|Book: Creating a Secure Church: BOOK TWO|
Part 1 : Objectives & Obstacles
Part 2 : Secure in Relationships
Part 3 : Secure in Ministry
Part 4 : When Things go Wrong
Part 5 : Concluding Thoughts
Chapter 13: Secure in Correction - Theory
“He who hates correction is stupid”
(Proverbs 12:1 )
In a previous Chapter we considered how creating a secure church should enable people to more freely confess their sins and failures. Now we are considering the secure church from the point of view of the service or work that the church does, and we need, therefore, to consider the corrective role of the church. I need to warn you in advance that you are going to need to really think in this chapter. This area of correction is potentially THE most difficult area in church life and the more positive in direction is the church, the more difficult it becomes. It is an area that has the potential for thoroughly upsetting what might otherwise be a really secure church.
In this chapter we will focus on theory and in the next one the practice of correction. Why a theory chapter? Well, over the years as I have watched the life and movement of the church and as I have considered this particular role of the church, I've concluded that it is one of the most difficult, and also one which doesn't seem to be spoken about much. Therefore we need to give quite a lot of thought to it.
13.1 Why Consider Correction
Why include chapters on correction and why in a book on creating a secure church? There are a number of reasons:
1. Scripture says so
The writer of Proverbs clearly believed that wisdom involved correction as we see from the verse at the beginning of the Chapter. The apostle Paul writing to the Galatians said “If someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” (Gal 6:1). Similarly Jesus gave a strategy for correction (Mt 18:15 -17) and emphasised the need to correct and be prepared to forgive again and again (Lk 17:3,4). Paul also spoke of admonishing one another (Col 1:28, 3:16). The Bible thus clearly indicates that when we see a brother or sister sinning we are to do something about it.
2. Correction brings security
Correction breeds security for two reasons: first, when the church knows correction is brought it knows there are boundaries that cannot be crossed, and knowing there are boundaries to behaviour creates a sense of security. Small children know this. Take away the boundaries and allow a child to do what it will, it soon starts showing signs of great insecurity. As soon as boundaries are set and maintained, the child knows where it is and knowing where it is means it feels safe. The second reason is that when correction is brought the rest of the church know that justice prevails, and the absence of justice makes people feel unsafe. When justice prevails people feel safe.
3. Correction restores peace and harmony
Again Proverbs says, “An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city, and disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.” (Prov 18:19). Where there is offence or dispute there is upset, disharmony, dissension, and division. All these things are expressly against Jesus' desire for peace, harmony and unity (see Jn 17). When we bring correction we restore these things to the body and the body is better off.
4. Imperfect Lives Need Correcting
The reality is that our lives are imperfect and therefore need changing and change comes by correction. We covered this in the previous chapter under the heading of Mentoring.
13.2 Varieties of Approach
Perhaps nowhere more than in this area of correction and discipline in church life do different denominations, different streams and different churches vary in their approaches. For some therefore, the things that I am going to say are likely to be completely alien. For others they will not go far enough, in fact they may feel that what I say might inhibit them. Those are the dangers of writing for what could be a very wide band or spectrum of readers.
1. Little Accountability Extreme
For some of us in the church at large, authority may only come in the form of a figure high up in the hierarchy a level or two above us. In these situations the bishop is a spiritual managerial figure who, with the help of others, tends to be the trouble shooter, and so frequently at the local level accountability within the congregation is unheard of in actual practice. Leaders in these churches have mostly seen their role as caring (in a very loose way) and performing ‘services' and proclaiming the Bible.
The sense of security in the congregation in these churches comes from predictability of service, and perhaps a sense of comfort from a traditional, formal spirituality, and not having anyone probing too deeply. It is of course a false sense of security and the failure of this style of approach is that the often zero-accountability can mean a weak or dead form of Christianity where holiness is little understood.
