For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. Matthew 18:20
We hear this quoted all the time. The church uses it to solemnize weddings, to invoke worship, to encourage groups of all sorts. It’s even used to validate business meetings where the most spiritual item on the agenda is replacing the air conditioner.
Thus it is no small surprise to most people that Jesus uttered these words in a discourse on church discipline.
The ‘two or three’ who have gathered (Matthew 18:20) are those who ‘agree on earth’ (Matthew 18:19) about what shall be ‘bound’ and ‘loosed’ (Matthew 18:18), referring to the discipline of the church resulting in excommunication of a wayward and unrepentant believer (Matthew 18:15-17). (By the way, another famous and oft-quoted promise that Jesus will be with us also comes in the context of discipline: ‘go and make disciples…and lo I am with you always’ –Matthew 28:18-20).
Southern Baptists & Regenerate Church Membership
Southern Baptists recently adopted a resolution emphasizing regenerate church membership and discipline (read it at http://www.floridabaptistwitness.com/8981.article), but opponents of the idea are already attempting to dilute its impact. Bobby Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist (www.thealabamabaptist.org) is a case in point. In a recent article (The Alabama Baptist, June 26, 2008, Vol. 173 No. 26) Terry summarizes his resistance to the biblical idea of discipline and accountability in the church: ‘Since God does not give up on ‘wayward church members,’ it is hard to understand how His church could give up on them. The truth is that restoration will only take place as people are loved into the life of the church…’ He continues, ‘We are the ones who need to repent for our lack of faithfulness in caring for and being concerned about our fellow church members.’
But that is precisely the point. Caring for and being concerned about other members is not limited to sentimental notions that believers caught in sin can be ‘loved into the life of the church’ or that the only thing necessary to restore a believer fleeing from the church is to ‘love on him.’ Biblically, care and concern for members includes rebuke, exhortation, encouragement and yes, discipline. Exercising this discipline is not ‘giving up on’ the one receiving it. To assert this is to maintain that Jesus himself was ‘giving up on’ the one who wouldn’t listen to the church (Matthew 18:15-17), and that Paul was ‘giving up on’ those purged from fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:11-13), shunned for idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15), handed over to Satan (1 Timothy 1:20), publicly rebuked (1 Timothy 5:20), and warned about division (Titus 3:9-11).
Love Does Not Give Up
To the contrary, ‘giving up on’ our members is permitting them to divorce each other, to sue each other, to abuse each other; permitting them to stagnate, hibernate and migrate from their relationship to the sheepfold.
Certainly discipline has both positive and negative aspects. Positive discipline seeks to mold biblical attitude and behavior and thus avoid correction. But when positive discipline breaks down, negative discipline (correction) is necessary for restoration. Indeed, ‘restoration’ implies a breach of some sort that requires a remedy. Restoration cannot be merely positive: attempts to make it so degenerate into the sentimentalism asserting that people can be ‘loved back into the life of the church.’
The church, it seems, has become afraid to live like the church, or even like most families. The SBC resolutions seek to reverse that condition and encourage a biblical view of church life, one in which Christ is in the midst of our discipline.