Monday, March 23, 2009

Church Discipline

As I am planning soon to begin a preaching series on the marks of the church, one of which is church discipline, I have reflected over our experiences here. Over the lifetime of the Sycamore congregation, we sadly have had many cases of church discipline. Below is the body of a letter written by our elders some time ago to a particular individual (the fifth one we had given him), with his name and a few of the details having been changed for this display. I offer this to serve as a reminder of the church's duty to apply Biblical discipline to wandering sheep, a testimony to the lengths we took to recover this person, and, as you read at the bottom of this post what ultimately resulted, a warning to heed the Word of God and the shepherds He has placed over the church.

Dear Esau,

The Session of Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church has made repeated efforts to restore you to our fellowship, as listed below:

  • Last summer in July we rebuked you for your failure to participate in worship and observe the sacraments. We also warned you about your relationship with the widow in whose home you were staying and called you out of that situation. You made an initial confession in August and returned for two weeks to the church. However, since August 31st you have not attended a worship service at Sycamore.
  • Even after seeking counsel from the Session on September 3rd and being warned not to go, you purposefully chose to move out of town and live with the widow there. On October 1st we again rebuked you for “showing contempt for the counsel of the court and the appearance of immorality,” as was communicated to you in a letter dated October 26th. This letter was hand-delivered to you by the pastor.
  • On December 14th we sent another letter to you when you were in the Howard County Jail. The pastor visited you and explained that this letter indicated our numerous attempts to restore you and informed you that you had been suspended from the privileges of church membership.
  • Last month you received a certified letter dated February 2nd that called you to respond to our letter of suspension as you had promised you would do. This letter was signed by the widow. We gave you a deadline to respond of February 10th, which you ignored, despite the fact that this letter threatened that we would proceed officially as the court of the church towards conducting a trial of excommunicating you from this congregation if you did not.
  • Last Sunday, February 29th, Elder Bob McKissick and Pastor Barry York appeared at the address listed above as your official residency. When we asked the widow if you were there, she indicated you were. She returned after talking with you and claimed that because of allergies you did not want to see us that day. She assured us you had received our certified letter and that she would tell you that we wanted to hear from you before or during our Session meeting on March 3rd. Once again this date came and went, and we never heard from you.

Esau, how we have pursued you and sought to love you in Christ! Recall all that we did to counsel with you, to provide work opportunities for you, to bring you into our homes and into our hearts when you were still with us. We wept and welcomed you as our brother as we listened to your testimony the day you stood in the sanctuary and told of God’s grace. We have instructed you in the word of God and prayed earnestly for you. But you have spurned both God’s love and ours.

You may still claim to love God, but honestly, Esau, by the most basic measure can you say that you are demonstrating that by your actions? Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Yet you made vows to attend the worship of God and have missed them for months on end. You promised you would heed the counsel and discipline of the church when you joined, but within a few months you disdained it by putting personal pleasure and aspirations above the kingdom of God. Even now the widow claimed you were attending church together elsewhere, but your broken relationships with us coupled with your living with this woman outside marital bonds makes your church attendance abhorrent to God. Your stubbornness and refusal to listen to godly counsel has caused you to wander into grave spiritual danger, where you no longer are even able to discern the deceitfulness of your actions.

Therefore, in a final attempt to restore you, we took the following action at our Session meeting of March 3rd:

Because of your contempt for the established order and worship of the church, and your dwelling with a woman outside marriage bonds against the Session’s particular counsel, the Session has set the date of March 17, at 5:00 p.m. at the pastor’s office of Sycamore Reformed Presbyterian Church to hold a trial to excommunicate Esau unless he presents to the Session a valid objection or repents of his actions.

Esau, please understand that if you do not leave this situation and return to us, we will have to conclude that by your own deeds you no longer are walking in a manner worthy of the kingdom of God. If you continue to ignore us and do not contact us by this date, we will be forced to excommunicate you. By that action we will be declaring that you are no longer to be considered a Christian and that your soul is in danger of the eternal flames.

Yet our heart’s desire is not your condemnation, Esau, but your restoration. Please heed the word of God, Esau, who said to Lot through the angels sent to rescue him, “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you!” Leave this situation immediately, and seek refuge in Christ and the church.

Sadly, Esau did not come to the meeting to which he was summoned and was excommunicated. Tragically, soon after this action he was stricken with a massive heart attack and died in the home of the aforementioned woman.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Small, Quick & Loving

On Friday I will be travelling with several other pastors to attend an annual dinner hosted by the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The seminary will award a "Faithful Servant Award" to Dr. Roy Blackwood. Many were asked to write a tribute to Roy. Here's mine.


