“On ‘Winning’ in the church”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Ezekiel 33:7-9
Romans 13:1-10
Matthew 18:15-20

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is mentioned in many church constitutions. Some people think it is detailed directions from Jesus on how to do church discipline. Sadly enough, it has sometimes been seen as the prescribed method for removing “troublemakers,” “undesirable characters” or “dead wood” (members on church rolls who never give anything, do anything or even attend worship). I say “sadly,” because the whole purpose of the procedure is to win or regain the person — rebuild the relationship, not sever it.

In addition to a way of dealing with a person who has sinned against you, the lesson also contains three frequently quoted sentences: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. … If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Although it means working sort of backwards, I will look at these three before examining the “discipline” procedure itself. Theologians are pretty well in agreement that the reference to binding and loosing has to do with sins. Sins that are bound remain unforgiven. The loosed are forgiven. The context (especially the following part which is next week’s Gospel) certainly supports that interpretation. The context also includes, however, the whole realm of relationships. The problem addressed by the first part is when someone “sins against you.” The source of a powerful prayer is two agreeing, and the gathering of two or three in Christ’s name guarantees an even broader relationship by the inclusion of the Lord Himself.

People are bound into relationships by various things. Blood relationships can be good or bad, but they are there nonetheless. Business relationships are usually bound by contract, but the paper is only worth the profit it is written on. Marriage contracts are similar — both good and bad ones have a paper, but the binding forces are something else. Married people may be bound together by something as negative as greed (unwilling to divide property) or as positive as love. Interestingly enough, the binding and loosing noted by the theologians has a place of priority here also — Ruth Bell Graham once wrote, “A good marriage is the union of two forgivers.” The best of all relationships are bound, as we sometimes sing, by the tie of “Christian love.” As Jesus said, He is in the midst of them; His loving relationship with them is the binding force that creates and binds their loving relationship with each other.

The great understatement then, of this Edit-O-Earl, is that Christ cares about our relationships with each other. He wants us to agree on what to work for and pray for. He wants us to gather, and to gather in His name, with Him right there among us. He wants us to be bound together in Christian love — by His forgiveness, and by forgiving each other.

That brings us to the procedure often associated with church discipline. If by “discipline” we mean teaching by example, that association has some merit. In the sinful world, if one person wrongs another, the result will be retaliation. In the church it is to be reconciliation. Sin directs us to break relationship with someone who wrongs us. Jesus directs us to restore fellowship. Some see this procedure as a way to win an argument with an opponent. Jesus gave it as a way to win back a friend. The literal words of Jesus are: “If your brother sins against you, go and reprove him (show him his error) between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

The first thing we should note is that Jesus used this word “brother” in the same sense that the word “fellow” is included in fellowship. He included women among His “brethren.” It is interesting that the English word “fellowship” is based on words that can be translated as “fee-laying,” and it has to do with sharing goods or a partnership. It is the common translation of the Greek work koinonia, which likewise means sharing. One of the first things we can note then is that no one who is a follower (fellow) of Jesus is excluded from anything connected to His word “Go!” He considers the breaking of fellowship to be serious business needing attention.

It is also interesting that, like the words implying sharing goods, or partnership based on mutual interest, the word “win” can also be translated with a profit motive. A few translations use the word “gain.” I suppose that if the partner who sinned against the church happened to be a treasurer who ran off with the funds, then the church could have financial gain by winning the person back, but that is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus implies that when someone is separated from your fellowship, you are diminished by the loss. I have often wondered how some people can seem to feel good or proud about separating themselves from the fellowship of Christ’s church. Do they not see how they are hurting themselves by that loss? Jesus looks at it from the other side — it pains Him and all of the church when someone is lost.

A few verses earlier He told the parable about a shepherd losing a sheep and leaving 99 others behind in order to bring back the one. He also described the shepherd’s great rejoicing when the one was found and returned. What we have here is a glimpse into the love of our Shepherd — how He aches when we are lost, and how He rejoices when we are found! Great joy is our profit when the partner returns!

Alienation between people has become so commonplace in the world that many have come to accept it as inevitable in the church as well. As long as sin is alive and well in the world, I suppose it is inevitable, but let’s not accept it. Let’s cry about it. Most of the time our differences could be settled if we were willing to lose a little face and go to see our friends, even if they are treating us like enemies. In the church, the motivation is nothing less than the love of Christ, who lost more than face to reconcile us to Himself. Our reconciliation with our partners starts with God’s reconciliation of us — the enemies who denied, betrayed and murdered Him for His efforts.

An issue of Bits & Pieces had the following observation: “What we believe affects the way we live. Believe, for example that a man is a good friend and you will treat him one way. Believe that he has become your enemy and, instantly, your treatment of him will become radically different. Yet all the time there may have been no change whatever in your friend.” Another belief also enters in. It is belief in the Friend who gave His life as ransom for each and all of us. In His fellowship, we are called to love the errant brothers and sisters back into His fold. Writing in the Concordia Journal Glen D. Thomas said of the word “win,” “This is a mission word in a mission text.” He quoted Lenski: “To gain or win the brother is the original purpose of the procedure. Sorrow and disappointment are to fill the wronged brother when this purpose fails.”

When every avenue of rescue has been rejected, Jesus says that the church must treat the person as a “Gentile or tax collector.” Now, we all know how He treated Gentiles and tax collectors. They were a primary target of His mission! He spoke to them, ate with them, and eventually died for them.

His mission was to win brothers and sisters of every tribe and tongue. Now His mission is our mission.

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