To forgive on a personal basis is one thing; for a fellowship to pronounce forgiveness is quite another. Is it even necessary? Granted, in many instances a wrong committed can be put right by a simple apology. In community this should be a daily experience. But grave sins may need to be brought before the community or at least before a small group of trustworthy brothers and sisters. To use the New Testament analogy of the church as a body, it would be unthinkable for an injury to one part to go unnoticed by the whole: the defenses of the entire body are mustered. So too the sin of one person in a church will affect every member.
As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “A community cannot afford to ‘overlook’ one another’s sins because they have learned that sins are a threat to being a community of peace.” Members of a united community will “no longer regard their lives as their own” or harbor their grievances as merely theirs. “When we think our brother or sister has sinned against us, such an affront is not just against us but against the whole community.”
Most churches today shy away from practicing discipline. Unfortunately, because of this, members who stumble and fall have little chance for repentance, let alone a new beginning. Mark and Debbie, members of the community I belong to, experienced this firsthand before coming to join us:
Over the years we witnessed the disastrous results of ignoring sin or secretly hiding it. We lived in a small urban community with several people, one of whom was a single man who had fallen in love with a married woman in our group. Some of us tried to tackle their affair by talking with them separately about it. Yet there was no way to really bring it out in the open – we had no mutual understanding or covenant, and no grasp of the authority Jesus had given to his church to expose and rid itself of sin – and so there was no way to experience clarity or victory.
Without discipline in the community, there is no way to experience clarity or victory.
Under the excuse that church discipline was too harsh or fundamentalistic, too legalistic, and too judgmental, we opted for the lie that this sin wasn’t a very serious matter, at least not serious enough to bring it out into the open. Didn’t we all sin? Who were we to judge? Anyway, as the modern myth goes, we thought that what people needed most was loving acceptance and space to fail, not confrontation. We were under the illusion that confrontation not only added to the pain of personal shame and self-condemnation but perpetuated the cycle of failure. So we avoided it like the plague. Now we see that it was our so-called compassion that did the perpetuating.
Tragically, the man eventually left. Two years later the woman also left the community – and divorced her husband.
Naturally I cannot advise others on how – or even whether – to practice church discipline. There is some guidance in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Cor. 5), but every situation calls for discernment. Clearly, we must reject the practice of “shunning,” which is used in some denominations to separate the “righteous” from the “evildoer”; the emphasis on punishment rather than hope for redemption and reconciliation has devastating consequences. A great deal depends on the level of commitment and accountability a community has. In a united church community whose members are accountable and committed to one another, discipline is a great gift: in rooting out sin, it can bring clarity to the most clouded situations; and by restoring those who fall, it can cleanse and enliven the body by purifying its members and giving them new faith and joy.
There are, I feel, a few basic aspects of communal discipline that must be considered if it is to be practiced redemptively. First, it must be voluntary; otherwise it will only harm the person who needs to be helped by it. Second, it must be practiced with love, sensitivity, and respect – not overzealously, not judgmentally, and certainly never with gossip. Instead of holding ourselves above the disciplined member, we need to repent with him and see where our own sin might have caused him to stumble. Our goal should never be punishment, but rather restoration.
Finally, discipline must be followed by complete forgiveness. Once the member shows himself to be repentant, he should be joyfully reaccepted, and the reason for his discipline should never be mentioned again. There are few joys as great as accepting a brother or sister who has undergone discipline back into the life of the fellowship. Repentance is a gift which we should actually all ask for again and again.
From Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People, Chapter forty.
Johann Christoph Arnold, Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 1997), 146–151.
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