Pruning the Church
1"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
- John 15:1-2
When Lise and I and the kids lived in Montreal, I had a raspberry patch in my backyard, whose stalks were two to four feet high, and we'd eat sweet, delicious raspberries in the summer. We had so many, I had to put them in baggies and give them to people, we had so many raspberries. Just a wonderful, wonderful thing, and when I went online to get information on how to care for these, I was told that I had to kind of cut the stalks down to the ground level, so that they would grow again the following year. And to me, I'm not a gardener person. I don't garden. So to me, this sounded so counter-intuitive. My Italian nature, I wanted to feed it and give it water and fuss over it and just clip it a little bit here and there. And no, no, no. Just cut that thing down to the ground,. Reluctantly, I did it, and sure enough, the following season, it would grow and it just grew bigger. More raspberries, it was great.
I think we know from experience that without pruning or cutting back shrubs, trees, plants, whatever, some flowers, some plants would just not grow properly. And, so in the passage that we read this morning, we see that this principle of pruning is also true as far as the church is considered. Jesus says that God is always at work pruning, so to speak, His church, and He does so for a variety of reasons, and so this morning in my lesson, I want to give you three reasons why God prunes His church.
1. God prunes His church to get rid of the dead wood.
Jesus says plainly, "He cuts off every branch of Mine that doesn't produce fruit." That's pretty plain. Branches that don't produce need to go, because they're taking up space and nutrients needed by the tree.
In the church, the unproductive members are eventually cut away as well, and need to be, because they take up ministry resources and time and spiritual energy, without producing anything in return. Oh, they may still be sitting on a pew from time to time, but once the Lord cuts them away, they're no longer attached to the tree.
There are various ways that the Lord does this. First of all, He either calls you to judgment in death. That's one way He prunes. This is a drastic method, but your empty and unproductive Christian life simply comes to an end, suddenly, in death. Like the man in Jesus' parable, who wanted to build bigger barns, or the one who ignored the pleadings of the beggar at his doorstep in Luke Chapter 12 and 16. What happened to them? Well, they were spiritually unfruitful, despite their earthly blessings, and God just cut them away from physical life and sent them on to death in order to await judgment.
That's one way He prunes. Or God lets you cut yourself away, like the prodigal son in Luke Chapter 15. That's one method. He lets you do it to yourself. In this parable, the younger son cut himself away from the father, and the father let him go.
Of course, we know that he eventually came back in repentance, but in real life, not everybody comes back.
Demas, for example, a Bible character, is a good example of, a real life example of this person cutting themselves away from the church. In the Epistle to Philemon verse 23, Paul refers to Demas along with Luke and others as his co-workers. And then in Colossians Chapter 4:7-14, Paul sends greetings on behalf of many people describing some service or some spiritual trait that each one of these exhibited. A beloved brother, a faithful helper, a co-worker, a servant in the Lord. He gives each one a kind of a prefix to his service, to his value. And in Verse 14, he ends the passage by simply referring to Demas in the following way. He says,
Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas.
Period. Nothing to describe Demas. Demas was with Paul, but he was no longer serving, not very active, not very fruitful. And so in II Timothy 4:10, Paul finally reports that Demas has gone. He explains it this way. He says,
"For Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica."
And so Demas was fruitful, yes, and then less and less, and less so, until he just cut himself away by his desire to return to the world. Paul had many effective and fruitful co-workers in Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Justice, Epaphras, and Luke, to name just a few. Demas was one of these, for a time, but when he ceased to produce and yearned to return to the world, Paul and God let him go. Sometimes, people just cut themselves away from the tree.
2. God also prunes the tree in order to remove the harmful growth.
Sometimes the tree contracts a disease and certain branches are infected. In these instances, you have to remove the infected branches in order to save the rest of the tree. Some people in the church cause trouble, and they threaten its reputation or its stability or its spiritual health. When this happens, God will clear away the sick parts to guarantee the life of the healthy part. Again, how does God do this, exactly? Well, sometimes, through death. In Acts Chapter 5, there is the story of a couple who lied about their offering, and they were struck dead immediately. The danger, of course, was that a couple of people who wanted to be leaders, they wanted to be examples in the church, and they thought that they could do this by lying to God Himself. Imagine. Imagine how dangerous would it be if corrupt people like this had found their way into the leadership of the early church. Of course, death is not the only or the usual way that God prunes the church of poisonous fruit, although we're eventually all removed from the church building in this way.
God has given the church another way to prune itself of divisive, immoral, lazy, and false brethren, and this is the method of discipline. Just as families use discipline to correct disobedient children. The church has to resort to this as well when members cause trouble or they bring shame on the body and thus threaten harm to the Lord's church. There're many forms of church discipline described in the Bible, and they're given for various types of problems. For example, disputes between two people, Jesus talks about this in Matthew 18, where He says, "Go to your brother..." "If your brother sins against you, go to your brother." One on one.
