It is time for discipline! Are you ready? For those of you who are church members, you have already vowed to submit yourselves to the discipline of the Church. That was covered under question number five of the membership questions that you affirmed before the church session: Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
Get ready to receive your discipline now. Actually, you have been receiving it every Sunday. Every time I have preached, I have disciplined you, for I have instructed, admonished and exhorted you by the Word of God. We are going to learn more about discipline today and for two more Sundays as we go through chapter five.
I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Paul has been rough with the Corinthians. From the moment he brought up the subject of their divisions in 1:10, he has hammered away at them, admonishing them for their prideful spirit. He has attacked their pride of wisdom and their pride in church leaders. His argument reached its highest peak in chapter 4, where he openly reveals his aggravation with them. Now he brings the issue to a conclusion. He is still upset, but he puts the tension between them and him in proper context.
I do not write these things to make you ashamed. I am not trying to beat you down. I do not gloat over your shame. [B]ut to admonish you as my beloved children. “My beloved children.” Now the reason for Paul’s rising emotion is becoming clear. This is not simply a church to Paul; this is a church of his children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Every parent understands Paul’s attitude towards the Corinthians. Many children wonder why all their friends’ parents are nice, except their own. All the other parents are nice when they come to visit. Why must their parents be so uptight? Because they are your parents! Paul is zealous for the glory of God. That alone is reason to rebuke the church as he has done. But he is also zealous for the welfare of his children. He loves them; he really does love them. It hurts that they are going astray, and it hurts that his children are rebelling against him. We are not reading a treatise, nor a letter written to the church-at-large for whoever might profit from his. We are reading a personal letter from a father to his wayward children, and that is why we are finding such strong emotion.
16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
As a good father, Paul has tried to set a worthy example for his children to emulate. In the letter so far, he has referred to his example. Are they enamored with worldly wisdom? He unashamedly proclaims what appears to be folly and is himself regarded as a fool. Are they promoting church leaders against each other? He and the other leaders regard themselves as simple servants. He wants them to have that same attitude about servanthood and that same confidence in the gospel.
Now, also like a father, he gets firm with his children: 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
Uh-oh! Dad’s coming home! It is evident that some members of the church have been fomenting the troubles that exist. They have talking big. Who is Paul anyway? I don’t remember him being so impressive. He can’t even touch Apollos as a speaker, and if we have to submit to anybody, it should be Peter. He is the real chief apostle. Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Paul. Has he not spoken through us also? Isn’t it time that he acknowledge us as grown up? By the way, where is he? Why hasn’t he come back for a visit? Could the mighty Paul actually be intimidated by us? He has good reason to be!
What do you think? Does Paul strike you as a timid man? I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. Is Paul doing some trash talking? “You want me? I’ll take you on!” He certainly is letting it be known that he will not back down, but he is also putting the wisdom they so much prize in its place.
The irony he has try to get them to see is that the wisdom they regard as powerful is in reality foolishness and weakness. What they thought as wisdom was no more than wit. They confused sounding esoteric with being wise. They thought that if an idea sounded mystical or sophisticate, then it must be profound and powerful. But being creative with language is not the same as wisdom; being witty is not the same as possessing power. And if need be, Paul was ready to demonstrate that lesson on his next visit.
He tried to get them to see that he had already demonstrated real wisdom and power through the simple preaching of the cross. When he says that the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power, what he means is that it does not consist in the ability to turn a phrase. There is talk, but it is the talk of carrying the message of the gospel, not of performing word gymnastics. The message of the gospel has real power because it is true and because it is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the power that Paul will test – the power of the Spirit in them. These trouble-makers claim to have the Spirit. He will find out. Paul surely has the Spirit. Are they prepared to test him?
He hopes it doesn’t come to a confrontation, but he is prepared if need be. He would rather come in gentleness and showing mercy. But he will do what is necessary. That choice is up to them based on their willingness to listen now and repent.
So ends the first section of 1 Corinthians. From the tenth verse of chapter one to the end of chapter four, the apostle has admonished the Corinth church for the sin of pride and division. He has practiced church discipline by admonition. He has practiced what our church fathers have recognized to be one of the three distinctive marks of a true church.
What makes a church a true church under the Headship of Jesus Christ? What disqualifies a church from laying claim to that title? Our church fathers narrowed the marks down to three activities: the Word of God must be proclaimed; the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be administered; and discipline must be practiced. What marks a true church is certainly a topic that invites discussion and debate, but we are going to restrict ourselves to this matter of discipline. Proclaiming God’s Word and administering the sacraments are obvious elements. But discipline? Even if one accepts that a church ought to practice discipline, should it really be placed on the same level as the other two? One wonders if the church fathers who developed this teaching had been school principals! It seems to lend credence to the charge of critics that organized religion is about exercising control.
Let’s try to understand this kind of thinking. There is a section in our denomination’s (Presbyterian Church in America) Book of Church Order devoted to church discipline. It begins with a definition. “Discipline is the exercise of authority given the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ to instruct and guide its members and to promote its purity and welfare” (27-1).
Where does it get this idea that Jesus gave the church authority? It comes from Jesus. We all know that beautiful statement by Jesus, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” We quote it often when speaking of Christian fellowship. Jesus spoke it as an affirmation of church discipline. Here is the whole text:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:15-20).
In this context, Jesus is telling the church leaders that he will be with them, i.e. validating their authority, when they exercise discipline within the church.
