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Volume 14, Issue 6: Poimen

Rainy-day Games

Joost Nixon

Reformed churches, and especially those glass-chewing "truly-Reformed" churches out there, have earned themselves a bad reputation. Yes, much of the damage can be controlled by tossing out red herrings and tu quoques like peanuts at a Dodgers' game. But the charges defy our best evasive measures. We are guilty. We must repent.

Reformed churches are notorious for the abandon with which they give themselves to their intra-denominational litigation. When the sky is leaky and the golf course closed, lazy pastors pull out their rainy-day games. For us, that means wiling away the hours by skewering Pastor Johnson and—as we chant select passages from the Book of Church Order—roasting him slowly over the flames of our discontent. Of course, the execution is all very respectable—everything done "decently and in order," you know. But we all have our vices, and ours just happens to be fratricide.
Has the weirdness of it never struck you? Here we have grown men, nay, elders and shepherds of God's people, prancing about like 3rd graders, all vying for the role of Perry Mason or Ken Starr in the ecclesiastical court room. And, so everyone gets a chance to play, we make sure we have defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys and plenty of "expert" witnesses. We fill small rooms with boxes of evidence and transcripts that need analysis and interpretation. Together it all promises hours of endless amusement.
This is not a piece arguing against church discipline. On the contrary, I maintain that it is unloving to all parties when just discipline is withheld. The sinner continues his trajectory unchecked, the church becomes impure, sin is encouraged, and worst of all, Christ's name is blasphemed. No one wins when the church disobeys Christ's instructions in Matthew 18. Rather, I am arguing that much of what passes for discipline in Reformed churches is wrong-spirited, and thus only adds our rebellion to that of the unrepentant brother we are excommunicating.
Take, for instance, the metaphor we use to govern our discipline. Does church discipline occur in a court room, or in a living room? Or to ask the question another way, is church discipline to be corrective, or punitive? The state has been granted authority to avenge the wicked deeds of evildoers (Rom. 13:4). It is to punish crime, and to do so with alacrity, "because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil" (Ecl. 8:11). Thus, if we lived in a nation patterned after biblical principle, the number of inmates in our prisons would be way down, and the number of people walking around with scars on their backs would be way up, with cemetery plots running a premium. In contrast to the punitive discipline of the civil magistrate, familial discipline is corrective. Little Freddie Jr. is spanked in order to teach him to trust and obey Jesus and thus deliver his soul from Sheol (Prov. 23:13-14).
So does the Church, in its discipline, pattern itself after the state or the family? The answer of the Bible is that church discipline is familial, because its purpose for the sinning brother is restorative, and not punitive (Mt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thes. 3:6-15). But the familial nature of church discipline is also seen in the familial metaphors used in Scripture to describe the Church. Belief in Christ ushers us into God's family (Jn. 1:12; 1 Jn. 3:1; cf. Mt. 12:48-50; Eph. 1:5); we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. He is our older brother; (Heb. 2:11), and God is our Father. As a faithful Father, God disciplines us (Heb. 12:7-10). We, in turn, are to treat fellow Christians as family members.
Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity (1 Tim. 5:1-2).
Did you notice that the context of the familial language is rebuking sin? The Church must learn to discipline like a family and leave behind the trappings of the civil-judicial court room. That means excommunications should occur with the same sadness and solemnity that would characterize a family gathered in the living room, tearfully but firmly escorting a one-time brother out the front door with the reminder that they are eager to receive him back when he is ready to behave like a son. What does not fit in the familial metaphor are reams of "evidence" wheeled in on dollies; posturing and maneuvering by "defense" and "prosecuting" "attorneys"; legal loopholes and Robert's Rules of Order. All of these things go with familial discipline like mustard on a PB & J.
As fun as it is to dress up, restoration and correction must occur in the Church without powdered wigs and long judicial gowns. But we must do more than just exchange these trappings for those. Repentance works from the inside out: as our minds are renewed, the trappings will inevitably change. What first needs to change is attitude—we have to want to win our brother and not lose him.

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