by Nate (international partner)
Subtraction Creates Multiplication
Missionaries and church planters are often pragmatists. We search and search for something that works, and sometimes biblical faithfulness can be set aside in order to adapt our strategies to the culture in a way that brings “better” results. Practically, these “better” results are usually understood to be greater numbers in the church.
But do greater numbers in the church equal truly better results?
Jesus’s example in John 6:22-69 shows that he preferred a few faithful and committed disciples rather than a crowd of easily influenced followers. Why did he push the eat and drink analogy so far? He was pushing for John 6:66. “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” Yes, Jesus spoke in such a way that reduced the numbers of his followers. Yet those who remained with him were also pushed by Jesus’s words to confess, as Peter did: “to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life… you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69). Jesus ministered in such a way that removed the many who would dilute the devotion of the few. His words exposed hearts resulting in many abandoning him but also in others reaffirming their true allegiance.
So, do we follow practical, or do we follow biblical methods? With the right perspective we can follow both, but it will not be the world’s version of practical. The world (and my ego) says that many is always better than few, so do what is necessary to draw the crowds. Scripture, however, teaches that a very few who are truly filled with the Holy Spirit can change the world for His glory. And so, the church is actually healthier long-term when discipline is practiced, when active steps are taken to decrease the numbers. And such long-term health is very practical, but long-term health will not likely follow a popular business model for quick exponential growth.
When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). He also taught that “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26).
A child of God is to love God with all of one’s heart such that there is no room left over for other allegiances except those allegiances that are expressed or fulfilled by that person’s love for God. Clearly, this is not humanly possible, but can only happen through a supernatural work to transform a heart of stone into a God-loving heart of flesh. Choosing to pursue habitual sin is an intentional devotion of one’s heart to a personal allegiance or a cultural allegiance over, above, and even against that person’s heart-allegiance to the Lord. When this is left unchecked among a group of people bearing witness to the community that they are children of God, the whole church ultimately becomes comfortable with hypocrisy. The church’s testimony becomes so muddled that they become indistinguishable from the surrounding culture – diminishing and even extinguishing the light they are meant to be to the nations. And rather than magnifying the name of Jesus they misrepresent, dishonor, and soil His name.
Biblical DNA of a Church Includes Church Discipline
A believer is baptized when he/she repents of sin and confesses that Jesus is Lord. In baptism, the church is bearing public witness to that person’s right standing with God and welcomes him/her into fellowship. Church discipline was outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20 to show us how to handle false expressions of faith when someone within the church refuses to repent of sin. Church discipline is how the church withdraws their affirmation of our public testimony that we are in a right standing with God. Both baptism and church discipline, church entry and church exit, are necessary DNA for biblical church.
Church Planting should mean Planting Churches with Church Discipline
As we take the gospel into new cultures, we must be prepared for culture-Scripture conflicts. People may profess faith based on a limited understanding of the gospel, then come to a fuller understanding as areas of culture-Scripture conflict are exposed. These conflicts give opportunity to prove one’s profession of faith either true or false. “Will I submit to Scripture as my true authority, or will I lay aside Scripture and cling to culture/tradition/habit?” Those who refuse to submit to Scripture will often become false teachers, giving preference to their cultural default and encouraging others to do the same. They may say something like: “Yes we follow Jesus, but God made us like this – He gave us this culture – so He doesn’t need us to change.” Church discipline exists to remove false teachers before they lead others astray.
In an area of new work, and especially when crossing cultural barriers, there can often be mixed motives for someone’s profession of faith. Some will verbally profess that Christ is Lord because they think they might receive a job or material benefits. Others might feel emotional pressure to follow Jesus because family or friends are doing it. Some may need emotional support through a rough season of life, but don’t truly repent of their sinful identity. Jesus said that a tree will always show its fruit in time. In other words, fruit isn’t always evident. The soil takes time to prove what kind it is. When members of a church bear bad fruit, pursuing culture or self as their true authority, the church must be willing and prepared to remove them from membership to preserve their existence. Church discipline exists to solidify the identity of the true church as those who submit wholly to the authority of Scripture.
One great goal of a church planter or a frontier missionary should be to set precedents in such a way that will lead to the long-term generational health of the church. You cannot be the voice of reason in your church. Surrounding culture cannot be the voice of reason. If this church will stand for generations, only Scripture can be the voice of reason. And Scripture teaches that church-discipline is an essential DNA of any biblical church.