Benefits of church discipline

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Rev. Mike Brown of the United Reformed Church, North America, writes about four ways that church discipline benefits Christ’s sheep:

Perhaps you have heard the story of Shrek, a Merino sheep in New Zealand who not long ago gained international fame for avoiding his shepherds for six years because he hated to be shorn. Merino sheep need shearing at least once a year. Although the process is not painful, and only takes about ten minutes, Shrek loathed it enough to keep away from the flock by hiding in caves. He tried to become his own shepherd and take care of himself.

Shrek’s shepherds hardly recognized him when they finally found him. He had more than sixty pounds of fleece on his body, enough wool to produce more than twenty suits for men! Having a coat that thick can pose serious health risks for sheep. They have limited mobility, can suffer heat stress in hot weather, and, if their coats become too large, can get stuck on their backs, unable to move. Eventually, they will die of starvation or become a meal for predators.

The story of Shrek, while humorous, makes a great illustration of the importance of church discipline. Like Shrek, we sometimes find ourselves wanting to flee the flock to which we belong, that is, Christ’s visible church. Sometimes, we’d rather hide in caves and live as self-feeders. We don’t like being held accountable to anyone but ourselves. We want to live autonomously and anonymously. We know it’s not right, but the tendency to be like Shrek is in all of us.

Our Good Shepherd knows this about his sheep. That’s why, in his love and care for us, he has given us the blessing of church discipline. Here are four ways that church discipline helps us as Christ’s sheep.

1. CHURCH DISCIPLINE REMINDS ME THAT I BELONG TO JESUS

As Christians, we do not belong to ourselves. We were bought with a price (1 Cor 6.19-20), the precious blood of our Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep (John 10.11). I am not, therefore, the lord of my life. Jesus is. His righteousness has made me right with God. His death on the cross cancelled the great debt I owed. He has promised me eternal life in the resurrection. As the Lord who redeemed me and rules me, he gets to say what I am to believe and how I shall live. Church discipline holds me accountable for this. It holds me accountable for my doctrine and life. If I try to wander off in one of these areas, Jesus loves me enough to find me and bring me back. And he uses the loving care of church discipline to do this.

2. CHURCH DISCIPLINE REMINDS ME THAT I AM PART OF CHRIST’S FLOCK.

Christianity is not a solo affair. While one’s faith in and relationship to Christ is indeed personal, it is never private. Preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are all public events. When we are baptized, we are brought into the covenant community that Christ has established. We are made living stones in his temple (1 Pet 2.4-10), and members of the family of God (Eph 2.19-22). Christ brings us as his sheep into the safety of his sheepfold, and leads us in green pastures to feed us with the ministry of his Word so that we will grow and mature (Eph 4.11-16). This happens within the context of the local church, a church with pastors, elders, deacons, and members – all of whom enjoy life together as the body of Christ. The New Testament simply has no category for a Christian who thinks he can opt out of church membership and church discipline. Jesus does not want his sheep scattered in caves, trying to be their own shepherds. That is not the model he established. Rather, he has created a real community to which the individual Christian belongs. Church discipline – as it holds me accountable for my doctrine and life – reminds me that I am a living member of that community.

3. CHURCH DISCIPLINE HELPS THE FLOCK STAY HEALTHY.

The Good Shepherd loves his sheep and wants them to stay healthy. He not only uses the ministry of his Word and sacraments to do this, but also the ministry of church discipline. Church discipline applies his Word to our personal lives for the sake of the church’s purity, maturity, and spiritual nurture (Matt 18.15-17; 1 Cor 5). When we are tempted to live in disobedience, Christ uses church discipline to warn us about the consequences of our sin (Rom 16.17; 2 Thes 3.6; Titus 3.10). If we go astray, he uses church discipline to correct us and bring us back to feed on his Word and walk in paths of righteousness (James 5.19-20). The goal of all church discipline is not shame or punishment, but restoration. Even in those sad cases when a person stubbornly refuses to repent of their sin and must be excommunicated according to the Word of God, the opportunity for repentance and restoration is still possible. This is why we have the “Form for Readmission” next to the “Form for Excommunication” in the back of our hymnals. Restoration and spiritual health is the objective.