2. High Accountability Extreme
At the opposite end of the spectrum we have those churches where authority has been largely seen to be in the hands of itinerant, second-level authority figures (broader ministries) and in the local leaders. Historically, at the end of the twentieth century, accountability in these churches was a strong feature.
Leaders here saw themselves as having a God-given mandate to proclaim and teach the truths of Scripture, including Scriptural directions for Christian living, and ensuring that it was being applied by the members. Correction under these circumstances almost becomes synonymous with direction. A clearly proclaimed level of expectations on the members, together with a tight mentoring system in the form of elders, house group leaders or cell group leaders, produced a sense of security that came from a rigidity of system and ‘knowing the rules'.
The failure of this system is that it produced an over reliance of members on leaders, whereby the members were often unable to think for themselves outside of the teaching they received. Holiness in this system is understood as practice of stated particular disciplines or activities.
3. The Middle Ground
Somewhere between the above two extremes would, I suggest, be the more likely Biblical model whereby:
teaching is clear, yet people are taught to think and reason for themselves
there is accountability to local leaders whereby obvious sin is challenged,
yet people are taught to make themselves accountable to God for lesser
godly wisdom is made available, through specialist leaders, for those who
want to avail themselves of it, to help deal with difficulties of life.
As I will go on to explain, I believe this third model provides a fertile ground in which to create a genuinely secure church. In the remainder of this chapter I will provide some thinking to support this last model, and in the next chapter suggest ways in which I believe it can be put into practice so as to create the loving and caring environment that we have been speaking about throughout the book.
13.3 Issues of Right & Wrong
One of the things we've been majoring on throughout this book (perhaps because so frequently in the church it is forgotten) is the fact that so often, as fallible human beings, we get it wrong. Of course in the world of pluralistic thinking it is not fashionable to say something is wrong, but in the church, as we've seen above, we are required to distinguish between right and wrong.
Some of the things we get wrong are moral issues, others are not. We need to make this distinction because the Bible seems to give a mandate to leaders to correct that which is clearly sin, but gives no such mandate to correct what may just be bad judgement on minor issues. When we understand this it may help us feel more secure in church government.
Wherever the Bible indicates a particular behaviour or attitude is unrighteous, we have a moral issue. For instance the New Testament speaks as follows against some of these and gives the following negative-behaviour lists:
Eph 4:25-31 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour….. In your anger do not sin……. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands…….. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths….. rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice
Eph 5:3,4,18 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed…. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking….. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery
We find similar prohibited-behaviour lists in Gal 5:19-21 and Col 3:5-9. There are also positive-behaviour lists, e.g.
Col 3:12-17 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
What these various verses tell us is that there are certain behavioural standards in the kingdom of God, things that are acceptable and things that are not acceptable, and other things we should positively be reaching out to include in our lives as Christians. Bringing correction when there is a failure of those negative-standards and bringing correction where this an absence of those positive-standards, is what this and the following chapter is all about.
A Tendency towards Sin?
When we read the Bible and also observe human life, we see that we all have the tendency to get it wrong. This is the thing we call Sin. At its heart is human pride, and self-centred disobedience to God. When we look at our lives we find that a lot of what we do (and some theologians would say all of what we do) is tainted with this Sin, with the exception of what we do in response to God. In the Bible ‘faith' comes from hearing (Rom 10:17) and so faith is responding to God, which is why Paul in Romans 14:23 said, “everything that does not come from faith is sin”. However, measuring ‘faith', deciding whether this came from God or not, is not always easy!
Deciding what is Sin
There are many things that we do in life that don't fall into the category of what we might call moral issues, and even if they do we then have to consider how important they are. Choosing what wallpaper to buy isn't a moral issue - unless it involves a husband totally going against his wife's wishes with the aim of upsetting her! Buying a suit is not a moral issue - you may have bad dress sense and the suit looks terrible on you, but that's not a moral issue. Whether or not to buy a newspaper is not a moral issue. Some of these things may involve wisdom or the lack of it, but to call them moral issues would be taking it too far.
