By far one of the most widely appreciated and misused Bible verses has got to be Matthew 18:20. In that verse, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I have heard this verse referenced as the “theme verse” for small group ministry, the rationale for house churches and the biblical reason given for why spending time with some friends or family members is all the church someone really needs. And at first glance Jesus seems to say just that: “Get a couple of believers to gather, and I’ll join you.”
However, the context makes it clear that when Jesus says that he is present with two or three Christians, it is when they are in the middle of a most difficult and unenviable task: reproving or correcting a fellow Christian. This text is not the affirmation that Jesus is present when we gather even in small gatherings (though the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and passages like John 14 seem to make it clear that he does), but the assurance that Jesus will be with us when we do the most painful and necessary task for helping the church to grow in faithfulness: That is “speaking the truth in love” (ala Ephesians 4:15) for the sake of correcting one Christian who has sinned against another Christian (See all of Matthew 18:15-20).
And the presence of Jesus in the middle of such muddle is one of the signs of the true church. To continue my list of the ABC's of the true church: the D is for Discipline. And by discipline, I mean church discipline, the actual correcting or reproving of one believer by another or group of others because we belong to the same Community of faith, have taken the same vows and our “members of one another” (as the Bible says in 1 Cor 12:12.)
The Knox Confession from the 16th century actually lists “ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue
nourished” as right up there with true preaching and right administration of the sacraments.
While discipline evokes fearsome images of “witch hunts,” “inquisitions” and “tribunals” in the New Testament, we actually have a good deal of frank conversation about the need for discipline wisely and rightly handled when our actions, beliefs or especially teaching (see James 3:1). Besides Jesus’ discussion of what we do when someone sins against us in Matthew 18:15-20, we also have the example of Ananias and Saphira (and some very harsh discipline by the Spirit) in Acts 5 and Paul’s instructions on what to do with a couple who continue on in sin, even after they have been repeatedly confronted, in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. In Ephesians 4, the conversation about “speaking the truth in love” is a form of discipline whereby teaching errors are confronted and the body of Christ is equipped and strengthened.
Regardless of size or structure, one of the marks of the true church is whether its members are willing (in the words of the vows for officers in my denomination) to “abide by its discipline.” I also believe that most of us are so uncomfortable with any kind of confrontation or accountability that we mostly just move on to another place whenever we are confronted or have a need to confront others. Our commitment to each other is so
Now, once again, the forms of this discipline, the means for carrying it out and the degree of organization or institutional formality can vary from church to church. (And there are horror stories out there of church discipline done badly.) While some forms of discipline are certainly better or wiser than others, the most important thing is that if “a church is a church” that there are some agreed upon convictions, commitments and agreements as well as some clear, thoughtful caring and redemptive processes whereby “vice is repressed and virtue nourished.”
Unfortunately there is so little healthy discipline in the church today that it raises the question of whether ANY church actually measures up here, I am afraid. (And anticipating the inevitable question about my own denomination, I actually think this is, sadly, our most colossal failing at the moment.)
But the answer is more commitment and love for each other, even to the point of confrontation, not less.