Friday, January 13, 2012

Guest Blogger: Brian Thornton - Legalism, Discipline, & Grace

I am honored to have my friend Brian guest author this post for me.  I was edified by it, hope you will be too. Comments welcome.
I have been asked by my friend, Jason, to discuss the differences between discipline and legalism in the church and how/where grace might apply in the midst of the two. Some describe a true church as a three-legged stool consisting of the right proclamation of the word, the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline. Some would argue that church discipline falls under the second leg of a right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but really, who has ever heard of a two-legged stool? Sadly, many churches fail to properly exercise church discipline by not doing it at all. Probably (hopefully) a smaller minority fail at proper church discipline by being overbearing in their practice of it (lording it over the people). Both extreme swings of the pendulum are dangerous and unhealthy for the local body that makes up a church. I think it is also quite possible that what some consider to be church discipline is really legalism, while what others think is legalism in a church is actually nothing more than the practices of a biblical church. In both areas of confusion, misunderstanding and error, grace (and the implications of the gospel) is often sorely lacking. Let’s see if we can flesh this out a little bit.

Let’s start by defining our terms. Within the context of a local church body, what is known as church discipline can be defined as actions taken by the congregation toward a person(s) within that congregation which results in that person(s) being removed from fellowship, with the intent of bringing about repentance by the offending party and a restoration back into fellowship with the congregation. The goal of discipline within the church is always repentance and restoration. It is never punishment or retribution or control. Church discipline is, according to Scripture, the responsibility of the congregation, not the leadership. Matthew 18 makes it very clear that the final decision of removing a person from fellowship falls on the shoulders of the congregation. When church discipline is done badly or not according to Scripture, the results can be disastrous.

Legalism, quite simply, is going beyond the bounds of Scripture, or going beyond what is written, as Paul put it (1 Cor.4:6). It is requiring something that God does not require. An example would be the church leadership telling a person in the church they are not saved and going to hell because of the types of clothes they wear (no joke, this truly happened to a friend of mine). This church added a dress code to the work of Jesus for salvation. That’s going beyond what is written. That’s legalism. Another (and possibly more volatile) example would be a church teaching that there is only one true and correct day to gather as a church to worship together. This may bring to mind groups like the Seventh-Day Adventists who require worship on Saturday and condemn anyone who doesn’t do likewise, but there are scores of churches and denominations that believe the same thing about Sunday being the only proper and true day for gathering together. Legalism can take many forms. It can be quite obvious or very subtle.

The paradox is that what some consider to be church discipline is really nothing more than legalism, and what others think is legalism is actually just the church being the church. For instance, we were involved at a church a few years back where the elders decided they wanted to begin having an intentional, systematic reading of Scripture in the weekly service. This would usually involve a considerable passage from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as the sermon text for that morning. The response from some was really pretty shocking, as several charged the elders with being legalistic with this new practice. While a practice like this certainly could become legalistic if it began to be somehow required or practiced in an unbiblical manner, what the elders here were trying to do was nothing more than adhere to one of the clear commands in Scripture given by Paul to the church: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim.4:13). This was not legalism in any way, shape or form. This church was not going beyond what is written. It was simply the church trying to be the church.

Sometimes, though, what a church considers to be the practice of discipline is actually just plain old ugly legalism and heavy-handed, overbearing leadership. In another church, a young couple had missed the Easter service and had instead gone to visit the wife’s mother that weekend. The following week, the husband went to answer the door one evening and, upon opening it, came face to face with the elders of the church who were there unannounced to “discuss” the couple’s lack of devotion to the church. In another instance these same elders met with another church member to decide the fate of his membership in the church. These leaders, however well-meaning, and regardless of how much they thought they were engaging in church discipline and shepherding, were actually “lording it over” their congregation and were steeped heavily in unhealthy legalism and even spiritual abuse.

In all of these examples I have given here, I would say the one thing that was lacking was grace. The congregants complaining about the “legalistic” Scripture reading did not impart grace to their shepherds. All they knew is that this was a change in the way things had been done and they didn’t like it. And the elders of the overbearing church were not giving their sheep grace and the benefit of the doubt with respect to what they saw as actionable sin in their lives. Some of these may sound over the top to you, but think about your own interaction with other believers. Are you prone to making quick judgments that may be void of grace?  Do you tend to fail to give someone else the benefit of the doubt before making a rush to judgment? I know I do. And the times I make those types of judgments are the times I believe that I have either forgotten the gospel or am failing to apply it to the other areas of my life other than my salvation.

You see, we talk about the grace and mercy of the gospel a lot as Christians when it comes to salvation, but how much do we apply that to the rest of our lives? We have been shown much mercy and patience and longsuffering by our Creator. How much do we, in turn, exhibit grace and mercy and longsuffering to others? Because of the gospel, we have not received what we deserved. But how willing are we to impart undeserved favor and mercy to others.  Everyone to whom much has been given, of him much will be required, (Luke 12:48). How much have you been given? Are you giving to others in the way you have been given? I believe that if we would take the implications of the gospel and let them filter out into every area of our lives, then legalism would diminish, church discipline would be used only when truly needed and with much wisdom, and grace would permeate the church of Jesus Christ. To him be the glory in the church. And may we glorify him as the church by applying the grace of the gospel to every area of our life, not just to our salvation.

1 comment:

  1. (Have any of you ever spoken with Brian Thornton after the slaughter?)

    Salvation actually and already covers every area of the life...yet for salvation there is no life. Individuals often ask what does legalism diminished look like? If one perceives the vanishing point of one's perspective, it could be explained as fulfilled petitions and enlightened eyes that seek the Gospel......and find His love in

    Psalm 20