Sermon Series: Pulled In Every Direction
Sermon Two: "Church Discipline"
1 Corinthians 5-6
This is the second sermon in my series from Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians,
which is my response to all the crazy and depressing stuff I see happening in American society and in The United Methodist Church -- sort of an attempt to go back to the basics and address our current situation by looking at the situation of the Corinthian church in Paul’s day.
The Corinthians were a mixed bag, culturally: Jewish believers rubbed shoulders with Gentile believers, and misunderstandings were rife. Christianity was brand-new, and few people fully understood what it meant to be the Church and to live in Christ. All that was being worked out; meanwhile, normal human sinfulness and quarrelsomeness kept making everything more difficult.
Last week, I spoke of the tendency of the church to split into factions, which Paul addressed in the first quarter of his letter – Chapters 1-4. This week, I want to focus on the nature and need for church discipline, which he addresses in Chapters 5 and 6. Once again, I will forego reading the long passage, and instead dip into it as we go. I invite you to open your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 5, and follow along.
Paul isn’t ready to address the questions the Corinthians have forwarded to him yet. He’s still addressing issues others have brought to him that they would rather not talk about. And Paul bluntly calls to their attention a certain scandalous thing in their midst.
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in the body, I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
So, a man who is part of the Corinthian church is living with – and I don’t just mean sharing a residence with - his step-mother, his father’s former wife. Note that they can’t marry, because the union was illegal under Roman law; under the Jewish law – which was not
abrogated by Christianity, by the way, at least not this part - this was not only illegal, but also considered an abomination.
Nobody in the Corinthian church has done anything about it. Perhaps nobody wants to make waves, or interfere with somebody else’s happiness, or be thought a bigot or something. And there may have been all kinds of mitigating and sympathetic circumstances in this situation: the incest may be technical only, for all I know, but that doesn’t matter to Paul. He orders the man excommunicated until the situation has been rectified.
Now, in doing so, Paul short-circuits what we would think of as due process – a thing he is careful to insist upon on other occasions. In this
situation, however, Paul sees that if this is allowed to go on, pretty soon, all kinds of things will be overlooked, even celebrated. So somebody has to draw a line and make it stick, and he flexes his apostolic authority to do just that – a rarity for him, by the way.
From this situation, he goes to talk about another flabbergasting thing the Corinthians are doing: suing each other in court as a means of settling disputes.
When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?
And just to make the point clearer, he says,
To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren.
The Corinthians overlook really important stuff – let it go, lest they make somebody mad – and then they sue each other over merely worldly matters, as if they were a bunch of pagans.
Paul points out that they have been redeemed from their sins – for they were once as bad as anybody else in town, and that in various ways – but they have been forgiven. But the certainty of that forgiveness is not to be used as an excuse to keep doing un-Christian things.
"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be enslaved by anything. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food" - and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for immorality, but fore the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
And while the main thing being talked about here has to do with sexual immorality, Paul is stating a wider principle, that our behavior matters – not just in the sense of keeping score over this sin, or that, but in what we do with our lives.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Now, at this point, we need to come back to our world and our current situation. The UMC has two problems today that threaten it – one more common among the clergy, and the other more common among the laity. Our Church has never been known for excommunicating people, or for church trials generally, though the procedures for enforcing our rules about behavior exist. On those rare occasions when they are invoked, they are almost always leveled at a clergyperson who has broken one of our bigger taboos; but even then, the whole process of charges and trials and so on is a last resort – nobody really wants to go there. Nevertheless, we sometimes have to – and right now, we are facing a situation in The UMC where certain clergypersons are blatantly disobeying our rules in order to provoke change, and they expect to get away with it.
In response, our bishops are tending to play “nobody here but smoke” and won’t enforce the rules. Which means, ultimately, that the will of General Conference means nothing in the face of a few people who want the rules to be otherwise. And if they are allowed to have their way, then the rules will be as they want them to be, not just for them, but for all of us; hence, the undercurrent of crisis and confrontation you keep hearing about, and the threat of schism.
I personally think we need to crack down, hard,
on this kind of thing – not because I’m a vindictive sort, but because I think dithering around does no one any favors. We can talk about what the mutineers think is so important after
they have returned to their obedience and the Church has resumed regular order and we have all reaffirmed the need to obey the rules even when we disagree with them. And I could ramp and snort on this subject for the rest of my time, but important as it is, it’s largely a clergy problem.
The laity have a different problem regarding expectations of behavior – one which John Wesley addressed in the General Rules of our movement. Three things were expected of those who wanted to identify with the Methodist Movement back in Wesley's day. One was to “do no harm” – meaning, to avoid obvious sins and anything that would hurt somebody else. In short, don’t be like the Corinthians.
But the second expectation was to “do good” by all the means at one’s disposal. Not just to avoid immorality or quarreling, but to do helpful things for others, to live a life of charity and volunteering and expressing the love God has graced you with to others who are in need of it. Methodism was to be an active kind of Christianity, not just avoiding sin but devoting yourself to doing good.
