"Soft touch" church discipline

True discipline involves discipling.

Robert Bretsch is senior pastor of the Sunnyside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tualatin, Oregon

While I was growing up I thought I understood the fine art of discipline. It always meant punishment and some times involved pain. During my tumultuous eighth-grade year, however, I saw a new dimension in discipline: discipling.

I was busy defying the teacher and creating a climate less conducive for learning than the two-room mission school wanted when the school board chairman took time for a talk with me. He sat in front of me and in 15 minutes changed my concept of myself, my life, and my relationships. What he shared has stayed with me since. He trusted me. He liked me. He told me he valued me and my opinions. He said he was going to protect me by not telling my parents. I responded with a resolve never to do anything that would lessen this man's opinion of me. From the perspective of time and maturity, this experience convinced me that discipline is primarily discipling.

I had experienced grace. Grace reveals God's attitude toward us. Not only does He love us He likes us. He enjoys spending time with us. The first picture of God we see in Scripture is a Creator smiling at His creation. Each day we hear Him say, "This is good. This is good!" Then after creating humanity He exclaims, "This is very good!" Above all, He enjoyed His human craftsmanship.

Taking pleasure in His people

When Jesus began His ministry, God showed the pleasure He feels toward humankind. As our representative Jesus received His Father's affirmation: "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased" (Matt. 3:17).* Up to that point Jesus had not preached a sermon, healed a leper, or given sight to the blind. He had not "done" anything in His ministry, yet His Father was pleased with Him because of who He was. Value "~ was given not on the basis of performance but personhood.

God also is well pleased with us, as we relate to Him in Christ. He is pleased not because of our performance, but because He enjoys our uniqueness. Jesus spent time with sinners, even though their lifestyle grieved Him, because the craving to be close to His people was greater than the pain caused by their sinfulness.

Brennan Manning describes such grace this way: "Here is revelation bright as the evening star: Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for cor porate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers, addicts, Internal Revenue Service agents, AIDS victims, and even used-car salespersons. Jesus not only talks with these people but dines with them fully aware that His table fellowship with sinners will raise the eyebrows of religious bureaucrats who hold up the robes and insignia of their author ity to justify their condemnation of the truth and their rejection of the gospel of grace."' More succinctly, Ellen White declares, "He came ... to give to men the cup of blessing, by His benediction to hallow the relations of human life."2

God's perspective must be ours

To fulfill its sacred calling of living out Christ's example, the church must accept God's perspective toward humanity. First, God loves and values us for who we are and not for what we do. Second, He enjoys us and wants to spend time with us. Third, Christ's church is filled with sinners, people who have made wrong choices and are looking for better answers. The church is not a showcase for the rich, famous, and beautiful. It is filled with members who are broken and bleed ing by the give-and-take of life.

Richard John Neuhaus describes the true church of God as being the visible church, not an ethereal, invisible church. "It is this church in all its sweaty, smelly concreteness. . . . The true church is the church truly seen." 3 Such a church should act toward its community with the same attitude God has. Then people will find church to be a safe haven from the hardships of life. Church will be a place where sinners are loved, val ued, and appreciated for their specialness. The church's witness is not that its people are perfect, but that it loves perfectly "as [does] your heavenly Father" (Matt. 5:48).

When the lawyer asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" he wanted permission to draw barriers. If Jesus defined a neighbor for him, he would then know who wasn't his neighbor. Jesus refused to do this. Instead, He told the story of the good Samaritan. In doing so, Jesus took the calling of love beyond theory into the arena of action. A neighbor is anyone needing our love and assistance. The church needs to recognize this.

True discipline, then, is discipling the church into a loving environment where compassion, fellowship, and worship create such a radical difference from the world that nonChristians will want to belong to such a group. The goal of the church is to make us "one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee" (John 17:21). Any attempt to see discipline as punishment or exclusion is to deny the intent of the gospel. God wants us to "in crease and abound in love for one another" (1 Thess. 3:12). This love is intended not just for the nice people in church, but also is directed toward the bad sinners of the flock. Sinners have an uncanny ability to do what sinners do best namely, sin. The church is commanded to love and to "do so more and more" (1 Thess. 4:1, RSV).

