We have come in our study of 1 Corinthians to a section that deals with Christian discipline. This is a hard subject for churches to face. And yet, as we come to such passages, we need to deal with them. We are faced with two problems in this matter of Christian discipline in our time. One is the disposition to take it too lightly, and the other is the disposition to overdo it, both of which unfortunately occur in some Christian circles. We need God’s wisdom in each case.
Some time back, in Oklahoma, a lawsuit developed in a local church. A member of that church, a divorced woman, became involved with a divorced man in town. She was examined by the leadership of the church with regard to this relationship. She confessed that sexual sin had been part of the relationship. The church then required her to confess the sin publicly, a requirement that, in this particular case, seems to have been unnecessary since she was admitting to the wrong. Consequently, the woman sued the church for the action that they had taken, a case that went before a jury. She asked for $1.3 million in damages and was awarded $390,000.
I recount this story, not so much because of the significance of the decision, but because of a statement the woman made at the close of the proceedings. She said she felt that justice had been done. She said: “I was guilty, but it was none of their business.” Now, that is what troubles me. The most troublesome thing about her statement, which the vast majority of churchgoers in our time would agree with, is that morality, even for Christians, is a private thing, and that what we do as Christians is not the business of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Now, if we are inclined to think that way – and I suspect that many of us are–we need to hear what Paul said to the Corinthians in chapter 5. In dealing with a particularly scandalous case at Corinth, Paul says it is the business of the church. Not only that, he points out that it reflects on the church even more negatively than it does on the individual if the church fails to deal with the immorality. That is one error churches make.
On the other hand, there are churches that make mistakes in the other direction. The argument is that there are three marks of the true Church. One is the preaching of the Word. The second is the observance of the Sacraments. And the third is church discipline. Now in this particular view, if discipline is good and important, it is thought that it should be exercised a great deal. But what often happens in certain settings is that the leadership of the church gets overly involved in the particular affairs of the members and sometimes exercises unbiblical oversight of the membership.
I have in mind a case in which a session of elders was examining a girl in the church who had been having an affair. She became pregnant and had a child, as a result. Afterward the woman was utterly repentant of the sin, and was trying to live in the fellowship of God’s people and to establish a home for the child. She was also in the process of counseling. Those who were involved with her case were being very helpful and wise. And yet, there was a difficulty with the father of the child, who was pursuing her for marriage. She didn’t feel he was the one to marry, nor was he the kind of man who would be a good father. She believed that if she went ahead and married him, it would be merely an attempt to correct one wrong with another wrong. But the leadership of her church did not agree, and they advised her to handle the relationship with the father in a way both she and the counselors thought was unwise, so she chose not to follow their advice. As a result, the leadership exercised discipline, barring her from the Sacraments. I think that is utterly out of hand. It is a scandal that such a thing should ever happen. We will never solve the difficulties of church discipline by falling over into the other extreme, but rather by searching out the principles that we have in Scripture.