by Robert Brow
were baptized, and there were added
that day about three thousand
souls. And they devoted
themselves to the apostles'
teaching and fellowship
(Acts 2:41, 42).
WE HAVE SEEN THAT BAPTISM, as practiced in the New Testament, was the means appointed by Jesus for enrolling learners in the school of the Holy Spirit. We noted that for most of us the word "school" has a somewhat negative connotation. If the Christian Church were merely an educational agency it would be unattractive indeed.
But add the word "fellowship" and the whole picture changes and brightens. The crusty Victorian schoolteacher drilling Latin verbs into his pupils made no allowance for fellowship. He wanted none between himself and his pupils, and as little as possible among the children themselves. He was intent on academic training, and fellowship was seen as a distraction. But what does Christian fellowship mean? Some people think of social gatherings serving tea and pot luck suppers. Others look back nostalgically to fervent groups singing together the old-time hymns. For many men, the only happy memories of church come from being part of a work team pouring concrete for a new floor or fixing up a summer camp. In each of these activities there is obviously an ingredient of fellowship, but not necessarily of Christian koinonia. This New Testament Greek term for fellowship has a distinctive quality to it. It may involve social gatherings, singing, and practical work, but it exists apart from them. It infuses and transforms all typically Christian activities.
Here is a working definition of koinonia: "A group of people who accept each other as sinners with a view to being changed by God." Christian fellowship involves accepting and being accepted in a group of sinners. We make no claim to be good people. Many of those who never darken the doors of our churches are far more noble, upright, and loving than we are. We do not pretend to have attained any standard of spirituality or saintliness, like the Pharisees. We are all sinners.
And of course "sinners" does not just mean the gross sins like murder, drunkenness, immorality, and bank robbery. We define sin in terms of our end product. When God has finished with us we have to be absolutely perfect. I admit that if you are to enjoy me forever in heaven I need a huge amount of changing! The least imperfection in the light of heaven would be unbearable. Sin is therefore anything and everything that will need to change, in me, before I am fit to be your fellow in the eternal City of God.
Now Jesus claimed to be the doctor for sin. He undertook to heal and perfect sinners. When the Pharisees objected that his friends were those who made no pretense to being righteous, he answered "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). That means that Christian churches are not only schools but hospitals, and hospitals are for the sick. All Christians are patients expecting to be made perfectly whole by Jesus Christ. Because I am a Christian you should assume that I am in need of healing. And I assume that you also as a fellow Christian have a great deal of sin sickness that Jesus is dealing with. That is the basis of our relationship in the church.
Jesus made this very clear in the parable of the unforgiving servant. Having been forgiven ten thousand talents' (or several million dollars') worth of misappropriation he goes out and grabs by the throat a fellow servant who owes him twenty dollars. Peter was irritated at the necessity of forgiving a friend seven times, but Jesus said "not seven times but seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:21-35). So when I meet you as a Christian I must expect to forgive you many faults. You will also find many faults to forgive in me. Much will need to change for me to be your fellow in heaven. Some of our sins may be common to both of us. Others will seem strange and incomprehensible to you: "How on earth can he be so selfish, unfeeling, fussy ... ?" As I observe you and you observe me more closely we must learn not to be shocked at each other's behavior.
But of course that degree of acceptance does not alone constitute Christian fellowship. The drunks on skid row accept each other too. Many groups of friends have an amazing tolerance of each other's sins. Our definition specifies those "who accept each other as sinners with a view to being changed by God." This means that you look at me as I am, with a fair knowledge of my faults, and then you must picture me as perfected. You must imagine me cleansed of all that displeases you, a fellow citizen in the City of God. That introduces a huge measure of faith into Christian fellowship. The drunks on skid row accept each other, but they expect no change for the better. For them, things can only get worse until death ends the increasing stupor.
Now, we come to the third part of Christian fellowship and the most difficult to enact. I accept you as a sinner with a number of faults. I picture you as perfected when God has finished his work in you. But then I am tempted to undertake the process of change myself. When I notice you are addicted to drugs, easily depressed, shy, touchy, and very angry both with yourself and with any who try to get too close to you, I decide that the obvious first thing to correct is your lack of self-control. I begin by kidding you, nagging you, then lecturing you and trying to shame you. I may conscript others to join me in applying moral pressure. In some cases we may succeed. Some churches have developed very effective methods for changing sinners. But that is not part of our definition of fellowship. "To be changed by God" means that we leave it to God to do the changing in his own way and according to his perfect sequence.
