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Love Song on the Trumpet

Did Jesus contradict himself when He told us to exercise church discipline?


For He also told us to love and to forgive up to seventy times seven. So discipline is sometimes seen as contrary to the love commandment. This is because we misunderstand discipline as an entirely negative thing.


Here is an area in church life where the spirit of the age has made an indelible mark. Ours is a time of almost-unqualified acceptance and toleration. Above all, Christians have to be nice people, and to rebuke someone just isn’t nice.

Church discipline can seem the ultimate not-niceness.

So we hesitate. This will only alienate them, and maybe their family too. This will burn whatever is left of the bridge between the elders and the member. And so the elders meeting ends with a decision on church discipline being deferred yet again…


God’s Heart for the Sinner


Biblical wisdom requires that we consider our motives. What is at the heart of what we’re doing? Ezekiel 33 is about the watchmen whom the Lord posted on Jerusalem’s walls with trumpets in hand. And all their warning blasts spring from God’s own heart. For God, to warn a sinner is to love him. Look at verses 10-11,


“And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”


God’s amazing and undeserved mercy is always operative in his warnings and discipline. It’s a love we should emulate as leaders in Christ’s church.


We go astray when we regard church discipline as only remedial or corrective, not as formative and instructive. We shouldn’t regard discipline as the final (and essentially separate) phase of our interaction with a church member.


In a general sense, discipline is what we do for every member as we seek to promote holy living and true belief. The Bible consistently speaks of discipline positively, something that is meant to produce a harvest of righteousness (Heb 12:11). This is the discipline that we are busy with, every day, every week, at every pastoral visit, during every meeting, every coffee shop chat.

We do these things because we love our people.

When we see church discipline as not disconnected from all the positive work of formative discipline, it becomes easier to accept it as a legitimate option. We’ve loved this member all along, and we’ll keep loving them. When a member is being snared by sin’s deceptive power, we sound the trumpet, lest she die in her guilt. We might even, as one more helping effort, excommunicate her. We love her too much not to.


I appreciate how Jonathan Leeman in his book Church Discipline emphasizes the loving motivations of church discipline.[1] He says discipline shows love for the sinner, by calling them to repent, warning them of all they will miss if they do not come and follow Christ.


In striking terms, Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:5 describes the discipline of a hardened sinner. He says, “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” He’s speaking about putting a person outside of the communion—akin to handing a person over to the devil—yet it is done with this loving goal: the person’s ultimate salvation through Christ. Just as God says in Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he turn and be forgiven.” Because we love the sinner and want what’s best for him, we sound the warning. It’s a love song on the trumpet.


I still recall one young woman. The elders had been reaching out to her repeatedly, with no success. She was put under discipline, and eventually she withdrew from the church. So there was no happy ending (as far as we could see). But after she left, I had the opportunity to speak with her. And she said a surprising thing: that though she always put up high walls against the elders, and as “irritating” as they were, she always knew that the elders loved her. She knew they would keep calling, keep showing up, even as she wandered. And somehow that was an encouragement to her. Maybe God will use that experience of the church’s care to draw her back one day…


I’m sure that not all our straying members appreciate the efforts of the elders, but we should never discount the power of a Christ-like love.


Persistence


The work of blowing the trumpet can also be hard because there is so little response. An elder wonders: What does discipline look like when my phone calls aren’t being answered? How do I pursue someone who keeps shutting the door on me?


Then I’d ask again: Are you still sounding the trumpet? Has this brother or sister heard the truth from you? Maybe you haven’t had a normal visit with them for more than three years, but perhaps you texted them, or wrote them a pastoral letter, or dropped in at their house and had an awkward conversation at the front door.


Have you, in one way or another, sounded the trumpet to warn them that they’re going to die apart from Christ? This is what God calls us to do.


We have to do it, because the prospect of failure is terrifying. We know what happened to Judah in the time of Ezekiel. They did not repent, so the temple was destroyed and thousands more were taken into exile. The sword came, and the blood of many was on their own head.


It still happens today. The watchmen might do their job, calling out sin, warning of judgment, applying discipline. Yet a sinner doesn’t break from their sinful lifestyle. You put some people under formal church discipline, and that is effectively the end of their relationship with the church and with Christ—they’re gone. The pain makes us feel the weight of our task. Have I, in one way or another, sounded the trumpet for this brother, this sister?


For me as a preacher too, it’s an intimidating thought: Have I really warned people like I should? For elders, too: Have you sounded the trumpet?


We shouldn’t be motivated by fear of failure. Rather, let’s keep the weight of responsibility well-balanced. If I have honestly warned a brother about the coming judgment, if we have held out the gospel and the demands of the gospel, but he hasn’t listened, then his blood is on his own head.


Freedom in Discipline


From this perspective, we have a blessed freedom. Ezekiel 33 says that if the watchmen have been diligent, God absolves them of responsibility: they do not have “blood on their hands” (v. 8). If we have said what we need to, if we’ve done what we (reasonably) could do, then we can leave it in God’s hands. We can speak the truth, pray for a person’s good answer, but we cannot compel them to respond rightly. So that puts the onus on us to speak, and to pray, and to use the tools that Christ gives.

But having done what we could, we are free.

Listen to how Paul speaks of his ministry in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders. He puts the accent on something unexpected. In verses 26-27 he says, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” His hands don’t have blood on them—makes you think of Ezekiel 33.


He connects his innocence with his commitment to preaching all of God’s word: “I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” He preached the gospel of Christ, of course. But surely he also warned the Ephesians against returning to their idols and descending into immorality again. Paul said what he needed to. So he leaves Ephesus with a clear conscience.


The same is true for church leaders today. When we faithfully bring the Word and use the means of grace—including church discipline—we can have confidence to leave the results with God and his mighty Spirit. This frees us from fear, from false guilt, and from the pressure of trying to save someone by our own efforts.


And then recall that the watchman’s warning can turn the wicked from his sin. God assures us that for Christ’s sake, He forgives the one who repents and who brings forth its fruits. For He wants no sinner to perish, but all to come to a knowledge of his truth.


That’s something to hold onto as we care for the people of Christ.


***

[1] Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 22-23.

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