And the third expectation was to be “faithful in attendance upon all the ordinances of God” — which meant attending public worship, taking communion as often as possible, fasting, praying, reading the Scriptures, and so on: what we might call the devotional life.
The early Methodists enforced these expectations in an interesting way. They didn’t have a lot of formal procedures. They didn’t spend their energy writing policies or investigating misbehavior. But, you see, the core of Methodist belonging wasn’t the preaching service, it was the class meeting – that weekly gathering in which you met with other, like-minded persons to help each other on to perfection in love.
It was a tremendously important part of being a Methodist. It was where people really experienced the love and belonging and spiritual growth that we all talk about. When the famous frontier explorer Jedediah Smith wrote home to his brother from the Rocky Mountains in the 1820s, he said, "Oh, for a society to bear me up before a throne of grace!" He was longing for the support he had experienced in that little Methodist class meeting.
In Wesley's day, you had to have a ticket to get into the class meeting. Tickets were renewed every quarter. And if the class leader or the society leader or the itinerant preacher saw that you weren’t keeping up with the expectations of the Methodist life, you could have your ticket pulled. Now, that could get ugly in a hurry, if people were of a fault-finding disposition – or if certain, very well-connected people had their
tickets pulled, I suppose. But however that might be, no one could hope to contradict Mr. Wesley himself, when he
came to town and examined the membership rolls of the societies. Wesley was known to drop a third of the whole membership just because they were no longer actively engaged in trying to live up to the expectations of the Methodist way. That didn’t mean they were bad people, just that they weren’t trying anymore, and John Wesley saw no value in having mere “names on a roll.” Did this mean the movement suffered? No, it flourished! The more Wesley pruned the bushes, the more they bloomed. And there’s a lesson here, for us today.
Making rules and enforcing them may be necessary, but it isn’t what makes people grow in Christ. We don’t want to be a church of rule-mongers, or finger-pointers. But,
wouldn't you like to belong to a church where everybody in the church was excited about following Christ, and experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and engaged in doing things that helped others – and incidentally, made you feel good to participate? Well, here’s the thing: that only happens in churches where people have high expectations for each other, and where people accept high expectations for their own behavior and participation.
It’s like being on an athletic team. Everybody would like to be part of a winning team. It’s a great experience. But if you have a team where some team members are dogging it, where attendance at practice is hit or miss, where nobody spends much time in the weight room, where people fear to confront each other’s laziness because they think they’ll be ostracized, where team members are only interested in their personal stats and awards, and where nobody listens to the coach, that
team will not only not win many games, but will form a miserable experience for everybody who has the misfortune to be a part of it.
Such a team will not be turned around by hard-and-fast rules, though the coach may have to crack down some at first. But no, that team will really begin to turn around when the individual team members decide to work harder, to play more unselfishly, and to demand from each other what they are beginning to demand from themselves. A team that plays that way, that trains that way, that has high expectations of themselves, will be a joy to play on – and, coincidentally, will win more games.
Sociologists of religion divide religious denominations into “high-demand churches” and “low-demand churches.” High-demand churches have clear expectations for what their members will do, and they communicate them. Low-demand churches have fewer expectations, and they don’t press them.
The UMC (unlike the Methodism of Wesley’s day) is a rather “low-demand church” – and lots of people like it that way. They don’t want to make a great deal of effort, either morally or relationally. They don’t like being asked to give money. They don’t want to feel self-conscious about their low attendance. They don’t want to feel gauche because their prayer life is non-existent – so don't
call on them to pray! They don’t want to be responsible for anything. As for rejecting sin and embracing holiness – well, they don’t want to really be held accountable, even by God, for that. They want their church to be strong, but they don’t want it to ask anything much of them. But then, who will give the effort necessary to make the church strong, if everyone just wants to come along for the ride?
A low-demand church is like a low-demand team. It doesn’t win many games, and it provides a mediocre experience for the team members. It also easily descends into selfishness and blaming each other. The Lord says in the words of the prophet Hosea, “my people perish for lack of knowledge” – meaning, not just "head knowledge," but the wisdom that accompanies experience. You could also translate that, “ my people perish for want of discipline.”
Not for want of rules; rules are not discipline, though an unwillingness to enforce the rules can destroy discipline pretty effectively. No, discipline is about what you demand of yourself – and then what you will let others demand of you – and finally what you will demand from others, so that all of us can reach the peak experience that we’re aiming for. It's not just about personal effort; the genius of early Methodism was that people sought the fullness of Christ together
- in a disciplined, methodical
So discipline is about glorifying God in our bodies – that is, with our behavior. Not just with our emotions, not just with our minds, not just with our affiliation – but by how we actually live our lives. It’s about living for Jesus, rather than living for ourselves. As Paul says here, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" – with your behavior. And see if that doesn’t change everything – not only for you, but for everybody.