By Allen Palmeri
JEFFERSON CITY—Biblical reconciliation often begins in the local church, where church discipline can be used to settle disputes. Boulevard Baptist Church in Springfield is one example of how this works.
Pastor Doug Shivers is in his 15th year. Eight years ago, the church had more than 1,200 members on its rolls. Now the total is less than 500.
“While we’re not trying to become meddlesome, or some kind of Christian CIA, there is a place for seeking restoration of those who are unrepentant,” said Shivers, who is also serving this year as president of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Pastors’ Conference. “A Christian is capable of very serious sins. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is repentance. Reconciliation is the goal of church discipline. Reconciliation presupposes repentance.”
Shivers launched Boulevard on its church discipline journey by asking about the nature of salvation and the nature of church membership.
“If we really believe in regeneration, that the Holy Spirit actually changes someone, then that change should be minimally observable in regular attendance at the public worship of a local church,” he said. “John the Apostle is quite clear about the matter of fellowship with other believers (1 John 4:20-21). So, if we take seriously the New Testament’s view of salvation as a radical change, then at the very least a Christian will want to be around other believers. If you can absent yourself from the company of other believers without any sense of loss or conviction, it is evidence you’ve never been converted.”
Shivers cannot fathom the concept of an inactive church member at Boulevard.
“The New Testament would never recognize such a strange animal,” he said. “That would have sounded as strange to them as ‘hot ice’ or ‘cold fire.’ The first Christians were said to have been committed to ‘the apostle’s teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer’ (Acts 2:42).”
When it comes to church discipline within the context of Biblical reconciliation, there ought to be a sense of responsibility.
“It is absolutely unloving for believers to allow a professing brother or sister in Christ to continue breaking fellowship with the church,” Shivers said. “In light of the first two issues, you might well be dealing with someone who is not a Christian but is deceived about their status. How can we let such folks go along unaware of their danger?”
Back in the 1990s, Shivers used to get calls from funeral homes informing him that a man or woman had died and that the family wanted his or her pastor to officiate. More often than not, neither Shivers nor his associate pastor, who had been on staff more than 14 years, would recognize the name.
“It was a scandal to me as pastor,” he said. “Many of these folks hadn’t been in the church for well over 20 and even 30 years.”
The process of addressing the problem began with Boulevard contacting its non-resident members to inquire about their status. Those who had not joined a church were given one year to do so.
The church then sent letters to its inactive residents, again inquiring about their status and encouraging them to either return to Boulevard or find another congregation to join. Some members were angry, but most were “overwhelmingly supportive.”
One of the more challenging areas of church discipline is dealing with a church member living with someone else apart from marriage.
“The sinning member or members should repent and be restored, but it’s taking longer to get the whole congregation to take such a step,” Shivers said. “I am being patient with this, because I don’t want it to become ‘pastor’ discipline but ‘church’ discipline.”