That's one way of settling a kind of a dispute. And then there are people who cause division in the church and there's a whole other approach to that. Paul describes in Romans Chapter 16, Verse 17. Those who are guilty of gross public immorality, Paul gives instructions in 1 Corinthians Chapter 5, in how to deal with those people.
Then those who are trapped in sin, personal sin that is destroying their faith, again, Paul describes the approach in Galatians 6 that one can use to help those people. Now, the approach is different in each situation, but the objective is always the same. To make the person aware that they are in trouble or they're causing trouble, or to try to help that person correct the problem and deal with it, and then to separate people who are causing trouble from the church, to prune them away if they continue that sinful behavior.
We had to do this disciplining action several times when I was in Montreal, for example. And, it was always painful, but it was necessary. I remember a time, there was a retired minister who continually caused division and turmoil in the church, in Verdun. He had retired, and he had kind of placed membership with our congregation in Verdun, and after a time there started to be trouble, just trouble. Arguments and divisions and stuff going on, and we wondered, "What is going on here?" And, eventually we found out that he was the one causing, whispering this and he disagreed with this and he was forming a posse over here to agree with what he was thinking. He was just causing trouble, and so we went to him and we warned him several times, and told them that we would refuse to have fellowship with him, if he didn't just behave himself and stop causing this type of turmoil in the church. Well, after we did this, he left, and guess what? No more trouble. No more trouble, peace and quiet. Everybody was getting along.
Now, other churches where he went refused to discipline him and he caused division in those places. As a matter of fact, the congregation that he was last with eventually split in two. But when we disciplined or pruned him away, we inoculated ourselves against further illness and trouble. It's not easy to do and it's painful, but sometimes, it's necessary.
There was another brother, this time in Ville-Émard. That congregation, who committed financial fraud against several members in the church. They came to Roger (the other minister at that congregation) and I and talked about the amount of money that they lost.
And the most vulnerable people, widows, people who didn't have much understanding about financial matters, people with not a lot of education, pensioners, things like that. This brother had a kind of a Ponzi scheme going, in other words, he was selling shares to fake companies and he was using, the money that he'd get to one guy he'd pay a few dividends to another guy and he kept the money for himself. And, he just kept turning this thing over and over. Finally we confronted him and we asked him to repent. We had him dead to rights with all the paperwork and everything. There were no companies. There were no investments. He was running a scheme, and we said, look, we'll help you. We'll gather the people that you defrauded. We won't go to the police, we'll settle among ourselves. You can pay back. Let's save your soul and lets try to help the people that you cheated and let's keep it in-house, and let's do the right thing. And, he refused. So we withdrew fellowship from him and no one else was cheated. And, the damage to the church was repaired in this way, at least, further damage was. And, we reported him. The members asked us, what should we do? Well, there was a crime. The person refuses to repent and then they went on and reported him to the financial institution and so on and so forth.
The point here is that pruning the dead wood and the infected branches is never easy or pleasant. But, it's necessary at times for the health and the growth of the church. The Lord knows and teaches this but this is a lesson that we often are reluctant to learn.
3. God prunes the healthy branches in order to to make them stronger.
As Jesus said in John 15. He prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. Pruning the good part of the plant in the fall is what prepares it for growth and fruitfulness in the spring. Even though, it's not evident. When I cut my lush and leafy four foot raspberry stalks down to the ground level, there wasn't much to indicate that they would come back. But, they did and they were stronger. And, with a better harvest the following year.
The same principle works with Christians in the church. With individual Christians in the church. God prunes us back in various ways to strengthen and to make us more fruitful. And, He does this in a variety of ways. Again, for example, sometimes He allows us to suffer illness or disappointments, or injustice, in various trials in order to test the quality of our faith. Going through these things without giving up our faith and our hope actually increases the quality of our faith which in turn enables us to experience joy and peace, and true hope.You can't have these things without great faith. And, great faith is cultivated through God's work in pruning us through trial. Sometimes, He prunes us by making us wait.
Personally, that's the worst for me. I don't know about you. I'd rather be sick and the doctor say, well, you'll be in bed or the surgery, put you out of commission for a week or two and then in about a month your arm will be better and you'll be back to normal. I'd rather have that. I'd rather have that situation, than when God just makes me wait. I got to wait and He's the only one who knows how long I've got to wait. Sometimes, He removes our strength. Sometimes, He inhibits our talent.
In other words, we're not able to exercise our talents for some reason or other. Sometimes, He reduces our wealth, and all of these things, so that we will depend more on Him, than on ourselves. I did this with my plants in the spring. I would tie the growing stalks to sticks, in the ground, guides to help them. And, it seemed to restrict them as they grew. They couldn't just grow wild in any direction, as raspberry plants seemed to do. They were tied firmly to the sticks which were driven into the ground. But, in the fall, when the raspberries came, the fruit was so heavy that the stalks would have broken, if they wouldn't be supported by the stick.
