Pastorally Speaking: Micah Fries on “Disciplined Tragedy”

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[Editor’s Note: This blogpost continues the “Pastorally Speaking” series. Micah Fries is Pastor at Frederick Boulevard and he writes about the important but neglected aspect of pastoral ministry: church discipline.]

Church discipline is among the most painful, and ignored, topics in the evangelical church today. Unfortunately this has led to creeping, massive sin problems that have increasingly found a comfortable home in the church – the church which by most other indices is bible believing and gospel preaching. Thankfully the issue appears to be making a bit of a comeback in some circles, specifically Southern Baptist ones, in recent years. Thanks, in no small part, to the resolution approved at the 2008 SBC annual meeting , ‘On Regenerate Church Membership and Church Membership Restoration’ this issue has gained prominence and validity in the eyes of many SBC churches. Southern Baptists who are committed to the practical application of God’s word owe an enormous debt of gratitude to men like Dr. Tom Ascol and Dr. Malcolm Yarnell for their tireless work in this effort. Work that has again reminded us of the importance of believing and practicing all scripture. Work that does not allow us to simply disregard passages like Matthew 18:7-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and so many more. All of this has served to stir hearts in respect to this issue and nowhere is it more prominent than in the conversations of pastors, denominational leaders and seminary students. Buzzing in hallways and sanctuaries from one pastor to another, this issue continues to build steam and for that I am grateful. Students and pastors are increasingly excited about fulfilling their biblical mandate in this regard, and for that I am also thankful. However, having served as a pastor at two churches that are trying to practice this biblical exercise, I am concerned with the bravado that seems to accompany its application.

Allow me to say this clearly. I hate the practice of church discipline. I take no joy in its practice, and would love to see it go away for good. There is no more heartbreaking exercise in the fulfillment of my pastoral duties than that of confronting the existence of persistent, and unrepentant sin, particularly in people whom I have grown to love. It is emotionally draining for a number of reasons, none more tragic than the issue of the one who claims to be a believer and yet gives consistent allegiance to the power of sin by failing to confess and repent. It is the ultimate gospel contradiction; claiming to be part of the spotless bride of Jesus while prostituting oneself with Satan. Confronting it, however, is not something to take joy and/or pride in (Galatians 6:1-2), which is something that I see all too often in those who like to frequently discuss it. Confrontation over sin is rarely ever anything but painful and humiliating. It almost always leads to strained relationships and severed trust, and that is true whether the one engaged in sin repents or not.

Church discipline is never an issue which we can approach flippantly, or with excitement. It reflects the tragic and fallen nature of humanity, specifically those who have claimed the blood of Jesus. It is necessary because of the persistent and abiding nature of sin and it always leads to a black mark on the bridal gown of Christ’s church. While we plead and hope for repentance and restoration, in my experience that is not often the end result. And yet all of that, and my own discomfort with it, must not keep us from its practice.

Some might wonder if all of these factors would lead me to be less committed to the practice of biblical church discipline. I will be honest, in light of the tragedy and pain associated with it, I would love to give up on it. However, I cannot. I love Jesus and his church far too much to forfeit the vitally important, and biblical I might add, commitment to the purity of Christ’s bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). At the same time, I would not be truthful if I did not say that my heart is increasingly burdened as we practice it at Frederick Boulevard. So, no, we are not giving up on it at our church. We are as committed to it as we have ever been, probably more so. We are, however, committed to practicing it through the tears in our eyes and grief in our hearts. I hope the same will be true for you.

I am thankful when I hear the increased commitment to church discipline because it reflects a people who embrace the biblical mandate, who respect the covenantal relationship of the church and her members and who care more about the spiritual condition of the ones they are called to serve than they do their own comfort or even superficial, spiritually dry church growth. However, I equally despise the casual manner in which I often hear people discuss church discipline. The cavalier attitude among many is tragic and reflects either a lack of experience or a calloused heart, both of which give away a needed heart correction and growth in maturity.

In closing, let me plead with you to go ahead and embrace your commitment to church discipline. However, please leave the bravado and excitement behind. Let us endeavor together to be a people that pursues the purity of Christ’s bride, but let us do so with humble, heavy hearts as we hurt with hurting people, and lovingly correct the sinful ones. I cannot imagine that Jesus would expect any less.

Augustine for the 21st Century (5): What Can We Learn from Augustine as a Pastor-Theologian?

