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Last Week’s Sermon: Reconciliation, Restoration, And Church Discipline

I’m behind on posting sermons – sorry. Here is last week’s sermon. I’ll post today’s sermon tomorrow.

Matthew 18:15-20

You don’t have to look far on any day to see conflict and relationship breakdown in our world. I was putting together these thoughts on Thursday, and looking at the BBC news, I found these stories:

Conclift

Conflict (Chess II) by Cristian V on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And if it isn’t the national and international news, then we know of troubles among our friends and families. We witness the pain of marriage break-ups, family members falling out with each other, people leaving a place of employment because they don’t get on with the boss, and many other things.

Sadly, the church is not exempt from this. Mrs X won’t speak with Mr Y. A group of people will complain about someone else in the church; that person will consider the complaints unreasonable; and the minister gets lobbied by both sides! Or perhaps the minister goes around upsetting people, and either a campaign starts to get him or her removed, or people lie low until the minister leaves.

What a tragedy it is when the church shows the same characteristics as much of the world. At the heart of our faith is the notion of reconciliation. Through the death of Jesus on the Cross, God reconciles us to himself. And we are meant to be a community of reconciliation. Ephesians talks about Jews and Gentiles being brought together in the Gospel. Jesus talks about forgiving one another. In fact, the story that comes straight after today’s reading is the one where Jesus tells Peter to forgive someone ‘seventy times seven’ and tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.

Doesn’t all this show us that the Christian community is meant to be a model of reconciliation to the world? The way we deal with sins and frictions is surely to be a signpost to the kingdom of God for people.

It isn’t surprising, then, if Jesus here wants us to find a way of reconciliation if at all possible when sin damages relationships in the church. I’m going to split his teaching in this passage into two sections. There are practices for us to implement, and promises from Jesus.

Reconciliation in the sno

Reconciliation In The Snow by Tim Green on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Firstly, then, the practices Jesus calls us to implement when someone sins against us. He tells us initially to ‘go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’ (verse 15b). This isn’t what many of us like to hear. Some of us are nervous, and dislike the thought of confrontation. Others of us rather enjoy gossip, and would prefer to talk about the misdemeanour behind the culprit’s back. We like to engage in a form of revenge by sullying the other person’s reputation on the quiet.

If we fall into one of those two reactions to the idea of speaking alone to the person who has hurt us, we need to hear what Jesus says next about the process. He talks about the aim of going to the person: ‘If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.’ (Verse 15c) The point of going to see someone who has caused offence, says Jesus, is reconciliation and restoration: reconciliation between the two estranged parties, and restoration to full fellowship.

Think about that goal if you have a negative feeling about approaching someone who has done you wrong. If the prospect fills you with nerves, then this reassures you that you do not have to go in with a confrontational attitude. This is about putting things right, and healing the relationship.

And if you would rather gossip about the person, then you need to be challenged by Jesus’ goal of reconciliation and restoration. Despite what is practised in some churches by some Christians, being sinned against is no reason for character assassination. That is the opposite of Jesus’ purposes for his people. We are called to show a different way of life to the world. A lot of Christian witness could be improved by the elimination of gossip in favour of building one another up.

shun'd by dalloPhoto

shun’d by dalloPhoto on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

But what if it doesn’t work? There is no guarantee, not even from Jesus. The next stage is this:

But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Verse 16)

The Old Testament Law required more than one witness, and Jesus brings that in here. If there is disagreement between the original parties, others are now involved. This isn’t about going mob-handed to the person who has mistreated us. In fact, as Tom Wright says in his popular commentary on Matthew, one point in taking two or three others along with us for the next stage is for the sake of checks and balances. What if I have misconstrued what happened? What if this is a misunderstanding? Others can bear witness and help us through it, if that is the case. Remember, our objective according to Jesus is to ‘regain’ the one who has injured us.

Only if none of this works do we escalate to the level of the church congregation:

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Verse 17)

Still the hope is that the other member will listen. This is not a court of law; this is the church of Jesus Christ seeking to effect reconciliation. Yes, it may involve difficult and humbling things: if wrong has been done, then an admission of the fact and repentance will be involved. We do not banish someone until these attempts have been exhausted.

