Searching Love: About Discipline in the Church
Every little sheep, no matter how pigheaded, is extremely precious. The Shepherd paid a lot for it, indeed, an unimaginable amount. His own dear life was the price to save each sheep and to hold on to it in his love.
The love of the Shepherd is always a searching love. He has sought us from time immemorial. And having been included in his flock we must remain in his love, no matter the cost. Outside of it we will die sooner or later. He keeps on searching even if a little sheep wanders away, even if it falls into the clutches of his enemy, even if it becomes enmeshed in a snare by his own stupid fault.
When we open our Bible to the golden chapter about “discipline” we must always read it against the background of the Shepherd who goes to search for the sheep that is in danger of being lost (Matt. 18:14). He recognizes the dangers that threaten his flock. Sheep are vulnerable. They can wander off course when they are attracted by external temptations, or carried along by a self-willed companion. If even one sheep wanders off, the heart of the Shepherd is moved by love and he takes action. He begins to look for the sheep.
Discipline in the church must be accompanied by love. It is regrettable that the word continues to have an ineradicably negative connotation. As far as I am concerned another word might serve us better.
In the Balance
The basis for the administration of discipline is crumbling according to M. te Velde. In a lecture for office bearers, he identified many causes: our culture is playing tricks on us in a number of ways; and we are faced with a spirituality that fails to recognize a crisis, an empathetic and a psychologizing pastorate, an evangelicalization of our faith life, a selective application of history, and the fact that discipline has at some point come to be applied erratically in our church life. Every consistory should read this lecture and discuss it either with or without the participation of the congregation.1
Discipline hangs in the balance. That was the title of an article written by two colleagues and printed some time ago in Nederlands Dagblad.2
In our culture discipline is often dismissed as meddling and a mania for organization in which you do not respect the other person or his or her human worth. The writers propose that we should replace the word discipline with Christian discipline and that we should look for other ways to exercise it. They believe that we should regard discipline not as primarily an affair conducted by the consistory, but in first instance as an activity of the congregation.
A Mutual Activity
Whether and to what extent this mutual discipline is in fact being exercised is a very exigent question! Our confession of faith says that this is a characteristic feature of the Lord’s community of faith. In the past we may have had the notion that we were certainly true churches. But on this point we need to admit that we must engage in an honest and frank self-examination.
It is striking that immediately after that brief parable about the searching shepherd in Matthew 18, we ourselves are addressed: If a brother or sister sins against you, you must talk about it privately to that brother or sister. And if the sinners listens to you, you have won them over for the church (Matt. 18:15).
As I was preparing a sermon on Answer 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism, I conducted a search to see what Scripture says about mutual encouragement and admonition. The Spirit’s strong emphasis on this is striking:
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:12-13).
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24).
“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).
“In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold…Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:25-26, 31-32).
“And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:14).
The Rudiments of Discipline
Discipline seems to be applied only when there is a stubborn derailment on the part of a person. Such a case does not just involve sin, but a continuing in sin. “It always involves a hardening”, according to Te Velde. And that is true when it comes to discipline that is exercised by the office bearers. But before it comes to that, there ought to be self-discipline and mutual discipline. (In this context Te Velde also makes a beautiful reference to discipline in the family: do we, in our relationship with the Lord, exercise discipline in our families?)
I do not want to restrict mutual discipline to calling someone to account, or intervening in a particular situation. Those actions should be preceded by spiritual exhortation and mutual encouragement. That is why I liked that P.W. van de Kamp, in his reflection on the role of small groups in the congregation, spoke of the rudiments of mutual discipline: exhortation, encouragement, and correction.3
Mutual discipline requires an active spiritual life in the congregation, discussions on that level, and an environment in which the vulnerable feel safe. It must be possible for the darkest sins to be brought into the open and for the hidden sinner to be restored by the seeking love of Christ and be placed in the light of his grace. He does not write us off after a grave sin. He does not let us wander around with our erroneous ideas. He does not let us go when his adversary threatens to grab hold of us.
In fact, we all badly need his encouragement, even if we do not wander away and are not enmeshed in an obstinate sin. We can all use his exhortation as we grow in a life of love for the Lord, develop discipline in the lifestyle of the kingdom, focus on what is of primary importance in our busy life under the sun, and live every day out of grace and in the strength of the Spirit.
The area for special attention is then significantly broader than sexual sins of all kinds. The body of Christ can also quickly be infiltrated by materialism, laziness, and a stubborn lack of dedication and thankfulness — to name but a few things…
Opposition to Discipline in Modern Life
We are a congregation of the Lord in our time. But in our time people object to discipline. They believe that modern life demands a good relationship, acceptance, and tolerance. And therefore you should no longer put things as strongly as was done in the past. If you do that, you are being difficult. You should at all times try to maintain good (pastoral) relations, otherwise you fail to respect the worth of the other person. In our time of psychologizing and democratizing, you are expected to place yourself in the circumstances of and empathize with people in their struggles and the brokenness of their lives (see also M. te Velde). If you do not, you will be met with the accusation that you have no feeling for people.
This modern attitude can easily erode the rudiments of discipline as applied in the spiritual community of God’s kingdom. But in that kingdom discipline must be administered in harmony with and according to the standards of God’s Word. His honour is at stake in our (congregational) life (see Church Order, art. 66). The active life in the love of the Shepherd and out of his grace is on the line. If you want to maintain a good relationship with Christ, you must sever your relationship with sin. If you want to remain accepted by God, you may not naively engage in sin. When you have regard solely to another’s worth and tolerate each other, you run the danger of letting the other slip through the cracks. And that applies to you too if you refuse to be held to account for anything you do. Before you know it, our spiritual life partakes more of the spirit of the times than of Jesus’ Holy Spirit.
A Loving Search
Whether we remain a true church, a true community of the Lord (kuria-kè), also depends on the answer to the question whether we want to practice and apply Christian discipline according to the command of Christ. Most profoundly, this discipline concerns life or death; following Jesus Christ, or getting bogged down in an existence apart from him; remaining in the light of his grace, or becoming entangled in the darkness of sin. Like no other, our Shepherd perceived the threatening danger of the infiltration of his flock. His adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And the temptations are lurking all around you. The gates of hell are open and the powers of evil have come out into the open and perform their malicious work on earth.
But we have been transported from the realm of darkness into the kingdom of Christ. That is where he reigns in his love. Like no other, he knows the liberating operation of his grace, the unrestrained energy of his Spirit, and the power of his love. He gave his life for his sheep. We belong to him and he wants to keep us. For that alone is our salvation.
That is why he seeks our heart in his love. There he wants to be the love of our life. That is the best of all.