Acceptance of sinners does not mean license to sin. Grace is risky business; some will take advantage of its freedom. Some will enjoy grace for a season and then cast it off, while others allow it to become the single most important part of their lives. Many want to take the risk out of grace and protect it from abuse. They make rules to show others what not to do in order to "walk in the light." Legalism is mostly humanity's attempt to safeguard the wonderful gift of God's salvation. But as hazardous as freedom can be, the Christian is called to love those who may at times even misuse their liberty.

Acceptance itself is not what breeds license. "To the contrary, your very acceptance of a brother will make him strong. It will never confuse him in questions of right and wrong if your teaching and personal lifestyle establish clear standards. For example, a person who uses profanity is not going to imagine you approve of such language just because you accept him personally. As he hears your reverent speech and learns God's Word and, most important, comes to know God, he will understand clearly that profanity is wrong. But if you communicate personal rejection to such a per son, he will never be around long enough to be touched by God through you." 4

Our world is a "soft touch" world. We are under a constant barrage of messages that tell us we can have it our way. One street corner five blocks from where I used to live features four different styles of hamburgers from four different food chains. I had my choice among them. And the ham burgers I chose were at the College Deli, made from soybeans. Nobody forced me to eat them. My own free will was operating.

The soft-touch approach that honors personal freedom can be applied in every major area of life. The old "industrial" model, in which the decisions were made from higher up and handed down, is no longer a desirable pattern.

The hazard of relativism

Secular relativism is the term used to describe an individual's choosing a course of action without external considerations. Possibly the greatest is sue facing the Christian community of grace is relativism creeping into the church. With no absolutes, there is no consensus of truth or behavior. If nothing really matters, there is no need for personal commitment. Dennis Prager, a Jewish historian and broadcaster, warns of this trend: "This generation believes everything is relative---everything. Good and evil don't exist. It is all relative. There is no truth. Everything is determined by one's individual agenda."5

When I was a youth in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the church offered clear instruction on what it meant to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Good members did not wear jewelry of any type. We were mostly vegetarians. Adventist women did not wear polish. We ate no pork, and never went to movie theaters except to attend evangelistic meetings, afraid that an gels would abandon us at the front doors of such establishments. Theo logically, we had the truth, and every one else lived in falsehood.

Some in the church today challenge these assumptions. In addition, theological threats have emerged that were unimaginable in simpler times. Theology at times seems to be an other "have it your way" eclecticism. This process actually has been healthy. The church has had an opportunity to explore the meaning of grace more completely and has rid itself to some extent of cultural trappings. This new outlook, however, comes with a built-in hazard: a lack of clearly defined parameters. We must remind ourselves that the gift of the cross is never separated from the claim of the cross.

In my early years, the church seemed to talk exclusively of the claim---namely, sanctification. For the past 20 years many members have talked more about the gift than its claim. And now with the emergence of relativism, even defining the claim of the cross can prove to be a troubling exercise. Each member defines the claim differently. There is wide spread variance among congregations as to the sanctification of the saved a type of congregational relativism. By practice churches have allowed each pastor to define what it means to walk with the Lord. Thus, instruction varies. Emphasis differs. And how discipline is understood and administered also varies.

How can we cope with this crisis? Through the Scriptures. God's Word cuts through cultural tendencies and shifting standards. The goal of biblical hermeneutics is to find the eternal principles and apply them to the cultural context in existence. Standards change frequently, but principles never do. Applications of truth vary from time to time and from place to place, but the principles upon which they are based never do.

New Testament discipline

In our seeking to apply biblical principles to the matter of church discipline, it helps to know that the New Testament uses two words to describe the process. Paideuo means educating or instructing children, with emphasis on teaching and learning. The other word, gumnazo, has the connotation of training and exercising. The primary meaning is to shape someone into something he or she was not when training began. By nature these words exude positive reinforcement toward a goal of education and training, with no suggestion of punishment or banishment from fellowship. The gospel of grace compels the church to provide a climate where teaching and learning are combined with training and exercise. The church needs to be that one safe place in our lives where we can fail yet still be loved and taught the fuller meaning of Christ's claim on our lives.

