Bearing One Another’s Burdens: Towards Restorative Covenant Communities

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“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas. 5:16). These general principles are familiar to most. But although they are rightly applied to a variety of situations, we tend to overlook the particular application that Paul and James had in mind: restoring one another from sin in the local church. This is a peculiar oversight for Christians who profess a high commitment to holiness of heart and life. In this article, I will suggest several reasons why and how the church should practice restoration, including vital foundations for its implementation in the local church.

Why Should the Church Practice Restoration?

James 5:16 begins, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” The prayer of a righteous person has great power to strengthen a brother who has sinned. Galatians 6:1 likewise commands, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” There is a crushing burden of shame, fear, and frustration that is born by a brother who is “caught” in sin—whether this means that he is caught (discovered) in the act of secret sin or that he is caught (entrapped) in a besetting sin which is unlikely to be conquered alone. There are countless brothers and sisters who live with this burden, and the church’s preaching has too often pushed them into the shadows, implying (if not explicitly stating) that they are not fully welcome until they sort out their issues.

Christian love, however, looks at a struggling brother and says, “We are members one of another (Eph. 4:25). Your problem is no longer yours to bear alone. It’s our problem too. We’re here for you, we have a plan to help, and we will see it through.” Love covenants with the other, and covenant love is costly. If we do not feel the weight of another person’s burden, we are probably not helping to bear it. In a community shaped by the radical, humble, foot-washing love of Jesus, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26)—both because the members are spiritually united as one body and because they are relationally connected as one family. Fulfilling the law of Christ means wholeheartedly embracing the messy business of confronting and cooperatively conquering all manner of sin in the church. It does not trivialize sin; it normalizes the cooperative conquering of sin in obedience to Jesus and the apostles. Humble restoration is essential for the health, holiness, and happiness of the entire body which grows “when each part is working properly” (Eph. 4:16).

Love covenants with the other, and covenant love is costly. If we do not feel the weight of another person’s burden, we are probably not helping to bear it.

Every Christian should feel confident that he belongs to the kind of loving, holiness-minded community that is described above. It is only in such a community that James 5:16 is likely to be obeyed. In my personal experience and that of other disciples and ministers with whom I have conversed, most are deeply afraid to confess sin. They do not confidently expect to be met with “a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1) or with a clear path to healing. In fact, they do not know what to expect at all. In most cases, they have only heard about so-called “restorations” gone awry, so they fear being rejected or marginalized.

Corrective discipline will always be “painful rather than pleasant” for the moment (Heb. 12:11), but few will embrace it unless the church has demonstrated a path that leads to the ultimate good of all parties involved: deepened fellowship and measurable progress in Christlike maturity. There are without doubt sincere but struggling believers who want the church’s help—even at the cost of their pride—and would come forward if only they knew what to expect. I have been in this position myself, and I am grateful to have been met with an exceedingly gracious response. But we cannot expect widespread progress in communal holiness until we develop a sustainable plan for obeying the scriptural command to restore one another from sin. This leads us to the how of restoration.

The “How” of Restoration: Holistic Church Discipleship

A better practice of restoration begins with a holistic vision of church discipleship. All discipleship is restorative, intended to restore us into the image of God (Col. 3:10; Rom. 12:2). When the church restores believers from specific acts of sin, it is one part of the church’s broader purpose of providing discipline for God’s family. When I use the phrase “church discipline,” I encourage people to think “accountable discipleship.” The words discipl-eship and discipl-ine are related. In fact, discipleship could be defined as the disciplined following of Jesus in the loving community of his followers.

Church discipline is best understood, then, as the church’s entire role in the discipleship of a church member. Parental discipline does not merely refer to spanking one’s child, so it is distressing to think that church discipline has been understood primarily as a matter of punishment. Most church discipline involves coming alongside a fellow believer like a loving parent, guiding him through life, keeping him from harm, pressing him on to maturity, and restoring him if he falls—using punitive measures only when necessary. Hebrews 12 ought to renew our minds concerning the nature of God’s discipline and, by extension, God’s discipline of his children through his church: “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” Church discipline is sometimes unpleasant, but it is fundamentally good news. It means that I belong; I am loved; I am not alone in my fight against sin; I am accountable; and so on.

Most church discipline involves coming alongside a fellow believer like a loving parent, guiding him through life, keeping him from harm, pressing him on to maturity, and restoring him if he falls—using punitive measures only when necessary.

Nearly every Protestant theologian of the past has identified church discipline as one of three marks of the true church (along with the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments). Church discipline could be divided into two general categories: (1) formative discipline and (2) corrective discipline. These categories are helpful but imperfect (e.g., the regular preaching of the word, the most common type of formative discipline, involves correction according to 2 Timothy 3:16). Since both are restorative, they could also be called formative-restorative and corrective-restorative discipline.

(1) Formative-restorative discipline includes any measure the church takes to form, shape, or influence its members towards Christlike maturity, the goal of discipleship (Col. 1:28). Spiritual formation helps to keep believers from sin by guiding them towards stability (Eph. 4:14), establishing them in holiness (1 Thess. 3:13), and keeping them alert to spiritual drift (Heb. 2:1). Informal formative discipline is the responsibility of every church member and includes all the ways that we instruct, admonish, exhort, and encourage one another through our frequent interactions as a body (Rom. 14:13; 15:14; Col. 3:16; Heb. 3:13; 10:25; Eph. 4:15). Formal formative discipline includes measures that tend to be structured and systematic, such as the regular preaching and teaching of the word (2 Tim. 4:2; 3:16–17). The goal of formative discipline is to help the church avoid sin so that restorative-corrective measures are unnecessary.

