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8. Allowing God to purify

Acts 5vs1-11. Church Growing Pains.

Church discipline involves the maintenance of order and obedience, the acceptance of authority and the observance of all biblical principles concerning collective Christian life and practice. Paul's letters to Timothy were written to promote discipline. "Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth", 1 Timothy 3vs14 and 15. Perhaps we wrongly think of discipline as only being negative. "If someone does something wrong they should be disciplined". It may be better for us to understand that if the person had been disciplined himself, and lived his life in a disciplined, self-controlled, Holy Spirit ordered way, the wrong things would not have happened. Do not confuse discipline and punishment. Punishment is the result of the lack of discipline. A child at school who does not produce his required homework may be given a detention for one hour after lessons (it used to be in my school days anyway!). The teacher hopes that this action will encourage the student to do his homework next time and present it in the lesson period. The penal correction is aimed at promoting discipline.

God gives to all His servants a spirit of self-discipline. "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline", 2 Timothy 1vs7. Those three qualities can be compared with the three wires of a British Standard safety plug. Before connection to mains electricity the plug of the electrical appliance, say a washing machine, should have the brown live wire, the blue neutral wire, and the yellow/green earth wire all safely secured to the pins. If any one is loose there will be a malfunction which could even be very dangerous. "Power", "love" and "self-discipline" also go together in the Christian life. Power without love is dangerous. Love without power is insipid. Power and love without the control of self-discipline could well lead to unnecessary problems between the different people who make up a local church.

As an example, think about the power made available to us in Jesus Christ. We are free to live as we believe it is right to live. Some may consider we are free to go to the public bar and drink beer. However, because we love our Lord, and because we also love His people in the church around us, we may discipline ourselves not to go to the pub, or not to drink more than half a pint if we do go. Our love encourages self-control over our power! Paul told the Corinthian Christians: "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak", 1 Corinthians 8vs9. That was concerning eating meat previously offered to idols. In Romans 14, writing about vegetarians, sabbath-observers and kosher meat-eaters, Paul also says: "Therefore let us stop passing judgement on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacles in your brother's way", Romans 14vs13. "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification", vs19. God-given power, love and self-discipline are essential for this.

But what happens in a congregation when a brother and sister who are only half-heartedly committed to the Lord's work, hypocritically try to deceive the fellowship into thinking that they are selflessly sacrificing to meet the needs of others - when in fact they are not? What happens when they tell lies to church leaders? This is what Ananias and Sapphira did in

Acts 5vs1-11. Where does collective discipline come into the church?

The background to the event is a fast-growing fellowship in Jerusalem exhibiting "great power" and "much grace" Acts 4vs33. The power of changed lives witnessing for Jesus Christ, the grace of forgiveness, love and care for one another all made it a pleasure to be a part of the fellowship. Unfortunately any growing fellowship will soon have within its ranks people like Ananias and Sapphira as well as others like Barnabas. Barnabas had given up at least some of his worldly assets by selling a field. He also showed trust in the church leadership by handing over the cash raised to the apostles for their use in caring for the needy as they saw fit. In outward appearance, Ananias and Sapphira were doing exactly the same thing, but their attitude of heart was vastly different. As in all good situations, there was spiritual trouble coming. We must expect it. We can draw encouragement from the fact that the Jerusalem church continued to grow even after the events of this chapter. "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith", Acts 6vs7. God did not finish with the church because of this sin. If He did that, we would have to search long and hard to find any churches today! What Acts 5 does show us is that God is capable of purifying His church. Because nothing escapes His notice He knew what was hidden from the congregation. He could see Satan in Ananias' heart and He was well-aware of the secret plans of husband and wife. He revealed to Peter precisely what had happened. I am sure this was another consequence of the church's prayer for boldness, signs and wonders in Acts 4vs29-30. Peter, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, 4vs31, was more than a match for Ananias who had allowed Satan to fill his heart with deceitful lies. God is always more able than Satan. The man or woman of God today will always have the full resources of God Himself available when dealing with sin in the life of another.

Peter knew from his own experience how Satan would try to control a follower of Jesus Christ. When he rashly promised to follow Jesus into prison and even to death, Jesus said to him "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers", Luke 22vs31 and 32. Peter denied any association with the Lord Jesus almost immediately. The look Jesus gave him across the high priest's courtyard at the end of the evening broke his heart, vs61 and 62. Peter wrote to Christians later "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings", 1 Peter 5vs8 and 9. The prayers of other believers, and our own self-control (discipline) will enable us to resist - oppose, withstand, thwart, remain unharmed by - the evil one. Of course it is difficult to know what action to take when a situation arises within a Christian congregation. It is hard to know when to be acting privately one to one and when to go public. The episode of Ananias and Sapphira shows us that public hypocrisy was dealt with publicly by God. It is also difficult to know when the truth is being openly told. In Acts 5 Peter seems to have received a word of knowledge from God. He was certainly led by the Holy Spirit directly to the root of the problem. Few church-discipline situations I have been involved with have been resolved as quickly and directly as this one. At times I have felt that a church with no people would have no problems, but I've never felt able to resort to a gun! Praise God there are principles in the Scripture that we must follow to be used by God in His purification of the church.

The Lord's supper, celebrated in various ways by different churches, should always include an opportunity of self-examination under the leading of the Holy Spirit. Paul told the Corinthians "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup", 1 Corinthians 11vs28, "For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself" vs29. The discerning or recognising of the body of the Lord is critical here. A person living in a sinful relationship, engaging in sinful business practices, or holding a sinful resentment against another, is faced with a choice during this communion time of self-examination. He either deceives himself saying "I have no sin", or he confesses his sin and receives cleansing and forgiveness through the precious blood of Jesus Christ. A repentant heart immediately displays itself by forsaking that sin, giving it no further place in life. If this procedure is carried out regularly by congregations true Christian discipline is being encouraged. I have been celebrating the Lord's supper with large and small groups where reconciliation between members has occurred through the Holy Spirit's leading. People have made it right with one another, often with tears and hugs, before passing the bread and the wine on to the next person.

