Better to lose one part of your body than the whole body go to hell” — Church discipline, pastoral authority, and schism

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One of Jesus’ most extreme instructions to his disciples was this one in the Sermon on the Mount:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29–30).

That was instruction to anyone committing adultery or even looking at a woman lustfully. Most Christians have tended to take this in the same way: figurative and for our individual bodies.

We usually read this as hyperbole, intended to make a point but not to be followed. Surely Jesus wouldn’t ask us to gouge out our eyes! I still have both eyes and both hands, despite the sins that have come by them.

But even if we take this as hyperbole, we dare not miss the point: avoid sin at all costs. Because sin leads to death, eternal death, hell. What’s worse than going through life without an eye or a hand? Losing your life for all of eternity—the whole body going into hell. And if willful sin persists, that’s our trajectory.1

This is usually where we stop when it comes to this passage, if we even make it this far, but I wonder if its application can be broader.

What if we read this in a different way: literal and for our corporate body—the church?2

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell

The early church practiced this kind of instruction about cutting off parts. We see it from both Jesus and Paul.

Jesus’ instruction

Jesus instructed his disciples to cut people off, if necessary. For a “brother or sister” who sins, he gave a whole process for trying to turn them from their fault. The goal was restoration, not punishment! The last step: bring it before the church, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).

We know from his other interactions that Jesus didn’t treat pagans and tax collectors with scorn. He treated them with love. But he also didn’t treat them as “brothers and sisters” in the faith.3 He treated them as sick, as sinners, as those he was calling to be healed through repentance and faith.4

Paul’s instruction

Later, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. He was apoplectic.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?5

His final instruction to them was a quote from Deuteronomy, “Expel the wicked person from among you.” That line occurs seven times in the book of Deuteronomy, where my version translates, “You must purge the evil from among you.” 6 Seven repetitions—that’s enough to be taken seriously.

(A note for those who ask why the church should be so obsessed about sex, the passages we’ve looked at above were both about sexual sin. Sex is not, and should not be, our only issue. But it is one of the most prominent issues of morality in Scripture, which warrants our attention.)

On church discipline

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell. This was part of Paul’s rationale in the situation above. He asked, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” 7

When we tolerate outright sin in the church among “brothers and sisters,” we aren’t just doing them damage because we’re unwilling to have the hard conversation. We also risk potential damage to the whole church—devastating damage. We teach the church that we don’t really believe avoid sin at all costs. We treat sin not as our menacing enemy, but as a minor nuisance—or even less, as something we shrug off and tolerate.

When we tolerate outright sin in the church, do we risk the whole body being thrown into hell because one part caused it to sin? A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

John Wesley longed for preachers who “fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God.” 8 When we treat sin with anything less than fear, as anything less than cancer, we have treated it as too little. When we fear offense, impropriety or misperception more than we fear sin, we have treated sin as too little.

Brothers and sisters, we must flee from sin. We flee not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the whole body. A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

The Protestant Distortion

In the earliest Protestant tradition, the church was defined by three practices, as the community where (1) the Word of God is preached, (2) the sacraments are administered, and (3) church discipline is observed, all according to Christ’s institution.

We have largely abandoned the third part of that definition. This may be the logical end of Protestantism, at least in its cheapest form.

Where we have emphasized above all else the private reading and interpretation of Scripture, what place is left for church discipline? What place is left for anything but someone’s private reading and application of the Word of God? What authority does anyone else have to tell a Christian brother or sister that they’re in the wrong?

As we abandon the authority of the church and the authority of the pastor, no space is left for church discipline. Though I don’t believe my doctor is infallible—or in perfect health himself!—I generally trust him when it comes to my physical health. I give him authority to tell me where he sees problems in my health, to tell me where things look good, and even to prescribe new things for me.

Pastors today rarely hold that same kind of authority regarding people’s spiritual health. This isn’t to suggest a domineering relationship (just as our relationships with our doctors tend to avoid that extreme), but a relationship that recognizes the pastor as a spiritual authority, someone who should be expected to examine, diagnose and prescribe, as needed.

Instead, American religion today is more akin to that sad observation in the book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” 9 That line makes Phillip Tallon’s remark in my interview with him especially interesting: “We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king.” 10

How can we flee from sin when we give no one permission to name it? How can we help the church to flee from sin when we go on tolerating it in our midst?

If the church is a body, and if it is truly better to lose one part than for the whole body to go into hell, then we must restore the practice of church discipline.

On Schism

The largest form of this “cutting off” members of the body comes in the form of schism. This is an extreme form of church discipline.

We should avoid schism at great pains. Because God loves unity. Because Jesus prayed for unity among his followers. We demonstrate that unity most specifically at a common table, at shared Eucharist. When any church comes to the point that it can no longer share at the one table, schism has already occurred. All that’s left is the crying, and perhaps the lawyers.