But if the person will not respond positively to all these overtures, then the regrettable final stage comes. It is a last resort. We do not leap into excluding someone, but nor do we rule it out if nothing works. For just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden due to their sin, and just as the people of Israel were exiled from the Holy Land due to their sin too, so in the final analysis may someone be exiled from the Church for persistent and unrepentant sin. Yes, we know we are all sinners, but those who are not prepared to address their condition before God and his people ultimately place themselves outside the fellowship, and the church must confirm this serious state of affairs. Sometimes only this will bring home the severity of the situation.

These, then, are the practices that Jesus briefly outlines here. Sometimes the process will be more complex than this, but this is only a short account of Jesus’ teaching, and the important point is that we keep to his goal of seeking restoration and reconciliation if at all possible. We only confirm exile from the church when the person has hardened their heart against the Gospel call of grace and holiness.

We need now to think about the second half of the reading, the promises of God that Jesus enunciates for these stressful circumstances. The first promise may not sound much like a promise at first:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Verse 18)

There are some Christians who think this has something to do with casting out demons, but the context is the one we have of restoring relationships and church discipline. It’s a reminder of who we are as the church: we are the community of God’s kingdom. What we do here is a foretaste of glory. We are rehearsing for God’s great and beautiful reality, his new creation, when he makes all things new. This is our part in making all things new. So be encouraged when you are part of something like this. You are taking part in God’s kingdom work of renewing his world. You are building for God’s great future.

The next promise follows on from this, and it’s one we have misunderstood for so long, because we have regularly quoted it out of context:

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. (Verse 19)

When we take those words out of context, we read them simply as a promise from Jesus about answered prayer. If two of us agree – and some Christians actually refer to what they call a ‘prayer of agreement’ – then our heavenly Father will do it for us.

This leads to disappointment. How many prayer requests over the years have been ones where you were in agreement with other Christians, but you didn’t receive the answer you desired? Many more than most of us care to admit, I’d venture to suggest.

But the context isn’t prayer requests. The context is this desire to bring restoration after sin, only resorting to exclusion in extreme circumstances. It’s a context where God’s people engage in such things as a preparation for the new heavens and new earth to come, where we model God’s kingdom to the world. And so when we agree on restoration to the Christian community, it truly happens. The Father makes it so. Such is his desire for reconciliation that when we forgive and repent, he makes a way through.

And sadly he also honours the exile from the Christian community where someone has so hardened their hearts to sin that they refuse grace. So our preference for restoration and our last resort use of exile are signs of God’s coming kingdom, and the Father puts his seal on what we do, honouring the state of our hearts. What we do is not idle or independent: it is backed up by Heaven.

Then there is a final promise, and yet again – like all these promises – it is a verse we have taken out of context, misused, and misunderstood:

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Verse 20)

When we are few in number at a service or church meeting, we invoke this verse. God is still with us – and we comfort ourselves with that thought, even if in the ensuing meeting we don’t have much sense of God’s presence at all.

There is some truth in this, and on one level these words of Jesus are radical. Compare it to the Jewish regulation that required at least ten (and they had to be men) in order to form a synagogue, and you see some of the power of these words.

But again, I come back to the question of context. God is with us in the desire to bring restoration. When Jesus speaks or ‘two or three gathered in [his] name’, it’s only four verses since he told the complainant to take one or two witnesses with him, so that the matter might be established by two or three witnesses (verse 16). Context requires us to refer back to that.

And that is why I made the point earlier that those of us who get nervous about this process should hang on for the promises Jesus brings. Not only does he promise us that what we do is a sign of the kingdom; not only does he promise that the Father backs up our work in this area; he also promises to be present with us in the sensitive work of reconciliation, restoration, and repentance.

Why? Because God is committed to this work. Perhaps nothing else shows more clearly the Gospel having an effect upon people’s lives than when they go to extraordinary lengths to overcome estrangement and renew broken relationships.

So we serve a God who does not let sin have the last word: that belongs to grace. And he calls us to be like that: the church is to be a place where the final word goes to grace.

Is that true of us? Here?

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Mark Driscoll And The Mars Hill Churches: When Discipline Becomes Control Becomes … ?

I am recently on record as having grave reservations about Mark Driscoll‘s teaching and attitudes to those he disagrees with. But as goes the man, so goes the church and group of churches he has founded. Here are some gruesome links. The stories are so consistent.
Matthew Paul Turner tells in two parts the story of a young man who confessed to sexual sin and sought help, but who was then placed under draconian discipline with a ‘contract’ that could be described as voyeuristic. When he deems it unfair, he is removed from Mars Hill’s social network and those in his home group are told not to associate with him and are even given a form of words to say, indicating their assent to Mars Hill’s decision. Frankly, the way they put words into the mouths of people could come from North Korea.