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Pastor Augustine was not a perfect man, but he embodied certain virtues, disciplines, and convictions that we would do well to emulate. Sixteen hundred years after he lived and wrote he continues to teach.

Summary of Augustine’s Life. Augustine was born in Hippo (modern-day Algeria) in AD 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father. At age 18 he discovered Cicero’s writings and started his quest as a philosopher. At first, he was drawn to Manichaeanism, a dualistic philosophy which taught that the universe is a battleground between equal and opposing forces of good and evil. Next, he became a skeptic and later a Plotinian neo-Platonist. At age 32, he converted to the Christian faith. From this time onward, he was a tireless proponent of the gospel, laboring as a pastor, theologian, apologist, and philosopher. For the purposes of this blogpost, I will focus on what we can learn from three aspects of Augustine’s life-Augustine as public theologian, pastoral theologian, and pretty smart J theologian.”

Augustine as public theologian. Recently, I read Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, which provides a good jumping off point for our discussion of Augustine as a public intellectual. In the book, Said argues that intellectuals are essentially outliers and disturbers of the status quo who call into question existing paradigms even at the risk of ostracism and exile. “The intellectual,” writes Said, “is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted….” The public intellectual, however, is never to use divine revelation. “In the secular world….the intellectual has only secular means to work with; revelation and inspiration, while perfectly feasible as modes for understanding in private life, are disasters and even barbaric when put to use by theoretically minded men and women.

Said’s argument raises a perennial question for public theologians (a better term, perhaps, than “Christian intellectuals”). Should we speak with the thick discourse of Christian particularity, relying on Scripture to make our arguments, at the risk of being dismissed or misunderstood? Or do we speak the thin discourse of translation, using language that is less specifically Christian, at the risk of losing some of the distinctiveness of the particular point we are trying to make? It is here that Augustine tutors us in being public theologians. On my interpretation of his writings, he adapted his strategy depending on where, to whom, and on what he was discoursing. On the one hand, he was not averse to thin discourse as he made powerful, refined, and nuanced philosophical arguments. It is for this reason that Anthony Kenny calls him the “last flowering of classical philosophy.” On the other hand, in City of God and other writings he employed powerfully thick discourse as he spoke directly from the Scriptures. For the public theologian, the thickness of our discourse is a matter of discernment.

Augustine as pastoral theologian. Augustine was consecrated Bishop of Hippo at age 41. He had been appointed professor of rhetoric in Milan at age 30 but upon becoming a pastor he never looked back. He wrote a total of 93 books, as well as numerous letters and sermons totaling more than 5 million words. One of the great distinctives of his books, letters and sermons is their pastoral nature. In his later years, his works were almost exclusively biblical exegesis, theological argumentation, and apologetics. Even his most academic treatises were written for the church, in the sense that they were written for God’s glory and for the health of his people. Like Calvin, Pascal, Lewis, and others after him, he had the unique ability to write top-tier theology in a style that evokes passion and mediates his love for Christ and the church.

Augustine as pretty smart theologian. I am amazed every time I sit back and think that the author of The City of God and The Confessions was a pastor. He was arguably the most erudite scholar in the Roman empire and he was a parson! Now, please allow me to make myself clear: Intellectual prowess and scholarly erudition are not qualifications for being a pastor and theologian. Theology is at heart a spiritual task. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). Theology is done primarily for the glory of God and the good of his church. That is why the qualifications for teachers (1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9) are primarily spiritual, not intellectual. Paul does mention the ability to teach (which implies analytical and communicative ability) but most of the qualifications he gives are ethical in nature. In order to be a good theologian, one must be godly. In order to see clearly, one must walk closely. That is why there are many simple believers who know God better than many learned theologians. Theology and godly living enforce one another.

With that said, however, the Creator chose to make us in his image and likeness, with part of that likeness being our rational and creative capacities. Every one of us who bear God’s image have the unique and special responsibility to exercise our capacities to the maximum for God’s glory. Because Augustine had exercised his God-given capacities to their utmost, he was a more adaptable tool in the hands of the Lord. He was able to proclaim and defend the gospel inside the four walls of his church and outside in the public square. He was able to influence both the man on the street and the scholarly elite. He was in a position to speak not only about the gospel in relation to his parishioner’s devotional lives, but also about the gospel’s implications for the arts and sciences. The lesson to be learned: May we exercise our capacities to the utmost for the glory of God and the good of the church and the world.