Saturday, November 19, 2011

Church Discipline from Matthew 18: How Some Reformed Folks Are Getting It Wrong And Injuring Others. It Is Not about Determining Who Is and Is Not a Christian, It Is about a Member’s Relationship with a Local Body of Believers



Long Title? I know. So with your pardons let’s take a look at the matter. Recently, at another blog,  God’s Hammer, Sean Gerety posted an article entitled,  Federal Vision Re-Run which was about “one of the original *Federal Vision schismatics…and deposed PCA pastor, Burke Shade”. In the article he quotes Shade in responding to a church member who left his assembly  (I responded, myself, in the comments section to this matter but wanted to do more, here):
By this excommunication, we are declaring that you are no longer a Christian, and that you are no longer a part of the company of the saved. Please turn away from your self-destructive path and turn back to Christ as your Lord and Savior. Should you desire to repent of your refusal to worship Jesus Christ, please contact us, so that you may be restored to Jesus Christ and this body.

The first thing one ought to do is look in Matthew 18 from whence cometh the text (being employed by Shade) with emphasis on the relevant portion of the text which forms the basis of Shade’s claim against the former member:
15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” 
The “Brother” 

The very first thing one must notice is that our Lord, in verse 15,  refers to the person sinning (or allegedly sinning in cases outside this one) against another as a “brother”. It does not say “if a person sins against you” without the context of viewing whether they are or are not a believer, rather that it is, in fact, a brother and not some other, who has sinned. So here, the sinning one, even by our Lord, is not automatically treated as a non-believer, though he (Jesus) knows the eventual outcome of this particular illustration. Why? Because this is not about determining who is and is not a believer, meaning our determining the authenticity of their relationship to God (judging their salvation) but their relationship to one or more believers and ultimately the local assembly of believers.

When the Brother Does Not Listen

Now, in verses 15-16, we come to a fork in the road where a “brother” who has sinned against another will not listen to that other. In other words he will not repent in private. What does our Lord say about this non-repentance? Does Jesus suddenly qualify this “brother” as a non-brother? Look, here is what he says:
If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
So, if he listens (this assumes repent of whatever he is guilty) you have won a brother over but if not, is he automatically considered unsaved, unregenerate, not truly born again? No, not at all. He is still a brother, simply he (or she) is a brother in which a process of being sinned against is being dealt with which includes the preservation of maintaining the integrity of spiritual relationships between Chrisitians.

If experiencing unrepentant actions by others licensed us to determine the salvation of another, whether on a private or very large public scale, it should have begun this very moment. Yet, this is not the course or view of our Lord. Why? Once again, this is not about judging the veracity of one’s salvation and their relationship to God, rather insuring the veracity of human relationships of a spiritual nature and most specifically that of the local assembly/church.

The Finality of Not Repenting (Admitting guilt)

Now, at verse 17, we come to the end of the passage in which, after being dealt with in private, with several others (who may be necessary evidential witnesses) and then finally the church as a whole (which may mean to be a body of those who are officers of the church and not necessarily every single member, but this is not germane at the moment and I will also forgo exposition here) this particular individual is still unrepentant in a matter which clearly qualifies for all of these steps. The result is quite specific:
and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
To some this would automatically open the door to declare this person to not be an authentic believer. In other words, he never was really saved. But it is a rather strange thing that our Lord would be so covert and non-specific on such a critical matter if he really meant for us to understand this includes judging this person's salvation. But in truth our Lord is not covert or suggestive in the least because this is not about judging who is and is not saved, rather it is about that person's relationship to the local assembly/church.

Our Lord Jesus Christ instructs this person to be treated as a tax collector or pagan with respect to what? He is to be treated so with respect to the context in which we find ourselves which is one of an ecclesiastical context and spiritual interaction with other believers, not one with their relationship to God. 

