Scriptures: Romans 13:8-14 ; Matthew 18:15-20
Tough Love in the Community of Faith
This passage today is one that most preachers fear, and really don't want to preach on, because it's rarely well-received. It talks about church discipline. But I have to tell you, from my perspective, it's actually one of my favorites, thought not because it's about church discipline. But it also has one of my pet peeve verses in there. So it's kind of both, a love-hate relationship.
I'm going to start with the pet peeve, to get that out of the way, just so you know. That is the misuse for verse 20, where it says, “Where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.” People talk about this in terms of prayer. “We can pray, because there are two or three of us together” or “We can worship, because there are two or three of us together.”
I have to tell you, that's great. Christ is there. But if you worship alone in devotional time, or you pray alone in devotional time or contemplative prayer, guess what? Jesus is there, and you can be sure of that, because the Holy Spirit dwells within you.
Why do consider this a misappropriation? Because in the context of the passage, what Jesus is talking about here is authority. Wherever two or three are gathered in His name to determine something authoritatively, within the local body of Christ, then it is as if He is speaking. Jesus assumes two things. One is that they will pray. Second, that you agree about it and ask about it in Jesus' name. That means you have thought about it and prayed about it.
Now, what do I like about this passage? I was a scientist. I still consider myself a scientist, even though I'm not active anymore in the lab. And I like “how to's.” I'm not very good at do-it-yourself, but I like how-to's anyway. And this Scripture passage is exceptionally clear on the process for approaching an issue or conflict between two members.
I would point out that its goal is not punishment. Discipline implies a disciple, a learner. The point of discipline is always to bring the person back to a relationship with you or the church or whatever it might be. The purpose of discipline is always first to teach.
Think about when you had your kids, and you disciplined them. You didn't discipline them because you enjoyed acting like an ogre. (Well, I'm assuming you didn't enjoy acting like an ogre. I know I always felt like “why does it have to be the dad?”) It's important to keep your children going, as the Scripture says, the way they should go.
I would also note that the goal of this is reconciliation. This passage precedes the one on forgiveness that we're going to talk about next week, and it follows a process that starts out between two people. I think it's important for us to understand the difference, first, between sinning and annoying.
Pauline talked in the sermon last week about being in community, and about how one of the aspects of community is that we are always going to find people that annoy us. Even people we like sometimes annoy us. That's human nature. And we actually grow through that, as we learn to love through that. There's a difference between that and when someone has sinned against you.
I would also apply the lessons of this passage to the case of someone sinning continuously and persistently in something. For instance, with addictions, if they are not seeking to get help, or to walk the Twelve Steps, whatever it might be that they use. As we might put it in that terminology, they are “in their addiction” at the moment.
But it doesn't have to be an addiction. At a church that I interned at, there was a need to exercise church discipline, but this individual was an elder on the church Session at the time, his family was very influential in the church, and he gave a lot of money. He was also separated from his wife and living with his girlfriend. This is called living in sin. I don't care if he was going to get a divorce, which hadn't happened yet in two years. The fact of the matter is, he was currently living in sin, consistently and persistently and unrepentantly.
But this starts out with sinning against you. This is how important Jesus thinks relationships between you and someone else are. This is how important love is. You see, this is not a negative passage. This is a positive one. Again, it seeks reconciliation. It seeks to teach. It seeks to bring people back into touch, back into understanding one another.
Jesus' teaching contrasted with that of the Jews, who preferred that the offender seek forgiveness first, as many as three times, before witnesses with the family. We'll get into that next week, actually, as we move on to the next passage, where Peter asked a very important question: how often do I have to forgive?
“If a brother sins against you,” it's going to hurt. And Jesus asks us to do a very tough thing. He says, just between the two of you, go and show him his fault. Why is that so tough? Because you are not to do it in an accusatory way. If you start out by making them defensive, by unleashing your anger, then you're really going to get nowhere. The goal is discussion.
So you let him know, “I was hurt by this. This is not according to God's Word, and because I love you, I want us to make things right, and that's going to need something on your side as well.”
And you want to do it out of a sense of love – again, not anger or fear or retribution. The goal is to bring your brother or sister back into relationship with you and with others. Because frankly, no person is an island. No sin affects only yourself. Even if it is a self-sin, it affects those with whom you are in relationship.
There's a difference, I like to say, and I know I've said it before, between a discussion, a debate, and an argument. A discussion is a dialog. The two come together with the intent of listening to one another and sharing their perspectives, with the hope of finding some sort of consensus or understanding.
A debate is where you get to present your side of an issue, usually with third parties, and we'll get to that, a few verses down. Then you stop and you let the other person present their side, so that the people who are moderating have the opportunity to come to an understanding and ask questions. It is not a normal practice in a debate – except maybe in presidential debates – to interrupt.