God may not decide to begin with your addiction. Perhaps, as he discerns the thoughts and intents of your heart, he sees that you use drugs because of loneliness or frustration. And you are frustrated because you find it hard to relate to people. In your case that is because you have never known what love is. You cannot picture God as a loving Father because your own father treated you so abominably. These are some of the knotted tangles of causality that psychiatrists try to disentangle, and Christians should recognize their work as a necessary part of the healing arts. The difficulty is that psychiatrists are often unable to do the unraveling, and even when they succeed there is still much more to be corrected, from God's point of view. Together with whatever help friends, and family, and modern medicine are able to give, my acceptance of you must include a steady faith that God is in control and he will work in and through all his diverse means to complete your perfection.
This trust in God to change you is not a passive thing. Prayer is a deliberate handing-over of one's fellow to be changed by God himself. That is the most loving thing I can do for you, and the greatest ground of fellowship. It is at once incredibly easy, so that a child can do it, and supremely difficult, because we find every reason for either ignoring or interfering in the lives of others. Prayer neither ignores nor interferes. It is the genuine loving support that every Christian needs. If I speak out of turn I will do more harm than good. I will get the sequence of change wrong. But if I pray and watch God doing his loving work in you, I can be interested without interfering, loving without selfish possessiveness.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit can be trusted to work all things together for your good. That means that every event and circumstance of your life, whether apparently good or apparently bad, is a sign of God's loving activity. "The Lord disciplines him whom he loves... for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" (Heb. 12:6-7). So I watch God the Father dealing with you as a son or daughter. I also watch Jesus Christ come alongside you, as a friend, as a brother, as an example, as your captain, as your king, as your companion in battle. And simultaneously I see the Holy Spirit showing you things I could never point out, teaching spiritual truths in a way I could never explain, helping you to pray according to the mind of God, producing one, then another of his beautiful fruits. As all this happens I rejoice and give thanks. And you are doing the same for me. So we have fellowship.
Watching the Holy Spirit change you will also have its perplexities. If, as Paul teaches, the Church is a body, then the Holy Spirit will produce many different kinds of Christians, all as different from each other as bone is from liver, teeth from brain tissue. As I begin to pray for you I don't know what you are going to become. And some changes will be very hard to understand. You too may find my pattern of gifts strangely different from yours. And yet we are to have fellowship. That is why Paul stresses the need to keep the unity of our fellowship at the same time as encouraging our differences. "With all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit" (Eph. 4:2-4).
The main difficulty about real Christian fellowship is that many in our churches are afraid that mutual acceptance would interfere with the recognition of sin. They feel that without public rebuke and remorse on the part of erring church members there will be no progress in holiness. Imagine a ski school where every time somebody crashes on the hill and breaks a ski all the other skiers gather around the unfortunate victim. As they point their finger they chant "You have fallen. Leave our ski slope." The only way back into favor is by falling on one's knees, admitting one's awful failure, and earnestly promising never to fall again.
But how long would such a ski school stay open? And even if it did stay in business, would it produce better skiers? Actually the fear of falling and of being humiliated is the biggest hindrance to real learning progress. And yet many churches try to operate on such a dismal punitive system. No wonder Christians are paralyzed. No wonder outsiders shun us like the plague. We all need the assurance of total acceptance to make progress in the direction of the perfection promised by Jesus Christ.
What then should we do about discipline? If we baptize individuals and families without probation, undertaking to love them when they are still horribly deficient in Christian perfection, how can our churches survive? Taking in all comers would fill our churches with the same kind of mixed multitude that came out of Egypt in the first Exodus. But isn't this exactly what Jesus seemed to recommend by his own friendship with sinners? And did he not tell us to compel people to come in to the banquet from the highways and hedges, specifying,"both good and bad" (Luke 14:21-23, Matt. 22:9, 10)?
We therefore need to disentangle the various aspects of church discipline which made the early churches' open admission policy workable. First we must face the fact of apostasy, which apparently occurred among a large number of the disciples of Jesus (John 6:60, 66). Warnings about the dangers of falling away from the faith occur throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews. Apostasy is closely linked with unbelief. "Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12). Here the Greek verb is apostenai, which means to go away, withdraw, fall away, become apostate. Then the writer stresses the need for Christians to exhort one another "that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end" (Heb. 3:12, 13). Here a comparison is made with what happened in the Exodus from Egypt. Those who failed to go on into Canaan are described as "disobedient"; they were unable to enter the promised land "because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:15-19). In this case they did not physically separate themselves from God's people, but they were still apostate in their hearts. The application of this condition to the people of the New Exodus suggests that disobedience or unbelief (the Greek root apeitheo is the same) is a sin of the baptized. Later in the Epistle the writer uses the word "faith" as the opposite to shrinking back. He is glad that his readers are among "those who have faith and keep their souls" (Heb. 10:35-39).
