Receiving the Little Ones, and Church Discipline
Most people would agree that they don't really want a "rules-based" religion. That concept conjures images of fundamentalism, traditionalism, a sense of hard-core morality that is at its base both uncompromising and exclusionary of those who do not offer conformity to a set of holiness codes. It is the root cause, I believe, of the fastest growing phenomenon among people who profess faith, but prefer to say that they are "spiritual, but not religious." The rules being professed wind up being too out of step with where people are, most being either "un-churched" (never formed in a particular faith) or "de-churched" (refugees from religious communities they have either fled or been driven from).
The hard side of lifepath committed to deepening a faith that is both personal and communal for most of us is that most churches are not very good at lining out what discipline in community looks like. We might have by-laws, canons, policies and procedures...but we lack methodology in calling each other to account. At root, we are all voluntary members of this fellowship, and this the only thing binding us to each other is our willingness to live in mutual submission to God and to God's call to "walk the talk."
How do we hold each other to account?
With a passel of 8th century prophets like Obadiah, we would be able to look directly to God to name what we are doing wrong, hear of the day when judgment looms and pray that we can amend our lives enough in order to either avert the judgment or shorten the time of separation so that we can in as few generations as possible find our way back to covenant with the Most High. I have known a few prophets in my time, and have also observed in myself and others a reticence to submit to those pronunciations.
In my years as a priest and pastor, I have found myself turning to Matthew 18 more and more for direction in how to live in community in such a way as to be able to accept and extend a discipline that is both corrective and restorative while at the same time meeting God's extraordinarily high standards of a holy life lived humbly and faithfully in covenant with the Divine and the other. First and foremost, receive those who have less with grace, warmth and respect. That means welcoming the small, the young, the weak, the halt, the lame, the poor, the lost, the broken...as guests of high honor to fellowship. Second, to accept that we are accountable to God...and in that accountability we are bound in faith and trust to each other. Third, when those binds break, we go through a three-stage process of reconciliation, moving with intention from the intimate to the corporate with the understanding of mutual accountability and responsibility for our actions, reactions and choices: 1) confront the sin and the sinner with love and in person; 2) if they don't hear/accept responsibility for the fractures in self and/or relationship, bring someone else into the mix to be a witness and a partner to you both; 3) when that fails, bring the issue to the community....and face the challenge of seeking reconciliation and restoration together.
I have seen this process work, both to a positive and restorative outcome as well as on several occasions seeing a person leave a fellowship when that reconciliation cannot or will not be obtained. It isn't easy to risk our self, our pride and our faces when conflict looms...but if we are to learn from the prophets, and from the Christ, then it means being willing to welcome the "little ones" and being willing to hold ourselves and each other to account for our actions. This goes beyond "rules-based" faith, maturing us into something more than "don't mess up, because if you do you are OUT," into a place where restoration and reconciliation become out primary goal, both for ourselves as individuals and for our health as a community faith.