But What If They Go to Another Church?
Written by Brian Dunn
One of the greatest advancements in our society has been the ability to be mobile. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see as much of the United States and Canada as I have, let alone portions of Europe. Yet mobility has become cheaper (at times!) and more accessible to almost everyone. It shapes the way we live day-to-day as we visit family across the country or across town. It allows us to get our families involved in more activities and experiences. It has even shaped the way we worship. Only a hundred years ago, most people would attend a church that was near to them, whether that was in their town or in their neighborhood. Now we have choices. I have led churches where the attendees would travel for miles to attend–all while passing several faithful churches (including other CRC’s). Yet they chose to attend my church because (among other reasons) that is where they have always attended. Our mobility presents a litany of benefits and challenges—much of which is too long for this article. One of those challenges is in the area of discipline. Can we do discipline in a time of high mobility when people will simply leave and go to another church? Let’s explore that question.
Despite our high mobility, this has been an issue the church has had to deal with since at least the Reformation (probably longer!). There is a myth that after the Reformation, those who left the Catholic church stayed faithfully in the protestant churches they first joined, but that is not the case. Many returned to the Catholic church, others went to the Anabaptists, while others would move between churches due to practices they did not like and yes, even because of discipline. While the times today are certainly different, the reality is that the church has been dealing with this concern for some time.
Sovereignty of God
It is no secret in the Reformed tradition that we emphasize the sovereignty of God. We believe God is sovereign in our salvation, the author and perfecter of our faith. By his sovereign hand and glorious grace, he overcomes even the hardest of hearts for his glory and our good. He gives us the faith we have to reach out and grasp Christ alone for our salvation, and he is also the one who will ultimately preserve our faith until we join him in glory. Yet through God’s sovereignty, he always uses means to accomplish his purposes, and the confessions are clear on this.
“And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.” (Canons of Dort, 5.12)
The proclamation of the gospel through imperfect servants is a means by which God cultivates faith in his people. The sacraments are another means by which he feeds his people and unites them more closely to himself. And while we may not like the language, threats (which we can understand as church discipline) are a means by which God corrects or calls his people back to himself. The Canons of Dort make the case that if we are truly in Christ, we will persevere until the end, and discipline is one of God’s means for accomplishing that purpose. Therefore, loving discipline is the church’s opportunity to extend God’s grace, helping God’s people to see our faults and live more closely in accordance with God’s will.
As challenging as it is, we need to see it as a privilege to participate in God’s plan for his people in this way. That mindset change alone can help us to overcome our lack of a desire to engage in discipline. But what do we do with those who will not see it this way and simply go to another church? First off, we need to accept the reality that this may happen. The more we recognize this truth, the less it will hinder us from enacting necessary discipline. We should also recognize that those under discipline may stop coming to church entirely. Resting in God’s sovereignty allows us to prioritize faithfulness to Christ over trying to avoid conflict. If we understand discipline as a means God uses to correct his people as part of his sovereign plan, then those who are truly saved, will not in the end fall away even if they are under discipline, even if they leave the church for a time. The Canons of Dort assure us of this as well.
“For God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election does not take his Holy Spirit from his own completely, even when they fall grievously… God preserves in those saints when they fall, his imperishable seed from which they have been born again… Secondly, by his Word and Spirit he certainly and effectively renews them to repentance so that they have a heartfelt and godly sorrow for the sins they have committed…” (Canons of Dort, 5.6-7)
While some will accuse us of being controlling through discipline, in reality it is a way of letting go of control and letting God work in the hearts of those who believe but have fallen into grievous sin. Even if those under discipline have given up on the church, the church has not given up on them. Our prayer is that all who receive discipline would turn and repent. Through this process the church will (or should) continue to reach out and connect, whether they are at another church or not.
In the end, discipline is about being faithful. It is about being the means God has promised to use as he trains his people for love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” We are to be faithful with discipline despite the outcome, because he who promises is faithful. It is a privilege to participate in God’s plan at any point. Whether that is proclaiming the gospel, nourishing God’s people through his sacraments or calling them to account with discipline (even if they do not respond positively). In the end, “he who promised is faithful.” Therefore, we should be faithful as well.
Rev. Brian Dunn was ordained in 2017 and is the pastor at First CRC in Sheldon, Iowa.