In chapter 5 I argued that faith is an attitude, a direction, a walk like Abraham's faith. Those who teach that we are justified by a decision of faith, followed by baptism, have great difficulties with the apostasy passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is quite clear that the ones to whom these warnings are addressed are baptized Christians, who have already learned and benefited from the work of the Holy Spirit in a Christian church. "It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy ..." (Heb. 6:4-6).
What then is this apostasy among the baptized? It is not that the faithful are sinless and by contrast, apostates are particularly wicked. Paul admitted to a great deal of sin and failure both in himself and in his churches. Apostasy is a refusal to accept further change by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps our image of the school can again help our understanding. What makes it impossible for a pupil to benefit further from a school? It is not dullness, or naughtiness, or failure to complete the assignments. It is a stubborn rejection of contact with the school, an unwillingness to believe in the teachers, a refusal to be influenced by them, so that growth and learning ceases. In the Christian church the equivalent apostasy from Jesus Christ is a rejection of the teaching and transforming work of the Holy Spirit. It is not necessary to make a formal denial of the faith, or to engage in any particularly heinous crime, or even to withdraw physically from a church. All that is required for apostasy is to shrink back from the continuing influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Since the opposite of justification by faith is insistence on being justified by one's own goodness, such apostasy will be expressed in self-righteousness. This is why Paul was so upset by what happened among the Galatians. They had evidently been baptized into Christ, and had experienced the consequent teaching and transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the school. Under the influence of false teaching they had begun turning back to works of the law for their justification. In effect, they were withdrawing from the Holy Spirit. "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace." Paul then contrasts the true Christian faith attitude: "through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness" (Gal. 5:4, 5). It is as if a branch, which has been grafted in and begun living by the sap of the vine, now closes itself off from further influence of the tree. Separated from contact with the tree, and depending on its own goodness alone, it is dead and lost.
The second area for discipline, or discipling, or training (the ideas are all connected) is the problem of false teachers, prophets, and apostles. It seems that these abounded in the New Testament churches. Some false teachers can be corrected by the gentle explanation or exhortation of a church leader (2 Tim. 2:24-26; Jude 17-23). Others have already rejected the teaching of the Holy Spirit, but they may decide to remain in the churches for their own advantage (Acts 20:29-30; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 6:3-5; 2 Pet. 2:1-3). It is these who must be tested and exposed for what they are, in which case they will probably leave (1 John 2:18,19; 4:1-6; 2 John 9-11). When false teachers are strongly established, it may be impossible to silence them, in which case it is better to avoid them (2 Tim. 3:1-9; Titus 1:9-13). In view of the fact that good and bad fruits take time to ripen, we can imagine that there was much difficult heart searching before decisions could be made.
We should distinguish the strong measures prescribed for false teachers from the gentle discipline for disciples. It is striking that Jesus' fierce words are directed at the religious teachers of his day. They laid impossible religious burdens on ordinary people (Matt. 23:1-36). He does not have one word of exclusion for drunks, prostitutes, and members of the local tax-collecting mafia.
There is only one case of exclusion for gross sin in the New Testament. A man is having a sexual relationship with his step-mother, while his father is presumably still alive. He apparently insists on flaunting his immorality in the assembly of Christians, and they seem to be indifferent to what is happening (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Even in this extreme case Paul is very concerned in his next letter to have the disciplined brother restored and loved in case he is "overwhelmed with excessive sorrow" (2 Cor. 2:6-8). What would be an equivalent in our modern situation?
Again let us test our school analogy. How bad does a student have to be to be expelled from a high school class? A good teacher may know that a student is using and selling hard drugs, but will keep teaching him in the hope that he will make it through school and come to his senses. But what if the boy comes to class, lights up a joint, and blatantly begins to sell drugs while the class is going on? Obviously at that point discipline must be exercised, and the student sent to the principal. Exclusion is only required if the flagrant behavior of one makes the work of the whole class impossible.