We avoid this schism at great pains, but we cannot avoid it at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid schism at the cost of tolerating sin. Because we must avoid sin at all costs, even at the cost of losing a member of the body.

In times of severe strife in the church, our best option is to compromise and be faithful to one another while we work for a way to reconcile. But this is a solution only if the presenting issue is anything less than sin.11 If a minority group believes they would have to sin to submit to the church’s authority, then they have no options but sin or schism. And they must not choose sin.

Similarly, if the dominant group in a church believes the other is willfully practicing or endorsing sin, they have no options but to condone the sin or expel the group12 (i.e. create schism). And they must not choose sin.

If we’ve come this far, let’s be honest about what’s happening. Each side believes the other is in sin or heresy. They’ve already stopped believing the other is truly Christian. They’ve stopped treating them as “brothers and sisters” and begun to treat them as pagans or tax collectors. Schism has occurred in spirit, only institutional trappings remain. In those cases, we would be better to acknowledge that schism and treat each other as pagans or tax collectors—but this in the best possible sense: not with scorn, but with love, gently but persistently calling the other to repentance and faith.

In marital counseling, I tell people that I’m biased toward reconciliation. I will go to great pains to avoid divorce. But I won’t avoid divorce at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid it if there has been violence in the relationship (in the form of infidelity or abuse, in any of its varieties) and there’s reason to believe that violence will continue.

In the church, schism becomes necessary at the same point. We should take great pains to reconcile, even if it means tolerating anything less than sin. But when violence has occurred (in the form of infidelity to our mutual covenants or abusive behavior toward each other) and there’s reason to believe it will continue, it’s time to separate. In fact, a relatively amicable separation may offer the greatest hope for future reconciliation.

Postscript: A note on judging “outsiders”

The church in recent times (maybe always?) has done pretty well about identifying immorality “out there” among the pagans. This is exactly the opposite of what we see in the passages above. Paul specifically said that when he wrote about not associating with sexually immoral people he was “not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral… In that case you would have to leave this world.“13 He asked, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.“14

For those who don’t claim faith, we don’t judge. We go to them as they are. We love them as they are. And we gently but persistently call them to repentance and faith.

Some people don’t like the first part of that—they prefer to keep their distance, and perhaps hurl some stones. Others don’t like the last part—calling people to repentance implies that they’re sinners, which could be offensive and seem intolerant. Jesus did both without apology. If we have the same love for others as Jesus, then we will go and do likewise.

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  1. Many balk at this. “We all sin. We’re human!” First—by that very statement, you deny Christ’s humanity or his perfection. Be careful. Second—passages like 1 John 3:6 say the opposite: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” Third—see my article “Why I Love Wesleyan Theology” for more.
  2. I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended this statement for that purpose. But I am suggesting that it properly applies, as Jesus’ and Paul’s later words demonstrate.
  3. Unless they had come to faith, at which point they would no longer be pagans and no longer keep the unscrupulous practices of other tax collectors
  4. See Matt 9:12–13
  5. 1 Cor 5:1–2
  6. Deut 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7
  7. 1 Cor 5:6
  8. From his letter to Alexander Mather on August 6, 1777
  9. Judg 17:6; 21:25
  10. emphasis mine
  11. I could also say “sin and heresy” here, but I’m allowing heresy to come under the broader umbrella of sin.
  12. assuming, of course, that they have first attempted to correct and restore them
  13. 1 Cor 5:10
  14. 1 Cor 5:12–13

A cardinal rule for fiction and theology

Right now I’m reading two books that wouldn’t seem to have much to do with each other. One is a book on writing, especially on writing fiction, by Stephen King. The other is on trinitarian theology, by Robert Jenson. (I highly recommend both, even if you don’t fashion yourself a writer or theologian, though Jenson’s most recent work might be an easier starting place.)

I’m also trying to write about the church’s doctrine of the Trinity. When you talk about the Trinity, you walk through a minefield. With every description, you risk heresy. If you’ve ever heard the Trinity compared to H2O (ice, water, steam) or to a man in three different roles (father, husband, son) or to a three-leaf clover, it was a bad description. It bordered on heresy if it didn’t go the whole way there. Even better analogies, like a three-note chord, still have problems. Every analogy falls short. This brief, funny video shows the problem.

Scripture shows us God as Father, Son and Spirit relating to one another, but it doesn’t explain this trinitarian relationship in the fashion we would like. Some people note that the word “Trinity” isn’t used in the Bible, nor is the doctrine spelled out. Some even suggest that the Church may have invented the concept of “Trinity.” They don’t find the word or a clear description in the Bible. It must not be real. This treats the problem as if only what’s defined is real.

