through this, those who are destroyed for lack of knowledge will no longer be without what they need for redemption.
So what I attempt to do is what the historic Christian Church has always done and is doing now by correcting what is false: seeking to save that which is lost. Is that not the work of Christ in us? Is that not more important than preaching positive thinking and talking about having joy among those who really need to repent and be restored instead. Let's talk about joy in the Lord as the result of one's repentance. Let's talk about it as our goal in pleasing Him and enjoying being in His pleasure. Absolutely. But let's not dichotomize it as though joy and the continual battle to keep the devil from gaining a foothold in the church and in a person's life are at odds with one another. They both need one another, as no joy will be experienced without repentance, and no repentance will come about without rebuke (how will they hear without a preacher?), and rebuke cannot take place if what is false keeps muddying the waters. So redemption needs all of this, but we must start with knowing the truth; and that largely means we need to start with smacking down falsehoods that seek to lift themselves up as true above what God has revealed.
It is the very act of rebuking and correcting that is an act that seeks the joy of redemption and restoration in Christ. It is not an act of simply being negative to be negative about something. It is not an act of self righteousness, as all have sinned and lack the glory of God. It is not an act of judgmentalism, where we get joy from showing others to be false. It is first and foremost an act of love that seeks to bring everyone back into the eternal joy and fellowship of God and His people in Christ. So rejoice if you are in the truth, but know that without your rebuke others cannot partake of your rejoicing; and that knowledge ought to make you love the church that disciplines, as a grown son loves his father for disciplining him out of love, and repudiate the "church" that does not. It may make us negative toward what is passing away and toward what damns souls, but it is done because we are so much more positive about the joy and life forgiveness through repentance brings in Christ.
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great perseverence and instruction. (2 Tim 4:1-2)
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring
him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his
soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to
those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of
righteousness. (Heb 12:11)
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we
fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine
power to demolish strongholds. We demolish
arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God,
and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be
ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. (2 Cor 10:3-6)