Similarly with a local church, the objective is that Christians should be able to grow in the Spirit. There is no point in having an inquisition to discover every case of private sin. And how many of us would be left in church if we were removed for envy, pride, harshness, gluttony, not loving God or our neighbor or our spouses, or gossip? On the other hand, we can think of cases where the teaching process becomes impossible. Paul mentions drunkenness at the communion table (I Cor. 11:21, 22). One Anglican church had to exclude from discussion groups three fellows who insisted on hogging the floor with bizarre teaching. We might have to restrict the activities of someone who came in to rob the offering plate or disturb the worship. Though we can agree that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, we might have to call the police to eject those involved in sexual immorality performed on church premises.
Our difficulty is that churches have tacitly suggested that pride, avarice, hatred, false witness, lack of love, and worry are sins acceptable among the church membership, but we must express righteous indignation and throw out the sexual sins. Consider for example the problem of homosexuality. As we use the Discipleship model of church discipline we do not have to answer thorny questions as to whether homosexuality is deviance from the norm, or a sickness to be cured, or a particularly heinous sin that must be cut out like cancer. A homosexual obviously has a different pattern of sins from, say, a macho type heterosexual, or an insensitive extrovert, or a "don't-touch-me" prude, or a chronic hypochondriac, or a hard-driving workaholic. Whatever our pattern of sins, Jesus Christ invites us to be baptized, to take Communion, to look to the Holy Spirit, to be open to being changed by him in due course. It is unreasonable to require proof of change before the Holy Spirit has had time to penetrate our inner being, surround us with love, fill us with new fruits and gifts.
What is not acceptable is for behavior which is a clear denial of Christian love to be propagated as the norm in our Christian education program. Though we are all tainted with prejudice, we cannot permit racial or class hatred to be taught from our pulpits. Worry about money, miserly greed, and stinginess are sins which may be corrected by the Holy Spirit in our churches, but we cannot let mammon worship replace Holy Communion. Similarly there comes a point at which we will have to muzzle or restrict an individual or a group attempting to take over a church in order to propagate homosexual behavior which is an obvious denial of Christian love. At what point that line has to be drawn will involve much heart searching. What if a Bible study group becomes an occasion for group sex? What if a member is having sex with the choir boys or the girls' craft club? What do we do with the pimp who recruits in the church for his trade? Or the leader of the young people's group who recommends a gay lifestyle? The question we have to ask is "Does this behavior, or this teaching, or this permissiveness interfere with the whole church's growth in love and joy and the Holy Spirit?" If it does, we at least have to be concerned, we have to pray, we may need to talk to an individual. There may come a point at which disciplinary exclusion from the group is required, but let no one assume that such action is easy.
I suggest that the one case of exclusion for a sexual sin was of this nature. The fellow in Corinth not only slept with his step-mother, but insisted on publicizing it and soliciting the approval of the Corinthian church, probably to the extent of coming hand-in-hand with the woman in question to take Communion. Whether or not this was the case, I suggest that exclusion for a time was necessary to preserve the Christian education process from total confusion.
One other passage of Scripture is usually cited as an argument for excommunication for moral transgressions. Jesus mentions the problem of a brother who has sinned against you. First go and see him alone, then take one or two others along, and finally bring the case before the church. If there is still refusal to listen, the person should then be viewed as an outsider (Matt. 18:15-17). Some churches have made this into a procedure for checking the sins of others, and bringing moral pressure to bear on the unfortunate victims. It would seem much more natural to view this procedure as comparable to the method suggested by Paul for dealing with lawsuits between Christians. "When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?" (I Cor. 6:1-5). In that case we are not looking for a method of excommunicating offending brothers but of righting a wrong done. If a Christian has defrauded us we are to try and get the matter settled among Christians first. Finally, if the offender has refused a settlement among the brethren, we consider him an outsider, taking him to court if necessary. Paul, however, hopes that litigation among Christians will not be necessary at all.
If Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18 is similar to Paul's instructions in I Corinthians 6 and relates to legal differences among Christians, how can we apply it to hounding other church members when we discover their sin? As we have already seen, we are all sinners in various ways, and fellowship means accepting each other as sinners with a view to being changed by God.
This changing by God then brings us to the most important aspect of discipline in the New Testament. It is not other Christians who are appointed to correct our moral failures, but God himself. After quoting the passage about God's discipline from Proverbs, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that God disciplines his children. A sure sign that we are loved by God, and viewed as his children, is the fact that we are disciplined. "What son is there whom his father does not discipline?" (Heb. 12:5-11). Where unbelievers curse their luck and learn nothing from the chastisements of life, Christians should become sensitive to the firm hand of God in their lives.
