(Tim) We've all been through it many times, with many different families. Struggling to survive, financially, and no high salary on the pastor's conscience keeping him from asking the Lord for His provision, one of the few wealthy families the church has managed to get bonded within her fellowship becomes an increasing problem and it becomes apparent the only answer is formal discipline.
The years past are littered with informal discipline: many pastoral visits to the home, pastoral counseling sessions, post-small group exhortations from fellow believers, deacons, and elders; the wife has had the sweetest and wisest Titus 2 women go aside with her to entreat and exhort her concerning the damage her sin is causing to her own home and the Household of Faith. But all the informal, quiet, gentle ministry has been to little avail.
The family's wealth has complicated matters beyond the simple question of the church's fiscal solvency. The pastor and elders wonder--at first privately, but then openly in elders meetings when harm the family has caused others in the flock is on the agenda--how the congregation and community would be able to understand the discipline of such a beautiful and gifted and (shall we say rich?) family. No one would deny the family's generosity has been used by God to strengthen the fellowship. They have been a blessing in many ways and are loved for it. But also for who they are: hospitable, kind, loving, generous.
Of course, the wealth also has been a key contributor to their failures. There's been a bodaciousness to the sin that's seemed to have its origin in the pride of wealth. But as the private admonitions have failed to produce any substantive change, the family's wealth and resources have continued...
to be contributed in such a way as to maximize the church's perception it couldn't survive without them. The house is used to host church function after church function; the family's van is used for youth group mission trips; the food the family brings to potlucks is the best; their Tuscon condo is always available for missionaries and church staff.
Then too, there's always the money itself. If they're formally rebuked, can the elders really expect the family to stay in the church? Would they submit to their elders, or simply leave for another church where they'd be more appreciated?
And if they left, how would the church survive without their many gifts--particularly their tithes and offerings?
During one elders meeting a bold soul wonders aloud if the group's hesitancy to proceed to formal discipline isn't the result of sin on the part of those present, the pastors and elders themselves? He asks whether the group has not been giving preferential treatment to the family due to their wealth and status?
All agree it's likely a contributing factor to the group's reticence to proceed to the use of the tool that, more than any other God has given the church, seems unloving and harsh. In fact some even admit that a poor family might well have been formally disciplined long before things had gotten to the point they've gotten with this family.
There are lots of legitimate reasons not to proceed to formal discipline. What will the world think, seeing how Christians can't get along with one another, and hearing of their sin? What will happen to the tender souls of the children if their parents are publicly rebuked? Which of the elders is without sin, ready to cast the first stone? Didn't Jesus command us, "Judge not, lest ye be judged?" Doesn't the Bible tell us love "always expects the best" and "always hopes?" Doesn't love "bear all things?" Aren't we supposed to let "love cover a multitude of sins?"
What servant leader would ever carry out formal discipline?
And will the church members understand? Most of them know little to nothing of the harm the family has caused, privately, over many years, now. Then too, what about the danger of litigation? With past cases of discipline, it hasn't been uncommon for the subject of the discipline to have his lawyer send a letter to the board of elders demanding they cease and desist and threatening a lawsuit if they continue down the disciplinary path. Is it right to place the church and her finances (not to mention the pastor's and church missionararies' support) in such jeopardy?
As I said, such are the constants in the session meetings of churches with godly elders. There's never a lack of good reasons to overlook the blatant rebelliousness and sin of the big and rich and influential and multi-gifted and very talented. Never a lack of good reasons.
But really, I haven't here been writing about one family in a local congregation, but about one congregation in a presbytery and one or two or three presbyteries in a denomination. Maybe that church or presbytery plants many churches. Maybe they're gifted. Maybe they're wealthy. Maybe they're very influential. Maybe they're highly respected because God has given them stewardship over many talents.
Still, some area of their church life needs formal discipline, and has needed it for years, now. What to do?
Well, it's awkward. Who would understand formal discipline? It would look like bullying to all the young men recently graduated from the denominational seminary who have come of age in the soft cloying sentimental ethos of the postmodern world.
And how could the presbytery live without that church; the denomination without that presbytery?
The fellowship is small enough as it is, without losing their money and status and resources.
And what of their reputation? Why the entire Christian world would laugh at the quite-apparent inability of reformed churches to get along with each other.
Again and again in session meetings of our church, it's become apparent that the elders and pastors have arrived at the point where we simply must decide whether we believe formal ecclesiastical discipline is a tool ordained by God for the building up--not the tearing down--of His Church? Whether we believe He has ordained this particular tool? Whether we believe He will bless its use with fruit? Or whether, lacking faith, we will avoid it like the plague, trotting it out only when someone has committed a sin so heinous that the shame of not using it has grown larger than the shame of using it?
If, as we're taught in Hebrews 12, God's discipline is one of our most precious proofs of His love, that we are His adopted sons; and if the son who's not disciplined by his father is a bastard; then formal discipline--private rebuke, public rebuke or censure, definite or indefinite suspension from Table fellowship, or excommunication--then all formal discipline is an act of both obedience and faith.
But more than faith, it's also an act of hope--hope that God will add His blessing to the power of the keys as those officers standing in His place use them as He has commanded.
But more than faith and hope, it's particularly an act of love--a love that will not let family members go their own way. A love that proves itself through discipline.
It's the same issue in a home, a church, a presbytery, and a denomination. Will we walk by faith? Will we hope? Will we love?
But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)