Or, the fruit would have been on the ground, eaten by the insects. Well, there is several stalks that would have not survived, had I not, propped them up with sticks. Well, in the same way God restricts us. He holds us back. He puts limits on us, in some way, in order to make sure that we can handle the harvest that He has planned for us to bear. He did this with the Apostle Paul. He prevented him from going to Asia. And, He put a thorn in his flesh and yet Paul was instrumental in planting many churches in the Roman empire, and writing a good portion of the New Testament. I wonder what he thought as he sat in a dungeon. We say he was in prison. Well, it was a dungeon. It was a damped dungeon basement chained to a pole. I wonder what he thought about his career. I wonder what he though about his mission to bring the Gospel to the whole world. He was a key guy. He was important. He was the one planting the churches. He was a one man Apostolic church planting machine. We don't hear about the other Apostles, but Paul we hear about.
Even in histories, non religious histories, of various countries in those parts of the world talk about this historical figure, Paul the Apostle. I wonder what he said to God, when they pronounced him guilty and put him in jail? And weeks turned into months. And, months turned into years. No preaching. No debating. No, giving the Gospel to people that hadn't heard it before. I wonder what he thought. Do you think at any time during those moments he spent in jail, he wasn't thinking, Lord, what are you doing? I'm your guy. I'm a Roman citizen. I'm the guy that can go all around Roman empire. I have freedom of movement that even the other Apostles, who are Jews, don't have. What are you thinking leaving me here? I'm restricted. I can't use the talent that you've given me. It's hard to acknowledge in those moments that God knows what He's doing. Very hard.
And, then of course, at other times God would not only prunes us back but He'll use us to start another vine. Just as I transplanted healthy branches from one stalk in order to begin a new plant. This is how the church grew and spread in the beginning. It was well established in Jerusalem, but then God pruned the church through a persecution in that area by Jewish leaders. Luke says that this severe persecution didn't destroy the church, it served to spread it to other places. We read in Acts.
Those who had been scattered, because of the persecution, went about preaching the word...
- Acts 11:19a
God taken healthy branches in Jerusalem and replanting them in other places. You see, the thing about pruning is that it is inevitable. You can not avoid it. God is always pruning, through good times or bad times God is always pruning the church. And, when He says... when I'm saying God is pruning the church, I don't mean, He prunes it like the whole group, He's pruning the church one member at a time. But, it's always happening. It's always going on.
The question is not, "will I ever be pruned?" The question is, what should I do when I am being pruned? Because, believe me everybody is pruned. All the disciples are pruned.
So when it's happening to you, when you are being pruned, a couple of things to remember. If you're being pruned because you're unproductive, repent. If you're being pruned because you're not productive, repent. God can always take you in death, but in the mean time, you can change.
Pray and ask God to help you to identify your talents or ask Him for an opportunity to use them, or to use more of them. You'll know that He's answering your prayer because you will see the fruit of your service in your life.
Then, if you're being pruned because you are diseased, repent. You see a pattern happening here? Repent. Your situation is more urgent, because there is greater danger to you and the church. Unfruitful branches often linger for a long time before they're pruned away.
There is the slow death of spiritual laziness and neglect. But, the diseased branch is evident and as often rewarded quickly. Excuse me, removed quickly and painfully. The good news is that when a diseased branch is healed, it usually produces a great harvest of gratitude in the future.
How many times have I heard brothers and sisters say, "I was going the wrong way and this happened. And it kind of woke me up a little bit and I turned things around. And I began...thank you God. Thank you God for finding me. For getting my attention, Lord. For kind of slapping me on the side of the head so that I'd understand what I was doing wrong. Thank you Lord."
And, then of course, if you're being pruned because God wants more growth, well then rejoice. Rejoice. Submit to God's work in you, no matter what form it takes, because in the end, you will be much healthier, much more fruitful than before. As the Hebrew writer says, for they discipled us, meaning our fathers, our human fathers.
For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He, meaning God, disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. James summarizes this process when he says the following.
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials. You could put there various prunings. Knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result.
It's complete, its whole, its mature result. So, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. So, let's remember that we all have been, are being, or will be pruned by the Lord. The only difference is, why He's doing it? and how we react to it.
My prayer as I close out this morning, is that we are among those who are being cultivated for a future harvest and not being cut away because of laziness or disease. If anyone is here this morning and realizes that God is trying to get their attention, and, maybe they need to repent.
Maybe they need to confess Christ and obey the Gospel which they have been putting off, then we encourage you to come forward and make your needs known to the church as we stand and as we sing our song of encouragement.