(2) Corrective-restorative discipline only occurs if a believer sins. Informal corrective discipline may include, for example, an older man agreeing to pray for and keep accountable a younger man who has confessed to him that he recently lost his temper during a disagreement with his wife (Jas. 5:16). Formal corrective discipline is only necessary when the sin becomes public or is difficult to address in an informal setting. Corrective-restorative discipline is what is primarily meant by “restoration” in this article (Gal. 6:1).

Church discipline is sometimes unpleasant, but it is fundamentally good news. It means that I belong; I am loved; I am not alone in my fight against sin; I am accountable.

Before proceeding with how to practice this kind of restoration, the vital point to understand is that our practice of corrective discipline is unlikely to rise above the health of our whole program of church discipleship. Healthy discipline is organic, growing out of loving relationships, as when a father discusses various concerns in his child’s life—encouraging, instructing, and warning as necessary (informal formative discipline). To push the parent-child analogy further, expectations are defined and conversations are facilitated through structured times of family devotions and worship (formal formative discipline). If a child resists or disobeys his father’s instruction, the child must be corrected with a response proportionate to the child’s attitude and the seriousness of his action (informal corrective discipline). If the child’s rebellion has entangled him in addiction or harmed the whole family, a family meeting may need to be called and a plan developed for restoration (formal corrective discipline). In the dreadful situation where an older child repeatedly rejects all attempts at restoration, he may need to be put out of the home as a last resort with the hope that this will bring him to his senses and lead to reconciliation (excommunication).

The “How” of Restoration: The Necessity of Membership

While being a gospel-saturated, Christ-following community that humbly embraces and publicly teaches on God’s plan for restoration is the most important step towards its practice, implementation raises a flurry of practical questions and challenges. Thankfully, the New Testament provides ample guidance. Two passages of foundational importance are Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. In Matthew 18, Jesus provides four clear steps for addressing sin, with the last resort being excommunication for persistently unrepentant sinners. Ideally, everyone whom the church tries to restore will be humble and cooperative, but the history of the church has shown that this is not always the case. In 1 Corinthians 5, we have a concrete example of excommunication. While it may seem counterintuitive, it is helpful to begin here. Before we confront sin, we must be prepared to follow through. The seriousness of excommunication requires certain formal structures which prove helpful, if not essential, for the previous steps of church discipline in Matthew 18.

Achieving clarity on excommunication can help to strengthen our entire process of restoration.

Achieving clarity on excommunication can help to strengthen our entire process of restoration. Paul gives clear instructions on how to handle an unrepentant man who is guilty of gross sexual immorality: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you. …deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. … Cleanse out the old leaven. …  I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people … ‘Purge the evil person from among you’” (1 Cor. 5:1–13). The most basic question is this: Who is subject to excommunication? Is it someone who attends our services for two weeks and claims to be a Christian but is living in adultery? In 1 Corinthians 5, it is clear that Paul intends for us to draw a clear line around those who are “inside the church” (1 Cor. 5:12) to distinguish them from “outsiders.”

To excommunicate someone from the church or to restore someone within the church, we must know who actually belongs to the local congregation. Throughout church history, this has been the purpose of church membership. I am not referring to what we now generally think of as church membership, which could be called conference membership or denominational membership. Rather, I am thinking of what could be called local membership. Conference membership sets believers apart from other believers to preserve denominational distinctives (e.g., dress standards). Local membership sets believers (insiders) apart from unbelievers (outsiders) for the purpose of accountable discipleship (church discipline). This kind of membership is, in my opinion, biblical and mandatory in the sense that it is a necessary implication from other passages and the practice of the church throughout the ages. Local membership is simply a formal recognition of a relationship that is initiated between the church and a disciple at baptism. Through baptism, the church publically affirms a person’s salvation and agrees to teach—and hold him accountable for—the plain teachings of Jesus. If the church publicly affirms a person’s salvation, it must have a way to withdraw this affirmation to preserve its holiness and witness. Local membership simply says, “You now belong to this church, and we will treat you like a member of Christ’s body, with all the privileges and responsibilities that entails.”

Church membership for all baptized believers is biblical and mandatory in the sense that it is a necessary implication of Scripture and the practice of the church throughout the ages.

When a believer embraces membership in a local church, he enters into a serious commitment to be restored and to help restore others. This is the only context in which consistent discipline and restoration can occur. A person must be formally recognized by the church as a “brother” (Mt. 18:5) and taught what this means before he can be confronted as such. The first step towards better restoration is a clearly defined community that is covenanted in love with one another and has embraced the biblical responsibilities that go with this commitment. Membership in a church that is committed to restoration for all its members should be introduced to every new believer as fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. The church is, after all, a restorative covenant community.

For a suggested plan of restoration, see What if a Believer Sins? Restoration and the Church’s Role in Salvation by David Fry.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.