Then there's an argument. In an argument, you really don't care about the facts, the perceptions, etc. You just want to win. It's no skin off your nose to make accusations, maybe even false ones, to bring up stuff, even dredge it up from years ago, in order to gain an advantage, because you know it's going to make the other person cringe. All so that you can win and have your way.
That is completely and totally unproductive, and is not what Jesus talks about here. Jesus talks about taking the hard road, swallowing your anger and maybe your fear, and coming to the person for dialog, for discussion. You show them – you lay it out – where they hurt you.
Again, you need to do it in an attitude of love and openness. Be ready. They may come back with something: “Well, you hurt me here.” Let's face it, none of us is perfect, as I said earlier. Tit for tat is a real thing, and sometimes you lose track of who actually started things. It's just the way we are. But if you truly seek reconciliation, then you seek to break down that barrier.
So you go there to discuss it. It can be hard, but it's worthwhile, because if he listens to you, you have won your brother over. You have reestablished the relationship. Everything is good. That doesn't mean the pain goes away immediately. That doesn't mean that there might not be consequences, especially with sin. There may be something that needs to be done. But the fact is that you can move forward together.
There's repentance. They're turning around. They're changing. Don't expect perfection. It's not going to happen. But hopefully there will be progress, which really is what discipleship is all about. Progress.
But let's say they say, “No way Jose, that wasn't a problem” or “Leave me alone. It's my sin, not yours.” They refused to listen to what you are saying. In that case it says to take one or two others along, that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Basically you approach them again. I know if it was hard the first time, it could be even harder the second time. After all, it failed the first time. But you bring a couple of people, and this serves some purposes that are important.
Number one, it fits the Jewish tradition and understanding of legality, if you will. No testimony in court was considered persuasive unless there were at least two witnesses to it. The two, unfortunately, had to be male adult witnesses. I think women counted as half, and children as a quarter, or something like that, or maybe not at all.
If you didn't have those two witnesses, it was considered hearsay. And as we all know, hearsay is not acceptable in court. Anybody who has watched one of those court TV shows knows that hearsay is not acceptable in court.
So you take a couple of people with you, and this is not to spread the issue around, so you need to be careful who you choose. I would recommend that one of them be a mediator or a counselor. They can still act as a witness, even as they are attempting to be there to try to bring the two of you together, because the goal, again, is reconciliation, not punishment.
Now the person who's being approached may feel outnumbered, and get even more defensive. So it's incumbent upon you to make it clear that this is not the case, that you are truly seeking to reconcile, that you are truly seeking to reestablish the relationship that you had, and that these folks that are with you are here to help in that process, since occasionally when people get angry, they throw accusations around, that may or may not have any basis.
So going to someone with the witnesses there, you want to try to keep this at the level of a discussion or a debate, not an argument. That's one reason it helps to have a third party there who is neutral, who will hopefully be able to find a third way, that can bring the two together. And you do all this in confidentiality.
There are times, I think, the two or three witnesses may discover that it's been a tit-for-tat kind of situation. Maybe the other person sinned against you, but they felt like you sinned against them first. So there's a chance for reconciliation, because you may not realize what you had done. It takes two to tango, as they like to say.
But in the case where there is a clear and definite understanding of who sinned against who, and that person refuses to repent of their sin, and maybe – although it says “against you” this also goes for holding each other accountable in the church, if someone is persistently sinning, again, you approach them first by yourself, then you come with two or three as witnesses and mediators. In addiction language, we call that intervention.
And if they refuse to repent, then it says you take it to the church. Now, this does not normally mean you would come up to the front and talk from the pulpit and say, [Name of someone in the church] has sinned. That is not what it means.
One of the wonderful things about Presbyterian churches is that we have a governing body called the Session. They are elected by you as spiritual leaders in the church. I know that we tend to think of them is administrators, but they are far more than that. They are spiritual leaders that are supposed to be caring for the welfare of the whole congregation, and determine the direction the congregation should go in following God's will.
Every elder needs to be ready to teach. Actually it says our Book of Order that every elder needs to be ready to preach. I know of one elder who had a stock sermon that he kept – for over 18 years in the time that I knew him – so that if ever the pastor suddenly lost his voice, or had to go somewhere because a family member died or whatever, and he was asked to preach, he would just pull that thing out, and he would be able to give a message for the morning. It was an interesting concept.
Interestingly, I did an independent study in seminary, and I was doing research on the period between 1900 and 1925, and I got to read some really old books, in a special section of the library. There were session minutes from a church, from around 1906 or 1908, and they had an interesting story in there. There were two individuals, from two different families, who had some sort of conflict between them, that had developed almost into a feud, if you will, that was affecting not only their families but other people in the church.