Jesus Christ made what I call 'the principle of the small circle' in settling differences. The New English Bible puts it well, "If your brother commits a sin, go and take the matter up with him strictly between yourselves, and if he listens to you you have won your brother over," Matthew 18vs15. The first steps of discipline are person to person in private. Paul advises similarly, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted", Galatians 6vs1. Hopefully this will resolve the problem quickly and quietly. It may be that the person will be able to show a different perspective on the perceived sin which will allay any fears. Alternatively the private warning shot across his bows may bring him to repentance before God: which is the object of the whole exercise. Jesus continued by saying a second visit should be made, this time with one or two other folk who can act as witnesses, if the smallest circle proved a stalemate. Perhaps God would use the influence of an appointment being made in this way to bring the person to their spiritual senses. Hopefully at the small group meeting God the Holy Spirit will convict of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement, John 16vs8. If the person hears but still refuses to accept his fault, then Jesus said the right course of action is for the church as a whole to have one last attempt at making sense prevail. If that should fail, then the person should no longer be considered part of the fellowship.

If this whole procedure seems to be difficult to put into practice if you are in the right, remember it gives the one in the wrong a greater opportunity for repentance than Ananias and Sapphira had! Sapphira appears to have had one final opportunity of admitting their deceit when "Peter asked her, 'Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?' 'Yes' she said ' That is the price', Acts 5vs8. She was true to her husband and their pact. God judged them both. They died at the apostles' feet. Sin always bring death. There would be no death if there was no sin. Individual Christians and Christian churches suffer spiritual death once they tolerate known sin. Campbell Morgan comments, "Either Ananias or the Holy Spirit had to go from the church."

Paul told the Corinthians, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgements about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgement," 1 Corinthians 2vs14 and 15.

God purifies His church but not in a savage way. He is not like some despotic governments that seek to "cleanse" their countries of certain tribes, religions or races. John 3vs17 is one of my favourite sayings of Jesus Christ. "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him". These principles of self-examination and the small-circle settlement are graciously designed by God to save us, to make us whole, to turn us into His own image. Satan is the enemy. He sows weeds among the wheat, Matthew 13vs24-30. If both parties in a church disagreement realise that Satan is behind it, there is only one possible course of action. Pray together against the common enemy. Nothing will unite a church quicker than this.

Satan had quite a few attempts to enter the church in Acts. In chapter 5 he filled Ananias' heart. Remember only empty things can be filled. In chapter 6 he highlighted (and perhaps exaggerated) a careless distribution of aid and he managed to find people to grumble for him. In chapters 8 and 9 he breathed venemous fire at Christians through Saul. In chapter 20vs28-31 Paul warned the Ephesian elders of wolves in sheep's clothing who will savage the flock of God under their care. The church at Corinth tolerated immorality among its members, it experienced believers taking other believers to court, it had groups lobbying for the theological lines of Paul, Apollos and Peter as well as the super-spiritual party of Christ alone! They criticised Paul for being too hard on them, too soft on others, too expensive in his lifestyle, too independent and self-sufficient. Their agape meals sometimes ended in drunkenness while the needs of the poor for food went unmet. The Corinthian Christians had little respect for the spiritual gifts someone else possessed, they were much more interested in vaunting their own gifts. And all this so soon after Acts 18! Satan loves to disrupt the building of the Christian church, but he is a defeated foe. Any Christians who live close enough to God for Him to share His heart with them will be able to see God keeping His church pure.

I remember challenging a fellow minister about sexual misconduct. Rumours had been circulating and as soon as I heard them I phoned to make an appointment to see him, telling him over the phone what it was about. I went with an elder of a church and we were ushered into his office and confronted by this man and several other people. After asking if it was alright to speak openly in front of all these people I shared what I had heard and invited him to tell me that none of it was true. I said I was concerned for him, his wife, and the testimony of Jesus Christ in the area. Virtually everything was denied. My friend and I were threatened with legal action if we did not stop our investigations. I said we had only come as two Christian brothers and we were unaware of any sinister connotations from our perspective. We both expressed surprise at legal implications. In a short while the man closed his ministry and resigned some, at least, of his Christian associations. The outcome was not what I had sought. I had hoped there was no truth in the allegations, then I hoped on subsequent contacts there would be Holy Spirit led repentance. There was not. But God purified His church in that area. When similar stories arose from another area to which he had moved I prayed. What should I do? My phone rang with Christian leaders asking me to help them in making up their own minds. I tried to follow the scriptural principles that covered similar though not identical situations, "Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that others may take warning", 1 Timothy 5vs19 and 20. God again defended His testimony.

This is not a pleasant subject. My mind is whirling over a few other examples where I have become involved in what is commonly referred to as church discipline. The Lord knows I am not without sin and can never throw any stones. But because I know "Jesus Christ the Righteous One is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world", 1 John 2vs2, I can seek to bring people to his cross. I can ask them to consider the price He paid for their salvation and I can suggest there is nothing for which it is worth throwing all that away.

Discussion questions

  • What did Ananias and Sapphira do wrong?

  • What do you think motivated them?

  • Why do we sometimes have similar problems?

  • Where do you draw the line between "accepting and praying for one another" and confronting a matter in "a small circle"?


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