Theologians have struggled with this throughout the centuries of Church history so I am aware of yet again risking going where angels fear to tread! Sometimes only God can know whether we are sinning. Why is it important to work through these concepts? Because of the attitude we have towards the need for teaching and correction in the church, that we've spoken about already.
Yes, a sin is anything that is lawlessness, rebellion against God, disobedience to God, missing the mark, overstepping the boundaries, ungodliness, unrighteousness. These are the meanings that theologians say are behind the words we find in Scripture for ‘sin', but trying to categorise them in terms of practical applications is not always so easy. Right, say theologians, we'll divide up actual sins into those that are a deliberate turning away from God (mortal [producing spiritual death] sins) and those that are done unwittingly (venial [pardonable] sins).
The Example of Apathy
Some would say that ‘apathy' or ‘indifference' is a sin, because we are told to love God with all our heart etc., love our neighbour as our self, and to love one another in the church in a practical way. Therefore if there is ANY need around us, if we are full of love, then we would seek to meet that need, so in failing to do so we are guilty of apathy or indifference towards the needs of others.
We would also, the argument goes, have failed God in that we would have ignored God's promptings to do something about those needs. Years ago our awareness of need would have been limited to the village or hamlet in which we lived. Today, with education and with the media that we have, we are bombarded with information detailing the needs of literally thousands of people groups around the world. Indeed it has become a market place of need and many of us, finding this causing emotional overload, simply shut down and ignore all need except our own!
This has created a problem of how to meet needs, and particularly a problem of how far the church should decide or dictate how we should give. These are all things that contribute to or detract from a sense of security in the church.
13.4 The Difficulty of Centralised Giving
So how do we try to cope with this as church? We accept that we cannot meet every need with the limited resources we have and so we ask God to give us wisdom to meet some certain, specific needs that we can meet, and circumstances to which we can bring change. But who is to decide? Again there is a massive market place of people and organisations clamouring for our help or our money. Perhaps our church decides a worthy and needy cause that they can support and calls for our money and loyalty.
Yes, in modern church life, ‘loyalty' becomes an issue and in some circles those who do not conform to the desires and edicts in this area, are considered substandard members. But is it sin to disagree with the local leadership over a matter such as where we give? Some think it is, while others of us would not be comfortable with that. In a secure church there surely needs to be a balance between having ‘church good causes' recommended by the leadership, and personal choices of giving by individuals.
Those of us who are leaders with big visions requiring big money would not be happy with what they would see as competing demands on their flock and threats to the fulfilment of their visions. Correction for them would mean correcting the way of thinking of their people to ensure all giving came into the needs designated by the church.
However much we seek to disguise it under the name of ‘faith', pressure to give in these circumstances is just that - pressure to give. Of course those who have been down this track and have the big projects to show for it, justify the pressure (or deny it) by the fruits of their activity through the big project. The end looks good but was that how Jesus worked? Does the end justify the means?
13.5 An Example of Immorality
Let's consider something completely different but which is equally difficult. Let's examine the circumstances of John, an ordinary Christian young man, wondering about visiting an unsaved cousin of his, which he does. Here we have a simple action in his life which seems to have no moral content to it. Some of us in John's shoes might say, “I felt the Lord tell me to go” which apparently makes it a spiritual journey! At the very least others of us might wonder if the Holy Spirit prompted John to go. A trivial example you may think. So let's add some detail.
How do you feel about it if I tell you that John's cousin is a woman? No problem. Now I tell you she is a prostitute. Possibly still no problem when you hear he wants to go to witness to her. Suppose I tell you he goes in the evening on his own? If he's full of faith (which is how he might put it) you might still expect a good outcome. Suppose I tell you he went to see her, wanted to not appear an aloof, ‘holy' Christian, so accepted a drink, and then another, stayed on late and was finally seduced by her!
At least there was sin at the end which is clear and obvious according to Scripture. But was he sinning anywhere else along the line? Was he simply being unwise? Is that sin? Suppose he tells you he had really prayed about the whole thing and felt right about it right up until the point of the second drink when he started losing focus!
