Tonight, I participated in something that I have never been a part of in the 22 years that I have known Jesus Christ. The reason for this is twofold: I have never been in a church before that took seriously the biblical practice of church discipline, and I have never been in a church where the pastor has faithful discharged his duties of gospel preaching and pastoral ministry for over two decades. So what happened, you might ask?
In 1988, God saved a man named Steve who soon became a baptized member of Grace Baptist Church (where I serve). A few years after his conversion, Steve fell into sin and came under the discipline of the church which he refused to accept. As a result, the most severe decision a church body could ever make was practiced as Steve was excommunicated from the membership of Grace. For the next 14 years, Steve spent his life committing immoral acts, including drugs and alcohol. At one point in his life, Steve said he spent an entire month in seclusion drinking alcohol with the jaded hopes that he could die in his own misery and insanity.
It was during this time that he found an old Bible as he was reminded of what Tom had told him when he first came to Christ, “Read the Gospel of John.” After six months of prayer, Bible reading, and personal repentance, Steve emailed Tom because he struggled to believe that there would be a church who would accept him. The first person he knew he could to turn to, the person whom he said he trusted the most, was the very person who 14 years ago committed the most severe act of discipline–his former pastor, Tom Ascol.
Through a series of emails, Tom helped Steve get plugged into a gospel-centered church where he is living (which happens to also be a Grace Baptist) and shepherded him in gospel reconciliation that culminated this evening when we were able to fly Steve down to be with us in our bi-lingual Lord’s Supper service. This evening I listening to a brother’s confession of prodigal repentance saturated with tears mingled with the joys of heaven. It was extraordinary grace on display as the Great Shepherd pursued and captured one that had strayed, fallen, and wallowed in the pit of emptiness.
So many thoughts were going through my head as this was all taking place. For instance, how many pastors minister long enough to every see an excommunicated member restored in the same tenure? Given that there are so few churches today that practice church discipline, how many fewer ever see the most extreme (and painful) measures come full circle in the restoration and reconciliation of an excommunicated church member? Why was it that the person Steve wanted help and trusted the most was the pastor who 14 years ago would not let his blatant sin go unaddressed?
So many churches today do miss out on experiencing the kiss of extraordinary grace and celestial joy when the gospel not only reconciles sinners to God but also to one another in the context of a repenting and believing community who is covenanted to be a pure witness as the bride of Christ. So many pastors miss out on one of the greatest blessings of seeing Christ rescue fallen sheep because they do not hang around long enough, or aren’t willing to do love deep enough, to embrace fallen sheep and see Christ rescue them from their prodigal ways. So many wayward sinners wander into the hidden paths of prolonged rebellion without the legitimate discipline of a loving church because there is no commitment either on the part of the member to pursue holiness or the church to pursue those who fall in trespass and sin.
When I hear reports of God-moments in churches, I often hear of x number of people professing Christ, being baptized, etc., and they are all praiseworthy. But how often to we hear church members walk away from the gathered congregation with a God-moment where shameful acts of sinful rebellion is renounced in humble hearts of repentance and the forgiveness of Christ is communicated with joy and gratitude to God?
There was a time when experiences like the one tonight were not uncommon, but I have a strange feeling that this God-moment is one of which I would have a hard time sharing, except with brothers of yesteryear. But it does not have to be that way. We do not have to have undisciplined churches, meaningless membership, and cowardly pastors who are unwilling or afraid to do what Christ has commanded. I would not have had the privilege of joining angels in heaven with shouts of joy were it no for a pastor 20+ years ago committed himself to the biblical principles of regenerate church membership, church discipline, and faithful gospel preaching–marks all of which should make us Baptist. Unfortunately, my experiences leads me to believe that are marked as being weird.
As I consider myself on the beginning chapters of my pastoral ministry, I am reminded of how blessed I am to serve under the leadership of Tom Ascol whose love for church members causes even the excommunicated to call upon him first, and whose love for the church causes the angels in heaven to rejoice over the warrior shepherd that refuses to let one wayward sheep go their own way. It’s a love that does the hardest things and receives the sweetest expressions of reconciliation this side of heaven. It’s a love that is not always reporting the 99 to the church growth department but is radically pursuing for the 1 because each member counts in the church health department.
There are a lot of lessons I’ve learned about pastoral ministry and being a true church, but this one is just too good not to pass along.