Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Corinthian Fallacy: Church Discipline in the Age of the Internet, PART I

Perhaps, one of the most devastating forms of disobedience in our time is the ignoring, dismissing, or all-out rebellion against the teaching of church discipline. I have only been in a few churches that practice it. Yet, the Reformers considered it a major reason the apostasy of the Medieval Church rose to such power and was so  widespread among the masses. When they constructed their ecclesiology, they delineated the marks of a true church as one that had to have the regular proclamation of the Word of God, the giving of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. Since the majority of Western churches today do not practice church discipline, it is unlikely that these great theologians would have even considered them as churches at all, or at the very least, they would have considered them as churches engrossed in a very serious sin for which they need to repent and do otherwise.

But let's lay out what the Bible says about church discipline first, and then we'll discuss that attitude that I am calling the "Corinthian Fallacy." I, then, wish to apply this fallacy to ourselves, and show that we are committing it in two different ways, especially on the internet.

The practice actually starts, as most of biblical ethics, in the Hebrew Bible. Of course, Genesis gives us the understanding that what is chaotic must be submitted to creation and order. It is a good thing to remove chaotic agents in order to protect agents of life. To refuse to do so is evil. Hence, after God tells Noah to be an agent of life in procreation, He also commands mankind to kill murderers, removing them from the land of the living.

This idea spills over into the rest of the Hebrew Bible, specifically in terms of the law among the people. Those who become agents of chaos among the people are a cancer among them. They will destroy the people from the inside out. They are to be cut off from the people, which likely refers to death rather than banishment. Either way, the people are to have no more contact with them. They are dead, and have, thus, been removed from among those they would have corrupted.

This brings us to the New Testament. In the New Testament, the people of God are no longer a geopolitical entity. They do not have the authority to execute civil law. They do not have the authority to physically execute chaotic agents. That is the job of government. If one is a murderer among the people, the political power is to carry out the sentence for that crime. The church retains only the spiritual authority of Israel. It is itself spiritual Israel, and hence, it has spiritual authority to carry out discipline in those areas where the souls of God's people are at stake. Hence, physical execution becomes spiritual execution, which we now call excommunication. As one was dead, and could have no contact with the community in the Old Testament, so one is considered dead to the church and the church is to have no contact with the individual. But let's look at the passages that teach this.

In Matthew 19:15-19, Christ, who is discussing the subject of forgiveness, and commanding His disciples to forgive one another when there is repentance, now turns to discuss what His people are to do when a believer sins and does not repent.

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

I think three things are worth noting for our discussion here: 

(1) Christ calls upon two or three witnesses for there to be an establishment of a crime worthy of excommunication, and this is an allusion back to the Old Testament law where two our three witnesses are needed in order for a crime that carries the death penalty to be established.

On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. (Deut 17:6) 

This tells us that Christ is referring to the act of excommunication that is the spiritual application of the death penalty that is to be enacted in the New Testament Church. 

(2) The command, "He is to be to you as a Gentile or tax collector," also indicates that we are talking about excommunication, i.e., that he is to be considered dead to the community, because these two kinds of people were considered unclean by the Jews and they would avoid contact with them as much as possible. 

(3) "Brother" here refers to someone who claims to be a fellow believer. Jesus is not saying to have no contact with the world, but to have no contact, and even to consider one dead, if he claims to be a believer, but continues on in unrepentant sin, even after being confronted individually, by a few, and finally by the church (whether that refers to the elders or the entire community--although, I think it refers to elders, as the reference to two or three witnesses likely refers to them, and the church collective does not perform discipline until the individual is shunned).

This is the teaching of Jesus, so any claim that this is "unChrist-like," or is not gracious and loving as Jesus would be, needs to deal with the fact that Jesus is the one teaching this doctrine.

The apostle of love, John, also tells us that we are to have no contact with apostates. They are not to be allowed into the homes in which churches are meeting, and Christians are not even permitted to greet them.

