A third rail is a method of providing electric power to a railway train, through a semi-continuous rigid conductor placed alongside or between the rails of a railway track. It is used typically in a mass transit or rapid transit system, which has alignments in its own corridors, fully or almost fully segregated from the outside environment. Third rail systems are always supplied from direct current electricity.
The third rail of a nation's politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is "charged" and "untouchable"; any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically. The metaphor is most commonly used in North America and was first used by Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives during the Reagan presidency in reference to Social Security.
Applied to the Lord’s church a third rail would be any scriptural subject or action that is so controversial that it is “charged” or “untouchable” by anyone in a leadership position (elders, preacher, men’s business meetings) who dares to broach the matter will invariably suffer. I make the naïve assumption, for the sake of argument, that any unscriptural action would be “untouchable” on its face and not worthy of discussion here.
The two subjects that come to mind are the marriage/divorce/re-marriage issue and the application of church discipline. The m/d/r issue is for another day. The scriptural justification for church discipline, more specifically the process of withdrawing fellowship as a last step in the disciplinary process should be clear to any mature Bible student (Matthew 18:17; Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14,15; Galatians 6:1,2,9,10; Titus 3:10; James 5:19,20).
The purpose of this article is to delve into the reasons why so many intelligent, mature, knowledgeable and well-intentioned Christian male leaders in the Lord’s church do not practice scriptural church discipline.
During my eight years serving as an elder I often awoke early in the morning thinking about Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” It would give me chills and cause a continual thanksgiving for a plurality of elders.
Hermeneutics, the science of Scripture interpretation, is based on the triad authority of Command, Example and Necessary Inference or Implication. The commands of God are obviously the strongest explicit language in the Bible. What would have happened if Abraham had modified God’s command to sacrifice his son since he knew Isaac was to carry on the linage through which the Messiah was to come? (Genesis 22:2) There are no commands for singing, the Lord’s Supper or collections during worship yet we would never dream of excluding these events. Do we have the authority to disregard those commands with which we disagree or are uncomfortable carrying out?
The Bible commands us to discipline members who walk disorderly but does not provide specific instructions on how to accomplish this task. We cannot use this fact as justification to ignore the command. We are not provided instructions on how to conduct singing (except no mechanical instruments), the Lord’s Supper (except unleavened bread and fruit of the vine) or collections but we have devised practical ways to accomplish these actions that are within the area of discretion. My book, “Congregational Leadership 101” has a chapter devoted to carrying out the discipline command with exhibits provided.
We cannot use the excuse that withdrawing fellowship does not work; that an unrepentant member will just move their membership down the street to another church. If we use that logic, why baptize? Many denominational churches will gladly accept people who have not been baptized for remission of their sins.
Many outside the church have criticized us for withdrawing from an unrepentant member because they see it as an intolerant and hateful practice. That accusation could not be farther from Biblical truth. All the steps involved in church discipline are acts of love toward the soul in jeopardy, and the congregation. Church leaders are simply reminding their flock that God will not tolerate sin, and neither will we.
Others will accuse us of being “judgmental.” Paul judged the actions a member of the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 5:3) and he would be the first to admit he was a sinner. It is through the power and authority of Jesus that judging takes place (1 Corinthians 5:4-5; John 12:48). The church is simply obeying His command.
It is the God-given responsibility of church leaders to perform due-diligence before accepting the oversight of a prospective member of their congregation. Often leaders do not want to know the truth and ask only superficial questions at the initial interview (Joshua 22:30-32; Deuteronomy 13:12-14).
If congregational leaders are not wholly practicing Biblical church discipline what will be their answer to God on Judgment Day when He asks, “Why do you say you love me and not keep my commandments?” (John 14:15)
The first century church was as much concerned with loving discipline as they were with Bible-centered worship. Can a church that is not wholly committed to practicing church discipline honestly consider itself a New Testament church?
James L. Whitmire