“What do we do about the presence of both the regenerate and unregenerate in the local church?” – Part 2: Preaching and Correction
In Part 1, we gave some definition to what we mean by “regenerate” and “unregenerate” and pointed out some differences. Now we want to answer a couple practical questions that were also asked, both of which assume that both regenerate and unregenerate are both present in the “visible” church. (The “visible” church is only known, from our human perspective, by their profession of faith in Christ and resultant fruit (see Part 1 re distinguishing mark of the “regenerate”) and the “invisible” church, which is the true definition of the church, is all those who are known only to God (John 6:37-39; 6:44; 6:65; 17:6; 2 Timothy 2:19; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 20:15; 21:27).
(1) How should a church direct its approach to teaching?
Note: We’re confining “teaching” here to the spirit of the question, which was directed to corporate worship settings and not general or public preaching of the gospel to “the nations” (which is a generic Bible way of saying, not-yet-believers, the unregenerate, etc.)
So, we need to start with some theology. The church, which is…
- born from above (Genesis 12:2; Deuteronomy 7:6; Exodus 24:8; 19:5; Psalm 95:7; Matthew 16:18; John 3:3-5; 10:14-16; Acts 2:1-4; 2:16-18; 2:47; 10:44-48; 20:28; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 12:13; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Galatians 3:29; Ephesians 2:19; 4:4-6; 5:25-27; Colossians 1:12; Hebrews 13:12; 1 Peter 2:9, and on and on and on…)
- through the faithful preaching of the gospel, (i.e., the church itself was birthed through God’s Word, spoken, written, lived, cf., in addition to the Scripture listed above, Matthew 16:18; Mark 1:38; Luke 4:43; John 10:16; Ephesians 2:17, 19-20),
- is entrusted to direct its teaching, from God’s Word (Acts 8:4; 15:35; Romans 10:14-15; 1 Corinthians 1:17-18),
- to build God’s people, i.e., the regenerate (1 Corinthians 2:13; Ephesians 2:21-22; 4:11-16; 1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 13:9).
Think again about what we’ve just established because it’s a really profound truth. … If the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) birthed the church by His Word (lived, spoken, written, etc.), then our faithfulness to that same process (Matthew 10:7; 28:19-20; Mark 3:14; 16:15; Luke 9:1-2; 1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2) is the difference between building an actual gospel-centered and God-glorifying church (John 16:13; 17:6-17; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:22-25) and not merely a human-centered social club.
Now, in the process of faithful proclamation of the gospel, if the unregenerate are there, (and we hope they are because we faithfully “Tell the story” of God’s work in our lives, Habit #7), then great! We want them to hear Biblical teaching and be confronted with the gospel, so we should be aware of them and careful to help them to understand Christian faith. Likewise, whether regenerate or unregenerate, we should take care in our preaching to direct the message to different stages of life and learning, accounting for those with little knowledge of Scripture, instructing new or young believers, steering clear of insider jargon or Christianese that may not be helpful. But these concerns do not mean we must tailor everything through the filter of unregenerate ears in our teaching and preaching, (nor in our choosing of songs), for the overwhelming precedent in the Scriptures is that the public worship gathering is primarily about building up of believers.
(2) How should a church carry out discipline and correction?
This question assumes, as above, the presence of both the regenerate and unregenerate. How we carry out discipline and correction in the local church gets muddy and difficult because (a) we are clearly meant to carry out discipline and correction within the church (1 Corinthians 5:12, e.g., in addition to the Scriptures cited below and the fact that half of Paul’s epistles are filled with written correction!), yet (b) there are lots of fake Christians, (c) most believers today outright deny that the local church has any authority in their lives, and (d) only God ultimately knows the condition of someone’s heart. So, there are many factors to hold in tension.
Nonetheless, the Scriptures are clear that church membership matters (which we will have to prove later, but for now, think through the implications of Acts 2:41, 2:47; 4:4, 4:32; 5:12; 6:3; Romans 12:5; Ephesians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 10:16-17; 12:12-27; Hebrews 13:17) and that the local church has a responsibility to maintain focus on edifying believers, protect the church from doctrinal error, and restore people to right relationship with God. The best example of this comes from Matthew 18:15-20, where Jesus gives a basic pattern for us to follow.
