August 7, 2013

How Church Discipline Honours God and Protects His People

In my 14 years of pastoral ministry, I have stumbled through cases of bestiality, incest, rape, complicated ‘family’ structures, multiple addictions, chronic mental illnesses, murder, and suicide. It has been a struggle trying to work through the mess of sinful humanity in a way that is biblically faithful—both to the injured party, their loved ones, and the local church body. How do we discipline? When should we discipline? Is it safe to discipline? They are all frequent questions, and there are often no easy answers or quick fix solutions.

That’s why I picked up this book recently—in an attempt to glean as much biblical wisdom as I could on an issue I am painfully aware gets left behind in a ministry like mine, which, far too often, descends into crisis control and ‘winging it advice’. As Steve Timmis points out in the foreword: ‘Church discipline is critical. It is a topic for all of us who are concerned about the reputation of Christ, the health of his church and the credibility of the gospel’.

The book is neatly divided into four clear parts:

  1. Our Redeeming God & His Bride. Here Cheong sets out the theological foundation for discipline as it relates to the character of God in his dealing with his people. As he helpfully reminds us, “We need to first understand how God relates to us in our sinfulness so that we can best reflect Him as we relate to others in their sin.” (p.25) I think the strength of his opening section lies in his constant application of these themes to the life of the Christian community, rather than that of just the individual. God has redeemed a bride, and that bride is made up of many different people.
  2. The Bride’s Rebellion & God’s Discipline. This section is broken down into two short chapters. The really helpful bit here is how the author interweaves the story of a couple with a broken marriage into theme of the book. It is useful because, not only do we see some of his principles put into action, but we see it from multiple angles: the adulterer, the injured party, the church leadership, friends, and the wider body. He will go on to develop this story as the book progresses. The ‘why’ of church discipline is also considered in this section. Cheong reminds us that God disciplines his bride so that (1) we can be relationally restored (2) wickedness can be removed (3) his people can be renewed and (4) he can reveal his love and glory. Therefore, Cheong reminds us, “God’s purposes for discipline must drive the church’s purposes for discipline, since we are ambassadors for Christ and ministers of the gospel.” (p.59) It is in this section that he gives us a working definition of what he means by church discipline: “God's ongoing, redeeming work through His living Word and people as they fight the fight of faith together to exalt Christ and protect the purity of His bride.” (p.71)
  3. God's Call to Carry Out His Redemptive Discipline. In this section, Cheong nails down some of the practical implications of doing discipline within a community context. For him, Christians are to care for one another by (1) loving God and one another (2) engaging one another with the gospel (3) fighting for one another in suffering and sin and (4) forgiving and reconciling with one another. The challenge here is that discipline is a community affair, and is not only to be done by elders or from the pulpit, but rather “gospel care is the up close and personal ministry of the Word where we speak the gospel into the realities and difficulties of each others lives as a community of brothers and sisters in Christ”. (p.85) This is the ‘meat and tatties’ of the book (in my opinion) as the author walks us through what he terms “the mess and mission of gospel relationships”(p.89ff). I did find myself getting a little frustrated at points, but only because I was looking for more concrete examples of how to handle specific situations that I face. Impossible of course!
  4. Appendices. This includes everything from redemptive plans to manuscripts for informing the church on a discipline issue. Immensely helpful.

In summary, this book is just outstanding. Without doubt the best book I have read on the issue, by far, largely because of the way in which he grounds the issues with questions at the end of each chapter and the story of the couple and their troubles. It doesn’t get all idealistic, and it has both feet firmly planted on the messy reality of church life.

A 5-star must buy!

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