Suppose I tell you that his church leader had encouraged him (unwisely in retrospect!) to go to be a witness. Does that make his action less problematical? Suppose I tell you that God had told him not to go but he had been unsure if he was hearing God? You see it's not always black and white. The end result may be, but the stages along the way may not be so clear. In this particular instance wisdom might have suggested he took a Christian girl along with him for protection. Supposing he had someone lined up who had pulled out at the last minute. The end result is the same but the stages are messy.
13.6 Lessons to be Learnt?
The way we view John, and what happened to him, tell a lot about us, in fact what they tell about us is more important than what they tell us about his downfall. You may have fallen into the trap and started to assess John at the various times in the account. Pharisees will condemn him and want to throw stones and put him out of the church, and liberals would say it happens to all of us, so what.
But perhaps Jesus wouldn't follow either of those courses. In John 8:1-11, which we looked at in an earlier chapter, we saw Jesus accepting that there was sin but refusing to condemn. Instead he sought restoration of life for the woman. For those of us trying to create a secure church there are perhaps some obvious lessons we ought to take on board from this fictitious story above:
1. Corporate failure
The Pharisees in John 8 failed to realise the following crucial things, so eager were they to condemn:
2. Concerned for restoration
Various people have commented that the Christian church seems to be the only army that shoots its wounded. So often we seem more concerned to wreak vengeance or judgement upon some poor, pitiful individual who has fallen to the wiles of the enemy, than to restore them.
The only times Jesus spoke strongly was when he was having to break into the strongholds of uncaring, legalistic, Pharisaical thinking of the religious leaders who should have known better, and the only reason, I would suggest, that he spoke like that was that he knew that they were so hardened that they would not repent. Where there was a sinful but open heart, he spoke with gentleness with the aim of restoration.
When a leader falls there is a revealing of hearts in all those who look on. Consider, if a well known leader falls, how would you react? The heart of Jesus grieves and weeps, but in the twenty first century, it seems, so many rejoice or walk away muttering, "Well it doesn't surprise me," The failure of any Christian leader is a loss to the Christian church and our efforts should be focused into gently restoring this person (Gal 6:1). Harsh words of condemnation and a separating away from this 'sinner' reveals hard pharisaical hearts, hearts that deserve the discipline of God as much as that of 'the sinner'.
This is so important we need to stay with it for a bit longer. David knew this experience, as we find it recorded in Psalm 35. Speaking about those who came against him he said:
"when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I Bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother." (v.13,14)
This was how he had been when others had been in need. He had poured himself out for them. Now see what follows:
"But when I stumbled they gathered in glee; attackers gathered against me when I was unaware. They slandered me without ceasing. Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked; they gnashed their teeth at me." (v.15,16)
Somehow he stumbled and immediately all those he had cared for turned on him. And these people were his people, not the ungodly! But they behaved just like the ungodly. It should not be so! It must not be so! Yet it seems that even in the church today, supposedly the bringers of grace and mercy to the world, we still fail in this way. It should not be so! It must not be so!
3. The Inadequacy of the Law
The Law struggles to be applied in grey areas. The truth is sometimes difficult to discern. Setting boundaries, unless firmly set by God (such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery”), becomes an arbitrary human past-time for the sake of trying to condemn. At the end of a fruitless exercise, all we may be left with is that we are all guilty, we've all failed, it's just a case of a bunch of sinners trying to pin down a lonely sinner. Do I hear the creaks of consciences shifting uneasily? Do I hear someone saying, “It sounds like you are saying it's all right to sin, then?” No, I'm not, but it's giving me hope that I may be in good company (Rom 6:1). They do say that whenever you are preaching grace correctly, someone will accuse you of heresy! No, this chapter is about correction, the fact that we need it, and the fact that it is so difficult to determine when it is needed and how it should be brought!
What have we considered so far in this complex subject?
