by Dr. Stan Hudson, Director of Creation Ministries at the North Pacific Union Conference
Now that I have your attention… Did you know that God so loved a spear-using pastor that He signed him up and his kids up and their kids up to lifelong ministry for His church? If I’m wrong, please tell me!
The story is based on Numbers 25. You remember how the Israelites “began to commit whoredom” with the Moabite women, joining themselves to Baalpeor? This was just after Balaam’s failed attempt at cursing Israel for Balak, king of Moab. Balaam then thought to induce the Israelites to sexual sin, and he found that successful. This sexual sin included the worship of the god of Moab, Baalpeor. And it kindled God’s anger. He sent a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites.
As Israel was weeping about this at the entrance of the sanctuary, an Israelite leader took a woman of Midian (working for Moab) into his tent in front of everyone. It was one of those “in Your face, God!” moments in Scripture that never ends well. This was done in front of Israel’s pastoral leadership, too, including Aaron’s son Phinehas. This rebellious act so enraged Phinehas that he quickly took a spear and went into their tent, spearing both to death.
Please note God’s reaction at this point. He stopped the plague! Apparently, God was able to step in again and stop removing His protective presence, which could keep them from experiencing the natural result of their sin (the plague). Such aggressive action was what was needed to limit the spread of sin in Israel. And God said that He wanted Phinehas and his posterity to be His pastors! “Wherefore say, ‘Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God,…’” Numbers 25:12,13. A covenant of peace!
This story reminds me of the classic wishful teenager who went to a ballpark one day and hit a mile long home run, only to discover that there was a major league scout in the audience. “Sign that kid up!” And his career was set.
So, do any of you remember, from Andrews Seminary training, how to spear people? God certainly praised Phinehas for knowing how.
But the subject of this story that I’m wanting to think out loud about is the touchy subject of…church discipline. Remember when that used to happen? Invariably someone had a bad story where it led to a member leaving the church or worse…like, leaving God altogether. I’m sure heaven has recorded, sadly, true stories along those lines. And some that were exaggerated.
But is there NO time when it should be done. I know, I know…there is plenty of inconsistency in the church in these matters. Even different cultures look at sin differently. But I would argue the only time we can achieve total consistency is when no one ever disciplines in the first place. But thinking of I Corinthians 5, even the New Testament Church took part in disciplining members at times.
In my 38 years of pastoring, I only sought a major discipline, like disfellowshipping someone, on two occasions. Only one was successful, as church members hesitate to vote that way, since “we are all sinners and who are we to judge?” Both of my stories involved sexual affairs, both blowing up beautiful families with small children. I will never forget the looks in the eyes of two girls, who once were springy, happy little things. After their father had left them for another woman and family, they had no spark left. They looked comparatively like zombies. But my church wouldn’t disfellowship that dad. We were all sinners, you know. And no one had any spears.
So, how should we approach this controversial subject? A couple of things come to mind. First and foremost above all; if your motivation isn’t love, then you are spiritually disqualified to proceed! Here’s a real case for “hate the sin, love the sinner.” People forget that the famous “second commandment” of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from Leviticus 19:18, which follows verse 17’s “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.” That is, IF you love your neighbor and they have a problem of sin, do not overlook his sin problem. Rebuke him if you care for him! And discipline them if it’s called for. The Church Manual lists possible situations where it’s appropriate.
My “successful” disfellowshipping, if you can call it that, was when I was more seasoned and knew better how to proceed. The adulterer in question (can I call them that nowadays?) was more than unrepentant, feeling God had led them to this and that it was appropriate to have two spouses (like in Bible times). And they said that their two children “would be fine.” Such self-centeredness is a very ugly thing to see in person. May God deliver each of us from self-deception like that!
So, I told them that it would be covered in a business meeting. Did they want to “fight it” or would they rather just submit their name to be removed? With great anger they decided to submit their name. Meanwhile I had met with the elders, who all knew about it (it was very publicly known). They needed to be supportive for this to get done. When I presented it to the business meeting, it was no surprise. But the amount of tender concern was very nice. Some of it wandered into a “let’s vote no to show them we care” misunderstanding of love. To let irresponsible behavior to that level go without consequences is not love, according to Leviticus.
There is also the sense of justice here. If we care about the widows/widowers and their children, shouldn’t we respond to such painful attacks on them? Do Christian Adventists remain as faithful members after inflicting such pain? Those two precious girls I mentioned at the start? I was able to see them years later. And one of them particularly looked spiritless, ghostly. They had the life knocked out of them. It still bothers me.