Below is an article written for Intrepid Lutherans by a brother pastor, calling our pastors to faithfulness in the area of church discipline. We thank Rev. Strand for his contribution in favor of sound confessional Lutheran doctrine and practice.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in our Advent King,
The editors of Intrepid Lutherans have asked me to contribute an article to their website. My article focuses on the phrase in the pastor's call form that reads, “(Our congregation) solemnly charges you... to admonish indifferent and erring members of our congregation (2 Timothy 4:2).” 2 Timothy 4:2 reads, “Correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction.” In this article, I hope to encourage our pastors to carry out this difficult part of their call.
A pastor often badly neglects this part of his call. We hear WELS members say things like, “We have 500 members... on the books.” Most congregations have members living together outside of marriage, members well known around town for their drunkenness, members who are attending heterodox churches, etc. When a fellow Christian falls into such sins, our Lord Jesus tells us, “Go and show him his fault,” (Matthew 18:15 NIV). When a pastor knows his members have fallen into such sins, the Lord says to him, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked person, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved” (Ezekiel 33:7-9 NIV). When congregations neglect church discipline, they sin. When pastors fail to admonish indifferent and erring members of the congregation, they sin.
This part of a pastor's call is difficult and sometimes it is scary. We are afraid of what the sinner will say; we are afraid we won't know what to say; we are afraid the congregation will turn against us for doing this work. And so, the first person in the congregation to call out, “Lord, have mercy!” is the pastor. Brothers, it is right for you to confess these sins. It is right for you to confess, “Merciful Father in heaven, as I read my call form, I see what a wretched man I am. I neglect and fail in every area of my call. I have also neglected my straying and erring sheep. I have not gone to them to correct, rebuke and encourage them as I should. For this, I deserve your punishment, both now and in eternity. But trusting in my Lord Jesus Christ, I pray: Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner!”
But then it is also right for you to remember Jesus' gracious words, “Son, take heart! Your sins are forgiven.” When you were born, Jesus already knew every sin you would ever commit, including your failure to shepherd your straying sheep, but in the waters of Holy Baptism, He washed you clean and took you as His own anyway. In His Holy Supper, Jesus gladly welcomes a sinner like you and eats with you, giving you forgiveness, life and salvation in His Body and Blood. When you see your shortcomings as a pastor, call a fellow pastor and confess them, then trust that man's words of absolution as if Jesus himself were speaking them to you: “Your sins are truly forgiven and eternal life is yours.” And then listen to his admonition and encouragement, “Now go and sin no more.” Our Justification and Sanctification are rooted in and flow from one and the same place: the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
And now, as God's new creatures, we pastors want to carry out the calls He has given us: faithfully until death. But what about that toughest and scariest part of our call: “to admonish indifferent and erring members?” As with many parts of the ministry, God gives us principles to follow rather than step-by-step instructions. Each pastor is different and each situation is different. I don't claim to be an expert at anything, but with God's help and with trembling hands (though they tremble less the more I do the work), I have worked hard at this part of my call during my ministry. Here are some things I've learned from Scripture, experience and other brothers along the way:
- Pray continually (1 Thess 5:17). Pray, pray, pray for your members who are falling into sin. A wise pastor told me to pray through the membership directory once a week. I've followed that man's advice and that has allowed me to pray for indifferent and erring members once a week. Also, pray before, during and after calling/ visiting those members. God will not put off your prayer.
- Don't write letters. Letters are an easy way to do this work, but they are not in keeping with Jesus' command, “Go and show him his fault.” Letters can be taken the wrong way and they don't give people a chance to respond. I try two phone calls to set up a visit and then I go and knock on the door. If none of that works, I leave a letter taped to the door in an envelope, so they know I came. I only write letters (or try by Facebook, etc.) if the individual leaves me no other option.
- Don't try to do all the work at once. A wise pastor told me, “When you get to a new congregation, start with the people who have been away from communion the longest and work your way down.” I came to my current church in summer 2009. The church had 58 confirmed members who had not received Holy Communion in at least four years. Fifteen months later, I have made at least two attempts by myself with all of these and have now taken an elder with me to knock on each of their doors. Do the work little by little.
- Don't have a script. These calls/ visits seldom go like you think they will. Ask questions, “What is keeping you from church? What can I do?” Hear them out. According to God's Word in Ezekiel above, the main thing you must do is warn them about their sin. Tell them that they are sinning against this or that commandment and that this sin is ruining their (and their children's) faith. Respond to their arguments with Scripture in a humble, but confident way.
- Keep the congregation posted. In sermons, newsletter articles, meetings, etc., tell the people that you and your elders are working hard to carry out the duties God has given you. Ask them to pray for you.
- Rejoice in the one who repents. Of those 58 I mentioned above, only one has shown fruits of repentance by coming to receive communion since my visit. I have six members who are attending heterodox churches. I've warned all six of the danger and this morning, one of them is on the answering machine asking to talk to me.
- Give all glory to God for the success of the Gospel. And thank Him for entrusting that Gospel to a jar of clay like you. To paraphrase Charles P. Krauth: We are poor sinners, so we don't claim that we cannot fail; we only claim that we will not fail, because the Ascended Lord Jesus is with us always to hear our prayer, give us strength and bless the preaching of His Word until He comes again.
God bless your efforts with your straying and erring sheep.
In Jesus' name,
Pastor Jim Strand