Discipline in the Church

Reflection for the 14th Sunday after Trinity

Matthew 18,15-20

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matthew 18,15).

Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

It is a grievous matter when human families fall apart, and it should be treated equally seriously if Christians fall out as well. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, we are his family. How awful it would be if Christ were to say to you or to me “You are no longer a member of my family, you are not welcome”. But he won’t – that’s the Gospel message, and the assurance of his love for us should – no must, shape all our dealings with other members of this family. And then that little word sin, which actually refers to any kind of behaviour that is displeasing to God, and which at one level is very complicated – there used to be published little manuals for devout Christians, carrying long lists of sins – but at another level is very simple, because any thought or word or deed that does not reflect the kind of love that Our Lord taught and lived is sin.

……..”And point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” No public bawling out, no public humiliation, no point scoring in front of witnesses. And why? Firstly because to act like that is an offence against love and therefore sinful in itself. Secondly, because within the Church family, the aim of challenging the wrong doer must be repentance and reconciliation, not punishment and humiliation. Only if this doesn’t work are others to be involved, and then not people from outside the Christian family, but other members of the household of faith. And if that doesn’t work, then the whole church is to be told, and the offender is to be treated as an outcast. Goodness: you’d have to be careful about that, wouldn’t you! These days you could land up in court charged with defamation of character and who knows what else. But that simply serves to underline the seriousness with which sin is to be dealt with within the Church. Which begs the question – do we, or do we keep silence?

Discipline is a dirty word today. We have a live-and-let-live attitude that is uncomfortable with the idea that anyone has a right – much less a responsibility – to discipline anyone else. Parents are made to feel that they should be encouragers rather than rebukers. Teachers dare not any longer discipline their students. Many years ago when I was a teacher, if you sent a boy to the Head Teacher he would be caned; if you sent him to the Deputy, he would get a half hour lecture: guess which the boys preferred! Children without discipline not only fail to reach their potential but also become dangerous to themselves and others. If we were all angels, discipline would be unnecessary – but we are not angels. Even that mighty Christian St Paul confessed that he often found himself doing what he knew to be wrong and failing to do what he knew to be right. The challenge is, that to ignore sinful behaviour can itself become sinful, for whatever undermines the well being of the church is offensive to God. God grant that none of us is ever put in the position where we have to draw the attention of a brother or sister Christian to wrong behaviour, but should it happen we must follow the teaching Our Lord sets before us.

Fr. Edward Bryant

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