What’s the Story? – Church Discipline

Though not a story, per se, I just couldn’t let Jesus teachings on church discipline from this weekend’s lectionary go by without a comment. So, bare with me as we diverge a little from our normal weekend mode to wax “organizational” a bit. As a religious professional working in a large congregation, this kind of thing is right up my ally.

I think the most interesting facet of this reading for me is that is shows how Jesus actually DID imagine a “church” as the legacy of his ministry. Critics and Christians have wondered for eons whether or not the institutions and movements of the community of Jesus-followers that have sprung up since the first century have anything to do with Jesus’ actually teachings. “Jesus didn’t come to found a church,” is the battle-cry of many who are suspicious of the institution and its teachings. This may be true. But, Jesus’ instruction to faithful folks that they should work out thier disagreements “before the church,” certainly shows that such was in his field of view.

Additionally interesting is the sense that we get from this passage that Jesus foresaw not only the existence of church but its rather cantankerous nature. The oft-quoted maxim at the nod of the passage about Jesus’ presence “in the midst” of those gathered in his name and the suggestion that God will do anything that several Christians “agree” to ask for, might lead us to think that Jesus’ ideal church is a place of permanent unity, discerment and consensus. But, one need only turn back to the begining of the story, or look at the machinations of any real-life congregation to know that this is rarely if ever the case. Jesus seems to have known that disagreements would arise.

What, then, do we make of his method of intervention and arbitration? Is life in the church as simple as confronting someone you disagree with in private, then taking a couple of friends with you then bringing your case befor the entire community? Not by a long-shot. Anyone who has ever been embroiled in a genuine disagreement in any community, much less a faith-based disagreement in a faith community, knows that resolutions are rarely so formulaic, if they come at all.

What I think is at stake when Jesus offers us his simple plan for settling disagreements between members of the future “church,” is not the exact mechanics of the solution, but rather the suggestion that disagreements WITHIN the community are disagreements OF the community. Left un-resolved, or at least un-adressed, disagreements between individuals can infect and ultimately destroy an entire community.

This is not to say that every squabble is community business. But rather that every squabble can become community business if allowed to fester unresolved. Thus, Jesus outlines a pattern of ever-deeper engagement first between arguing parties and then through widening spheres of community that keeps community itself front-and-center in the process of resolution and reconciliation.

This pattern of dealing with conflict is beneficial not only in an organized community of faith. It can also serve as a model for other types of communities. Though the specific Christian underpinnings may not be completely meaningful to everyone on a pluralistic work culture, the methodology works in as much as it is not utterly dependent on everyone in the system believing that Jesus is Lord. Imagine an office culture when folks don’t talk behind one another’s backs, but rather address folks readily, privately and with the kind of kindness and civility that says “this community is too important to be blown-up by an argument.” It could be game changing.

Even moreso, how could a model like this make family life different in either the nuclear or extended clan? We all already know that disagreements between individual members of families (parents and children, spouses) can have wide-ranging effects on the health of the larger group. What would it look like to allow increasingly large portions of the family to become invested and active in the intractable conflicts that too often remain hidden in the hollows of the family tree? It could be life changing.

When Jesus says to his disciples that he will be present wherever two are three are gathered, I think he means it. Whether this is in the church, or the parking lot of the church, around the water cooler or in the parlor at Grandma’s house, Jesus is there, working for the reconcilliation and relationships of his faithful people.

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