Monday, September 8, 2008

Church Discipline Part 1: Overcoming Judgmentalism, Resentment, and Gossip

Text: Matthew 18:15

by The Rev. Matt Kennedy

Listen to the audio here

Note: The first part of the audio linked above includes two mistakes. I imply that Gene Robinson was ordained by Bishop Spong. He was not. He was ordained in the same diocese, Newark, that Spong oversaw, but he was ordained by an earlier bishop. Second, I seem to say that he was ordained as an "out" homosexual. He was not. He was married when ordained and "came out" later, after he had divorced his wife, and then took up with a male lover--all with the approval of his bishop. I was not looking at my text (below) at this point in my sermon and apologies for the inaccuracies. The text is accurate.

Church discipline is not something Anglicans have traditionally been very good at. One reason, I think, the Episcopal Church has come to its present state is that she has, both on the national and local parish level, not exercised the sort of discipline Jesus describes in Matthew 18. When, in the 1960's, Bishop James Pike denied the Trinity, the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, the core truths of the Christian faith, he was censured, but permitted to continue exercising his ministry, writing books, preaching, teaching as an Episcopalian bishop. When Bishop John Spong carried on Bishop Pike's legacy, not only denying the same truths he denied, but going further, suggesting that God is not a personal being who can answer prayer but is a sort of cosmic energy force, he was, again, not disciplined. Under Bishop Spong and other heterodox bishops like him during the 70's and 80's, hundreds of priests were ordained living in non-celibate homosexual relationships or unmarried heterosexual relationships. No discipline. One priest ordained during the 1970's in the Diocese of Newark (not yet under +Spong who became bishop of that diocese later), Gene Robinson, was married to a woman. Later he “came out”, divorced his wife, and began living in a non-celibate homosexual relationship all with the approval of his bishop. No discipline. Ultimately he, himself, became the Bishop of New Hampshire and sparked the controversy that has since divided the church. No discipline.

We see the same failure to discipline at the congregational level. In one church--and I've used this as an illustration but it really happened--a husband took up with a mistress, started bringing her to church while his wife and children sat in the pews. The pastor, the vestry, did nothing. The congregation too accepted this man's extra-marital relationship because he was a wealthy and prominent member. When she complained, his wife was told to get over it, to forgive and forget. Ultimately they left.

When congregations and denominations are not prepared to exercise biblical discipline, people get hurt, error creeps in, and Christian fellowship is broken.

It's not difficult to figure out why. If, say, a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner and young Billy starts throwing his mashed potatoes at people across the table and young Billy's mother smiles. If young Billy then takes his pumpkin pie and smears it on Aunt Shirley's blouse and his mother says, “Isn't little Billy cute”. If little Billy proceeds to spit his water at Uncle Joe while his mother long do you think people will want to sit at the table? Pretty soon Little Billy and his mother will be all by themselves. What might be a more commonsense way to handle the problem? Remove little Billy from the table.

The same is true for church discipline, it's a matter of common sense as much as obedience to Christ's commands, and without it, the truth of the gospel is obscured or denied, people are hurt, and fellowship is broken.

Before we even talk about the disciplinary process Jesus provides in this morning's gospel we've got to get over one psycological/philosophical hurdle and two common behavior patterns that hang people and congregations up when considering discipline.

The hurdle is the assumption is that discipline in the church is forbidden by Jesus' command: “Judge not that you not be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” Jesus gives this command in Matthew 7:2. you can also find it echoed in James 4:12 but we'll concentrate on Matthew.

Usually Matthew 7:2 is understood to mean that any time anyone says that anything anybody else does is wrong they're “judging”. So, the idea of a Christian congregation exercising “discipline” is seen as a blatant violation of the bible.

Let's look at Matthew 7 briefly. You'll notice that Jesus' command not to judge is followed in verse 6 by this command: “"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.” Then, beginning in verse 15 of the same chapter we read: "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them..” (Matt 7:15-20)

The question is, if Jesus' command not to “judge” means that we are never to come to a negative conclusion about someone's behavior or character, then how are we to obey Jesus' other command and keep from throwing pearls to pigs? How are we to “recognize false prophets” or to know a good tree or a bad tree by its fruit?

In the end, there's only one way to reconcile the command not to judge with the command to recognize those who are false by their fruits and that's to make a distinction between judgments that we ourselves make and judgments that God makes.

Let me give an example that God makes. I can say without a hint shadow or shade of judgmentalism that Adultery is wrong. It is not wrong because I don't like it. It is not wrong because I don't do it. It is wrong because God has revealed in his word that it is wrong. And so, if I commit adultery or you commit adultery, we can be called to account without violating the command against judging because, in fact, it is not our judgment rendered in that case but God's.