- It starts by the offended party going to the offender, face-to-face, individually, and privately. Jesus said, in verse 15, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” Jesus is just applying a basic how-to-get-along-with-people principle to relationships with believers, and it is a much corrective to so much unnecessary drama in our lives. As a Pastor, I regularly receive complaints from church folks about someone who has offended them. In those moments, it’s important for us to say, as believers called to live with relational integrity with one another, (after first being a good listener,) “Have you talked with that person yet? Because that’s where this needs to start.” Not only does this cut down on a lot of unnecessary drama, it forces the offended party to reconsider whether it’s really worth addressing with the offender, like it says in Proverbs 19:11, Good sense makes on slow to anger, and it is to his glory to overlook an offense. Not everything is worthy of taking to the person. If it is, take it to them first, face-to-face, individually, and privately.
- If the offender acknowledges wrongdoing and repents, great! Like Jesus says in verse 15, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” One great thing about following Jesus’ advice here in Matthew 18 is that the offended often finds the offender has a good, or even wonderfully Godly and grace-filled, explanation, and that there was little need for the consternation. I think it’s a good idea to finish off with a handshake or hug, thanking the person for their softhearted response and for listening to you. This kind of grace, from you, is a sign of real reconciliation that will help the other person heal. Modeling this extending of grace to one another is necessary for any church or relationship to flourish.
- If the offender does not acknowledge wrongdoing and repent, “if he does not listen” (verse 16), the next step is to take along one or two other believers, “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses”. This not only gives the offender a second chance to repent, but also helps establish the facts of the matter in a couple ways. Not only does it provide a third party to help navigate the matter, but it also provides witnesses to how this reconciliation is actually playing out. One additional thought… Reconciliation is a Bible word for righting the wrongs of a relationship and it can apply to both vertical relationships, between God and humanity, and horizontal relationships, between one another. The goal here is obviously both of these, but it is also helpful to recognize that the repentance being sought from the offender is repentance toward God, a turning from sin and toward holiness. The reconciliation being sought is not merely between one another but, also, and ultimately, between the offender and God. You see, sin is primarily against God, and secondarily against us. (By the way, this is a helpful way to think about others’ sin against us, namely that we needn’t take remotely as much offense as we think, as the sin problem is primarily a problem between humanity and God, who doesn’t deserve to be sinned against. We act as if we deserve to live in a world free from suffering and pain, but the Bible is clear that is not the case. But all that’s for another day.) This step is about giving the offender a second chance, establishing the evidence with witnesses, and making clear to all involved what restoration needs to look like. At this point, a letter from the Elders, to those involved, outlining the church’s understanding of what has transpired and what would be involved in full restoration, is often a good way to proceed. One helpful thing about this step is that bringing in others can sometimes help clarify, for the offended, that the facts of the matter may not warrant being offended.
- If this doesn’t work, then “tell it to the church” (verse 17). This gives a third chance for the offender to repent and helps provide the group accountability necessary to help bring full restoration and fellowship. At this point, it is clear the offender is being more than stubborn and may be an unregenerate fake at risk of eternal condemnation before God.
- And, finally, if there is no response, (and the amount of time and conditions given for a repentant response should be wisely managed), the offender is to be treated as an unbeliever.
A few closing summary thoughts regarding such correction:
- The faithful preaching of God’s Word and meaningful participation in the body of Christ are forms of preemptive discipline.
- Not every sin or offense warrants taking it to or beyond step one.
- The purpose is both restoration of offender to God, for the sake of their soul and restoration of the offender to those offended, for the sake of helping us all live as if grace and relational healing are real.
- One of the key factors here is that membership matters and church leaders are often needed to help direct this process.
- While we can’t manage this process exactly nor perfectly, and having both regenerate and unregenerate in the same “visible” church makes things complicated, we are called to correct, as a process of holding people accountable to what actually happens when we say yes to following Jesus, and can do so in prayer, wisely, under the authority of Godly leaders, and in ways that actually meaningfully hold people accountable to God’s purposes. I know because I’ve seen it work!