A long, long time ago, in my late 20s, was when I first came to Grace Community Church in 1969. It was a vibrant church, excited, energetic, committed to Christ, ready to move ahead and see what God would do. It was a church that had enjoyed the blessing of God up to that point. And we were all eager to see what was going to happen in the future.
The passion of this church was to reach out and see people come to Christ. That was their longing. And so, back then, everyone was hoping to see the church grow. They were hoping to see more people come and be introduced to Christ.
At the beginning, though, my main concern was not, “How can we get more people in this building?” In fact, when I came to Grace Church, there was one prevailing thing that settled into my mind. It was a text of Scripture that deeply concerned me. For the past few years, I had been grappling with Matthew 18:15-20.
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.
I had great difficulty with that passage of Scripture because I, in my entire life, had never experienced or heard of a church that put this into practice. Not once. And so this passage consumed my thinking; I read extensively about it, and I found commentators who explained the text. But I found no one who had actually applied it. And when I asked some pastors I knew, they all said they had never implemented it and didn’t know of anyone who had.
But I said, “This is the very first instruction to the church. This is where the word ‘church’ shows up for the first time. This is our Lord’s top concern for the church, that the church would deal with sin within its own members. So why do we not implement it?”
I was told by men much older and wiser than myself that if I tried to implement church discipline at Grace Church, I would empty the place. I was told, “Do you think you can have people in your church walk up to other people in your church and confront their sin without driving them away? Do you think you could possibly get a little group of people to go after a sinning believer without frightening everybody out? And you certainly can’t announce someone’s sin to the whole congregation and expect anybody to show up the next week. If you’re concerned about adding people to the church, forget about church discipline.”
However, I was reminded of an event in Acts 5:
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. (Acts 5:1-5)
Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God because they sinned by lying. And we might think, “That’s a great way to keep people out of the church. No one will want to be involved with an organization where people get killed.”
So why did the Lord do this? Was He trying to prevent the church from growing? Why, at the very outset, in the very first church in Jerusalem, did the Lord do something as dramatic as executing two liars? That’s not exactly welcoming.
Here’s the takeaway: One of our objectives as the church is to make our commitment to holiness so crystal clear that, on their own, fallen people have no desire to join us.
Of course, this has been turned on its head in our society with our modern brand of evangelicalism. This is the absolute opposite of the contemporary instinct to hide our commitment to righteousness so that nobody will find us offensive.
But look at what Acts says: “All the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (Acts 5:14).
After Ananias and Sapphira were executed, the church started growing even faster. And why was this the case, even though people were scared of the church’s high standard of holiness? The church grew because the Lord was the one adding people to their number:
And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47)
The Lord is the one who grows the church, and He blesses obedience, not compromise.
If there is anything we know to be true in Scripture that we are unwilling to follow, that is a severe breach in our integrity. Our approach to Scripture becomes selective. And there is no place for that. We must have an absolute commitment to Scripture, not only to believe it is true, but to believe it must be implemented. That’s the only way to live a joyful, productive Christian life, and that’s the only way to have a church that the Lord Himself builds and that honors Him.
Next time, we will look closer at Jesus’s instructions for church discipline.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2008, titled “The Childlikeness of Believers: Confronting Sin.”
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