The Prodigal Son(s) and Church Discipline

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Providence reigns, even over editorial requests. When asked to offer pastoral insights on church discipline in light of the story of the prodigal son, little did I realize where this assignment would take me both spiritually and emotionally.

Listening to the text of Luke 15 afresh left me very convicted but even more hopeful. I’m convicted because, after pastoring the same church family for twenty-six years, I wish I had a scrapbook filled with church-discipline stories that reflect the gospel-saturated beauty of Luke 15.

I wish I could tell you about all the repentant Christians who, through well-implemented church discipline, returned home to great parties thrown by humble, grace-smitten leaders, and who were then fully assimilated back into the life of our congregation. Although I have tons of great stories— grace stories of conversions and renewals— I don’t have many church-discipline stories about which I’m really excited.

But meditating through the story of the prodigal son has also left me intrigued and hopeful, especially for new church plants and pastors who long for a more gospel-centered approach to church discipline. How can we do church discipline differently? What do we need to put into place that will enable us to extend the corrective heart and hand of our heavenly Father in such a way that the gospel is more clearly driving the whole process? Here are five things that emerge from the parable of the prodigal son I would emphasize.

1. Create a leadership culture marked by gospel astonishment, joyful repentance, and corporate prayer. In each of the three parables in Luke 15, the “finder” (shepherd, woman, father) of the “lost” (sheep, coin, son) bids others to come and rejoice. “Come be happy with me.” Good leaders who never get over their “found-ness” in Christ are best equipped to care for other sinner-saints. Leaders who are being humbled, gentled, and changed by the gospel tend to be less shocked when other Christians sinfully act out and are more ready to engage with them when they do so.

2. Pray for, ordain, train, and equip elders for discipleship as well as in church discipline. Not everybody with leadership gifts is called to be an elder. We know this, so let’s act on it. Moreover, none of us intuitively disciples well, any more than we intuitively discipline well. Elders who are involved in helping believers grow in grace will more readily invest in the demands (and delights) of church discipline. Seeking is hard work. It’s not easy or convenient to go after rebellious younger sons in faraway countries or to confront self-righteous elder sons sitting in session meetings. We’re pretty clumsy with confrontation and even more clueless when it comes to the messy process of restoration.

3. Put the DNA of the gospel into the blood and heartbeat of the whole church family. When the younger son “came to his senses,” he remembered good things about the home he left. His first thought wasn’t about his self-righteous older brother but of his father’s generous heart. The warmer the memory of life at home (especially modeled by the parents, that is, the leaders), the sooner prodigal sons and daughters will risk coming home again.

Preach the gospel. Only the gospel can create an environment in which repenting is more the norm than pretending. Let’s make sure our congregation knows that the gospel is just as much for believers as it is non-believers. Let’s make sure they know that the Father grieves the self-righteousness of elder sons as much as the unrighteousness of younger sons. I would far rather pastor a church filled with younger son returnees than elder son sticks-in-the-mud. Our churches are to be environments where the miracle of grace is played out every week, not museums or mortuaries of dead or dry spirituality.

4. Build a worship culture that is both a showing and telling of the gospel—not just telling. Luke 15 contains rich theology, and we connect with it so deeply because it comes to us in narrative form. We all relate to stories, which is one of the reasons, no doubt, Jesus used so many. A wise and balanced use of testimonies during our services of worship can help members of a church family understand what life as a sinner-saint is all about—how all of us need God’s grace all of the time.

5. Lastly, we need to learn how to celebrate gospel breakthroughs as a church family. Not many churches, in my experience, know how to party together very well, especially when it comes to celebrating stories of recovery, renewal, and restoration. The younger son was ready to do penance when he got home, but the first thing the father wanted his son to do was dance. Church discipline is fatherly correction and restoration, not punishment and probation. No doubt, there were some long “walks and talks” about the prodigal son’s sinful choices, but restoration occurs best in the garden of grace, not under the doghouse of shame. God’s kindness always leads us away from penance to repentance.

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