Church discipline and children’s discipleship appear reside at the opposite ends of the local church universe. Talking to an adult about the embezzlement seems to have little relation to the preschooler pushing cars. But despite appearances, the two planets traverse orbits that often overlap. And if we neglect church discipline, we will do great harm to our children and by extension our youth.
Parents rejoice when they see their child come forward to make a profession of faith. The parents also tremble. Having grown up in the easy-believism culture that defined faith as walking an aisle and making a prayer, parents know that such faith can easily be faked. They have watched in despair as their friends strayed from the church into a life of sin and debauchery.
And yet, these unregenerate church members still possess the title of Christian. They can still walk back into their home church take the Lord ’s Table and use the church name without ever having repented of their sin. In the eyes of the church and in the eyes of the community, the wayward Christian who has fathered 25 children by 25 different women is just as much the church member as the senior lady who has collected 25 Sunday school attendance pins.
Such sentiment is often expressed in our local church vocabulary. When we learn that a lady hasn’t attended church over the last five years, we label her “misguided” or “nice” but stop short of calling her a sinner and calling her to repent. When our friend divorces his wife to chase after his younger secretary, we turn away in disgust and tell him to, “Straighten out his life,” but happily welcome him and the secretary into the church when they are ready without addressing their sin.
Once baptized, men and women are church members in perpetuity.
Functioning within this local church paradigm, parents are slow to affirm their child’s desire to follow Christ. Before baptism, the parent can enforce threats by refusing to allow their child to be baptized. But after baptism all recourse is lost. Once a member, always a member.
Christ clearly affirmed the perseverance of the saints. Once a man or women repents and believes, nothing can separate him or her from the love of God. But God does not teach the perseverance of church members.
Though the local church should strive to baptize only believers, she will make mistakes at times and baptize unregenerate men and women. Moreover, those who truly love the Lord are still being sanctified and will sin and need to be called to repent. Think of David, Bathsheba, and Nathan. God commands his church to practice church discipline in Matthew 18 and in 1 Corinthians 5. Baptism is not a blank check of admittance into the church. Those who join the church are called to be like Christ. And when they are not like Christ, the church must spring into action.
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. – 1 Cor. 5:11.
The most important part of church discipline is the first stage of discipline. Personal confrontation. When we see a fellow church member in sin, we are to confront that brother for the purpose of seeing him restored. But how many of us have been lovingly confronted over our sin by our fellow church members? How many of us have heard Matthew 18 taught from the pulpit? How many of us have lovingly confronted another? If parents have seldom been confronted in love, they will probably struggle to lovingly confront their children about their sin.
And if the first level of church discipline does not succeed, we are to take one or two more Christians with us for the purpose of confronting the brother again. Again, how many parents have been a part of this process? How many parents have been confronted or have loving confronted another?
And if that fails, the church member should take the matter to the church. The unrepentant believer should be brought before the church. And if he still refuses to repent, he should be removed, excommunicated from the church. The church should declare that the unrepentant sinner is no longer a member of the church. Again how many parents and children have witnessed this process? How many parents and children have seen someone loving removed from the rolls because he or she refused to return to church or because he or she refused to abandon their sexual sin?
15 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.16 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. 17 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. – Mt. 18:15-17
If parents and children regularly lived and experienced all three levels of church discipline, they would have little to fear when their kids profess faith. Parents could regularly remind their children that faith is obedience and call their children to obedience. Children would see that church is not a light-hearted social club but a faith changing factory filled with the worship of God. Children would see that sin is serious and that the Christian life is a life of faith and repentance where people die to self and live for Christ. Church discipline helps families lovingly live out the gospel.
The local church must practice church discipline if she desires to empower parents to disciple their children.