It’s Monday evening, and the elders meeting is entering its third hour. Discussion has turned to the “members in need of special attention.”
It’s time to speak about one brother, a single man. His elders don’t have a good report. The brother has been on the list for a couple of years, and the trend is not positive: maybe it is sporadic church attendance, or he is “kind of” dating a nonbeliever, or it is some Sunday work—some of this, or all of this, together with refusing contact with the elders.
Church discipline has previously been mentioned, and now it is again. But this time his elders seem more convinced: we need to start the process of church discipline!
After the elders say their piece, there is one of those rare moments of silence. The gears are grinding; the other brothers are mulling it over. But then a few voices are heard. And there is hesitation. Taking this step will alienate the brother. Our contact with him is minimal already—this will only make it impossible. Our brother is a bruised reed and a smouldering wick, so we should be patient.
The elders try respond to the comments being made, but they’re getting flustered. They certainly don’t want to come down hard. They insist that their goal remains the brother’s repentance, his restoration, like the New Testament says. But the discussion is floundering. The hour is now well-advanced, and people are tired.
This is the challenge when we talk about discipline. Everyone wants clarity. We want a sure-fire method for dealing with our unrepentant members. Not just a pragmatic solution, but something that works because it is right, Biblical, loving and helpful.
On the Walls
If there is one unfailing source of clarity, it is the Word of God. And Ezekiel 33 speaks to our question of church discipline in a pointed way, when God says to the prophet,
“If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.” (vv. 2-4)
Ezekiel was a prophets of the Lord with an onerous assignment. He had to minister in the heartland of Israel’s enemy, the empire of Babylon. Ezekiel himself was part of a first shipment of exiles. The Babylonians had scraped off the upper crust of Judean society. Now Ezekiel has to bring the exiles God’s Word.
So Ezekiel preaches a warning message, telling about God’s imminent punishment on their sin. Namely, that if there was no repentance, God will withdraw his glory completely. As Ezekiel keeps saying,
The sword is coming and the wicked person will die.
Ezekiel likens this ministry of admonition to the posting of watchmen. Watchmen were a familiar sight: men on the walls and fortifications who stood constantly on guard, scanning the horizon for enemies, making ready to welcome allies. Everyone knew that the loud blast of their trumpets signalled the approach of a threat.
But there’s another kind of watchman too, one for defending the people’s spiritual integrity. For enemies lurked inside Jerusalem, too: the temptation to worship the gods of the nations, or the confusion fostered by false prophets. Against many dangers, Ezekiel was a watchman. The elders of the land were watchmen too, as were the faithful priests and righteous kings.
The point is, there is a crying need for someone to blow the trumpet: “I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel,” God says to Ezekiel, “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” (33:7).
Sounds simple. But blowing the trumpet is hard work. A couple of my daughters have played in a high school concert band. And I find the trumpeters often look like they’re about to blow a gasket: cheeks out, face beet red, forehead contorted in pain. If you want to get good sound out of a trumpet, you have to know what you’re doing, and it’s going to take some effort.
Surely the same is true for a watchman for God’s people—what the New Testament calls an overseer. Their task is hard and accompanied by a heavy responsibility. Lives depend on it! This is what God is saying to Ezekiel, ‘If you see the sword of judgment coming, but you don’t blow your trumpet, and people die in their sin, then I will require their blood of you.’
God says to his servants, ‘Warn my sinning people. Tell them to turn from their iniquity.’ But God conceives of a situation where the watchman doesn’t do the hard work of blowing the trumpet. And notice the doubly-tragic result: not only do the sinners die in their sin, but the watchman himself is held to account: God says, “Their blood I will require of you” (see v. 6). A person died, and you could’ve prevented it.
Because if a watchman does sound the trumpet, and the sinner responds, for him there will be preservation and a future. Verse 5 says:
But if he took warning, he would have saved his life.
Instead of dying, the sinner lives—he lives through a well-placed admonition. And instead of falling under God’s judgment, he enjoys restoring mercy.
Points of Connection
Ezekiel 33 is not about church discipline in exactly the way we confess it as Reformed churches, but it’s not far off. In both Ezekiel 33 and a situation of discipline:
-there is unrepentant sin
-there is a God-sanctioned warning for the sinner
-there is a basis for this warning in God’s seeking and saving love
-there is God’s employment of human messengers to bring his warning
-there are two possible outcomes from the warning: repentance or hardening
-these two outcomes have consequences: life or death
-and this puts a responsibility not only on the sinner, but on God’s messenger
Appreciate how verse gives a mandate for church discipline; God says to his watchman, “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” From God, through his elders, the warning comes.
The church of Christ needs trumpet-blowers.
So the watchmen of the church have an urgent task. Because like in Ezekiel’s time, there is a sword coming—and this time it’s final. God has appointed a day of judgment to which all people will be called: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). Because this is so, God lays upon us the calling to speak and to warn. He does, because a rebuke has the ability to bring about repentance and forgiveness through Christ.
Giving an Account
Let’s reflect a moment on the gravity of the elders’ task. The Holy Spirit says in Hebrews that the church’s leaders “keep watch over you as men who must give account” (13:17). “Keep watch,” he says, for we’re like watchmen at the end of the nightshift who have a debriefing with their commanding officer.
Called before Christ, what account will we give?
We will speak of our actions, our good intentions, even our mistakes. It will be the account of weak men, an account of some victories and not a few losses.
And Ezekiel’s words make us pause, ‘When we have to give an account of our work, will there be the blood of any sinner on our hands? Will God require that of us?’ Should I have said something about his sin, blown my trumpet more urgently? Should I have been more direct, less fearful, less concerned about how they might respond?
Should we as elders have taken action earlier, and put someone under church discipline? Would that have helped him turn from sin and walk with Christ?