Others start from the opposite end: Everything that’s real can be defined. So they labor to fill in the descriptive holes left by the biblical narrative, explaining what we mean when we say “Trinity.” The best attempts have led to major theological statements, with words like homoousios. The worst attempts have led to heresies.

Robert Jenson says that even with our best attempts, we’ve created a problem by separating trinitarian theology from the biblical narrative. Even our less-than-heretical attempts to describe the Trinity do damage as they move from depiction to description.

Our analytical, bullet-pointing, PowerPointing Western minds love description. We like to understand just how everything works. And so, in any of our -ologies, we assume a sort of science, in which all can be explained. But if we can move out of the world of -ology, we can see that bare description doesn’t always enhance understanding.

Depiction Trumps Description

This is where Stephen King comes in. He says, “One of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead.”

You’ve seen this. In the world of narrative, depiction can do much more than description. You’ll understand a person better by living with them through the narrative than you will through reading a character description. Moreover, that character description can’t explain everything. Personality is more complex than description can contain.

If this is true for mere humans, how much more must it be true for the Triune God? Words will fail to fully describe.

Theology in Liturgy and Scripture

This is where I love the way the Eastern Church has done theology. Jaroslav Pelikan describes it this way:

To grasp the Eastern understanding of the church and of its doctrine, “one has to return from the school-room to the worshiping Church and perhaps to change the school-dialect of theology for the pictorial and metaphorical language of Scripture.”

The church’s liturgies and biblical accounts do theology in a different way than our textbook theology. In fact, Jenson notes, “What kept the apologists religiously trinitarian was not their theology but their church’s liturgical life.”

In the church’s liturgies we baptize in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we sing “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” We give trinitarian benedictions like the great one from 2 Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.” And we have icons like this brilliant one from Andrei Rublev, which depicts the Trinity at table, in relation to one another.

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Rublev’s icon of the Trinity

Perhaps in our theology, we should take Stephen King’s advice. “Never tell us a thing if you can show it instead.” The next time someone asks you to explain the Trinity, instead of turning to examples of H2O or three-leaf clovers or musical chords, turn instead to Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3 and Paul’s benediction in 2 Corinthians 13 and Rublev’s icon.

I said this before in relation to preaching, and so now I say it more broadly for theological discussion: better to tell the story than to talk about the story.

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The Beauty of the Incarnation

Gentile da Fabriano's "Adoration of the Magi"

Gentile da Fabriano’s “Adoration of the Magi”

Christmas celebrates one of the most shocking and beautiful events in all of history––the Incarnation––when the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

In my study of theology, I’ve found that many of the great theologians break from their typical prose into a higher, poetic language when they come to the Incarnation. This piece of our Christian faith calls for something that bare prose can’t seem to satisfy. I want to share a few of my favorite quotes with you.

Martin Luther:

It is not for the angels to be proud of Christ’s incarnation, for Christ did not assume an angelic but a human nature. Therefore it would not be a surprise if the angels looked at us with envy in their eyes because we human beings, creatures far inferior to them and sinners besides, are placed above them into an honor so high and great. They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.

(from Luther’s Sermon on Colossians 1:18–20, as cited in Thomas C. Oden’s Classic Christianity, p. 274)

And now listen to how Augustine talks about Christ’s birth in a sermon on Christmas Day:

My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord (Ps 51:15);
of that Lord through whom all things were made (John 1:3),
and who was himself made among all things;

who is the revealer of the Father,
creator of his mother;
the Son of God from the Father without mother,
the son of man from his mother without father;

great as the day of the angels,
little in the day of men;
the Word, God before all times,
the Word, flesh at the appropriate time;

the maker and placer of the sun,
made and placed under the sun;
marshaling all the ages from the bosom of the Father,
consecrating this day from the womb of his mother;

remaining there,
coming forth from here;
producer of heaven and earth,
appearing on earth under heaven;

unspeakably wise,
wisely speechless as an infant;
filling the world,
lying in a manger;

so great in the form of God,
so small in the form of a servant,
in such a way that neither the greatness was diminished by the smallness,
nor the smallness overwhelmed by the greatness.

(from Augustine’s Essential Sermons, edited by Daniel Doyle, translated by Edmund Hill, p. 245)

We haven’t grasped the significance of the Incarnation if we haven’t been overwhelmed and awed by it. So this Christmas we celebrate with Augustine, who remarks, “That men might be born of God, God was first born of them.”

We’ll have only understood half the truth if we stop here –– even at Christmas. Why did God become man? Anselm presents it well:

Death entered through one man’s obedience
Life is restored through one man’s obedience

Sin came through the temptation of a woman
Salvation came through one born of a woman

The enemy conquered humanity by tasting of a tree
Christ conquered the enemy by bearing suffering on a tree

(from Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo)

Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die!