A tax collector or pagan (gentile) as a reference was easily understood during this time, particularly since much of our Lord’s audience was Jewish (and frankly, we still have an OT setting with regard to the “assembly” in this context but that is for another day). Tax collectors during this time were generally very abusive men who worked for the state without regard to any biblical mandate which might affect the way they went about collecting taxes. These tax collectors were free to collect with many methods, again often aggressive and persecutory in manner. And they were widely known to use this civil service position to make themselves well enough off in the least and sometimes wealthy. Simply put, they were men who were led about by greed and any man of God was not openly considered as such.

Gentiles, which is the translation of the Greek word (ἐθνικὸς) from which we get “ethnic”, meant one who stood outside of God’s salvation via a covenant. Specifically, this was a reference to those outside the nation of Israel and who were currently rejecting the God of Israel. Therefore, there is some additional weight to the considerations as to whether or not this prescription is truly meant for the NT church. But still, that is not relevant here since Spade and many NT churches employ this passage and it is their misuse of this in regard to its intent, which is being addressed. 

Ultimately, what you must take away from this is that both the pagan and the tax collector had no privileges in the assembly. That is, they had no membership, therefore, they  were not given access to all of its normal properties which accompany membership in a local assembly. That and that alone is how you treat a brother like a tax collector or pagan. It is not claiming he is not an unbeliever but that he is acting as one, hence you must treat him in this manner.

Membership in a Local Body of Believers

Something must be understood here. Even when one is a member of a local body or an assembly of believers, it is not a comment or judgment on their salvation, it cannot be. It simply is a comment and judgment regarding their fitness as members of that local body. No one can read minds and hearts. Only God can do this. The best they can do is make requirements of membership in a local assembly such that it requires either a very skillful unbeliever to mimic a believer (tares) or genuine spiritual life, thus enabling the person to (spiritually) rise to the required expressions and practice of faith needed for membership.

The Contradiction Seen with Burke Shade Present in Many Churches 

The position of Burke Spade is not an isolated one. It is one which is held by many to the damage of many. But it is one which seems quite odd given that it contains an obvious and prima facie contradiction. Notice again what is contained here:
By this excommunication, we are declaring that you are no longer a Christian…Should you desire to repent of your refusal to worship Jesus Christ, please contact us, so that you may be restored to Jesus Christ and this body.
So let me get this straight. Spade (and anyone else practicing this) wishes to judge the salvation of another manifested in the declaration that they are “no longer a Christian” yet, if they wish to repent they may do so in order that they “may be restored to Jesus Christ and this body”.  Surely he is aware that if that person is no longer a Christian they need not only repent of whatever sin is in dispute but they must “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” so they may be saved? Surely he understands this, right?

Secondly, did this person just lose their salvation and now it gets to be restored? Is this how it works to Burke Spade and those who practice this? On again, off again? 

The contradiction is ludicrous to say the least. To Spade's credit he did get the second half right, to repent of genuine sin which requires all these steps and excommunication does restore one to a local assembly but I doubt Spade's local assembly, or any assembly taking this view, is one to which anyone would want to rush.

Bound on Earth, Bound in Heaven

Our Lord ends, in verse 18, with a form of heavenly certitude on the matter. He instructs those listening that if this process is followed, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This means that the event of discipline is not an event unto itself, rather it is one sanctioned by God and upheld by God which makes the individual subject to Divine discipline. That is to say, if this is all done properly as it should be and this candidate qualifies for excommunication, then their excommunication is viewed as true before God and now such believers are now in the hands of God for further discipline with regard to their spiritual maladjustment.

Conclusion

There is much to discuss and debate about the passage and its application in the NT church. Therefore, in addressing this I acknowledge that many dimensions of consideration are not being addressed. But they need not be for this particular treatment because it simply seeks to handle what is being mishandled in the first place, never mind all the other caveats the passage and topic brings with it.

In the end one must understand one thing, if nothing else. This is not about a local assembly or anyone else judging or articulating judgments as to who is and is not a genuine believer. This is about membership and spiritual fellowship privileges in a local body of believers in which those who qualify for excommunication are no longer given. It is about this and this alone.

*Federal Vision is a Roman heresy which, currently, is promoted by a group of men of which Doug Wilson is most prominent. Without dealing with its doctrine here, I suggest reading, along with Gerety's blog, the following:

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