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. 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.]
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?[1. 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.]
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 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.[1. 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] He treated them as sick, as sinners, as those he was calling to be healed through repentance and faith.[1. See Matt 9:12-13]
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?” [1. 1 Cor 5:1-2]
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.” [1. Deut 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7] 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?” [1. 1 Cor 5:6]
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.” [1. From his letter to Alexander Mather on August 6, 1777] 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.” [1. Judg 17:6; 21:25] 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.” [1. emphasis mine]
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.
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.[1. I could also say “sin and heresy” here, but I’m allowing heresy to come under the broader umbrella of sin.] 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 group[1. assuming, of course, that they have first attempted to correct and restore them] (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.”[1. 1 Cor 5:10] 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.”[1. 1 Cor 5:12-13]
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.