Recently in the Baptist Press (Oct. 27, 2006), Gregory Wills compared the seeming paucity of church discipline in his denomination to the "canary in the coal mine." By this reference he was intending to indicate that the lack of discipline of erring Baptists is a sign of its virtual death as a church.
Certainly those of us in the LCMS would agree with Mr. Wills that there is a corresponding paucity of churchly discipline within our own ranks as well. As a parish pastor living and working on the rough edge of ministry, I would freely admit to the frustration of unaddressed and ignored sin within the parish. It is no mystery that many who come to the Table on the Lord's Day may be in true danger of not having adequately examined themselves and may thus be eating and drinking to their own judgment. I believe that while we have been strong in defending the fellowship of the altar as to doctrinal unity, the integrity of Christian practice is an area truly lacking in pastoral attention. And...I count myself truly guilty on the last account.
But, can we say that the lack of such discipline is the "canary in the coal mine" for the church? That where it is lacking, or heaven forbid is absent altogether, the church must cease to exist as the church? I think that on this count we find a noticeable difference between the Reformed and Lutheran way of viewing the church. The "marks" of the church, as Lutherans will well attest, is the Gospel proclaimed and the sacraments faithfully administered. Where these are absent there can be no church. But what of church discipline? Lutherans encourage this discipline and value it highly. However, the successful carrying out of this discipline is not strictly a "mark" of the church's existence.
As a pastor the area of discipline continues to be a source of great angst for me. I know that the Law must be firmly preached to those who are living in a sinful state. I also know that willful lack of repentance must be dealt with for the sake of the sinner's eternal welfare. Yet on this "rough edge" of ministry the application of the Law is often never what it should be. Lack of courage, a desire to please and be accepted, a need to avoid confrontation, and many more reasons could be listed to explain why a pastor would shun the full application of the Law, especially in individual cases apart from the pulpit. I myself find a need to constantly repent of my failure as a Seelsorger in this area.
But thanks be to God that my failures and the failures of my people do not "make or break" the church! For we know that the very gates of hell cannot prevail against it according to our Lord's own word. So, I will continue to preach and teach and pray for courage to do what I am called to do. May the Lord forgive my sins of omission and strengthen me in my sacred calling.