SERMON TITLE: Marks of the Church Part 2: Church Discipline and Godly Leadership
TEXT: Acts 20:17-38 ESV (Read live at each campus by elders)
SPEAKER: Josh Hanson
Watch the sermon here.
Take notes here.
As always it’s a joy to be with all of you this weekend at Gateway Church. And there’s one thing I want you to know — it doesn’t matter who you are or how long you’ve been part of Gateway — I want you to know that God loves you and that I love you too.
We’re continuing in the book of Acts today — in sort of a two part series on the marks of the church. Think of these as the key qualities — the essential characteristics that make a church a true church. Now — if you’re not a Christian — you may have never even thought to consider if there are key qualities that you should be looking for in a church — the same may be true if you are a Christian. But what we’re wrestling with is how are you and I supposed to know if a group that calls themselves a church is actually a church?
Well — historically — there have been three marks of the church with a few folks advocating for a fourth. The three marks — that are universally agreed upon are — one — the faithful preaching of God’s Word — two — the faithful administration of the sacraments — the Lord’s Supper and baptism — and three — church discipline. The fourth mark — that some include — is the fellowship of the saints — the word “saints” means Christians.
These are markers — characteristics — qualities — that can be used to identify whether or not a group gathered together is a true church or not. Is the faithful preaching of God’s Word present? Are communion and baptism administered? Is church discipline acted upon? Is there a fellowship — a family-like bond — among the members of the church? If so, you indeed have a true church.
Last week, we looked at three of the marks — preaching, the sacraments, and fellowship. Today, we’re going to look at the final mark of the church — church discipline — as we focus on leaders of the church. And — my hope for us — Christian or not — is that we’d all be aware of these marks — these qualities and characteristics — so we don’t confuse personal preferences — which we all have — with what God’s Word says are the characteristics that matter most when it comes to the church we’re part of. These marks aren’t optional — these are the fundamental qualities God has determined will be found in his church. In fact — if you’re ever part of a church and these marks aren’t present — you should sense that something’s off.
ANTI-AUTHORITY AND PRO-SECURITY
Now as we talk about the final mark today — let’s begin by recognizing that we live in a strange time. There seems to be an ever growing mistrust and suspicion towards any kind of authority while there also being a strong desire for safety, security, and protection. For example, in 1958, the National Election Study began asking US citizens about trust in the government. In 1958 about 75% of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing “almost always or most of the time.” ( https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2022/06/06/public-trust-in-government-1958-2022/) A decade later — in 1968 — our trust in the federal government reached an all time high of 77%. And though there have been some ups and downs in our trust of the government — overall — there’s been a decline in our trust in the federal government ever since. Today just 20% of Americans trust that the federal government will do the right thing “almost always or most of the time.” With only 2% of us thinking the government will do the right thing almost always.
Yet — simultaneously — there’s a strong desire to feel safe, secure, and protected by our government. Whether your preference is that of having a strong national defense, better digital security, healthcare, finances, housing, or what have you. (PwC, “Achieving Safety and Security in an Age of Disruption and Distrust,” https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/government-public-services/public-sector-research-centre/achieving-safety-security.html.) We want safety, security, and protection provided by the government — but — depending on who’s in charge — our trust or distrust in the government increases or decreases.
And all of this — this relationship with authority — has found its way into the church. There’s been an increasing hesitancy among Christians in our nation to join a local church. I’ve mentioned this in previous sermons — how the rise of our anti-authoritarian view is seen in the rise of the non-denominational church. Where churches want no authority over themselves — “we’ll be our own authority thank you very much.” And what churches do — as organizations — Christians are now doing as individuals — “I’ll be my own authority thank you very much.”
And much of this comes from the betrayals of those in leadership that have been made public. Whether it’s the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast or Jerry Falwell Jr.’s fall from grace at Liberty University or even more recent stories that have made headlines. And all of this can’t help but creep into our views of those who are in authority over us in our local church.
“How do I know if I can really trust pastor Josh? How am I supposed to know if the elders really have the best interest of the congregation in mind? Or this denomination we’re part of — how do I know it’s not led by folks abusing their authority?”
