A Great (But Neglected) Gift
As Johnny Mathis once famously crooned “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” And while I wasn’t quite ready to appreciate the October onslaught of ornaments and festive music in department stores, it’s nice now to see the lights and decorations that signify the official arrival of the holiday season. Merry Christmas!
A South African friend and leadership guru recently shared with me his approach to getting the right people on the bus, organizationally speaking. He never tells anyone “you’re fired!” a la Donald Trump. His tactic is more, uh, subtle: “I don’t know what we would do without you, but as of next month we’re going to try.” He may have been a slight bit facetious, but my friend realizes that word choice is important. Terms like “fired,” “terminated,” “dismissed,” and others, carry tremendous baggage. Sadly, so does the word “discipline.”
Recently, we concluded a Sunday morning teaching series on Vision. In it, I identified and explained from the Scriptures the seven core commitments that we, at Northpoint, have embraced in our mission to make disciples who make disciples for God’s glory and the joy of all peoples. Those core values are: Gospel, Worship, Community, Service, Multiplication, Prayer, and Discipline.
Not surprisingly, the most difficult value to accept and certainly apply is the last one: The practice of church discipline. It seems to be a lost art. Consequently, the purity of the bride of Christ is suffering. As unaddressed scandals plague the church and leaders act immorally with erstwhile impunity, a watching world is left to ask: “How are Christians any different than we are?”
Well, in the just-released December 2016 edition of Christianity Today, editor in chief Mark Galli, wrote a helpful article entitled The Grace of Church Disciple (sounds exactly like the title of my sermon on the matter, but I wrote mine first!). In the essay Galli persuades:
“Discipline is not something most American churches practice. It’s not even something they talk about. … A recent Barna study found that only 5 percent of Christians involved in a church say their church holds them accountable. … We live in a world that listens to a steady song of absolute autonomy, with its refrains of “my rights,” “my freedom,” and “my truth.” Others advocate communities of inclusion that embrace the intellectually marginalized. At the same time, media and university elites who sing such songs are the very ones who “excommunicate” those who don’t agree with their ideas. Thus the increasing number of secular campuses that refuse to welcome speakers with “hurtful” points of view. So in ways, everybody agrees that groups have the right to determine their intellectual boundaries. For the church—which insists on ideas the culture finds astonishing—it’s crucial to be clear about its doctrinal and ethical standards.
Some call [discipline] a “witch hunt.” We call it discipleship.
There is plenty of room for grace in church discipline. And forgiveness. And gentle teaching of those who have yet to make up their minds: “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth,” wrote Paul (2Tim. 2:25). In the end, organizations will have to be honest and charitable about core beliefs and ethics: “Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:8).
American evangelicalism has been right to repudiate arbitrary markers of holiness like prohibitions on playing cards and watching movies. But are we treating people with grace if we allow leaders to traffic in beliefs and ethics that sabotage the ability of both leaders and followers to be conformed to the image of Christ? It is not a purge to ensure that leaders agree on what constitutes a sound mind, a good heart, and a holy life in Christ. It’s what love looks like in Christ’s community.”
To Galli’s point, far from being a “witch hunt,” discipline is simply the gracious process of helping one another stay rooted in the biblical reality of who God is, what he has done, and who we are to him. Sin destroys relationships. It destroys people. It poisons the church and ruins her witness. The reason that Discipline is a core commitment is because we know the devastation that unaddressed sin causes, both to the purity of the church and the well-being of God’s people. Without it, James suggests in his letter, the souls of some are destroyed.
Now, why revive this topic again, especially during the season of Advent? Isn’t this the season of love and good cheer? Really, the only reason I brought it up is because the subject appears in the new CT. But I think it’s always of value to reflect on the varied and beautiful ways that God keeps his children close to himself; and one of those ways is church discipline.
This Christmas, as you consider all the gifts that are ours in Christ, don’t forget the gift of the discipline of God via the local church. As the writer of Hebrews reminds “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:5-6 ESV)
By his grace,