WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
A sermon on James 5:13-20
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
September 30, 2018
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today’s New Testament passage is the concluding verses of the final chapter of the book of James. And in this sermon, we are going to look at something that we do not talk about much in church nowadays. The subject is commonly called “church discipline.” Our Baptist forbears of about 150 years or so ago used to call it “being churched.”
Baptist scholar and historian Howard Dorgan defines being “churched” as, “The act of expelling individuals from church membership…’churching’ (also known as ‘exclusion’) removes the errant individual from the church roll…Depending on the church, ‘churched’ individuals may be allowed to attend services, but strictly as nonmember celebrants…’Churching’ may result from doctrinal errors and also from insufficient attendance, drunkenness, other objectionable social behaviors, divorce and remarriage (also known in some circles as ‘double marriage’), violations of secular law, and even gossiping, backbiting, and similar practices destructive of fellowship harmony.” Wow…
We do not hear much about “churching” in Baptist circles today. But at one time, it was a rather common occurrence. In fact, it is said that Baptist churches excluded an average of 2% of their members per year during the 19th Century.
While I was serving on the staff of the Warrenton Baptist Church several years ago, I had to opportunity to read through books containing the old business minutes of the church. The earliest ones dated all the way back to the church’s founding in 1849.
Now you might think that such an activity was a little bit on the nerdy side. And maybe it is—it would not be the first time that I’ve been thought of as a “history nerd.” Church business meetings have a reputation for being boring affairs. And justifiably so. But I found these minutes telling a story that was really interesting.
For one thing, Warrenton is located in Northern Virginia, about 10 miles away from the city of Manassas. The church minutes record that, during the War between the States ,the Union Army swept through the area in the spring of 1862 as both sides geared up for the Second Battle of Bull Run. Notes were made in the minutes that the recently constructed church building had been commandeered for use by the Union Army. And it stayed that way for the duration of the war. The basement was turned into a horse stable, while the sanctuary was used as a field hospital. Pews were chopped up to build coffins and headstones. So the members of the church met in homes for the duration of the war. And The Warrenton Baptist Church, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist for almost three and a half years.
One of the things that struck me about the business meeting minutes was the number of people who were “churched” for various offenses. From roughly 1870 until 1900, several dozen people were excluded from the church membership. The reasons were varied. The most common reason was for “public drunkenness.” That was about half of them. Others were excluded for gambling. One woman was excluded for “public dancing.” (I have the feeling that there was somehow more to her story than that…but nothing else is mentioned.) A few were excluded for not attending church enough or not contributing enough money.
The most interesting one to me is that one man was excluded for—and I am quoting here— “unChrist-like behavior.” (No other details were given about the situation. I would LOVE to know what he had done that would result in such church action. Over my years in church, I’ve met several church members who certainly exhibited “unChristian behavior.” I bet that you have met some of those too—and yet, for better or worse, they managed to remain a part of the congregation in spite of everything…)
But there was something that saddened me as I reflected on what I had read. Out of all the people who had been “churched” during those three decades or so, there was NO record of any of them ever being restored to church membership. Not one. I’ve wondered what happened to those folks. Do you suppose that they joined another church? Warrenton was a small town back in those days. If they had tried to join another church in the area, particularly if it were a Baptist church, I imagine that they would have had a difficult time as their reputation would have surely preceded them. Or maybe they moved away out of the community. Or maybe they decided that church was not really worth the effort for them. I do not know. The book does not say…
The last two verses of James 5 touches on this subject of errant church members and how the church should respond to them. James writes, “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” In this letter, James has covered many of the details of what makes for a life that is pleasing to God. Among other things, he emphasizes the need to control our tongues, to not show favoritism to the rich over the poor, and the need to have our actions—and how we live—reflect the faith that we say we believe. And he does not mince words. To my mind, James’ counsel to us is blunt and to the point.
But James is no fool. He knows that there will be some who turn away from the faith that they had earlier embraced. He knows this because he knows that we are all susceptible to sin. He says that the believer who has wandered from the truth—a person who is soul-sick—needs to turn from their error. James calls upon the members of the church to show the errant believer their mistake, all in the knowledge that we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. None of us is immune. Not even the best of us. Any Christian who believes otherwise would do well to reread the book of James again. So he calls for a pastoral response to the wayward church member. He says that the one who helps another to find their way back to Christ’s way will help to save the sinner’s soul. In the process, they will cover a multitude of sins…
James’ approach to dealing with those who have fallen away from the faith stands in stark contrast to other teachings in the New Testament. For example, 1 Corinthians 5 tells a different story from James. In that church, Paul writes that it had been reported that a man was living with his father’s wife. He characterized that as a sin so heinous that even the godless pagans would not do it. And to top it all off, the church was apparently proud of the situation. There were those in the church who claimed that their tolerance for such a sin only showed how great the love of God is and that the grace of Christ extends to forgive even such sins as that one. Ever the old ex-Pharisee, Paul rails against the situation. He instructs the Corinthian church that they are to shun those in the church who are sexually immoral, those who are slanderers, those who are drunkards, those who are greedy, and those who are swindlers. He counsels the church members to not even eat with such people. And then he unambiguously commands the church leaders to expel the wicked brother from their midst.
