Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you. So I don’t want to come down too hard. What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. My counsel now is to pour on the love. The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. 2 Corinthians 2:5-9 (The Message)
Moments that Test our Motives
Years ago, I was in a race with several hundred other people. It was a triathlon. It started on a beach in Corpus Christi, Texas. After a half-mile swim in a very choppy ocean, we all ran to a transition area. There we quickly put on cycling shoes and rode off on a 25-mile bike ride, about half of which was directly into a stiff and steady 20-mph headwind. By the time I got off the bike, my legs were jelly and my body was exhausted.
I sat down in the transition area, thinking about the 10K run still ahead of me. Genuinely torn about what I would do, I could quit now and just lie back and relax or I could strap my running shoes on and stand up and “will” my legs to work again. It was the very kind of moment most endurance races bring: the moment of decision, whether or not to finish what I started. How we respond to those moments says something about our heart.
Matters of Christian accountability, especially those related to church discipline, have similar moments. There are parts of the process that are truly painful, and then there are moments when we must decide whether or not to finish what we started. The painful parts, you see, are only the beginning of discipline. They are just stages in a much longer process, one designed to ultimately turn the heart of one of God’s children.
Stages of Discipline
Think about when you disciplined your own children. It never ended with just a punishment. There was always the continuing conversation to make sure the reason for the consequences was clear and that he/she learned a lesson. And there was the hug and the “I still love you” message. There is always a transition from the painful part to the loving part, a critical continuation of the process.
That was Paul’s point to the church in Corinth when, in 2 Corinthians 2, he encouraged them to continue working with the man they had disciplined, even after the “punishment” had taken place. The whole point of church discipline is to “win the brother back”, so the process never ends with just removing fellowship from him. Like my triathlon, there is still more race to run and there is a necessary transition into that next phase.
I have walked prayerfully through this discipline process with a few churches. I always caution them along the way to check their hearts and to make sure their motives are right. Are we doing this out of love and concern for this brother, or are we just trying to get rid of him so we no longer have to deal with him? The easiest and clearest evidence of our real motive comes after we have imposed the discipline…what we do next will reveal our true intentions.
Churches who “discipline” a member and have little or no follow-up contact with him are not really practicing discipline at all. Churches who are truly heartbroken over the whole process and who have the “sinner’s” interests at heart will certainly stay in contact with him and work to turn him around. The race is not yet over. In fact, it is just beginning. Now it is time to transition to the next stage…now it is time to forgive and to love and to reconcile.
I did finish my triathlon. I did not set any records. But I finished, because it was what I had set my heart on doing from the beginning. I finished what I started. That time, anyway. 🙂