Locals have a very aggressive way of pruning their fruit trees. At the very end of fall, the old men with their sickle sticks make their rounds again – and leave the trees naked for the winter. We were not in our current house this past winter, but we saw the effects of the lack of pruning on our loquat tree. Yes, this late spring it had several weeks of the yellow/orange fruit. It was fun while it lasted. One morning I triumphantly plucked my breakfast straight from the tree. But the neighbors’ trees had four times as much fruit for twice as long! Next winter, I’m getting an old man to come prune my trees. I will endure the sad loss of branches and leaves for the hope of the coming harvest.
Two months ago we gathered for the last time as members with the international church in our previous city. As we prepared to move, leaving this dear body of believers was one of the hardest parts. Seldom have I heard of another international church like this one. It is both serious about becoming a healthy biblical church and at the same time practical and devoted to serving cross-cultural missionaries like us in planting language-specific churches. Many international churches do not embrace a robust church planting vision for the local population in their host countries. Or, in the name of serving the broader expat community, many others settle for lowest common denominator doctrine and ecclesiology. But not all. There is a small but encouraging movement afoot, begun in the UAE twenty years or so ago, that is dotting this region of the world with a different breed of international churches. In my opinion as a cross-cultural missionary, this is one important part of a broader strategy to reach regions like ours with the gospel.
When we were new members at this church, we got to be a part of their first church discipline vote. Now, this is not at face value a very encouraging thing. Though commanded in scripture in passages like Matthew 18, church discipline is hard, messy, and costly. As such, it is largely absent from the evangelical missions world – despite being practiced by William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and others of our forerunners.
How exactly church discipline should get worked out in church planting situations is complicated, and there is a great need for research and thinking to be done about how to actually do this. As with many areas of ecclesiology, it’s gets muddy when you are seeking to plant the first healthy church ever among a certain people group – in situations that we call “zero to one.” How do you do church discipline when you haven’t been able to raise up local pastors/elders, and the church plant is led by temporary-apostolic-planter-pastor types like us? How do you discipline when you haven’t had a chance yet to teach on church membership and roll out a size and culture-appropriate expression of the inside-outside principle for biblical congregations? Yet the complications don’t erase the biblical commands nor the realities on the ground. For a tree to be healthy and fruitful, it must be pruned. The same is true of the local church – and church plants. After all, Paul’s letters were written to situations not too different from ours, to first generation believers who worshiped in church planting contexts.
In our first term we got burned by these very complexities. A local leader-in-training turned out to be a very divisive and deceitful man, who was bribing and dangerously misleading new believers. When our team wanted to move against him in order to protect the church plant, we were undermined by our conservative evangelical partners who didn’t feel that church discipline would “work” in this culture. Turns out the line of those who will actually do church discipline and who won’t is another crucial one which, in terms of practice, divides Bible-believing evangelicals. When it comes down to it, many biblical innerantists on the mission field won’t actually obey the Bible on this front. When you are dealing with a wolf, this is deadly.
Even among those of us who felt that we were dealing with a Titus 3 “divisive man,” we were very unsure of how to proceed in a new church plant that was not yet quite a church. We were caught flat-footed, and this skilled manipulator had lots of room to run circles around us, at great cost. Just the other day I was exploring the bazaar and happened to find the tailor shop of a new believer who fell away in that season, one of the first victims of that whole debacle. I don’t know if he’s open to relationship with us again, but now that we know where his shop is we can try to rekindle that connection.
All of this context is why were were both grieved and encouraged that the international church was moving forward to discipline one of their few local members. This young man had stopped coming to the church gathering for about a year and was unrepentant in the face of earnest counsel to return to his spiritual family. Hiking was more important than his church, and it appeared that his faith had been like the seed sown on shallow soil. He was simply over Jesus, and he was OK with that. We prayed for him to repent and waited patiently, but when the members meeting arrived we sought to be faithful to Jesus by declaring this man an unbeliever and no longer a member of our body.
As we reflected on what happened that day, we realized that this local man may have been the first person in our focus people group to be church disciplined for a thousand years. Or perhaps ever. There was a significant presence of ancient Christians in this area, and they did practice excommunication at times, so I can’t positively say he was the first. But likely the first for a millennium. A tragic distinction for him. But a courageous step for the international church. It would have been so easy to excuse away patterned unrepentant sin because as a local he was coming from an unchurched background, because locals are more resistant to the gospel, because their culture means they don’t understand church discipline, etc. But instead of going these routes, the church leadership and body stepped out in faith, obeyed the Scriptures, and pruned the tree.
The aim of healthy church discipline is always restoration – that those disciplined would wake up and respond in true repentance and faith. We pray that this young man would do this. But we also know that healthy church planting here will involve many more situations like this one. Every time will be a challenge. Will we believe and obey the Scriptures when both our culture and our adopted culture find it unpalatable? When local believers and other evangelicals tell us not to? We must. This is simply what faithfulness in church planting looks like. Holding fast to the commands of Christ, come what may.
We must model for the local believers how to prune the church as they model for us how to prune our fruit trees. To be faithful gardeners, we must endure the sadness of the pruning for the hope of the abundant fruit that will result.
Next spring I hope for many more loquats. And next decade? Many more brothers and sisters in the faith.