Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Church Discipline

Where Extraordinary Grace and Celestial Joy Meet
Tonight, I participated in something that I have never been a part of in the 22 years that I have known Jesus Christ. The reason for this is twofold: I have never been in a church before that took seriously the biblical practice of church discipline, and I have never been in a church where the pastor has faithful discharged his duties of gospel preaching and pastoral ministry for over two decades. So what happened, you might ask?

In 1988, God saved a man named Steve who soon became a baptized member of Grace Baptist Church (where I serve). A few years after his conversion, Steve fell into sin and came under the discipline of the church which he refused to accept. As a result, the most severe decision a church body could ever make was practiced as Steve was excommunicated from the membership of Grace. For the next 14 years, Steve spent his life committing immoral acts, including drugs and alcohol. At one point in his life, Steve said he spent an entire month in seclusion drinking alcohol with the jaded hopes that he could die in his own misery and insanity.

It was during this time that he found an old Bible as he was reminded of what Tom had told him when he first came to Christ, “Read the Gospel of John.” After six months of prayer, Bible reading, and personal repentance, Steve emailed Tom because he struggled to believe that there would be a church who would accept him. The first person he knew he could to turn to, the person whom he said he trusted the most, was the very person who 14 years ago committed the most severe act of discipline–his former pastor, Tom Ascol.

Through a series of emails, Tom helped Steve get plugged into a gospel-centered church where he is living (which happens to also be a Grace Baptist) and shepherded him in gospel reconciliation that culminated this evening when we were able to fly Steve down to be with us in our bi-lingual Lord’s Supper service. This evening I listening to a brother’s confession of prodigal repentance saturated with tears mingled with the joys of heaven. It was extraordinary grace on display as the Great Shepherd pursued and captured one that had strayed, fallen, and wallowed in the pit of emptiness.

So many thoughts were going through my head as this was all taking place. For instance, how many pastors minister long enough to every see an excommunicated member restored in the same tenure? Given that there are so few churches today that practice church discipline, how many fewer ever see the most extreme (and painful) measures come full circle in the restoration and reconciliation of an excommunicated church member? Why was it that the person Steve wanted help and trusted the most was the pastor who 14 years ago would not let his blatant sin go unaddressed?

So many churches today do miss out on experiencing the kiss of extraordinary grace and celestial joy when the gospel not only reconciles sinners to God but also to one another in the context of a repenting and believing community who is covenanted to be a pure witness as the bride of Christ. So many pastors miss out on one of the greatest blessings of seeing Christ rescue fallen sheep because they do not hang around long enough, or aren’t willing to do love deep enough, to embrace fallen sheep and see Christ rescue them from their prodigal ways. So many wayward sinners wander into the hidden paths of prolonged rebellion without the legitimate discipline of a loving church because there is no commitment either on the part of the member to pursue holiness or the church to pursue those who fall in trespass and sin.

When I hear reports of God-moments in churches, I often hear of x number of people professing Christ, being baptized, etc., and they are all praiseworthy. But how often to we hear church members walk away from the gathered congregation with a God-moment where shameful acts of sinful rebellion is renounced in humble hearts of repentance and the forgiveness of Christ is communicated with joy and gratitude to God?

There was a time when experiences like the one tonight were not uncommon, but I have a strange feeling that this God-moment is one of which I would have a hard time sharing, except with brothers of yesteryear. But it does not have to be that way. We do not have to have undisciplined churches, meaningless membership, and cowardly pastors who are unwilling or afraid to do what Christ has commanded. I would not have had the privilege of joining angels in heaven with shouts of joy were it no for a pastor 20+ years ago committed himself to the biblical principles of regenerate church membership, church discipline, and faithful gospel preaching–marks all of which should make us Baptist. Unfortunately, my experiences leads me to believe that are marked as being weird.

As I consider myself on the beginning chapters of my pastoral ministry, I am reminded of how blessed I am to serve under the leadership of Tom Ascol whose love for church members causes even the excommunicated to call upon him first, and whose love for the church causes the angels in heaven to rejoice over the warrior shepherd that refuses to let one wayward sheep go their own way. It’s a love that does the hardest things and receives the sweetest expressions of reconciliation this side of heaven. It’s a love that is not always reporting the 99 to the church growth department but is radically pursuing for the 1 because each member counts in the church health department.

There are a lot of lessons I’ve learned about pastoral ministry and being a true church, but this one is just too good not to pass along.


of course it's not just for Baptists... ;-)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Yup. Been There....

Where We Live

from Parchment and Pen by Lisa Robinson

I came across this article in Christianity Today on ending homelessness in 10 years. I mused considering that for the past several years, this is the professional field I have been involved in. In fact, in my position back in Rhode Island, I was responsible for managing one of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homeless funding program for the state, worked with most of the homeless service agencies statewide and coordinated and packaged the annual funding application to HUD for the state. As noted in the article, every geographic region that receives these funds has to include in their funding application to HUD, a description on how they are going to end homelessness in 10 years through a coordinated effort with major public-private stakeholders.