And though there’s no sure fire remedy against the abuse of authority — as all of us — me included — are well practiced at sinning against others. Yet — in spite of all that — here’s why we can’t abandon the practice of submitting to authority in the local church.
God gives the local church spiritual leaders and he does so for our good — not for our harm. I’ll say that again. God gives the local church spiritual leaders and he does so for our good — not for our harm. You and I having spiritual leaders — who are in authority over us — is God’s idea. What God didn’t do is say, “You — yeah you Christian who has authority issues — yeah you’re the exception. You don’t have to submit to local church leadership.” Nowhere will you find that in Scripture.
But what we do find is that — as we submit to the spiritual leaders God’s appointed over us — we’re actually submitting to God. And the two can’t be separated. Submitting to the authority of God-appointed spiritual leaders is submission to God. And rejecting the authority of God-appointed spiritual leaders is to reject God’s leading in your life.
Now — one key aspect for spiritual leaders in a local church — is the responsibility of protecting those who’ve been entrusted to their care from those who want to gain authority in the church for evil purposes. Godly spiritual leaders in the church have the responsibility to protect the congregation from harm caused by those who try to use authority for evil purposes. And this is where church discipline — a word that’s foreign and maybe scary sounding to many — comes in as the final mark of the church.
So — let’s build up some trust today while also heeding a warning that needs to be heard regarding those who try to gain authority in the church for evil purposes. But — first — let’s talk about how trust is built and maintained between church leadership and the congregation.
AUTHORITY IN FELLOWSHIP
Paul’s sailed past Ephesus — a city that he’s visited a few times throughout Acts — and has stopped in Miletus — about 30 miles south of Ephesus. And — after the elders of the church in Ephesus arrive — Paul tells them, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God… (And skipping to verse 33 we read…) 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” 36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, 38 being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.” (Acts 20:17-27, 33-38 ESV)
So here’s how trust is built. First, it’s built in fellowship — one of the other marks of the church. Second, trust is built by the faithful preaching of God’s Word — another mark of the church. And — finally — trust is built through humble obedience. Let’s look at each of these.
Trust between those in authority and those under authority is built in fellowship. Paul’s final words to these church leaders is soaked in the fellowship he and they experienced with each other. Paul tells them that they know how he lived when he was among them. They know the trials he faced — the many persecutions that came his way. They know that he wasn’t in ministry for the money — but made personal sacrifices for their sake. There’s a sweet fellowship between Paul and these elders as seen in their last moments together as they pray and weep and say their goodbyes.
You see — for Paul — making disciples — connecting people to Jesus Christ — was much more than head knowledge. It was life imitation. He’s the man who wrote, “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17 ESV)
Does Paul want the elders to spread the gospel he proclaimed? Absolutely! But even more than content — Paul wants them to imitate his life — the obvious evidential change in his life because of his faith in Christ. This is the high calling — not only of those in authority in the church — but for anyone who disciples and mentors others. As church leaders we’re to be spiritual shepherds who not only talk the talk — and not only walk the walk — but say to others, “Do you want to know what it means to follow Jesus? Follow me. I’ll show you.” And this is not pride — nor arrogance — but is said in holy fear. And the same is true if anyone who disciples or mentors others. Part of the authority you have in their life is the responsibility to say, “Imitate my worship service attendance. Imitate my serving in the church. Imitate my giving. Imitate my hospitality. Imitate my submission to the church leadership. Imitate my life — I’ll show you what it means to live in submission to God.” I say this because you will make disciples who imitate you — the question is will they be imitating biblical faithfulness in your life or unfaithfulness — will they be imitating a life submitted to God or not?
Several years ago, we divided up the church membership among the elders so that every member of Gateway has an elder responsible for you. Your elder has committed to reaching out to you, to try and contact you, to do whatever he can to check up on you. First, if you’re a member of Gateway and haven’t heard from your elder, come see me or Jon — if you’re at North Main — after the service and let us know. We’ll write your name down and follow up with the elder assigned to you.