The most awesome case of God's disciplinary judgment in a church was the sudden death of Ananias, and then of his wife, when they agreed to lie deliberately to the congregation, and therefore to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). Paul explains in another connection that all those who share in the bread and wine of the communion service are subject to God's own chastening. Similarly, any child adopted into a loving family will find that firm discipline is part of the new parents' love. The ideal is to learn by taking proper care to do what we are expected to do. But if we are careless, God as a loving Father can be relied on to apply his chastisement (1 Cor. 11:27-33). We note that it is God who does the disciplining, not the church authorities. Nor should we assume that God's physical discipline on earth entails hell in the hereafter.
In this connection I would like to suggest (without being able to prove my case) that excommunication from the bread and the wine of Holy Communion was never used as a disciplinary method in the New Testament. It would be comparable to permanently refusing a child a place at the family dinner table. A child may be rebuked for misbehavior. He may be sent away from a meal for stubborn insolence or lying. But excommunication from the family table is not compatible with treating a child as a member of the family. And to use rejection from the family as a threat to bring a child into line is a form of the most sordid barbarity. Such barbarity has recurred in the history of many churches, but it is time we recognized the perversity of the practice for what it is. I suggest that the idea of excommunication came into the churches as a legalistic approach to church discipline based on a total misconception of God's love and grace. It would be very hard to find any case in church history where it has, in the long run, promoted genuine spirituality as opposed to Pharisaism.
I have admitted that I cannot prove my case. On the other hand the weakness of the case for excommunication should be noted. How would we prove that ecclesiastical excommunication was prescribed in the New Testament? The only text that is remotely relevant is: "I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is named (the RSV translation "is guilty of" is a mistranslation) an immoral man, or greedy, or an idolater, or a drunkard, or a robber - not even to eat with such a one" (1 Cor. 5:11, RSV corrected). The first thing to note is that there is no procedure laid down for a judicial hearing by the elders. The natural translation is that each Christian must decide who is to be excluded from his fellowship. The expression "is named" suggests that there is a distinction between a sinner who has failed and the person who views the sin with self-complacent pride, and has built a reputation for sinning, with no intention of changing his ways. The member of the church who blatantly declares that he organizes drinking parties with the object of getting drunk or feels that the buying of sex for money is commendatory, or recommends idolatry in the church, or recruits for the local mafia - such a person is rejecting what the Christian church stands for. When such people are in power in a church it is, in any case, impossible to excommunicate them. What can be done is for Christians to talk to them on a person-to-person basis, and then refuse to associate with them if they persist in such an attitude.
There is not one reference to excommunication from the bread and wine in the seven letters of the book of Revelation. Who would make such a decision, and how would the case be heard and tried? The Epistle of Jude refers to "blemishes on your love feasts" and tells us explicitly that there were licentious persons, deniers of Jesus Christ, sexual perverts, and divisive people, in those churches. Surely there would have been some reference to excommunication here, if it had been deemed appropriate. Instead the appeal is strictly personal. "But you, beloved, build yourselves up... pray... keep yourselves in the love of God... convince some, who doubt, save some, by snatching them out of the fire" (Jude 20-22). I suggest that it is the same personal confrontation, with the possible result of personal refusal of Christian fellowship, which is in view in the case of Corinth.
What then of Paul's strong words concerning the communion service? "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Cor. 11:27-28). This is not a mandate for excommunication by a church court. It refers to individuals examining themselves. Paul specifies the danger of partaking "without discerning the body" (v. 29) and the context shows that this refers to divisions, factions, selfishness and drunkenness at the table, and despising others (vv. 17-22). Such attitudes are extremely dangerous to Christ's body, and they may result in physical sickness and even death (vv. 29-30). We have no difficulty in understanding the psychosomatic effects of hatred, jealousy, anger, fear, and anxiety in our own bodies. We may find it hard to grasp the effects on a local church as the body of Christ in the way that Paul did. But whatever Paul meant it did not involve an inquisition into the private lives of members to exclude them, by a judicial act, from Communion.
I might add that the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in opposition to the better sense of the majority of its members, has maintained an automatic excommunication for divorced persons who remarry. The moral credibility lost by annulling the marriages of some, and excluding hundreds of thousands of other Christians who have admittedly failed in a sinful situation, is notorious. In other churches, except for some rigorous sects, excommunication is extremely rare, usually in cases of proven immorality of one kind or another. The whole procedure for making the decision is filled with such inconsistencies that most churches allow the idea of excommunication to stay in the books, but keep cases under the rug until forced to act by well-meaning members. The net result is that the world and the press, when it can get hold of the sordid details, is convinced that Christians view sexual aberration as a certain cause for going to hell, but consider sins such as pride and lack of love unimportant.
