If We Won't Discipline, Are We Really the Church?

One of the clearest commands our Lord gave during his ministry, before his crucifixion, death, burial, and ascension, was to practice discipline in the congregations (Matt 18). It has been abused, but more often it has been neglected. The Apostle Paul also commanded that we love the congregation and love the impenitent by disciplining him.

In our age, we’ve come to tell ourselves that “love” means tolerating everything and anything one does. That such an attitude and practice is not actual love is easy to see. If a child is sitting near an electrical outlet with a pair of needle nose pliers, to watch that child put the pliers (as he is likely to do) into the outlet is not loving is it? (Yes, I was that boy and Mom didn’t see the pliers and it all happened so quickly. I don’t blame her and I don’t think it did lasting damage; but the reader will reach his own conclusions about that). Love requires that, if possible, one intervene and say, “Wait a minute! What you are doing is neither safe nor right. Stop or there will be consequences.”

We might more easily accept the necessity of this sort of love when it comes to practical sins such as theft, murder, or sexual immorality but what about doctrinal error? Well, we Americans aren’t very good at “ideas.” We like practical projects that give us the satisfaction of completion. It’s hard to see the outcome of a doctrinal error or of discipline for error, at least right away. So, we make good pronouncements and we’re tempted to leave it at that.

Pronouncements are grand and important but they are only the beginning. Serious doctrinal error, such as corrupting the gospel by adding works to faith in the act of justification, is every bit as dangerous as any “practical” sin. It has even greater consequences for greater numbers of people. God hates it as much as he hates practical sin.

Look at it this way. For which did Paul pronounce an anathema (eternal condemnation)? A practical sin or doctrinal error? In Gal 2 it was the latter! Sin is no light thing. It is worthy of death. It required the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of our Lord but doctrinal, theological error destroys the foundations of the very church. It is insidious. It might seem that we’re getting away with not doing anything, but eventually the wind will blow and the church will topple. By then, of course, it will be too late. What destroyed the mainline churches and what will destroy the borderline churches and the sideline churches, was not “immorality” of the sort we normally think, it was latitudinarianism — doctrinal pluralism.

The Reformed churches have recognized errors in our midst. We have addressed them. Will we have the courage to actually do something about them in concrete cases or will we content ourselves to have received reports and adopted pastoral advice and the like?

The real question is whether we will have a church.

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