Radical Acceptance and Real Boundaries: Reflections on church discipline from 1 Timothy

My recent ecclesiology class has gotten things like church membership and church discipline on my brain. What constitutes being a part of a church body (membership)? When and how does such an alliance start and stop? Can this relationship between a church and an individual ever be severed by a change in beliefs or behavior? How are such cases to be handled (discipline)? Are these even the right questions to be asking? The following post captures some of my musings on topics like these. Thanks to my faithful friend Joe Davis for prompting me to type them out:

My lovely wife does not love my driving. One of the many things that upsets her is the fact that I read every road sign we pass. “Every single one,” she would exaggeratedly affirm. I’ve also developed a habit of taking pictures of amusing road signs, bumper stickers, and billboards with my camera phone while driving. This of course really gets Meg fuming, but I digress.

On a recent trip across town I passed two churches that had the exact same message on their customizable church sign. These churches were in different areas and weren’t associated denominationally, so I doubt they collaborated on this. The signs both read, “Jesus welcomed everybody. So do we.” In the last few weeks I’ve paid particular attention to other church signs and on several more I’ve found very similar messages, a message that these churches practice radical acceptance of all people.

There’s no doubt that these signs have a real ring of gospel truth in them. But is the popularity of what these church signs are saying being balanced by a fuller understanding of who the church is?

As I’ve thought about this question my mind started scanning Paul’s first letter to Timothy during Timothy’s pastorate in Ephesus. I began to see indications of God’s radical and free aceptance, but I also saw Paul describing some proper boundaries going up between the church in Ephesus and everybody else. Here are my reflections from 1 Timothy and the nature of the church as being radically accepting and being a marked-off people.

Radical acceptance in the church:

1:13-14 – “…though formerly I [Paul] was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” 

To me these words are some of the most amazing in the Bible. Paul claims to be saved because of his unbelief. The implication of Paul’s story of salvation seems to be that all others like him can receive God’s grace, too.

1:15 – “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

There it is. Who qualifies to be saved by Jesus? Sinners. Praise the Lord! I qualify! Everyone does!

2:3-6 – “[Praying for all people] is good, and pleasing to God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”

These words pretty much speak for themselves in regards to the Lord’s desire to save any and everyone through Jesus’ redeeming death.

4:10 – “…we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

Again, pretty straightforward. God is radically accepting of awful sinners. Hallelujah!

Real boundaries in the church:

1:3 – “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…”

I think it’s stunning that right after Paul gets finished saying “Howdy” in verse 1-2 he gets right to commanding Timothy to rebuke “certain persons” for teaching “any different doctrine”. By singling out certain persons about different doctrine Paul sets the tone for the idea that there are folks who are in the household of God and folks who are out, and what indicates their status is what they teach, their doctrine.

1: 9, 10-11: “…the law is not laid down for the just but for [and then he lists a bunch of sinful actions and finishes by saying] and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God…”

Now Paul speaks of behavior that is contrary to sound doctrine and not in accordance with the gospel. Not only, then, does it matter what we teach or believe but also how we act. Or we might say how we act indicates what we truly believe. Again, this language indicates there is a line in the sand that certain people, even professing Christians, had stepped over. By their actions they were evidencing that they did not belong to God’s people.

1:19-20 – “By rejecting [the faith and a good conscience] some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

Now Paul seems to even be giving an explicit example by naming a couple of these “certain persons” who are outside the camp. It may be tempting to say that the Apostle Paul was doing this and it would not be appropriate action for Timothy, let alone any church today, but in 1 Corinthians 5:5 Paul tells the Corinthian church to do this exact thing in this case of one of their members caught in sexual sin: “…deliver this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

I think it is crucial to see that in each of these instances, 1 Tim. 1:20 and 1 Cor. 5:5, Paul’s goal is restorative. He wants Hymenaeus and Alexander to be “handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” That’s a good thing, right? Learning not to blaspheme but to bless the Lord. And in 1 Cor. 5:5 the Corinthians were “to deliver this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

Here, then, in these cases of church discipline we see these ecclesiastical boundaries and God’s radical love come together. These men were handed over to Satan (boundary-esque language) so that they would be saved (radical acceptance language). The straying teachers of 1 Timothy and the sexually immoral man of 1 Corinthians 5 were not excommunicated from the church so that they would just go straight to hell but that they would avoid hell and join God’s people again.

One of the things Dr. Dever said in our ecclesiology class that has stuck with me and pertains to this topic was this: “We want our church [Capitol Hill Baptist in Wash. D.C.] during our Lord’s day gathering to be the break room for prostitutes in the D.C. area.” I think that desire is wonderfully in line with God’s free and unmerited love for rebel sinners. Still, it would be unfaithful for us to say there is never a time to treat a professing brother “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17), if he will not repent but instead goes on consistently and fearlessly sinning. We must humbly and lovingly confront him, and if it becomes necessary we must humbly, broken-heartedly, and lovingly excommunicate him.

God’s mercy is rich and His holiness is intense. May He help all of His people to be open and guarded, gracious and lawful, forgiving and upright.

“Behold therefore the kindness and severity of God.” Rom. 11:22

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