I have belabored the point of the inappropriateness of excommunication from partaking of the bread and the wine. The reason is that the model of churches as schools for sinful disciples requires the admission of all the baptized to Communion. When sin and failure have occurred, the first requirement for spiritual restoration is that the person should be encouraged to return for healing at the family table. There the Holy Spirit can create the necessary contrition and restoration.
The real question at issue is whether God has designed a church family where it is possible to include sinners of every kind. If he has, then surely he must have a way, by the Holy Spirit, to deal with the most heinous sins. And that work of the Holy Spirit is contrasted again and again with legalism. God uses the words of Scripture, the exhortations of preachers, the love and concern of Christian brothers and sisters, and the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit in and through the worship of his people. There is also the chastening hand of God, who works all things together for good to train and perfect us. But wherever ecclesiastical authorities take a hand in doing what God alone can do, the results are uniformly dismal.
At this point we note again the implications of this model of the church for the admission of children to the communion table. We argued that local churches are schools of the Holy Spirit, and the bread and the wine is the heart of their worship. Since little children can never be too young to begin learning, they should be able to share in the worship long before they can understand it. Children eat in a family before they learn what the family means to them. In fact it is eating together that nourishes family life. We are not thinking merely of proteins and calories, but of table fellowship, belonging, talking, enjoying one another. That is why local churches are constituted and nourished by eating and drinking together, and by all that goes on at that feast. And since little children are never too young to be adopted and loved in such a family of the Holy Spirit, how can we think of excluding them from the family table?
But are not babies too small to sit up at table, eat adult food, and hold their own cup.? In some ways they are but that does not exclude them from our table. It is vital that from their earliest days they remember belonging at the table with us. They should never have to prove themselves, pass tests, believe, or make some commitment. They should feel themselves totally loved and accepted as full members of the family of God. Later they will respond with gratitude, commitment, willingness to suffer, and so on, but those are not conditions but rather the fruits of already belonging.
Finally we must include God's own discipline of local churches as churches. Even after Paul's careful apostolic work, some of his churches fell into confusion. The congregation in Corinth was divided by bitter sectarianism. Several of the seven churches of Asia Minor were taken over by false prophets. A repeated refrain in John's revelation to them was what Jesus the Lord of the churches would do with them. A point comes at which a lampstand has to be removed (Rev. 2:5), which must mean the termination of church life in that place. Sometimes the Lord of the church will war against false teachers with the sword of his mouth (Rev. 2:16). He may also hand a church over to terrible tribulation (Rev. 2:22, 23). There may be a sudden visitation like a thief in the night (Rev. 3:3), or he may spew a lukewarm church out of his mouth (Rev. 3:15,16).
At what point does such a dramatic act by the Lord of the churches occur? Presumably when a congregation will not, or can no longer, perform its function as a school of the Holy Spirit. If false teachers have taken over, or the members are indifferent to their discipling task, the Lord himself will intervene. But we note that the allowing of persecution, or natural disaster, or the complete termination of church life, are all acts of God. There is no place for wars of religion to correct the doctrine of other churches. The lordship of Christ over his churches goes together with his instructions for taking in any seekers for teaching.
We conclude that our task is, first to persuade people of all tribes and nations to be baptized and begin learning with us. Second, we must ensure that the Holy Spirit is free to superintend and control every aspect of his gracious work in our churches. This will involve recognizing and muzzling, where possible, the false teachers. When things get out of hand, as they will in a certain proportion of our churches, we look to Jesus Christ himself to intervene, and we pray accordingly. Those who find it hard to believe that the Holy Spirit can do his work, and that Jesus Christ can intervene to rule his churches, are the ones who will inevitably look for more rigorous methods of doing God's work for him. They will be tempted to exclude undesirables from baptism, to make it difficult for the family to eat together, to threaten some kinds of sinners with excommunication, and to go to war, or at least disapprove of, those who do not agree with them. It is to be hoped that all churches are moving in the direction of abandoning such methods in favor of a greater reliance on the Holy Spirit.
"Thank you, Father for Christian fellowship. I rejoice in those who accept me as I am, and yet expect me to become a beautiful person. Help our church to be like a family under your loving discipline."
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