If we’ve been reading through the New Testament daily, you’ve grown accustomed to St. Paul saying some difficult words. His powerful but difficult message this morning is: “Cut off the unrepentant immoral person in the church to preserve the holiness of the body and protect the evil from spreading.”
Put in these terms, we see that the discipline that Paul is talking about is an important commandment from the Lord, and not just another way to be judgmental, as some might deem it. In fact, the godly discipline that St. Paul prescribes is a matter of spiritual health for the Corinthians – and for us.
Most of us as Christians agree that there are certain areas of thought and behavior which God has clearly called sinful because they are not in accord with His holy will or character. We agree that such sinful behavior is wrong and should be stopped. We agree that God will eternally punish those who have led such sinful and unrepentant lives by condemning them to Hell, an eternal life without His grace.
But when it comes to godly discipline in this life, we suddenly forget everything above that we say we believe. If sin is a serious offense against God, and if God Himself judges us eternally on the basis of our sins, then doesn’t it make sense that the Church, God’s holy Temple, should also take sin seriously and discipline it?
One of the great failings of the modern church is its refusal to discipline its sinful members. I’m not talking about the Church punishing every member every time he commits a sin. That’s never the way it’s supposed to work, and I know of no one who suggests such a terrible policy. But there are relatively rare occasions when the sin is so public and serious and the sinner so unrepentant that godly Church discipline must, unhappily, be exercised.
Church discipline is exercised, first and foremost, because we love Jesus Christ and love His Body for which He died. Our primary motivation for all things, including discipline, is to love God and obey Him, pleasing Him in all things. Our job as stewards is to guard the treasure. But what if one comes into the Church who is determined to destroy this treasure? The Church must protect the Body of Christ from those who call themselves brothers and sisters and yet who are determined to follow their own will to the destruction of themselves and others.
Christ is truly present in His people, His temple, His Church, and so what we do to the Church is what we are doing to Christ. A serious, public, and unrepentant sinner is therefore an attack not just on the Church but also on Jesus Christ who lives in His Church and has united Himself to her in one Body.
“Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (verses 7-8.) Jesus Christ died for His Church so that she may be pure and unblemished before God. We are united to Jesus Christ as His Church. How dare we allow this spotless Lamb of God be spotted and polluted by the sin in our midst and not do anything about it!
God thought the sin in His people was great enough to have His Son die on the Cross. He thinks enough of sin that He says that the wages of sin are death. And yet we continue to sweep sin in the Church under the carpet, not realizing what that sin does to the Body of Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 7 that they are truly unleavened! Because they are united to Christ, the Passover Lamb, they are unblemished before God. But such public and unrepentant sin is a leaven that left unchecked will leaven and corrupt the holy Bride of Christ.
But we don’t discipline such serious sin only for the sake of the Body: we discipline for the very sake of the person involved. When Paul says that the Church should deliver such a sinner to Satan, his reason is that even if his flesh is destroyed, his spirit may be saved. The act of Church discipline is not an act of hatred, revenge, or judgmentalism: it is an act of loving Christ and loving neighbor. The goal of excommunication, ironically, is always to bring the sinful person back into a life with Jesus Christ, in which He truly communicates Himself to us through a life in His Church and a participation in His Body and Blood in the Sacraments.
When a person is excommunicated and cut off from the Body and Blood of the Church, he is also to be cut off from the other blessings that flow from Christ through His Church. In verses 9-13 Paul makes clear that excommunication is not just a matter of being refused the Sacraments but also being refused the common life in Christ or Christian fellowship. He writes that we should “not keep company with sexually immoral people,” meaning those who call themselves Christians. Obviously, we’d have to be beamed up to a different world to totally avoid associating with unrepentant sinful people. But Paul is talking of those who call themselves Christians.
The truth is, the Church in America and in the modern world has rejected what St. Paul teaches. We have so many who call themselves Christians who don’t care how sinful they are and redefine various sins as cultural taboos of the primitive and ignorant first century. We have not exercised godly discipline for a long time in many churches.
What keeps us from exercising godly and life-giving discipline in the Church? There are a lot of causes: let me mention two
First, we have defined the Church as a voluntary collection of individual Christians instead of God’s elect or chosen people and the very mystical Body of Christ on earth that has a visible, ordained shape and character to it. We don’t take excommunication seriously because excommunication implies that there is communication to begin with – that we take the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ seriously. Because we take the Sacraments seriously we also take the Body of Christ, the Church seriously – or rather the other way around!! Jesus Christ is in His people as they partake of His Sacraments. To be barred from such a life in Christ is to be given over to a slow death, if there is no change.
But where the Church is invisible and the Sacraments are merely optional mnemonic devices, then how is it possible to excommunicate? If the Church is a volunteer association, chosen by men and not by God, then we can choose to leave anytime with no consequences. And if you God-ordained Church leaders ever dare to discipline me, who cares? I’ll go to another church who will ask no questions. I’ll hide myself in a large church where they’ll still think I’m a first-time visitor after two years of attending. I’ll take my 1% tithe and give it so some TV evangelist or less judgmental church.
The second reason we might avoid the nuisance known as Church discipline is we know our own sins that we’ve refused to deal with and don’t want to be reminded of the terrible consequences for unrepentant sinfulness. Seeing others disciplined reminds us that we may also be disciplined.
My response: praise God! For the Lord disciplines those whom He loves. He disciplines us as His children and His Church so that we may be trained to return to Him.
Rather than remaining children who see Church discipline as the capricious and unpleasant anger of God, learn to see it as the loving discipline of a parent who knows that the purpose of every discipline that is administered is so that the child may be trained to love and obey Him.
If you see Church discipline as an adult, indeed, if you see God’s discipline in your own life this way, you will find it is not a nasty nuisance to be avoided but God’s very own means of loving His children and drawing them closer to Him.
Prayer: Almighty and merciful God, who hates nothing You have made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent; create in us new and contrite hearts, that we, truly lamenting and confessing our sins, may receive Your full and perfect remission and forgiveness;through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Meditate on any unconfessed or unrepentant sin in your life, and make your confession before God, truly desiring to turn from your sins. Ask God if there is some unresolved sin that He has been trying to get you to deal with, and ask for His ever-ready help with this sin.
Resolution: I resolve to meditate on the way(s) in which God is presently disciplining me, seeing it not as a punishment but as His means of lovingly making me more fit to be in His presence.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson
Category: Give Us This Day