As the pastor of a small congregation, I was initially surprised by the high number, at least to my mind, of church discipline cases I faced over the years. In rather short order, my session and I faced quite a few difficult issues. Some were common, such as a husband leaving his wife, one member who struggled with sexual addiction for many years, or the young couple who was dating and living together. But other situations didn’t seem quite common. I had to visit one member in prison on multiple occasions. I dealt with spousal abuse, though it wasn’t always clear who was being abused, the wife or the husband. In another circumstance, all I can say is that the situation seemed like it was more appropriate for the Jerry Springer show rather than my little church.
As I ruminated over these various pastoral counseling situations I looked around at the churches in my area and wondered how frequently, or infrequently, they dealt with such issues. I scratched my head and asked myself, “Is my church any more sinful than the other churches down the street?” As I compared my own situation against the Scriptures, I began to realize in a first-hand way that Christians are sinners—just because they’re in the church doesn’t mean that they stop sinning. Perhaps it’s the fact that people get dressed up for church that sends the message to the world that “everything’s ok . . . nothing to see here . . . move along.” But look, for example, at the Corinthian church—that is one congregation that I would have turned down the call had the session extended it to me. What a mess. Though they were sanctified in Christ (1 Cor 1.2) they were guilty of significant sexual sin (1 Cor 5) and boasting about it, rife with divisions (1 Cor 1), had unruly people in worship (1 Cor 14, 11), and were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11)!
But after reflecting upon the Corinthian congregation I was struck by two things. First, as obvious as it is, Christians are sinners. One of my colleagues here at the seminary likes to remind us, “We not only believe in total depravity, we practice it too!” In other words, it should not surprise us to find sin, even gross sin, in the church. It should sadden and grieve us, but not surprise us. Second, though Paul was the one who had to bring correction, reproof, and discipline, he was always keenly aware that his own standing was not as a result of his own moral superiority but rather the grace of God. Paul was the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1.15).
As a pastor you must constantly pray for humility—the ability to remember that you are where you are in life by God’s grace. You will regularly encounter the opportunity to think that you are better than the people around you because chances are you will deal with some pretty awful sin. Gross sin, sadly, will not be in short supply. But as a pastor, you must remember that you minister to a congregation of sinners.
Pray, therefore, on behalf of pastors. Pray that Christ would make the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and if necessary, the use of discipline effective. And in the end, you can rejoice with the apostle Paul that even your congregation, as sin-laden as they might be, is nonetheless sanctified in Christ Jesus.