And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 6-11)

Notice that John describes what it means to love the people of God. It means to remove deceivers who teach false Christianities from the church. Here, we see that sin is in the form of being a false teacher. The course of action is not to let that individual in and "love" him for Christ. The course of action is not even to let him in and debate with him. In fact, it is not even to acknowledge his existence by debating with him privately. Instead, one who is unrepentant, having been warned and assumably placed under the process described by the Lord in Matthew, is not to be even greeted.

This brings us to Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. The Corinthians believed that the grace and love of Christ demanded that unrepentant chaotic agents be tolerated and shown Christ's love by allowing them to remain in the community. The reason was likely that "everyone is a sinner in some way, and so, who is anyone to judge another?" The man, of course, had taken his father's wife in an adulterous and incestuous relationship. Paul tells us that even the pagans would know such a thing was wrong, yet the Corinthians did nothing because "grace abounds all the more," right? 

Paul, instead, informs us that discipline must be given if the community is to be guarded. His discussion is as follows:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

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. 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. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor 5:1-13)

We should take note of a few things here: 

Paul is simply obeying what the Lord Jesus had commanded in Matthew 18. The individual under discipline claims to be a Christian but is unrepentant, he is to be shunned by the community, and thus, given over to Satan, and that this is done to remove a chaotic agent that would corrupt the community from it.

This last point is very important, precisely, because many people today will dismiss church discipline as something that wouldn't work in our day. What they mean by this is that church discipline would only work in a culture that viewed community as a part of their identity, and thus, since the goal of church discipline is to save the sinner, it has no more relevance in our culture that does not view community as a part of one's identity.

In response to this, I would first say that the Corinthian context is no different than our own in this respect. The community of Corinth is not some little town where everyone knows his neighbor. It is a large city of a wide variety of religions and beliefs, and an individual could easily become lost in it. Community discipline, therefore, would really have as much affect there as it would in our day.

Second to this, our culture actually values community much more than people realize. Communities have a great affect upon people, and as such, although the person would not like the discipline and probably slander the community who dealt it out to them, it would, in fact, communicate to the individual that he or she was rejecting Christ as Lord and was no longer to identify him or herself as a saved follower of Christ. These people are damned (1 Cor 6:9-11), and communing with them, an act that teaches them they are saved and accepted by Christ and His community, even while in sin, is an act that deceives and one of hatred toward them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, although Paul does wish the individual to be saved through discipline, this is neither his nor the larger biblical concern in church discipline. The primary concern has, and always will be, the purity of the community from corruption that is brought in by chaotic agents. An individual who refuses to repent communicates to the community the idea that one can be saved and throw off the lordship of Christ. The purpose of Christ in His community is to make them holy and blameless (Eph 1:4) and to be conformed to His image, as His body. To willfully sin, and refuse to repent, is to preach a false path of salvation to the community and a false Christ to the world. Hence, the primary goal in church discipline is not to save the individual, but the community from corruption and death. Hence, Paul speaks of a little leaven leavening the whole lump of dough, and rather commands the Corinthians to "purge the evil person from among you." In accordance with what we have already discussed, this means to not even associate with the individual, and by this, Paul means not even to eat with this person (1 Cor 5:11). Again, until they repent, they are dead to the community. This means having no contact with them whenever possible, and treating them as unclean, a person who is not to be acknowledged and associated with. Paul takes a major swipe at the idea that we are not to judge other Christians by telling us that the church is to judge other Christians for their own welfare, but more importantly, for the welfare of the community and the love of Christ.

This is what true love demands. It demands that we love Christ's witness to His people and the world more than we love an individual. It also demands that we love that individual by not deceiving him into thinking that he is in good standing with Christ and is still to be considered a believer. Love demands church discipline. Hate demands a tolerance that destroys everyone and everything involved. Disobedience to this teaching is the cornerstone of the false church. The foundations of apostasy find a secure support in the dismissing of the practice as irrelevant for our day. It is no wonder that the church is in the condition that it is, no longer a holy witness of Christ, no longer of the one faith, one Spirit, one body, speaking with one voice to one another and to the world. We have let chaos reign, and so it does.

But what does that mean for us in an age where we are constantly running into apostates and unrepentant sinners who claim to be Christians? We'll pick up that question in PART II.


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