More specifically, HUD has been focused on ending chronic homelessness, which comprises approximately 15% of the homeless population roughly. These are the more severe cases of homelessness - folks that have been continually homeless for at least a year or experienced continual cycles of homelessness (at least 4 episodes in the past 3 years) and suffer from some type of disabling condition, including mental illness and substance abuse. The idea is that since these are the high end users of emergency services, it is more cost efficient to put them into permanent supportive housing, which provides a team of licensed professionals to address the barriers to independent living. In other words, stabilize them in housing first, then provide intensive services so they will stay there. So the person who has lived ensconced in a particular state of existence for an extended period of time will now be moved to a different state of existence and expected to succeed.

I think this is a great theory in concept. I don’t think anyone reading this post, especially me, wants to see people homeless. But I had a major philosophical conflict in that I recognize, no matter how attractive you make housing, no matter how much you demonstrate that this would be something beneficial, there will be some, who for whatever reason are more comfortable on the streets. It’s not that they want to be homeless but they don’t want to be uprooted from a way of living that they have become comfortable with. The comfort of where they are supersedes the discomfort of being uprooted. Now some of my professional colleagues might disagree, but information that I have received from front line workers would suggest otherwise, not to mention, the human nature factor.

I cannot but help consider this application pertinent to where we live doctrinally and theologically. We have learned. We have studied. We have drawn conclusions. We find our nest and settle in. And it is great, isn’t it, when we draw conclusions about what the Biblical text says and perchance take sides with notable theologians who have gone before us, especially considering the effort they put forth? Or maybe, we have found comfort in that fact that we have followed no man but instead have relied on our own interpretations of Scripture, guided of course by the Spirit. Or perhaps we have allowed our particular church denomination or tradition to influence and shape the body of facts we call truth. Whatever our course of action has been, there is a certain degree of comfort that we can rest it.

I suppose that our comfort has very much to do with our epistomology, how we have come to know and understand what we consider truth. There has been a determination made on the best avenue to discover what truth is, and we have followed that. And whatever that path is, whether through “academic” study, experience, tradition or a particular hermeneutic (yes everyone has one but not everyone uses the same hermeneutic), following that course can in and of itself, transition us into an ease of understanding. After a while, we can proudly say that we have arrived at truth. However, it does beg the question, ‘is it that we have arrived at truth OR that we have satisfied the mechanics of whatever epistomology we have used to arrive at truth? The latter will certainly not guarantee the former but probably will make us more comfortable about the process.

The truth is that nobody likes tension. Nobody likes to be uncomfortable and definitely, nobody wants to be wrong. The guy on the street doesn’t resist moving from his abode because he loves waddling in the mire. He won’t move because he doesn’t want the tension. Nor do we. It is uncomfortable to wrestle with ideas and the internal conflict that ensues when our sense of satisfactory knowledge has been disrupted. It is far easier to stay in the bed we’ve made than to rip the sheets off and move it; it is far easier to rely on the truth we know than the contradiction we don’t know, or rather, don’t really want to know. So we set up our fortresses, load the arsenal known as proof-texts, strawmen and maybe even historical data and throw them to protect our fiefdoms of knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there are some truths that are absolutely essential to Christianity, truths that have been tested and stamped with the historical seal of approval of which Christianity would not exist without. I also believe that within the mysteries of God, what He has revealed is meant to be understood (Deuteronomy 29:29), not cumbersome or burdensome and maybe even a little logical.

But it can be arduous to bridge the communication gap between God’s revelation, which is what He has made known and our understanding. It is no small task to engage in a process of grasping who is God, what has He accomplished, what He has planned and where do we fit into that picture, in a way that acknowledges our abilities to apprehend but denies our prejudices and presuppositions. There is tension. There is discomfort. Often, there are no easy answers. Yes, the Spirit is involved but so is our fallibility. This is not an easy place to live because it will always encourage running for cover and resorting to safe and tension free harbors.

So I think where we live doctrinally and theologically has so much to do with the level of resistance we can tolerate. If we’ve wrapped our arms around conclusions so tightly that no amount of historical or Biblical evidence could sway opinions, especially those that deviate from Christianity’s historical roots, then I fear intended truths might be missed for the sake of ease. And yes, I do think fear can be involved, fear of losing, fear of failure, fear of humility. Then where we live can become a prison rather than a place of freedom. It is no different for that chronically homeless individual who refuses to give up his abode for something better.

But just as the guy on the street must go through the tension of disruption for the greater goal of a warm and safe place of permenency, so must we. There is a prize at stake of knowing what God has so graciously revealed to that we can know Him, His plan and ourselves better. We’ll never arrive but must always learn and be willing to be a little disrupted in the process.