A couple separately tell of the pressures they were put under by church leaders when they decided to leave a Mars Hill church, even though they tried to do so diplomatically. Detailing Scripture just isn’t good enough in a church that likes to talk more about correct doctrine than Jesus.

Earlier, when another member queriedwhy he was being asked to shun a sacked staff member when he doesn’t see evidence of the kind of outright sin that would lead to ostracisation in the New Testament, he is told by an elder, “When dad and mom are having an argument the kids don’t need to know what’s going on.” The church member concludes,

So when dad and mom live off the tithe checks given by the children they don’t have to explain why dad decides to fire mom?

Later, his membership covenant (which has to be renewed every few years – a strange kind of covenant that, he observes) is voided by the elders.

Time and again, if you click on these links, you will see people are using words like ‘control’, ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘cult’.

Bill Kinnon understandably asks why that bastion of the neo-Reformed movement, the Gospel Coalition, hasn’t spoken out against Mars Hill. Driscoll is one of their council members, and they have had resignations before on grounds of doctrinal controversy, as Bill points out. But what does Driscoll have to do for that to happen? Let’s suppose that actually it’s being addressed behind closed doors. If so, that would be a good start. But this has gone on for a long time now. The sacking of two key leaders (one of whom was the person to be ostracised in the last story above) happened in 2007. It’s unthinkable to consider that any such measures were still at the first level of New Testament discipline, the private stage.
Why, then, is there a conspicuous silence in the public arena? Could it be that Driscoll is the poster boy of the movement, untouchable due to the numbers he and his churches draw in? Could it be that he is regarded rather like a mercurial and talented footballer who is something of a rebel, when he might be more like a Paul Gascoigne character, out of control?

And if Driscoll’s friends can’t deal with this, who can? Is it surprising that in desperation some outside that camp (either always outside or, like those above, people who have left) raise strong voices?

Those of us who are critical nevertheless have the responsibility not to lower ourselves to the standards we find objectionable in Driscoll in the way we speak out. We have to be careful that the fear we have for the damage that we believe is being done to people and will be done to Christian witness does not make us act out of fear and hence just lash out. If we do, it just gives an excuse for Mars Hill/Driscoll to say, there you are, look at how our opponents behave. It is hard not to be cynical and sarcastic, though, but we must guard against it.

Yet on the other hand, to be too soft is to give in. What else would those who exercise control want than to make people fearful to criticise?

Then there is the question not only of tone, but of language. Are words like ‘cult’, ‘spiritual abuse’ and ‘control’ unfair? If the evidence above is at all reliable (and the consistency tells us something, I think) then certainly we’re talking about control issues, and that raises the issue of ‘why?’. You can’t help thinking about fear and power, maybe a combination of the two, a fear of power being undermined, perhaps. If the structure is hierarchical, with all vision and pronouncements coming down from on high as if Driscoll has descended from Sinai carrying two stone tablets, then anything that questions that approach is not an isolated problem, but an attack on the foundations. And jolly good, too, because no frail mortal can cope with that kind of elevation. Even Moses didn’t.
What about spiritual abuse? Fifteen years ago, near the end of a difficult phase in my life, I heard Marc Dupont speak on the subject, and I bought his book, ‘Walking Out of Spiritual Abuse‘. Helpfully – in my opinion – he draws lessons from King Saul. On the one hand, the people of Israel got the king they deserved, because they rejected seeking the face of God in favour of having a charismatic personality. If that doesn’t ring alarm bells in all sorts of ways on today’s church scene, I don’t know what does.

