Dr. Ken Keathley, blogging at Between the Times, has written a helpful post reflecting on a case of undisciplined church discipline. In his article, Keathley addresses that, while it is appropriate in cases of obstinence and indifference, disciplining the weak Christian is not in order. He writes,
There is a world of difference between the one who is “stiff necked” and rebellious and the one who is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1-3). . . . Spiritual struggles and stutter-steps are not signs that one is unsaved. Just the opposite; it is one of the surest signs of spiritual vitality. Ask anyone who ministers to those who have been saved from a variety of addictive behaviors. They will tell you the old cliché, “Only live fish struggle to swim upstream; dead fish float with the current.” Spiritual battles indicate spiritual life. I’m not as concerned about the eternal destiny of those beleaguered with temptation as I am with the member who doesn’t give a rip.
Keathley’s distinction is an important one. I am reminded that newborn Christians are to yearn for the “pure milk of the Word” (1 Pet. 2:1-2), who are also encouraged to mature to the point where they can eat solid food (meat). Newborn Christians will do what newborns do–stumble, fall, and get back up again, and what they need is not to be corrected for stumbling but encouraged to persevere in learning how to walk. The problem Paul had with the Corinthians church is that they were living like babies when they should have grown up already, as evidenced by the jealousy and strife among them (1 Cor. 3:1-4; cf. Heb. 5:11-14).
While seeking to pursue congregational responsibility and integrity in church membership, we must never cease to be gracious people. The happy people are the merciful people, and the promise is they too will receive mercy (which we all need!) (Matt. 5:7). Interestingly enough, prior to those words by Jesus, he tells us that happy also are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6). Yet, could it be that there is a tendency for those who have a greater appetite to be more judgmental and possess an air of spiritual superiority than those who may have less of an appetite–you know, kind of like the mature father looking to his newborn son with disappointment, saying, “Why can’t you eat steak like me?”
We need accountability and a nurturing environment that reminds us that we are all in a pursuit of holiness, but we are not perfect. We are all under construction, and we are here only by God’s unmerited kindness towards us. A posture of humility and self-examination would do much to correct an undisciplined tendency to practice discipline to those who need a helping hand (i.e., those who are stumbling). Lest we forget, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and while it is never a license to sin (Rom. 6:1-2), the grace of God should always be on our lips and exhibited in our lives.
A community of faith that is regularly trusting and repenting, that is, applying the gospel to their lives, will be mindful to not wield the law in an unlawful manner. That is why a recovery of church discipline without the recovery of the gospel is so dangerous. Church discipline in the hands of those who have not be staggered by grace, administered by those without a limp, will think that standing tall equals good standing. Nevertheless, Jesus tells us that it is the one who could not lift up his face but beat his breast is the one he accepts in his arms (Luke 18:9-14). Good standing in the courts of heaven should be the grounds of good standing in the eyes of men. Disciplining spiritual performances among those just learning the song and dance is the very thing that Jesus condemned.
So if when we stumble and fall, let us sing the song of mercy and remind one another of the dance that is to come.