Mailbag #68: Does a Church’s Maturity Affect Church Discipline Approach? . . . Should We Bring into Membership a Family Who Doesn’t Speak Our Language?

Mailbag
11.10.2017

Should a congregation’s age, spiritual maturity, and experience of church discipline play into a “muddy” church discipline decision? »
How should we maintain a robust membership process while taking into account a new family’s language barrier? »

Dear 9Marks,

In what way should a congregation’s age, spiritual maturity, and experience of church discipline play into a “muddy” church discipline decision?

—Nathan

Dear Nathan,

Muddy or not, good elders will always account for a congregation’s age and maturity in matters of church discipline. You don’t ask your six-year-old to carry heavy suitcases or do algebra. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children.” Likewise, I don’t think you should bring church discipline cases to a church when doing so will cause division or cause them to stumble in some other way, such as going against the elders.

Typically, handling church discipline well requires a balance between giving the congregation enough details that they can make a decision with integrity, but also letting the elders (and any involved member) work through the more challenging details. The whole church doesn’t need to know everything, but they need to know enough. Jesus very much applies courtroom principles about witnesses and testimonies to the matter of church discipline (e.g. Matt. 18:16). That means the congregation shouldn’t be asked to act simply upon the elders’ interpretations, but upon actual facts that all parties agree upon. As in civil courts, this protects everyone. Churches should not act upon supposition or slander, whether from the elders or anyone else.

At the same time, a church is not a court. Elders might feel rightly reluctant to divulge all the salacious details of a situation, say, to protect various family members.

All of this means that doing church discipline well requires maturity and mutual trust among elders and members alike. The elders need to be able to lead; the congregation needs to be able to affirm. And this requires a delicate balance. Ungodly suspicion, desire for control, pride, misplaced sympathies, fear of what people think, an automatic bias against authority—any of these qualities on either the elder or member side will lead to division and poor decision-making.

And, yes, the more complex and muddy a discipline situation is, the more immaturity will potentially scuttle the process. If a man has left his wife and children for another woman, and treated all his friends with disdain throughout the process, even an immature congregation will find it comparatively easy to act. Yet change the sin to something less obvious, and throw in a bunch of muddying details, you will find it much harder to lead that church to a good decision.

Here’s what you want to avoid: putting young sheep in a situation where you’re asking them to do one thing, but their weak consciences tell them to do something else (see Romans 14). The elders might have just enough details to decide upon discipline. Yet you know the congregation won’t possess all the nuance that you possess in order to come to the same conclusion. They will feel a misplaced sympathy for the person being considered, like the people of Israel feeling what God called a misplaced sympathy for the inhabitants of Canaan. By bringing that case before the church, then, you potentially put these members in a situation where they either have to sin against their (weak) consciences (see Rom. 14:14b), or sin by not submitting to the elders (Heb. 13:17). Either way, you’re at risk of exasperating them and causing them to stumble.

Live instead as an understanding and gentle father. If they can’t carry the heavy suitcases today, that’s okay. Give them time and work to make them stronger. One day they will.

Dear 9Marks,

A family of Spanish speakers recently started attending our church. They’re baptized believers who were attending an evangelical church in Spain before moving to the UK, but their grasp of English is limited. How would you suggest we maintain a robust membership process while taking into account their language limitations?

—Stuart

Dear Stuart,

I think everything hinges on how limited this family’s English language abilities are. If they cannot speak your language, I would help them to find a gospel-preaching church in their language. That doesn’t mean you don’t embrace and love and show them hospitality for as long as you need to. But faith comes through hearing the Word (Rom. 10:17). Unless you have an Acts 2 gift of tongues, the one thing you cannot do with this family is the most important thing a church does: share God’s Word.

I’m a big fan of multiethnic and multicultural and multinational and multi-whateveryouwant churches. But the one thing that’s very difficult to be on this side of the eschaton is multilingual. Our faith depends especially on the sharing of words (see Is. 55:10–11; Ezek 37:1–12; 1 Peter 1:23; parable of the sower; etc.).

I know more and more churches try to provide translation services and so forth. The trouble is, this treats the life of the church and the ministry of the Word as a Sunday service-only affair. The church’s life and ministry should last all week in the church’s fellowship together. And it’s nearly impossible to provide a translator for all of those occasions. Church is not a one-day event, it’s an all-week family.

In short, it might seem like the compassionate thing to do to find ways to accommodate people who don’t share your language. In fact, I think it’s the more compassionate thing to do to help them find a church where they can integrate fully into the gathered and scattered life of that church.

Sure, exceptions exist. Maybe there is no church in their language nearby. Then do everything you can to accommodate. Provide a language partner, as well as a few people who are willing to be on call. Or maybe their language skills are just enough to get by, and they’re improving. Again, look for ways to accommodate.

But what I’m hoping you take away from our conversation is just a little bit more skepticism about multilingual churches. You might say I feel about attempts to be a multi-lingual church about like I feel about the gifts of healing. It sounds great and pious, and it might happen on rare occasion, but really we’ll have to wait to the eschaton to see Babel and the curse reversed fully.