Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The Discipline of the Church

There was a good deal of interesting discussion in response to a previous post about Discipline and the Lord's Supper. There, I suggested that I didn't think refusing communion to people was a particularly helpful method of discipline. In the light of the discussion, further things need to be said.
1. Church discipline is important. The church is a holy community, and a little bit of yeast leavens the whole batch. Christ, our paschal lamb, has already been sacrificed, and so our life now, which Paul portrays as "celebrating the feast," needs to be lived in sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:6-8). As a result, it is crucial that the church be able to judge its members (1 Cor. 5:12).

2. But this rings immediate alarm bells. What about Matthew 7:1-5? First and foremost, the church is a community where judgement is supended, where sins are forgiven, where people are bourne with! How can you say we must judge? This is a crucial corrective. There is to be no arrogant judging of the kind that neglects planks in eyes. The church must be humble; it must be a place of grace, forgiveness, and patient welcome.

3. Yet this doesn't mean no judgement. Jesus himself concludes this section with "then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbours eye." The difference is the tone and the aim. Right judgement and rebuke within the church, showing my sister her fault, aims at restoration; wrong judgement aims at triumphalism and pride. Our aim must be to "regain" our brother (Matt. 18:15).

4. This kind of judgement is the judgement done "in a spirit of gentleness" (Gal. 6:1). This kind of correction is not arrogant, but humble, aware of the possibility of our own failure (Gal. 6:1-5), and seeking only the good of the other. In this kind of restoring work I aim to "bear others burdens," while respecting the fact that "each must carry his own load," and so look first to my own faults.

5. Yet, this attempt to restore may fail. In order for the church's purity and character to be preserved, there must come a time when a line has to be drawn (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 13). Crucially, this line is drawn not by any one individual, but by the whole community. How is it to be drawn? In the New Testament context it seems to have had to do with association (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Jn 7-11). The danger is not simply immorality, but hypocrisy: bearing the name of a brother or sister whilst living immorally is so serious that Paul will say "Do not even eat with such a one."

6. Once this line is crossed, it seems right to me that the excluded person should be denied the Lord's Supper. But in the Corinthian context it also seems that the community's judgement would by this point have been so clear that this would not even be a possibility.

7. This creates all sorts of difficulties in pastoral practice. I know from my little experience in pastoral ministry that things are never clear, always complicated, and frequently hard. Yet I also believe firmly that if the church is to be faithful, it needs to take this word seriously: its holiness matters. Hopefully, its spirit of gentleness and love will be so compelling that the line only needs to be mentioned, rarely drawn.


Christian A said...

Erro, what thoughtful and helpful blogging on one of the subjects I'm most scared of - thank you.

Two semi-related questions:

Should children in the congregation be invited to receive the Lord's Supper? (And why/why not?)

Should non-Christians be made to feel welcome in a church service? (If so, how should it be different to the way we welcome Christians?)

Anonymous said...

How do you define children, Christian? One's answer as to whether one admits children to the Lord's Supper might differ depending on whether one uses a civil benchmark (age of majority) or an ecclesial benchmark (either via the rite of Confirmation or by way of special dispensation from the presiding minister.)

What degree of cognition (if any) ought be required of a recipient to partake of the Lord's Supper, keeping in mind both Christ's injunction to suffer the little children while avoiding the ex opere operato fallacy? At the very least, it strikes me that some comprehension of the Institution Narrative would come in handy.

One's answer to that question could also affect the administration of the Lord's Supper by the bedside in cases of extreme dementia.

AndrewE said...

Thanks Christian for your encouragement, and Michael and Christian for interesting thoughts and questions.

My Church (and Michael's), St John's Ashfield, has just passed a motion at our Vestry Meeting permitting children (of any age) to take communion after a process. I think this is a good idea, because I think it's good to err on the side of embrace and encouragement rather than reluctance and anxiety. I'm also pretty moved by things like Jesus' words in Luke 18:15-17.

Anonymous said...

could you possibly be the SAME andrew errington as the creator of world renowned dramatic production 'resurrection conversations'??!! what a stroke of luck! am eagerly awaiting the world premier! i hear the cast is also fabulously good looking.