But on the other side was the character of Saul himself. He looked the part, but his fears and insecurities led him into control and manipulation. At the conference where I heard Dupont speak, he talked about the incident where Saul is picked out as king. You may recall how Samuel ‘drills down’ through tribes and families before finally picking him out. Dupont pointed out that it says that Saul was found ‘hiding in the baggage’, and while the ancients didn’t use the notion of ‘baggage’ metaphorically as we do and so this is strictly bad exegesis, we can say from painful experience that it often is people with ‘baggage’ who cause spiritual abuse. As he says in the first chapter of the book,

Most leaders who end up with a harsh and demanding style of leadership are not individuals who would deliberately hurt others. (Page 13, author’s emphasis)

Could it be that Mark Driscoll is a man with unresolved baggage? He has owned up to fair amounts of difficulties in his marriage. Is he a man who wants to see many people come to Christ? Might it therefore be that this is a man with deeply good intentions, but whose emotional pain has led to the founding of a chronically misshapen church, leading to the problems described in the testimonies cited at the beginning of this post? On this basis, the accusation of spiritual abuse is possible – religious power misused in a way that consistently harms others, and done so by a wounded person who has been elevated to the level of celebrity, one place where a Christian minister probably never should be.

The most contentious allegation, though, is that of ‘cult’. This is a loaded term for Christians. It is a term often applied to religious movements that are essentially heretical deviations from Christianity, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons or Christian Science. However, these should more properly be regarded as heretical sects, not cults. Or it is applied to heretical groups that engage in spiritual abuse – the Children of God, the Moonies and the like – and perhaps end in extreme dangerous devotion to the leader, such as David Koresh at Waco or Jim Jones at Jonestown.

On the surface, Mars Hill’s devotion to neo-Reformed theology still puts it in the Christian mainstream, which is why I can raise issues about whether the Gospel Coalition is doing anything about one of its Council members. But some cults began with orthodox Christian leaders who then deviated – David Berg of the Children of God could be a case in point here. Mars Hill cannot be regarded as unorthodox, and many of its currently contentious doctrines have been held by large numbers of Christians for a long time. Theologically, it would be wrong for Christians to call it a cult.

However, there are other definitions of ‘cult’ that operate not merely theologically but more sociologically. Is there intense devotion to a particular individual other than Christ? Are there behavioural patterns enforced which lead to, or are based on, a sense of superiority or exclusiveness? Exclusivity can be ruled out, due to associations with other Christian leaders such as John Piper and Terry Virgo (and, presumably, the Gospel Coalition leaders), even if they come from a fairly narrow field.
Even here, then, it is hard to justify using the word ‘cult’ of Mars Hill, but it must be admitted that the warning signs are there in the intimidatory and manipulative tactics to which those who have left testify. Authoritarianism certainly seems to be present, and if you read the ten signs of authoritarianism that Scot McKnight quotes from Wade Burleson, you will see a number of similarities.

But given these warning signs, the only right thing to do is to continue to raise the alarm. Today, much of that is going to mean doing so on the Internet.

I repeat: I do not think Mark Driscoll is evil. I think he has good intentions. He wants many to find Christ. He wants a disciplined church. He wants healthy relationships and for young men to be responsible. He wants to preserve the historic Gospel. All these things are honourable. I disagree with some of his emphases, as I do with some of what the Gospel Coalition stands for. I do not believe that Calvinism is the pure Gospel. Nor do I believe that the arc of Scripture points to a complementarian view of relationships, or to a view of hell as eternal conscious torment. I believe in substitutionary atonement, but I believe other images of the atonement also come into play in the New Testament. I also believe the Gospel Coalition intends well (I should point out that another of their council members is an old friend), although my expression of evangelical Christianity differs from theirs in almost exactly the same ways, and I have severe ideas with a sense that anything other than their exposition of the Christian message is unsound, just as Driscoll tends to label his detractors as automatically ‘liberal’.

Yet … for all the sincere intentions with which I believe Driscoll and Mars Hill started out, the combination of what looks like a possibly wounded (or maybe ‘undiscipled‘, using Bill Kinnon’s word) leader and a church celebrity culture makes for an explosive mixture. And when it does explode – quite regularly, it seems, because it is also volatile – great damage is caused. And for that reason, those of us who are concerned must keep raising our voices.

Todd Bentley: What Does Restorative Discipline And Repentance Look Like?

I have been sitting on this post for three days. I’ve fiddled with it, wondered whether to publish it, but in the end I’ve decided to go ahead. Feel free to make constructive comments in response.

On Tuesday, Bill Kinnon linked to the latest sign of Todd Bentley’s return to public ministry. He has a new website that is a variation on his old ministry’s name. There is much talk on it of ‘restoration’. To me, it still looks like Bentley is rushing/being rushed (delete as applicable) back into the public arena.