Second, every month — during our elder meeting — a few elders give an update on their list of members. And often the report is, “None — or very few — of my members have gotten back to me.” Please be proactive and respond to your elder when they reach out to you. Even a simple “Thanks for contacting me” will do. Just so we know an email isn’t lost in cyberspace or that the postal service hasn’t lost the note we sent you in the mail or that the phone number in Gateway Community is still accurate.
And — I’d even like to encourage you to invite your elder over to get to know him. In recent weeks my family hosted several folks on my shepherding list and it’s been a joy to get to know these folks better. I’ve heard encouraging stories of ways people are serving in the community or how they’re a regular podcast listener. It’s a joy being in fellowship with you all as your shepherds — so please respond when we reach out to you.
And notice how I’ve emphasized the elders and not just me. I think this is obvious — but I’ll say it anyway. I personally can’t be everyone’s shepherd. My wife and I have never said no to a lunch or dinner invitation — though we’ve occasionally had to see if another date works. We enjoy getting to know you all — regardless if you’re on my shephreding list or not. Over the course of a year, my guess is we interact with a few hundred of you all outside of official Gateway Church events. But there’s just no way we can get to everyone. That’s why I’d love for all of us to elevate our view of the elders of Gateway Church. We’re not a church with only one or two pastors — we’re a church that currently has fourteen elders. Men called by God and affirmed by this congregation to spiritually lead this church. Men — who with a holy fear — say, “Imitate us as we imitate Christ.”
So reach out to your shepherding elder. Invite him and his family over for lunch or dinner. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. I’m sure you’ll be amazed to see how God’s working in and through your spiritual leaders as you spend time in fellowship with them.
Additionally, trust between those in authority and those under authority is built by the faithful preaching of God’s Word. Paul tells the Ephesian elders that he didn’t shrink back in his preaching ministry while he was with them. Years later — these elders — along with their pastor — a man named Timothy who we’ve met in Acts — will receive these words from Paul. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 3:16-4:4 ESV)
We looked at preaching last week — so I won’t say much else here — just that I hope trust is being built between us each week as God’s Word is faithfully preached for our good and his glory.
Finally, trust between those in authority and those under authority is built through humble obedience — humble obedience on the part of those in authority. Paul knows that obedience is going to cost him suffering and affliction. He’s got a race to run — a calling to fulfill — a God-given purpose that he doesn’t want to lose sight or fall short of. His obedience had a financial cost to it. And his obedience ultimately led to his imprisonment and death.
I call this humble obedience because it’s a costly obedience — and costly obedience is always humbling. For it’s only those who are humble who know that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. It’s only those who’ve been captured by the humility of Christ — who follow his example in humble obedience as spiritual leaders. For as Paul writes, Christ…“Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8 ESV)
Your elders — in obedience — give up much for your sake. They give up their time — time that could be spent on other things — to shepherd and lead you. They give up money — your elders are generous givers to the church. They give up their reputation — as all in authority will find themselves — at times — judged inaccurately, accused falsely, and spoken of in ways that dishonor Christ.
I’m so thankful for the men who’ve been called to lead and shepherd Gateway alongside me. My prayer is that what you’ve just heard has helped to build trust between you — the congregation — and your elders. I’m not thinking of any specific issues or conflicts — when I say this — I just know that we live in a culture that breathes distrust of authority. And we’re not immune to this and we all must be diligent in building trust with each other.
PROTECTION FROM EVIL AUTHORITY
And — now — we turn to a blessing we gain from both being faithful leaders in authority and faithful congregants submitted to authority. That blessing being spiritual protection that comes by way of the final mark of the church — church discipline. We’re in verse 28 — where Paul tells the elders to…
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:28-32 ESV)
A warning to the leaders in Ephesus. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to the flock — the congregation. For you’ve been appointed to this role by the Holy Spirit and the church has been purchased by the blood of Christ.” And Paul tells them that — after he leaves — the war will go on. The spiritual war we’re in — ourselves — today. And a strategy of the Enemy is to raise up people who will try to infiltrate the church to do his work. Workers for the Enemy who attempt to gain authority in the church and have teaching ministries that will lead God’s people astray. “Therefore,” Paul tells the elders, “be alert!”
