The church always exists in some culture, somewhere. Prior to the new heavens and the new earth, the church will never be free of the influence of the prevailing culture where it finds itself. Because we’re in the culture, because we are a part of it, it is difficult to see the ways in which we’re being influenced by it. Nevertheless, it is not as if we have no way to criticize the surrounding, prevailing culture and to see some of the ways in which we are being influenced—especially if those ways are contrary to the faith. We have the Scriptures, God’s Holy Word. It was certainly given in its own times and places nevertheless, it is still God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who operated in and through the human authors. God’s Word is sufficiently clear so that we can know what we must believe and how we ought to live as a consequence.
One way in which the church seems to be presently influenced by the prevailing culture is a certain lawlessness in the way that discipline is administered. It is not as Scripture does not speak clearly both to the necessity of discipline and its process. Matthew 18:15–20 is one of the clearer passages in Scripture about how the church ought to function. The various church orders of the Reformed churches have more or less cut and pasted this passage:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:15-20, ESV)
Our Lord could not have been clearer. There are basic assumptions and steps to reconciliation:
- There is a clear moral standard by which righteousness and sin can be judged
- Sin is the transgression of the moral law
- An assessment that a sin has been committed
- Private correction
- If he refuses bring witnesses
- If he refuses tell the (visible, institutional) church
- If he refuses, treat him as an unbeliever
This is the divinely-ordained pattern that the church orders follow but it is not always the pattern followed by the church’s officers. There is always a temptation to take short cuts. We live in a fast-moving culture but the biblical process is slow, messy, even cumbersome. The temptation is to cut to the chase.
During the Kennedy administration Jackie O’s hairstyle became all the rage. Under the Carter Administration it seemed that everyone was “born again.” During the Clinton administration it was cigars. These fads were just symbols of the influence of the ruling class upon the rest of the culture. It’s not entirely clear what is the fad of the current administration but, judging by current events, it might be lawlessness. Public officials are not above the constitution they are charged to uphold and defend but one might not know that by the spate of recent news stories.
By analogy, pastors and elders are not above the clear teaching of Scripture. When they face church members or problems that seem difficult, they might be tempted to take things into their own hands, to achieve the ends that seem right to them. We have a polity (a form of government) in our churches but we aren’t supposed to have politics in our churches—not in the sense of campaigning for votes, manipulating the truth or persons. Dealings in the church are to be above-board and honest. They must be scrupulously so. We’re to conduct our business in the spirit of the 9th commandment, by telling the truth and trusting the Lord for the outcome.
We operate openly and honestly, even to our own discomfort, because we are ministers, not masters. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. We serve him and his interests, not our own. Distinguishing between interests is essential to preventing church polity from descending into church politics. Behind the temptation to fudge the results of the process is the assumption that the Lord wants what we want, that our will is the Lord’s will. That’s a big assumption and if we’re talking about providence, we cannot know that until after the fact.
There’s another factor that lies behind the spirit of the age: subjectivism. Do you watch the news and ask yourself, “How can they do that? What about the Constitution?” There are theories of constitutional interpretation that are prevalent in universities and law schools that deny that the constitution (or any body of laws) has any objective, fixed meaning. These theories teach, in essence, that the constitution means whatever we say it means. This is a form of subjectivism, the denial of the existence of objective reality and truth and the denial of the intent of the author. It’s lawlessness. We will not be limited by what the authors intended. We will not be limited by what the words actually say or meant when they were written. We will do what we will do. The key verb here is will.
The church is also influenced by subjectivism. Things that were once regarded as fixed and binding are now regarded as fluid and negotiable. Yes, Scripture, confession, and church order do give a process for handling our difficulties but we tell ourselves that our circumstance is different, that those norms don’t really apply to our situation. We begin to act as if we are a law unto ourselves. It’s not that hard to do. After all, who wants to be the bad guy and point out that the emperor, as it were, has no clothes? If everyone else thinks that x is a good idea, who am I to say it isn’t? Maybe I’m wrong?
Except you aren’t wrong. God’s Word isn’t that complicated. There is a revealed pattern. We know it and it’s binding. It’s not negotiable. We did not invent it and we cannot change it. God gave it to us. He commanded us to obey and apply it to our particular circumstances. Our problems aren’t that unique and if we tell ourselves differently, well, we’re kidding ourselves.
Consider this: if the law isn’t fixed and objective, then perhaps the gospel isn’t either? That’s not good news! Well, if we won’t have a fixed, binding law, how can we turn around and claim a fixed, objective gospel promise that covers all our sins? Perhaps there’s a sin that the gospel didn’t envision? Of course that’s just a lie from the pit and so is the story we tell ourselves about our church difficulties, that God’s Word doesn’t really speak to them.