Now I have to say I like the word ‘restoration’ when it comes to church discipline. It is Jesus’ intention. Church discipline is not violent vengeance. The aim is not ultimately to condemn but to bring someone’s life back in order in relation to God and the church. However, if some talk more about discipline than restoration, there is more talk about restoration than discipline on the new site, insofar as I can see. (Do tell me if I am wrong.) Yes, there are passing references to Bentley’s fall and the damage caused, such as in this article. However, it is also peppered with references to Bentley having ‘lingered with the Word Face-to-face’, so he still seems to claim Moses-like stature for his spiritual experiences. And that makes me nervous. Not because I deny the possibility of such experiences, but because it looks like they are being used to validate the spiritual superhero. How can you argue with someone who claims such an experience? It’s the charismatic trump card.

I see the references to having fallen from grace and past mistakes and so on, all on the same page that advertises all sorts of product. Guys I’m sorry, please give me eighteen dollars. What would be ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’, though? Some of it depends on how you weigh the thorny question of divorce and remarriage. I am not an ‘indissolublist’ (one who believes that any subsequent marriage after a divorce while the first spouse is still alive is automatically adulterous, because all marriages last for life whatever happens). I believe that the New Testament exemptions for divorce under certain circumstances only make sense if they end the marriage and leave the wronged partner free. Indeed, that was the position of my own wife when we first met. (See this sermon for an exposition of a relevant passage.)

But to me, I struggle to see how such exemptions could be relevant to someone like Bentley, although if I am right they would be true for his ex-wife Shonnah. From what I know (and I have to acknowledge there may be more that is rightly being kept from the public eye for the sake of Bentley’s children and ex-wife), I would normally expect that the Christian thing for Bentley to do would be to remain celibate. Sex is not a right; it is a gift. The same is true of ministry.

(By the way, I am not alleging that Bentley caused marital breakdown by actual adultery. I do not know, and I do not wish to pry. But what is undisputed is that it was the emotional involvement with another woman, and that has led to a new bond that should not have been made.)

There is an issue of public scandal to be addressed for the sake of public witness. For example, I have seen churches act decisively when scandal has rocked their congregations and their witness in the community. That such churches took action was respected by those non-Christians who had wondered about the standards of the church. Had the church not done so, there would have been a legitimate charge of hypocrisy. I don’t see an equivalent action in this case. Yes, Bentley had to step down from Lakeland immediately. But in only a few months he’s back back back. Is that right?

I am also aware that the ‘mainstream’ Christian Church has not always acted with integrity in this area. I know of an instance where a minister left his wife for another woman, whom he then married, and he was allowed to remain in the ministry. What message that sends to his ex-wife is deeply troubling.

And there is also then everybody else’s situation. None of us is without sin. Who can cast the first stone? If I am not perfect, what sin am I entertaining? How do we distinguish between the struggles we all have and outright flaunting of God’s word? Are there different degrees of sin? These for me are the most difficult questions of all. However, they cannot be used to disallow any possibility of discipline. The same Gospel – Matthew – that says ‘Judge not’ also has the clearest passages on church discipline. People have been clearly wronged. Relationships have been damaged. Injustice has happened here. The Gospel has been brought into disrepute. That must be addressed.

And if I am so imperfect, why even write about this? (I could even be writing for poor motives – like getting more hits for my blog.) That is because this whole sorry saga has unfolded in public and in the light of the massive public claims Bentley and others made about the Lakeland movement and the like, all of which were discredited by the actions of certain ‘apostles’ and Bentley himself. Following that, the restoration process is being played out like a reality TV show on the web. And as I’ve said before, you don’t do pastoral care like that. Right now, you still have to wonder what the motives are for getting Bentley back on platforms so soon. I continue to have some very cynical ideas about why, and I wish I didn’t.

UPDATE, 26th June, 2:00 pm: Maggi Dawn has a post here and she ends with some prescient words:

Rick Joyner’s voice welcomes you to the website, bigging it up with “God mobilising”, at this “strategic time”, “miracle power”, etc etc. There are links galore to Bentley’s teaching, and you can buy his books, and invite him to minister. OK, so allegedly he isn’t actually taking UP any invitations right now, as he is still in a period of “restoration”… still, you don’t launch a new website when you aren’t planning your comeback, do you?

That’s rather how I feel about the invitation/not taking up invitations issue.