So people from the church had gone to each of them separately, then they had gone to them with two or three people, following the Biblical method, and then the Session. They went to the Session, the people who were trying to relieve this situation, and the Session issued a call to these two individuals, brought them up before the session, and gave them an ultimatum.
They said, “You two have taken this argument to the point that it is endangering the unity of the church, and may split the church. You will either find a way to reconcile, or we will help you do that. Otherwise we will move both of your families outside the church, because we're not going to split the church over your private feud.” I don't know how it was resolved. There was nothing in the minutes about that. But that is what the Session is empowered to do, if necessary.
That's what the Bible says. If that person refuses to listen to the witnesses, take it to the alert church leadership, in order that spiritual direction may be determined. Is this person a poison or a toxin that is going to actually destroy the church? If it is so, and they refused to repent, it notes to treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
They need to be removed. They need to be removed from, perhaps not just church membership, but relationally. The Amish call that practice “shunning.” I don't know that you need to go that far. In fact, it seems overly harsh to me in many ways, but I understand.
Some relationships – and you know this with kids, again, or maybe yourself when you were growing up, your parents told you, “Don't run with the wrong crowd.” Sometimes relationships are destructive, and those relationships need to be broken, until there's been a change in character and heart.
Sometimes it takes that breaking in order to make the person totally aware and repent. Again, using the model of addiction, you let them hit rock bottom. It's hard. They call it tough love, frequently. You have to let them hit the bottom before they can start making their way back up.
And you hope and pray that that bottom is not going to be the death of that person or relationship. You're always ready to extend the hand. But for many of us, the only way we learn is by going through it.
Jesus notes that “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This is, again, in regards to the church. If you remove them from the church, they are removed. Its hard news to hear, a hard message to hear, but one that, ultimately, is for the good of the church.
Sometimes, if it's extended to the point where there's been that kind of conflict, it's church-wide. There may be a designated leader, if reconciliation occurs, who needs to put it to the church, to make the move towards reconciliation.
We once visited the church my wife had attended when she was in her early 20's. It was a very conservative evangelical church, and I was fascinated by something that occurred during that service. The pastor brought forward a young couple. She was obviously pregnant.
The pastor looked at the congregation, he said the couples' names, he said “You know who they are. They have committed the sin of fornication. They weren't married. But they are getting married. They have repented of their sin. They are following direction. They are under supervision.”
Then he looked at the congregation and he said, “Now it's your turn, and your role, to open your arms and love them. Do not shun them simply because you can see their sin. For they have repented, and they're taking those steps.”
That's not something I had ever seen in any Presbyterian church. But it was very Biblical. They had followed the process, and they had achieved reconciliation. Then it was up to the church to encourage and edify and support this young couple, so that they didn't fall back into what they had done before. Do you think that would have been possible, if they hadn't gone through this process? I don't.
Frankly, sometimes that's harder for the church to do than it is to condemn. I see so many celebrity Christians, especially musicians, who have some fall of some sort, maybe a divorce, and then people says, “Oh no,” and their record sales just plummet, even when there's been testimony that they have had some sort of restoration or reconciliation, even if it doesn't mean remarriage.
And it's very difficult for them to ever get back into, it seems, the good graces of so many people, because they expect perfection. You're not perfect. Why should you expect it of them?
So we have this process, where there has been sin, and there has been an attempt at reconciliation. And that is always the goal. When we do that, while it's hard, we should actually feel good about it. When we do it right, there should be that sense of peace at the end of it, because we know that we have done it in love, through the Spirit, by the process that Jesus has set before us.
I don't know what kind of sins you have experienced in your life, people who have sinned against you. I don't know how long ago it was, because you know, sometimes, some sins, people hold for decades. But let me give a suggestion to you, especially during this time when I see the need for reestablishment of relationships. We're so isolated by COVID. We're isolated, actually, by our technology.
Make the attempt to reconcile with those whom you have had a close relationship with, in the church, in your family, and even outside the church. It's a scary thing, because you have to make yourself vulnerable. But someone has to start the process. Someone has to take the chance. It's going to take work, but all relationships do. And never be afraid, as it notes in here, to ask for support.
I think that's the other thing that we find hard. We don't want to ask for help. We can handle this ourselves. There are a lot of marriages that break up because of that. We think we can handle this ourselves. Well no, you can't, or you wouldn't be in this situation.
So ask for help. Ask for it from somebody that you respect, somebody that you know can keep confidentiality. Ask for help from those that are spiritual leaders within the church, folks you've already placed your trust in.
And most of all ask God, to give you the strength you need, to do the things you have to do, so that He might get the glory in the end.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.