Sunday, September 18, 2016

Seminary PL23: The Third Mark of the Church

This is the ninth post on church management in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this series, I first did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the twenty-second post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).

Last week I talked about the causes of church conflict. This week continues some posts on conflict management with a theological/historical post on the "third mark of the church."
1. For the most part, if you were a Christian for the first thousand years of Christianity, you were part of the same church, the church catholic. There was a bishop structure held in common everywhere and, after about the year 600, the bishop of Rome held the most power, considering himself the "Pope." In 1054, the eastern and western church officially split, with the eastern church becoming the "Orthodox" church with the Patriarch of Constantinople as its highest ranking authority. The Pope then was the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the west.

Despite this split, both sides considered themselves "catholic" and held far more in common than distinct. The "marks" or key characteristics of the true church were found in the Nicene Creed of AD381. "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

2. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s predictably raised the question of what a legitimate church actually was. It was no longer "one" at least in terms of visible structure or organization. It did not look "catholic" or universal. It looked more like the schismatic groups that led Cyprian in around 251 to say that "there is no salvation outside the Church" (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). How do you tell which group is part of the true Church and what is just a bunch of people hanging out or worse?

John Calvin was the first one to tackle this question in depth. What are the marks of a true church given this new situation where you cannot identify the true church with any one visible organization? He and Luther quickly identified the first two Protestant marks of the church. A true church is a place where 1) the word is rightly preached and 2) the sacraments are duly administered.

Protestants soon added a third mark. A church is an organization that is "rightly ordered." It is, in other words, a place where there is accountability and discipline for its fellowship. This usually implies organization, authority, and structure of some kind.

3. When someone in a Christian fellowship gets off track and goes down a path contrary to Christ, is there any accountability? Is there anyone responsible to care for his or her soul? Is there anyone with the authority to protect the body of Christ by removing a corrupting influence or a rogue leader?

Church discipline has been a part of Christianity since its very beginning to today. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul ousts a man sleeping with his step-mother from the church both to protect the church and in hope of the person's redemption. While some in the church today may confuse love with non-confrontation, there is no true church without accountability.

4. The classic church discipline text is Matthew 18:15-20. If a brother or sister in the church family wrongs you, go to them first privately. Then if they refuse to make appropriate changes, go again to them with one or two others, with "two or three witnesses." Finally it may become a matter of the whole congregation.

On the one hand, no one should take this pattern as a law. Matthew was written for a Jewish Christian community in the late first century AD. Different cultures and situations require us to take the basic principles and incarnate them in new times and places. Similarly, such biblical instructions were never meant to be exceptionless in the first place. They are guidelines to be implemented with common sense. Let us banish from church operations the immature application of Scripture!

The principles of the passage are accountability, respect, and final authority. Individuals cannot wrong others or corrupt the church and continue in the church's fellowship. This should not be a matter of punishment. It is a matter of protecting the church and working for that individual's redemption.

Respect is shown for the offending party. The first confrontation is private. There is no need for a repentant individual to experience shame before the whole body. The second confrontation is limited. There are witnesses, but the whole church need not get involved. Only as a last resort is the whole church involved.

5. We should still use common sense in various situations. The litigious nature of contemporary culture might suggest that two or three should be present in the very first interaction. Given the way churches are structured today, a pastor might profitably be involved in the first group confrontation. Perhaps the first confrontation might be with the pastor rather than completely alone.

Of course people often accuse others wrongly. We think we have been wronged when the problem is actually ours. Bullies often consider themselves the persecuted when they are called on their abusiveness. They may not even realize the trail of hurt they leave behind them.

Human nature often gossips about the wrongs done it and avoids even talking to the offender. This is the beauty of Matthew's instruction to approach the person in the wrong first. This is discretion. The gossip approach is cowardly and destructive.

6. It is best for a church to have specified who has the final authority to remove from office, expel, or take disciplinary action in the church. Such specifics should be in place long before a crisis. Denominations usually have such structures in place. Churches that are more congregational in structure should draft such policies as well, probably in consultation with legal advice.

In our world, a church needs to keep an eye to legal considerations. Our litigious society does not afford us the freedom to be "righteously indignant" in an irresponsible way. More than one church or Christian organization has come into legal trouble from reckless discipline.

This situation is not all bad because it helps remind us what the purpose of church discipline is. The purpose of church discipline is not to punish the wrongdoer. That is a less mature form of moral development, common though it is.

The purpose of church discipline is two-fold. It is to protect the church and to work for the redemption of the sinner. It is to protect the church because sin corrupts the church. Sin is contagious if left unchecked, not to mention the specific damage that can be done to individuals in the church.

But sin is damaging to the sinner, and not only eternally damaging. Sin is not wrong because it is the violation of law--again, a less mature moral perspective. Sin is wrong because it is damaging to self and others. Unchecked sin unravels the person doing the sin. Discipline has as one of its principal functions the redemption of the one in the wrong.

Next Sunday: Pastor as Leader 24: Basic Conflict Resolution

Leadership in General
Strategic Planning
Church Management
Conflict Management

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