I remember sitting in church on a Sunday morning several years ago when one of the members walked in with his girlfriend and sat two rows behind his wife and children. He and his family had been friends of ours for many years. We had been to their home for meals and attended sporting events together. He had even taught Sunday School. But, unbeknownst to me, he had become involved in pornography. He eventually divorced his wife.
No one said a word to him that Sunday morning, including me. It was extremely awkward. I didn’t know how I should respond to this brazen show of immorality. Confrontation is not an easy thing, especially in a public place. Later I felt awful about not showing support for his wife. More important, I felt ashamed for not upholding the honor of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As it turns out, no one else from church ever confronted this man about his behavior either. In fact, there was another man in the congregation, a leader in the church, who was also engaged in adultery around that same time. This man eventually did confess his sin and reconcile with his wife, but I am sure their relationship was never quite the same.
Over the intervening years, the church has gradually withered on the vine until today there are just a handful of people who worship there. Where once they were growing and planting other churches, now they are trying to find another church to partner with just to stay alive.
Nurture and admonition are two key aspects of the life of the church that need to be carefully balanced. Although most churches put a lot of effort into nurture, few engage in admonition, i.e. correction or discipline. In order to be effective, discipline has to be administered in the context of an intimate relationship because believers who are willfully disobeying God are not going to come forward on their own.
If the small group is the only place where people can have the kind of close personal relationship that characterized the life of the early church, then where will correction take place? Certainly small group leaders do not have the authority to exercise discipline on behalf of the entire congregation. Membership is voluntary so it is not even likely that the person who is in a state of rebellion would choose to attend a small group.
Although both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul address the issue of church discipline, I have rarely seen a church make it a regular practice. However, I do know of at least one case where a church broke fellowship with an unrepentant member who then began attending a local mega-church. When the elders of the first church approached the leaders of the mega-church, they expressed indifference.
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples to confront the wayward believer privately and if he doesn’t repent to establish the charge before one or two witnesses. If he still refuses to listen, then he is to be brought before the church. If he persists in his rebellion, he is to be cut off from fellowship. Paul chastises the Corinthian believers for not breaking fellowship with a man who was having sexual relations with his step mother.
Given the pervasiveness of pornography on the Internet today, how many churches might be harboring sexual addicts or even sexual predators unawares? And when churches grow so large, how is it even possible for leaders to know what is going on in members’ private lives?
On the other hand, those who have something to hide can blend in very comfortably among the hundreds or even thousands of congregants at a Sunday Morning Worship Service in a mega-church. When my ex-wife began an affair, she left the small church we were attending for one of the local mega-churches where she could attend with her boyfriend unnoticed.
Small groups exist primarily to provide nurture, but they are voluntary associations with little or no ability to enforce discipline. And since the mega-church has little other means of connecting people in vital relationships, it has become a magnet for people who want to maintain a pretense of respectability while continuing in a lifestyle of willful rebellion.