By contrast, there are all sorts of judgments that we make on our own that I think Jesus does forbid. I'll describe three types, there are more.

First we make judgments based on taste: We judge people negatively, we condemn them, for the way they dress, the way they talk, what they drink or don't drink, a personality type that happens to clash with ours, their geographical background, their ethnicity, the way they walk, their family background, annoying habits....these judgments are all based on our own personal taste. They're not God's revealed judgments but our own.

Second we can make judgments based on our own traditions or culture. The Pharisees were experts at this sort of judgment, condemning anyone who violated their customs. The same thing is often done in the church. Every local congregation, every denomination, upholds certain traditions--we have some here at Good Shepherd and that is fine and good, but when those traditions are not honored or someone shows up who does not know them, negative judgments are often applied...”why doesn't so and so show proper reverence to the sanctuary?” “How dare he or she not bow when the cross passes by?” “Why don't these people cross themselves?” These are purely human judgments. God has nothing to do with them.

Third, we jump to conclusions without evidence. We assume the worst about someone's words or deeds, based on a mixture of intuition and personal animosity. If you dislike someone it is very easy to assign the worst motives, to project the very worst intentions to what that person does and says. You naturally build a case in your mind justifying your dislike and often you (and I) build it on the flimsy evidence.

All of these sorts of judgments and others I think are included in Jesus' command not to judge.

But the application of God's word, his judgment, to a situation in which there is clear evidence, is necessary in order to have the kind of discernment Jesus calls us to have in Matthew 7 and in our text from Matthew 18.

After we get over the judgment hurdle we're confronted with two common behavior patterns that prevent us from following Jesus' words in Matthew 18. To see them we'll need to open our bible's to Matthew 18:15 where we read, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”

If you have an NIV bible, you'll notice a little letter or number over the word “you” in the first clause. At the bottom of the page, you'll find a note informing the reader that some ancient manuscripts read simply “If your brother sins go and show him his fault”. Out of the thousands of copies of this section of Matthew some have the “against you” tacked onto the end of the first clause and some do not. Some think this matters a whole lot. I don't. Believers in Jesus Christ are spiritually interconnected and bound together by the Holy Spirit. Every sin in the body Christ is both a sin against God and against the neighbor. My sins against God are also sins against you. we are not individual little units. We are One united Body of Christ.

So if someone sins against you, or simply sins, (take your pick, same thing) we are commanded, to take that person aside privately and show him his fault.

That's the model. Let's talk about what usually happens in this congregation and I am sure Good Shepherd is not unique.

There are two patterned responses I've noticed.

The first is the false peace response. Mildred goes to bible study one evening. In the course of the conversation, Bertha brings up something funny that Mildred's daughter said. It offends Mildred. But Mildred hates conflict so she says nothing. Instead, a deep slow burning resentment begins to grow. When Bertha enters a room, Mildred remembers the insult and the root of bitterness grows. Whatever Bertha a says or does, Mildred interprets in the worst possible light. The resentment burns and grows to the point that Mildred cannot even stand to be in the same room with Bertha and since Bertha is everywhere, Mildred decides that she needs to find another church. That's pattern one.

Pattern two: war. Same offense. But this time instead of keeping it inside, Mildred doesn't keep her resentment bottled up. Instead she tells her friend Jane, her other friend Karen and then her husband Joe. The next day, she remembers that another woman in the church, Jennifer, also has a grudge against Bertha. Mildred has always wanted to be friends with Jeniffer so the next time she sees her, she just lets what Bertha said kind of slip out, innocently of course, and the two spend the next hour talking about how much they dislike Bertha. Meanwhile, Bertha begins to sense some animosity from Mildred and she can't figure out why. So she goes to her friend Sarah. Sarah and Bertha decide that Mildred is and always has been judgmental easily offended and in fact Sarah remembers that she was just the other day having the same conversation with George who agrees. Bertha decides to give George a call about something else and in no time, the subject of Mildred comes up and they spend the next hour talking about how touchy and victimized Mildred can be. Soon there are two factions in the church, the Mildred faction and the Bertha faction, and an underground guerrilla war begins.

Now, is there anything that might have prevented both pattern one and pattern two? Had Mildred or Bertha simply obeyed what Jesus commands in 18:15 both the war pattern and the false peace patter would be averted. But we don't do that .

So many friendships, fellowships and congregations have been torn apart because individual believers are disobedient to this first single command at the very beginning of the disciplinary process.

We're going to have to stop here this morning

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