After my first year as a student at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, I went to Indianapolis in the summer of 1989 to do an internship under Dr. Roy Blackwood. Following a day of driving with my pregnant wife and young son, and then moving into the third floor apartment of the church building, Roy and Margie came to greet us that first evening. After a few minutes of checking that we had everything we needed, Roy asked me to sit down at the kitchen table because he had something he wanted to show me. Soon, on an unfolded napkin taken from a nearby drawer, circles and Latin words began to form a diagram as Roy explained in earnest a concept to me. I realized I had just been introduced to Roy’s teaching on the Mediatorial Kingship of Christ. How many more times that summer and since I have seen - and used - that picture!

During that internship, I thought I would spend less time studying and more time doing “practical” ministry. Yet not only did I feel I was in “summer seminary” those three month, but I realized more than ever how studies and practical ministry go hand-in-hand. For under Roy’s tutelage I read the seminal work upon which he had developed his ministry, Messiah the Prince by the nineteenth century Scottish pastor William Symington, as well as studied through Roy’s doctoral work he had done on Symington’s ministry and theology. Far from dry academia, Roy’s studies came alive as I saw them lived out firsthand through his life.

That summer I witnessed warm-hearted, reference-filled, faith-building preaching from Roy, be it from a pulpit or at the bedside of the elderly. I saw how he had taken these doctrines and applied them in the development of a ministry that had seen hundreds converted to Christ, churches planted in other areas of Indiana whose pastors had been influenced greatly by Roy, and relationships that extended around the world. Roy’s heart-filled vision of the kingdom of Christ, a kingdom that knows no limits, no person outside its reach, no unconquerable enemies, propelled him to extend that kingdom wherever he went. That summer I saw federal and state legislators contact him, businessmen open their offices and schedule to him, and fathers and sons (the next generation) taught by him. What I both heard and saw left an indelible mark upon me, and it has only increased through the following two decades of ministering with this man in our presbytery.

On one occasion that summer, as Roy and I were traveling, he shared with me his testimony of how his mother had died when he was but a young child, and of a hard-pressed father who had to send him out of his home to be raised by nearby aunts. At that time, Roy said in great tenderness that he could not remember his mother, but had been told that she was “small, quick, and loving.” That description has stuck with me, for it also describes Roy well.

On several occasions when we have ministered together, Roy will stand next to me, look up, and say with that ever-present smile on his face, “Here’s Barry York, a man I look up to.” One day I responded, “Roy, the only reason you will ever look up to me is because I am standing on your shoulders.” He may be small in stature, but he is a giant of a man.

How quick Roy is in mind and body! Roy is a perpetual motion machine, constantly engaged in whole-hearted kingdom living. Even now, as he spends his twilight years caring for his beloved bride Margie, his mind is always at work. Roy is always seeking to be a kingdom-catalyst by seeing people in the body of Christ brought together who Roy always seems to know could work better together than apart. He has connected me to countless people in innumerable ways that have enriched greatly my life and ministry. One example is in the area of Greek. Believing in my Greek abilities far more than I did, he recruited me years ago to come down to Indianapolis every weekday for six weeks one summer (only Roy could have gotten me to do this!) so I could spend time in a Greek classroom with Dr. Renwick Wright. That time proved influential, as not only did that training help me to grow in my competency to teach Greek, but a number of men have gone onto seminary and the pastorate with the confidence of knowing this language.

With all these attributes and abilities one might overlook the chief quality about this man. Like his mother, he is loving. Many times during my ministry, Roy has helped sustain me through trials by his expressions and acts of love. Perhaps none have been so personal and powerful to me than just a few weeks ago. For some time, Roy, Pastor Rich Johnston, and the elders of the church have discussed with me coming to serve as pastor there. In December, they finally led the congregation to make out a call to me. When I received the call, seeing the names of so many friends tugged at my wife and my hearts, but seeing Roy and Margie’s signatures made us weep. Yet after much prayer and deliberation, in light of things including some deeply personal matters involving family, I was led to decline this call. When on the phone with Roy telling him my answer, to be honest I was scared. I could not bear the thought of disappointing him. But when I began to explain these personal matters, Roy began weeping for me and offering tender encouragements. Our conversation ended with one of the most powerful and caring prayers I have ever experienced. As we hung up, he was not the only one crying.

On occasion, I have heard some, who must not know Roy very well, describe him in ways that make it sound as if they think Roy must dominate people in the church in order to see the things happen around him that he has. Indeed, some have even called the pastors in Indiana “Roy’s Boys,” speaking as though he controls us like a bishop would do in other ecclesiastical settings. Not only would that thought be anathema to Roy, but it misunderstands both the power and love of God at work in Roy and in the church. If any of us have sought to imitate Roy’s example, or leapt when he asked us to do something, or spoken reverently of him, it is the power of love and not fear that you see. And as for me, call me Roy’s Boy if you will, but please understand if I’m given that title I would wear it with honor and with a smile. For it only serves to prove that God has fulfilled, in answer to Roy’s prayers, the truth of II Timothy 2:2, “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” How thankful to God I am to know the life, ministry and love of Roy Blackwood.