So what are we to make of this teaching of James? How are we to follow his words today? Let me suggest that one of the most important lessons to be gleaned from this passage is this: There are no Lone Ranger Christians.
We have a tendency in our culture to admire and respect “the self-made man.” The one who is independent. The one who has pulled himself (or herself) up by their own bootstraps. The one who is self-sufficient and who can go it all alone. Spiritually, we see this in people who think that they can be faithful followers of Jesus all by themselves. They say that, if they choose to follow Jesus, then they can follow him just fine without the need of being connected with a group of believers. They do not need the church. They do not need to be a part of a faith community.
The problem with that attitude is that the New Testament knows nothing about the “Lone Ranger Christian.” In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles envisioned the church as a community where forgiveness, and unconditional love, and mercy are the rule and not the exception. This passage from James—and really the whole book—can be summed up as how the Christian life is to be lived within the community of believers. He outlines the importance of caring for one another within the household of faith.
That is the crux of the matter in the other verses of today’s passage. Notice how James points out the communal nature of the Christian faith in the rest of the text: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.” And then the focus of today’s sermon—when someone goes astray, it is the responsibility of the community to gently bring the wandering soul back and restore them to the fellowship.
It has become a tall order in our day and age. Let’s not kid ourselves. These are tough times for the church. Every week, it seems that there is some new scandal involving church that is uncovered: ministers who discovered to be sexual predators, people embezzling money from their ministries, ministers (and sometimes churches) making stupid, self-righteous pronouncements about science or politics or religion that have little basis in reality, church leaders who have abandoned the gospel message for something that has nothing to do with Jesus. You know what I am talking about. It is inescapable.
When I read those stories, my heart aches. These high-profile stories only serve to tarnish our faith and tarnish the reputation of the church. We are told by pollsters within the last 20 years that the fastest growing categories of religion in the United States are these: the “nones” and the “dones.” That is, the people who claim no religious faith at all or those who were once active in a community of faith, but having become so disgusted and disappointed with church that they have abandoned church altogether. With the dark underbelly of many churches being exposed, who can blame them?
It is really up to us to be what the church is really supposed to be. A few months ago, I saw a sign proudly displayed over the entrance to a church. This sign had a list of social causes that this church was taking a stand for. They were all the hot-button issues of our day—gender equality, racial equality, abortion, gun violence, income disparity, and about three or four others. As I thought about the sign, there was something about it that immediately bothered me. If you did not know that this was a church, this sign could have been posted by any one of a number of social action or advocacy or lobbying groups.
What was significant to me about the list is what it was missing. There was nothing mentioned about the spiritual nature of the church’s mission. It seems to me that this is one of the most important functions of the church—that the church be known as a center for exploring and developing one’s relationship to God. Do not get me wrong—the way that our faith works itself out in actions is very important. In fact, that is one of the main emphases in James. Remember that James is the one who wrote that “Faith without works is dead.” We are to let our faith inform us and move us to be active in the political sphere that so that our society becomes more fair and more equitable for all its citizens. It is a matter of doing something that we pray for at First Baptist every week: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But if a church loses the function of being a center for spirituality, then the church has some wrong priorities. A church’s most important function should be that of helping its members to understand and to experience the reality of God in Christ more fully in their lives—wherever they are in their spiritual journey. At its most basic and at its best, that is what the church ought to be.
Which brings us back to the topic this morning. When others become discouraged with the faith and with church and vote with their feet by leaving, it is the responsibility of the members of the church to reach out to those who are struggling, by clearly articulating and demonstrating the liberating message of the gospel. Echoing what James wrote, 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love one another deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” When the church becomes a place where people can connect with God on a regular basis, when we seek to win those who have strayed from the truth, we can speak with spiritual compassion and authority to their needs and their situation. In that way, as followers of Jesus, James says that we all get by with a little help from our friends…
Our closing hymn this morning articulates much of what the sermon has been emphasizing this morning. Love is to be the dominant characteristic of the followers of Jesus. Love for those in the community of faith. Love for those outside who have yet to experience Christ’s love and grace in their lives. Those who have strayed from the truth and need to be loved back into relationship with their fellow believers and the Lord.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
Hymn #284 They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love
 Howard Dorgan, “Baptist Practice of Churching” in Dictionary of Baptists in America Ed. Bill J. Leonard (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 83-84.
 www.crossway.org/articles/10-things-you-shoould-know-about-church-discipline (Accessed September 25, 2018)
 This book is currently housed in the Virginia Baptist Historical Society’s archives.