The idea and practice of church discipline is experiencing an upswing in our churches, and rightly so. But with this upswing also comes deep challenges in how we implement discipline and how it is perceived, both by those who are disciplined and those doing the discipline. While church discipline involves everything from one member going to another member privately to reveal to them something they are doing that is not in line with a follower of Christ, I want to deal with the final step in the process, when a church officially intervenes in a person’s life to remove them from fellowship with the church. This process is often perceived as heartless and cold, both from people inside and outside the church. While we cannot control what opinions people have of us who are outside our congregation, we need to be sure that those inside understand why and how a church would intervene in a member’s life by removing them from fellowship. That word ‘intervene’ is interesting and reminds me of a TV show called Intervention that can help the church think about its own discipline/interventions.
Intervention has aired on The A&E Network since 2005. In each episode, someone who is suffering from some form of addiction is confronted by friends and family who are attempting to help them stop their destructive behavior. The show has many tense moments in which the anguish and pain that the addiction causes, both to the person and the ones who love them, is evident. It is gut wrenching to watch parents have to tell their son that he can no longer live with them if he continues to do drugs. I can only imagine the pain that this causes parents and friends as they have to enact this “tough love.” But tough love is exactly what the addicted person needs. They need to see that their behavior is destructive, they need to come to the realization that their friends and family are demonstrating great love by not enabling their destructive behavior any longer, and they need come to the point where they are willing to change their behavior. In many ways, these types of interventions give us a model of what church discipline should look and feel like. Let me explain three things that the church can learn from Intervention: restoration, authentic community and mutual suffering
There is a danger in church discipline that the process will simply be seen as a means to remove a member who is difficult, frustrating, challenging, or embarrassing. The church, however, could learn a thing or two from how the people on intervention deal with the addicted family member. There is not the slightest hint that the addicted person is a burden that needs to be removed from the family, who needs to be excised so that the family can be whole. There is, however, a clear understanding that his actions cannot continue, both because of its destructive nature to himself and to the larger family. It is understood that the goal of the intervention is the restoration of the individual. The anguish of the family members, the suffering that is seen on their faces is evidence enough that their goal is not simply the removal of the person from the family, but it is his restoration to the family that is at the forefront of all that they are doing. No one would get the idea from watching the show that the family members who are doing the intervention are somehow vindictive or seeking revenge against the person. No, no, they would understand completely that those who were doing the intervention so deeply love the individual that they cannot allow him to continue in the state he is in. The goal from top to bottom, from left to right, is the restoration of the person.
The same must be said of church discipline. The goal from top to bottom, from left to right, is the restoration of the individual. Now this will not always happen, but church discipline must have this as its apex; to restore the person to the fellowship. If the goal of discipline does not succeed and the person will not change, the family will live with the scars that this creates. The family will live with the pain and suffering that this brings about, but the intervention itself was never meant to lead to a complete separation, it was meant to lead to a restoration. The church would do well to keep this in mind, but in order for this to stay at the forefront of our thinking as discipline takes place, we must be deeply committed to each other, and this leads to the second thing we can learn from Intervention.
Before an intervention takes place with an addict there have been countless conversations between the person and others who are seeking to get him to change his ways. This is similar to how Jesus calls us to respond in Matt 18:15-16. It might be a one on one confrontation, which then grows to a few people talking with the person, but at some point a decision is made to get everyone together and have an intervention with the person as the final means of waking them up to their behavior and its consequences. This final step in confronting the addicted person is difficult because everyone involved has to admit it to themselves, and each other, that there is a real problem that must be addressed. It can no longer be discussed in hushed whispers behind closed doors or in smaller gatherings. It must be brought out to the full light of the day, in front of everyone involved, so that each person can know the gravity of the situation and what is at stake in the life of the addicted person.
Often times a church will forgo this final step in the process of disciplining/intervening with someone because they do not want to get tangled up in the messiness of the process. Who are we to judge what another person does, they might tell themselves. But to not point out a person’s destructive behavior is not a sign of love, but of apathy, not just to the person who is addicted, but for everyone else in the family. A father, mother, sister, brother or friend will not sit idly by as their loved one plunges ever deeper into drug addiction. No, they will get involved in the messy business of trying to save the person because they don’t have a choice. They are too close to the situation, too much in love with the person, to sit on the sidelines.
One difficulty in our churches in regards to discipline is that we often don’t have this type of authentic community with each other. While we gather in the same building to worship at the same time, we are no closer to the people gathered there than we are to the people we gathered with on Friday night to watch the latest Avenger’s movie. While we occupy the same space, there is no devotion to each other. If I was told to not return to my favorite theater for some reason, I would merely go down the street a bit further and watch the same movie in a different theater. Sadly, the same can often be said about the church. Discipline will never be understood as an act of love, unless and until a church truly loves each other.
One of the main ways that we show that we are in a deep relationship with others is that we eat together. Historically, the church has connected church discipline with excluding someone from partaking in the Lord’s Supper. In the Catholic understanding of the supper, where grace is conveyed through the elements, this restriction carries great motivational power. To be excluded from the Mass can lead to a person being excluded from heaven. As Baptists, we don’t hold that the supper conveys the grace needed to continue on in our justification. The earliest church though was not having a symbol of a symbolic mean (wafers and a small cup), but they were having a real meal, a potluck dinner, each week. It is not much discipline to tell a Baptist that they have been excluded from the quarterly Lord’s Supper, any more than it would be discipline to tell a drug addict that everything can stay the same, but once every three months you can’t do this one activity. In fact, when Paul tells the Corinthians to expel the immoral brother in 1 Cor. 5 and to not eat with him, he is telling the church to remove him from the Lord’s Supper, but this also entailed being excluded from the social life of the church. This leads to the final point the church can learn from Intervention: mutual suffering.
When a person is removed from the house on Intervention the nightly meal is not the same. His seat is left empty and those around the table suffer by his absence. Would we suffer in our churches if a person was not allowed to take the Lord’s Supper? Would we miss the fellowship we once enjoyed with them? While I think it is appropriate to restrict a person from partaking of the Lord’s Supper if they are under discipline, the real force of discipline is being removed from the social connections the person had with those in the church. Of course, this removal cuts two ways.
Both the person being disciplined and the people doing the disciplining are deeply affected. You can’t watch a single episode of the show Intervention and not come away feeling like it is harder on the ones who are doing the intervention than it is the one who is suffering from the addiction. Having to remove someone from fellowship should be gut wrenching for a church, especially for those who are close to the person. If someone can be placed under church discipline and it not affect those in the church, it is almost a guarantee that the discipline will not work. In the same manner that if a family could kick a son out of the house and no one is affected by it, it is not likely that this action will impact the addict.
If church members love for each other is strong and robust, if their social connections with each other are deep and meaningful, then when a person is removed from those connections it will have a great impact on both the one removed and those left to live with the void that his absence creates. A void that each person deeply wants to see filled with the person’s return. As our churches return to a biblical understanding of discipline, let us also be sure to return to a biblical understanding of love and fellowship, for without the latter, the former will never accomplish its goal.
No family ever wants to participate in an intervention, yet at times it becomes necessary. When it does, we must remember that our goal is the restoration of the loved one. We must also be prepared to suffer deeply as discipline is enacted. All of these are on display in each episode of Intervention, and the church would do well to display them also.