"This is the most important election of our lifetime."
I can't even remember how many times I've heard that phrase since 2004. I've voted in every presidential election for which I've been eligible because I believe it is both my right and my duty as a citizen. To be perfectly honest, however, I have discovered that voting for a major political party candidate is emotionally comparable to picking a team for which to root in a sports game. I don't want to belittle the importance of political issues by comparing them to something so trivial as athletic competition, but my emotions are about the same either way. If my "team" wins the contest, I'll feel happy for a few moments before reality sets in and reminds me that very little lasting good will come out of said "victory." Maybe I'm more glad to see "the other" lose than I am to see "my team" win, if for no other reason than that I don't have to watch other people gloat who don't see things the same way that I see them. And if "the other" wins, I'll be disappointed and imagine the day when the scales might tip the other way. Maybe I'll be optimistic about "next year" or maybe I'll realize that there is no guarantee that "my team" will even come close to winning a future contest. When I wake up in the morning, I'll go about my real-life business much the same way that I always have. "The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises," to borrow a phrase from Ecclesiastes.
But on Wednesday night, in the basement of a little Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, I believe I cast four "votes" that have far greater consequences than a four-year cycle. I joined my Baptist brothers and sisters (with whom I covenanted together nearly eight years ago) in adding three new members to our fellowship and removing one long-time brother through church discipline. By the grace of God, adding new members to the fellowship is a frequent experience at our church, and it's always a joyous occasion to see what plans God has in store for the newly added brethren. On the other hand, the disciplinary process is (thankfully) a relatively rare phenomenon, but one that is always painful.
In Matthew 16:19, Jesus promised to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to His church. There's been a plethora of diverse opinions as to just what our Lord meant when He said, "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." I don't claim to know all the details of the text's meaning, but I think everybody should agree that it at least affirms that the earthly deeds of the church have eternal consequences. I believe these eternal consequences are on the line whenever a congregation convenes a business meeting in which they will decide who to admit into the fellowship and who to exclude from the fellowship.
If memory serves, I've had to cast four votes of discipline during my church-going life, and it's been a gut-wrenching feeling in every instance. When I cast that vote to place my old friend under the discipline of the church, I did so with the sorrowful conviction that my friend no longer valued Christ as the Savior and Lord of his life. I fear that all his joyful service over the past seven years was but a well-meaning deception... one that he himself may not even have been fully aware. His sins against his family and his Lord were evident to all, and though my friend acknowledges his fault, he remains unrepentant. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul described the act of church discipline as the final, desperate act by which a church might see their sin-bound brothers brought to true repentance and reconciliation. When the assembly of the church votes to discipline, it amounts to no less than a "deliverance to Satan" so that the man's eternal soul might ultimately be saved at the Lord's appointed time. God is sovereign, but God uses His church as the appointed means by which people can prepare themselves for the inevitable Day of Judgement when only One vote matters. In my experience, the disciplined brothers and sisters who respond in repentance are the exceptions to the norm. In spite of that, we still ought to have hope that God will work mightily to recover the His lost sheep.
For me, political elections have been reduced to futile, half-hearted attempts to restrain sin and human depravity through legal tour de force. I'm not ashamed to admit that fact, but I don't take pleasure in being a "single issue" voter who knows that even the best-case outcome is unlikely to change laws... let alone change hearts and minds. It's like rooting for your favorite sports team of aging, overpaid players to make that one last run at the big trophy. Even if they do manage to capture the championship, the odds suggest that they will lose the crown the next time around.
But when I take my responsibilities as a church member seriously, I have hope for more than simply restraining sin through Law. I can believe that the Holy Spirit of God is working in and through the people of Christ to do a work of Grace. When Grace changes hearts and minds, lasting life-change necessarily follows.
The most important "vote" of our lifetime wasn't in 2004, 2008, or 2012, and it won't be in 2016 either. The more important votes are the ones we cast when we covenant together to prepare people for the Kingdom that is coming. And that's a Hope that can truly sustain me.