It’s so easy to forget that we’re in a war, isn’t it? It’s so easy to forget that our Enemy has wolves — individuals — whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc and destruction in our church. But we cannot forget — we must stay alert.
Now — a couple of things to this shocking news. First, if you’re wondering, “Am I a wolf?” Though I can’t say with certainty, most likely the fact that you’re even wondering would seem to indicate that you’re not a wolf. Wolves know what they’re doing. They’re cunning. They’re not surprised by the fact that they're a wolf. They’re surprised when they’re caught.
Second, most likely you’re not called to be a wolf hunter. I say — most likely — because unless you’re an elder your job isn’t to protect the congregation from wolves — that’s the job of the shepherds. Let the shepherds do their job of protecting the congregation.
Third, which means that the vast majority of us have one way in which we fight wolves. By knowing God’s Word. Knowing God’s Word well and spending time in fellowship with other Christians whose lives are being changed and transformed by the Word. This is a way you practice self-protection.
Fighting wolves isn’t fun. It’s messy, painful, and leaves you with scars. So leave the fighting to the shepherds — we’ll protect you. But don’t be ignorant of the wolves either — and especially don’t be ignorant of God’s Word.
But — in protecting you from wolves — know that this is where the final mark of the church comes into play: church discipline. Now church discipline is much more than just protecting the church from wolves, but it’s definitely no less than that. In fact — our church constitution — the Book of Order — states that “the purpose of church discipline is to maintain the honor of God, to restore the sinner, and to remove offense from the church.” (Book of Discipline 1.5) Though there are times when genuine Christians need church discipline — leading to their repentance — at other times — in order to maintain God’s honor and to remove offense — or ongoing, sinful rebellious destructive behavior from the church — a wolf has to be identified and kicked out in order to protect the congregation.
Now — I know some of you — are like my daughter — and you think wolves are cute. The animal can be cute. But the spiritual wolves we’re talking about are workers of our Enemy whose goal is to steal, kill, and destroy. These aren’t misguided people. These aren’t disobedient Christians. This is much more than simply rooting for the wrong college football team or having a disagreement about infant baptism or the gift of prophecy. This is team Jesus versus team Satan. And team Satan — and the wolves working for him — really make Jesus angry. And Jesus has appointed the elders of this church to protect you from the wolves of the Enemy.
Never forget that we’re in a war. And never forget that God — in his love and care for you — has appointed elders as a spiritual authority over you — to protect you from the attacks of the Enemy.
Now — here’s how we’re going to close our time together. And — warning — this isn’t going to be your usual sermon conclusion. This sermon has focused on the spiritual authority appointed by God for this church — your elders. And — yet — I know that many of us still have no idea who the elders of Gateway are. Some of you are going to head straight for Jon or me after the service to tell us you’re a member and have no idea who your elder is. Others of you have exchanged emails or texts with your elders for months or years — but now — in realizing what it means for them to be one of your elders — well now the relationship feels more real.
So here’s what we’re going to do. At both of our campuses, elders are present. Some of them have their spouses and kids with them. Here at County Road 9 we’re going to have the elders and their families come down to the front — just in front of the stage — North Main folks — someone there will be giving you instructions in a moment — but we’re going to close this sermon by having you all — the congregation — pray for the elders and their families. Let’s build some trust between those in spiritual authority and those under their authority today. Let’s build up trust — in fellowship — with one another — in the fellowship of prayer.
At this time — we’ll hand things over to North Main as the elders here — at County Road 9 — and their families make their way forward.
Now that the elders and their families are making their way down — I don’t care how crowded it gets down here — come and pray for your elders. Come and pray for me. Cover us in prayer — cover us in your fellowship and love — let’s build sweet trust before we close our time together in worship.
May we all go submitting ourselves to God and his authority over our lives — individually and as a congregation. Amen.
God loves you. I love you. You are sent.