The religious leaders of Christ's day did not provide a safe haven for sinners. The leaders were condemnatory and judgmental, as when they dragged up the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did not excuse or deny her sin. No, He upheld the principle of sexual purity, while instituting a different order of behavior toward sinners. Instead of condemning sinners, He loved, accepted, and forgave them. To the woman He said, "Did no one condemn you? . . . Neither do I condemn you. . . . From now on sin no more" (John 8:10, 11).

In His story of the two brothers, Jesus portrayed God's acceptance of returning sinners by describing the father placing the best robe around his son (see Luke 15:22). This may have been shocking enough to His audience. But when the father continued with placing the ring on the son's finger, the audience no doubt gasped. That ring signified access to his father's assets. The son who had just squandered all his inheritance now had a passbook to his father's bank account. All that his father owned was at his disposal. For many, this was a much too radical picture of God.

Even today few of us would allow our wayward children access to much of what we possess until they have proved themselves trustworthy. But we see from Jesus' parable that the positive power of grace is what stimulates repentance. When sinners see the depths of God's love and acceptance, their resistance fades away and a desire to please Him pervades their soul. "When the truth takes hold of your heart, it will work a reformation in the life." 6 Unfortunately, much of the discipline done in the name of Christ is a denial of grace rather than a dispensing of its eternal principles.

The father of Christ's story proceeded to throw a party for his returned son. A party con notes value of and joy toward the object of attention. When your children each had their first birth day party, the attention of the family was centered on the one celebrating. They knew they were loved and appreciated. Is it possible that if the church threw more parties for its wayward ones, we would see 100 in the church where today we see one? Living from the core of grace is to live with an appreciation of each person's potential and this happens once we are confronted with a true picture of God's love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Once a person sees this God, the words "Go, and sin no more" (John 8:11, KJV) ring with urgency to surrender one's life to Christ and grow in Him.

Grace in small groups

Small groups may be the best way to express value and appreciation. To foster an atmosphere of joy and love coupled with acceptance and desire to please God may be the most compatible way to live out the true meaning of discipline. Small groups provide ways to learn and be taught the will of the Lord. Studying, praying, and sharing together develop spiritual disciplines that guide and protect Christians as they travel together toward the kingdom. Strength is gained by sharing victories as well as struggles. Accountability to one another provides impetus to deeper commitment and surrender.

When we neglect the principles of God's grace, is it possible that any attempt to purify the church merely limits its spiritual growth? Church discipline based on grace is much different than the traditional model of discovering sin, deciding who is guilty, and then censuring or disfellowshipping. Modeling grace is harder work and requires patience and forbearance with one another. Trusting the inner workings of the Holy Spirit is risky business. It may take time to reveal the intent of the heart.

Paul addresses church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5: "But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler not even to eat with such a one" (verse 11). The man found in the incestuous relationship is to be cast out of the fellowship not be cause he is a greater sinner than the rest, but because he persists in his sinning. This can be the only explanation because Jesus surrounded Him self with just the same type of people Paul tells us to avoid. He did not remove Himself because they were too sinful. He drew near to those who were damaged by sin. He ate with them. He called them to be His disciples. He even allowed a despised woman to touch His feet. However, Jesus spoke directly against those whose hearts were entrenched against the power of His love. He said, "These will receive greater condemnation" (Luke 20:47).

The church must protect itself from those individuals who remain unsubmissive to God's loving way. Members who disrupt the body of Christ should face discipline before they destroy the spirit of caring and unity. If they persist in attacking the body of Christ, they should be re moved from fellowship and be treated as Matthew 18 would suggest: as Gen tiles and tax gatherers. In other words, the church is to treat them as people for whom Christ died, seeking to win them again.

The Gospels contain many warnings against those who oppress God's people. Too of ten the church aims its discipline at those whose sins are flagrant but neglects to call to account those who destroy a caring environment. We can not allow wolves to remain with the sheep if we want to provide a safe haven for repenting sinners. The church must care enough to offer soft-touch discipline.

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible.

1. Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1990),pp. 19, 20.

2. Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 144.

3. Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 9.

4. Jerry Cook with Stanley Baldwin, Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1969), p. 19.

5. Dennis Prager, interview in Door, November/December 1990, p. 11.

6. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 2, p. 678.

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Robert Bretsch is senior pastor of the Sunnyside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tualatin, Oregon

March 1994

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