4. CHURCH DISCIPLINE REMINDS ME THAT I AM LOVED BY MY FATHER IN HEAVEN.

As the book of Hebrews reminds us, a father who does never disciplines his children is a bad father. A good father, though, will faithfully and gently discipline his children in love: “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it ields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12.7-11).

Let us then be trained by church discipline. Rather than despising it, let us give God thanks for it. Let’s commit to praying for our elders who have the challenging task of remaining faithful to Christ and his sheep by administering discipline according to the Word of God. Let’s hear and heed our Lord’s command: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13.17). Let’s remember the vows we made when we became members of Christ’s church. Let’s honor our Good Shepherd as the Lord over our lives. And let’s not be like Shrek.

The Church and Israel

4159116430 Perhaps you have run into a Messianic Jew or a member of the Christian Zionist movement and have wondered how their views stack up against Scripture in able to better converse with them.  The following is a helpful essay by Dr. Michael Horton, writing from a Reformed and covenantal perspective, on how Christians should consider Israel in relationship to the church in New Testament times.

The center of the entire prophetic forecast is the State of Israel,” declares prophetic pontiff, Hal Lindsey. On May 14, 1948, Israel became a nation again and, writes Lindsey, “For this reason I am convinced that we are now in the unique time so clearly and precisely forecast by the Hebrew prophets. Thus, all the various prophecies will come to pass during this generation.”

The Dispensationalists have maintained that the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel regarding a future restoration of Israel are fulfilled in the recreation of that state in 1948. What about this? Is that what the prophets had in mind? A further question must then be asked: Are the promises God made to Abraham fulfilled in the Zionist movement or in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? But first things first: 1948.

Ezekiel prophesies, “I will now bring Jacob back from captivity and will have compassion on all the people of Israel, and I will be zealous for my holy name” (39:25). Daniel’s prophecies are delivered in 530 BC, just fifty-five years after Ezekiel’s and also point to a future restoration of a now destroyed nation of Israel. During Ezekiel’s ministry, the nation is dismantled and carried off into Babylonian captivity and both prophets are offering the people hope in the midst of tragedy. One hundred years later, the promises made through these two prophets are fulfilled as Nehemiah and Ezra are allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem with released exiles. The walls are rebuilt, God’s people return, and although they are an imperial satellite, Babylon’s rulers empty their own treasuries to assist in the rebuilding. This is all in line with the prediction that God will bring His people out of exile back to Jerusalem is finally fulfilled. A new temple is even built with the assistance of the Persian king.

All of this was fulfilled within a century of the prophecy. The temple was rebuilt, sacrifices were renewed, the city was rebuilt, and the exiles came home. So much for 1948.

Of course, there are predictions made, by Daniel, for instance, which require fulfillment beyond the return under Nehemiah. One example is the vision of the four kingdoms–Babylon and Medo-Persia (two empires which existed during Daniel’s own lifetime), and Greece (second century, BC) and Rome (first century, BC through first century AD). All of these world empires will collapse, two of which Daniel knew first-hand, while the latter two were fulfilled as late as the first century AD. These earthly empires would never outlast the empire of the coming One who will finally bring all of His scattered tribe (Jew and Gentile alike) home: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ez 34:23). It was just this prophecy which Jesus proclaimed Himself to be fulfilling in His self-designation as the Good Shepherd in John chapter ten. Thus, Ezekiel is not about Jewish Zionism in 1948, but about the return of the exiles in 440 BC and ultimately about Jesus Christ as the Son of David.