Categorising sin is sometimes difficult
When the Bible is specific about certain wrong behaviours, we can likewise
declare them unacceptable
There is a distinction between wilful and unwitting sin
A lot of things we do seem to have no moral content.
Correction is obviously needed when there is obvious sin, but we need to
be careful where the nature of the actions are not so clear.
‘Correction' can be a disguise for leaders working out their own visions and
bringing the people in line.
Because we all fail, none of us has the right to be condemnatory.
When there is failure we should be looking more for restoration than for
Some Conclusions Applied
Let's go right back to the beginning of the book, to Chapter 1 where we envisaged a Pastor, again by the name of John, who walked into a church business meeting only to find the entire group of leaders walk out on him after demanding his resignation. What would have been a far more caring and graceful approach to that?
Well, first it is to recognise that Pastor John is on his own and, quite obviously, it's been like that for some time. Surely what is needed here is for other leaders to try to come alongside John before it gets to crisis point, to build relationship with him and then, from a position of trust to start talking about some of the concerns being expressed? If it has got to a point of no return and John has reached burnout but doesn't recognise it, surely the caring and compassionate approach is to offer him a paid holiday or sabbatical so that he can recharge his batteries and regain perspective? If we are seeking to be a caring and compassionate church, then that must be extended to John as well? As we noted above, the outcome of correcting this situation should be the restoration of John, not casting him out?
13.7 Styles of Correction
Having thought about the nature of ‘wrong' activities, we then have to consider how we go about correction in some more detail. When many of us think about correction we have a very negative view of it. Words like ‘heavy shepherding' stir up horror stories of couples who had to consult their shepherd before choosing the wallpaper for their front room, or individuals who were not allowed to marry by the domineering leader. When it comes to correction many of us seem to have tunnel vision. We can only see correction coming in one way, direct confrontation involving discipline, possibly resulting in the exclusion of an unrepentant sinner.
Models of Correction from the Bible
Why do we have this tunnel vision in respect of correction? Because we use the most common Old Testament prophet model, that of a denouncing orator! We see in the Old Testament the picture of God coming to bring a word of correction through his prophet who, in our mind's eye, stands on a rocky outcrop and denounces failure. Like Jonah we deliver the word of rebuke and watch for fire to fall. But is that actually the full picture? Have we an accurate perception of correction or is there something more involved? Very often that does seem to be the way the thing was but when we look more closely we find something very different.
Jonah, despite being someone who heard God (1:1), had some funny ideas about God. First of all he thought he could run away from God (1:3). He knew God as Almighty Creator (1:9) and he was sure that his sin had brought divine retribution (1:12). In desperation he was a praying man (2:1-9) and had some idea of the concept of God being a God of salvation (2:9). When eventually he was repentant and obedient and brought the word to Nineveh, the word had great effect and the entire city responded wonderfully! When God did not bring his judgement on them, this thoroughly upset Jonah (4:1). He professes to know that God is a gracious and compassionate God etc. (4:2) but is still upset. He doesn't realise that grace is there for the repentant, so the Lord has to give him a simple object lesson (4:6-11). Jonah was upset about a plant, but God had been upset about a city full of people.
Jonah seems to have had the same spirit as James and John (Lk 9:54) when they wanted to call down destruction. The footnote there adds that some manuscripts include, “for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them” which, although possibly being of questionable origin certainly is true to Jesus' heart (see also Mt 9:12,13). When it comes to the need for correction, how many of us would much rather see justice meted out instead of mercy and grace? Yes death is deserved, but something more wonderful is available instead.
Ezekiel was the prophet who had amazing visions of God, and visions of the glory of God. Through Ezekiel came such devastating denunciations of Jerusalem (e.g. Ch.16). Ezekiel was completely unsparing when it came to sin yet he was quite clear about the reality of God's heart. We saw it earlier in the book but we need to hear it again here:
Ezek 18:32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live.