Returning to the BOCO statement, the discipline is intended for the welfare of individual Christians and for the church as a whole. It then explains how the term has two senses. This is important. It states that the first sense of discipline is “the one referring to the whole government, inspection, training, guardianship and control which the church maintains over its members, its officers and its courts.” The second sense, and the one we normally think of is, “the other a restricted and technical sense, signify judicial process.”
We will get to the second sense when we study chapter five. For the moment, we are exploring the first sense, and it was with that understanding that I told you I was disciplining you. The first step or level of discipline is “instruction in the Word,” which I am doing. Actually, from the moment you walked in the church, you have been subject to discipline. If you attended Sunday School, you received instruction from “approved” teachers. They had to meet criteria for their beliefs and behavior. Their teaching was authorized. No one can simply take it upon himself to be a teacher, nor is freedom of speech allowed. The songs you sang in worship are “approved” songs. There are songs and hymns sung in other churches that are censored here. All the elements of the worship service have to pass inspection. Even my preaching, which is a form of discipline, is under discipline. I can be disciplined, even be stripped of my ordination, if I do not conform to church authority.
It sounds harsh, as though we are living under a heavy hand ready to come down on us when we do something that some authority thinks is wrong. Where is the love? Where is the trust, the mutual respect? Shouldn’t a Christian church be marked by charity and acceptance?
Certainly. That, our church authorities would say, is the point. The very reason the church is so accepting is the reason discipline is so necessary. The church does not accept the righteous, but sinners. It may be made up of believers saved by Christ and clothed in his righteousness, but they are believers, nonetheless, still beset with sin and all the frailties of being human. Our sins are forgiven, not eradicated. We still have pride, still act out of jealousy and self-interest. We are still prejudiced in our opinions and still limited in our capacity to understand truth.
Our church teachers would say that the more accurate imagery for discipline is not of a hand hanging threateningly over us, but of one underneath us sustaining us. Their perspective is certainly a peculiar one today. The second half of the last century changed the way our culture thinks of authority and discipline. Youth have always rebelled to some degree, but now most generations growing up after WWII are trained to question authority and buck against discipline. Authority and discipline represent two concepts that our culture despises – control and judging. Those who reject “organized religion,” see such religion has nothing more than efforts of the authorities in a society to control the masses. Discipline is the consequence and tool of judging, and who has the right to judge another?
This kind of thinking has permeated the modern church and the modern Christian mind. We have taken the same perspective and baptized it to sound Christian. Thus, many Christians ask the same question, “Who has the right to judge me?”
“Who has the right to judge me as long as I love Jesus and am sincerely trying to follow him?”
“How can you say I am wrong if I have prayed about it and feel at peace with God?”
“Isn’t a relationship with Jesus more important than knowing doctrine?”
These questions easily turn to charges of control when the authorities (the elders) place restrictions in some way.
“You just want to have everything your way.”
“You just want to have power.”
Some people do. One of the premises of the Presbyterian system of government is that no individual elder ought to have authority alone. Elders do not become sinless and all-wise at ordination. They ought to have shown themselves to be models of restraint and fairness, but they remain sinful and finite in wisdom.
But again, try to understand the thinking of church authorities of earlier times. They thought discipline was beneficial for church members. Indeed, the BOCO says this: “All baptized persons, being members of the Church are subject to its discipline and entitled to the benefits thereof.” Did you get that? Discipline is a benefit that all members are entitled to have.
What are these benefits? One, discipline will keep them on the path of Christian discipleship. It is presumed that all Christians want to follow Jesus faithfully. To do that requires conforming to the behavior Jesus thinks essential, such as loving one’s neighbor, being truthful, caring for the needy, etc. It also requires believing what Jesus thinks is essential. Believing that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, is essential. Believing that he died to ransom us from our sins, that he is the only way to God, that faith in him is what justifies us are essential beliefs. For Jesus, there was not a dichotomy between belief and behavior such as we today think there is. The reason why Christians can even think that way is the result of adapting the world’s philosophy.
A second discipline is to protect us from harm. Paul warned the Ephesian elders to keep on guard for wolves trying to destroy their flock. The flock of the church is constantly being either attacked or lured away from the fold. What’s wrong with living together? Why can’t you do that? Why do you need to be in church every Sunday? Why shouldn’t you be exploring other churches, other religions, other perspectives? They just want to control you. That tactic has worked well ever since Satan first used it in the Garden.
Another benefit of discipline is to make us more mature and fruitful Christians. No one has reached the top of anything, be it art or sports or business, nothing without being subjected to discipline, both by others and by himself. No one has reached his highest potential without being corrected and without being denied something he wanted to do. To be given the freedom to do whatever you want is to be condemned to mediocrity at best.
Finally, discipline means that we belong to one another. It means that we are a community. It means that we are committed to helping one another in the business of living for God. It means that we take how we live and what we belief seriously. We do not agree with postmodernism that truth and ethics are relative. We do not agree with our culture that freedom to do whatever we want is the greatest possession to have. We believe that nothing is more important or more fulfilling than to know Jesus Christ and to live under his Lordship. We believe that because of our sin and the baggage we continue to carry in our lives, we need support and accountability from one another. We are the church of Jesus Christ, not a YMCA. We come together to worship and serve our Lord, not to get spiritual tune-ups to go with our personal health program. How important we think discipline is, and especially how well we take to discipline, ultimately reveals what we think about the Lordship of Jesus Christ.