What about the destruction of the temple? Was it not predicted in the New Testament that there would be a final destruction of the temple and the city? Indeed, it was. “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ He asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” This is often taken to refer to a fulfillment in our own lifetime, and yet, when the disciples wanted to know what the signs of this would be, He said, “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death.” Doesn’t it sound like Jesus was preparing them for an immediate fulfillment? The fact is, this was fulfilled in AD 70, when the city was destroyed by the Romans, Jews and Christians were slaughtered and scattered, and the temple was destroyed to the extent that “not one stone” was “left on another.” The Roman emperor, proclaiming himself God, sat in the Holy of Holies, fulfilling the “abomination of desolation” predicted in Daniel. And if, after years of Dispensational teaching on the “abomination of desolation,” taking place during the tribulation, it is difficult to accept this interpretation, just look at our Lord’s own remark: “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken through the prophet Daniel–let the reader understand–then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Would the original audience not have clearly understood Jesus to be preparing them for events which were right around the corner? “So when you see standing in the holy place…”

Therefore, the prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel do not have to find their fulfillment in 1948 or in any other period which coincides with remarkable current events.

The second question, however, is of more central concern: Is the modern state of Israel and Zionism in general the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham? Classical Dispensationalism presents to programs of salvation, though recent revisions have toned down on the radical discontinuity. In classical Dispensationalism, God’s ultimate program involves the nation Israel. The Church is a “parenthesis” (Chafer), a sort of footnote or sidetrack in contrast to God’s main mission to save ethnic, national Israel.

We believe that this position gravely misunderstands the plan of God and the clear teaching of the Scriptures. In so doing, it risks offering false hopes to modern Jews of a plan of redemption which, at least in temporal matters, does not require the mediation of the world’s only Savior. If you think this is a caricature of the position, just attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Honor of Israel in Washington, DC. I did that one year and I remember fundamentalist preachers and prophecy “experts” leading the Jewish-Christian gathering in prayer “to our common Father–the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Now, if another group of Christians down the street had a prayer service of Christians and Moslems or Christians and Hindus, it would be considered a basic denial of the uniqueness of Christ and His mediatorial work, but for these people, Jews evidently did not need the Gospel, for there was no reference to it even in passing. Not one prayer ended with the name of Christ.

The Apostle Paul would call this the Galatian heresy. “Understand that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture predicted that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. All who rely on observing the law are under a curse” (Gal 3:6-10). Thus, there are not two programs. Jews and Gentiles alike are “under a curse” and can only approach God and receive His promises by faith in Jesus Christ. To suggest that God is fulfilling promises to national Israel apart from Christ surely borders on heresy.

But God is not fulfilling promises to national Israel. The abomination that makes desolate in AD 70 did, in fact, make the temple desolate. While we rejoice with the persecuted Jews of the world in their homeland, there is no prophetic significance to the year 1948.

If we look very carefully at the promises made to Abraham (Gn 12:2-3), and the many warnings which follow throughout the Old Testament, the promise of the land is conditional upon Israel’s obedience. The promise of a final Promised Land and resting place, however, is by faith alone. Thus, the Old Testament patriarchs were not as interested in a plot of land as modern Dispensationalists. “By faith, Abraham made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country, for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised” (Heb 11:8-13). What? They didn’t receive the things promised? They were in the land, weren’t they? But the Bible says that this was not the ultimate promise. “They admitted they were strangers on earth [even in the promised land]. People who say such things who that they are looking for a country of their own.” But they had a country of their own! “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were looking for a better country–a heavenly one” (Heb 11:14-16).

So, you see, the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and passed along to all those who belong to Christ by faith. Whether Jew or Gentile, all who are relying on the works of the law are still under a curse and apart from the Messiah there is no promise of anything but judgment.

“I ask then: Did God reject His people? By no means!,” writes the Apostle Paul, citing his own conversion to Christ as a Jew. “So too, at this present time (not some future time) there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom 11:1,5). In this present age, God is grafting in with Israel branches from alien, Gentile trees and forming one single family in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile….For all are one in Christ” (Gal 3:28).

If you are interested in reading further on confessional Reformed covenant theology, the following book by Revs. Zach Keele and Mike Brown is a very helpful introduction.  I have a number of copies for purchase.

Sacred Bond

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For something more focused on end times theology from a Reformed and covenantal perspective, this book by Rev. Kim Riddlebarger is helpful as well.

Case for Amil