When God spoke such strong words of denunciation the purpose was to bring Israel to its senses so that they would not have to be punished, so that they would be saved. If God does bring discipline into our lives, as the Bible promises (Heb 12:4-12), it is to get us free from the things that would pull us down and destroy us. If I as a parent did not delight in inflicting painful, scriptural discipline to my children when they were young and rebellious, how much more do you think God doesn't take delight in bringing discipline to us. I much prefer the days I'm now in when my children are mature and we talk and share together in full understanding.
3. David and Nathan (2 Sam 12)
David has sinned. It is clear and obvious: adultery and murder and abuse of power. Here surely is a case for a mighty denunciation, but it didn't work like that. First of all remember that the Bible describes David as a man after God's own heart (1 Sam 13:14 / Acts 13:22). He's a man who can badly get it wrong, yet he's also a heart man who can be mightily moved by the hardness of others (2 Sam 3:39).
So when Nathan the prophet comes to David to correct him, notice that way he goes about it. He paints a parallel picture (12:1-4) and when David's emotions rise against the injustice, Nathan is able to say, “You are the man!” (v.7). He then goes on to describe the sin and the discipline that is coming upon David and David simply acknowledges, “I have sinned against the Lord .” It is then that the word of grace comes: “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” (v.13). The incredible thing here is that amazing as the multiple sin of David was, his repentance still opened the door for the love, grace and mercy of God to flow. David was saved, even though there was yet further sin to come in his life. Whenever sin was followed by true repentance, salvation followed. That was the picture clearly painted in the Old Testament.
When we observe Jesus with people, we find a variety of responses in him to them. To the hard hearted Pharisees and priests of Jerusalem who would plot his death, he spoke strong words of truth. He knew there would not be a turning so, for the sake of the onlookers (and to perhaps even provoke their action to bring his death) he simply declared the truth about them.
For truth-seeking Nicodemus he gently chastened and provoked towards the truth. For the immoral but questioning Samaritan woman he led her into the place of confession. We've seen in an earlier chapter how Peter felt sufficiently secure to speak out in front of Jesus and we saw there how Jesus corrected him and showed a way ahead. Jesus did not have a set of rules to follow. Rather, according to the person before him and their attitude towards him and towards sin, he varied his approach to use the right method for the right person, and always, wherever it was possible, he sought the restoration of the individual.
What can we conclude from what we've considered here?
Correction comes by the word of God being applied.
That word can be direct from God, through the Bible or through another
Where it is through another person we walk on more difficult ground that
is tainted by the views, experiences and aspirations of the people involved.
When God comes with a word of rebuke or an act of discipline it is to bring
repentance and a freeing from the bad behaviour which, if left unchecked,
may produce death.
Correction therefore means looking for a good outcome when the word of
correction is brought, not merely bringing a word of rebuke for bad
That good outcome means a change of life, return to a relationship with
God whereby the love and blessing of God are able to flow again in that
To achieve that good outcome requires much thought and prayer, for the
way we go about bringing it can have significant impact and perhaps even
determine the outcome.
The harder the heart the harder the word of rebuke. Where there is
simply hurt and confusion in the sin, and the heart is open, the forthcoming
word may be gentle and restoring.
13.8 And So?
To conclude this first of these two chapters about Correction, let's check our own heart attitudes towards the subject:
What is my feeling about the NEED for correction in the church?
Do I come from a background of little accountability and see little need for
correction of people?
Do I come from a background of great personal accountability and see a
strong need to correct people?
Do I see a need for correction but also a need to teach personal
What is my understanding over the complexity of personal failure?
Can I honestly say I have a good understanding of the types of failure and
the consequences of each of those types? (If no, reread the chapter and
then think some more about it)
What has been my personal experience of correction as a receiver of it?
How, in the light of this chapter, could our church become a more secure place where correction is brought but in such a way as to build up and restore people, and not drive them away?
In the following chapter we will consider some of the ways we can practically apply these things and consider the full range of ways that we can correct or bring help.