I. Recommitment: The Old Testament Principle
The Old Testament may surprisingly have something to say about "pruning," or calling people to recommit themselves to their baptismal confession. There are a number of well-known calls to recommitment in biblical history. Deuteronomy 30, Joshua 24, and Nehemiah 8 are just a few.
God seems to be intent on reminding his people what he has done for them and calling them back when they stray. But a Joshua 24 situation (hopefully) won't arise several times a year. (Several times a generation would be more like the biblical pattern, if there is a pattern.) There's no need to expound on such passages. The thrust of this article is something quite different.
There are still some Old Testament regulations which, while abolished at the cross, nevertheless continue to have validity for our day. One example is the Sabbath.
While Christians are not obliged to observe the Sabbath, the basic principles still apply: (i) periodic rest is beneficial, (ii) taking time out to focus on God, (iii) the people of God having a common schedule. We're not bound by the Sabbath, but God's manifold wisdom is clearly seen in the institution of the ordinance. If we're smart we won't ignore these principles.
The Jewish calendar was punctuated by a number of festivals and other holy times: the Day of Atonement, Purim, the Feast of Trumpets, Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Unlike the first three, which could be observed at home, the next three required a trip to Jerusalem. That required greater commitment, and naturally these occasions, reverently observed, became times of soul-searching and recommitment to the Lord.
Passover, or the Feast of Unleavened Bread, was observed around the beginning of April, a couple of weeks into Spring. Pentecost, the Feast of Harvest or the Feast of Weeks, was observed around the beginning of June, shortly before the start of summer. The Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Ingathering or Sukkoth, was celebrated around the beginning of autumn (early October). Three times a year God required every man to go up to Jerusalem. Three times a year God gave his people a heart check. The whole group, all together.
My argument is that there is a principle here which will help us as children of God under the new covenant. Let me state clearly that I am not advocating a return to Judaism! What I am trying to do is to throw some light on our emerging practice often called "pruning."
Each of the three events mentioned above was a powerful way of confirming, at regular intervals, all members in the covenant. Passover reminded the Jews in a graphic way of the reality of death and God's wrath against sin, his wonderful provision of salvation and his grace without which we are struck dead in his presence. The group meal, the blood, the sacrifice of an innocent sheep or goat, the retelling of the story of the Exodus (perhaps with a revised history of the movement to date) re-focused the hearts of the people on the Lord. Everyone had to attend. Read all about it in Exodus 12!
Pentecost, following seven weeks on the heels of Passover, strengthened the people in a different way. It reminded them that it is the Lord, not ourselves, who gives us the harvest. He makes us fruitful -- he and not the arm of flesh, not Baal or some false god. Here too there was a sacrifice: an offering of the soil along with an animal sacrifice (Lev 23). The people were expected to be there, to be committed, and to remember the Lord. And very important, they were commanded to "rejoice" (Deut 16.11) -- no long faces, please!
Tabernacles, about 4 months later, was a week of camping out in booths, remembering the Desert period and strengthening hearts in gratitude to God. Many sacrifices were made and, once again, we find the command to "be joyful" (Deut 16.14). Every seventh Feast of Tabernacles was a time of intensive scripture study and rededication to God's law (Deut 31.10).
One passage bringing the three pilgrimages together is Deut 16.16-17:
Three times a year all your men must appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the Lord empty-handed. Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.
Penalties for failure to get with the program in O.T. times could be severe. In the case of Passover observance, it was being cut off from Israel (Exodus 12); failing to attend the assembly of the exiles -- confiscation of property and exclusion (Ezra 10); breaking the Sabbath -- death. All these can be considered examples of "self-pruning." Israelites were free to decide not to go to Jerusalem three times annually, but that would most likely cost him his place in the covenant community.
God in his wisdom has provided us with a plan in the Old Testament whose basic principles will work today. Even though we won't be doing it the Jewish way, we can have confidence that several intensive congregational times annually will keep our hearts and commitment strong just as the Lord has intended it for millennia!
Let's remember that "All scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." That means (especially) the Old Testament. God's principles are unchanging.
II. About the term "pruning"
Since we don't doubt the wisdom of calling the disciples to reaffirm their commitment to Jesus as Lord, it's time to talk about terminology. The term "pruning" has taken on different meanings, anywhere from calling to decision to being asked to leave the church. Abuses have occurred, but regardless it's 100% biblical to call the disciples to discipleship!
Terminology is important, since terminology can influence attitudes towards discipleship, church discipline and church building in general. The question isn't Is pruning biblical? The questions are rather: What is pruning according to the Bible? and then, if this isn't the right term, as I will argue, What term should we use?
So let's study the classic pruning text for the most biblical perspective possible. John 15.1-3 is important not just because it's the "classic" text but because it's the only text in the New Testament where any form of the word "prune" is found.
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes or cleans [Greek] so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you."
You may recall that earlier translations of the NIV (1973*) rendered the Greek kathairei as "trims clean." "Pruning" was a later, secondary translation (though justified by the Koine Greek). For the sake of comparison, consider the following translations of the phrase in question in verse 2:
"...every fruiting branch he cleans..." (NEB)
"...every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth..." (KJV)
"...every branch that does bear fruit he prunes..." (RSV)
"...every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean..." (NIV*)
"...every branch which bears fruit he will cleanse..." (Latin Vulgate)
I'm not arguing with the translation, just trying to be helpful and show the play on words in the original text ("trims clean" (v.2)/"clean" (v.3).
We might think of the products of pruning as the useless branches waiting to be burned. Burning is certainly the final fate of branches that don't bear fruit, according to verse 6, but notice the confusion that's occurred: Which branches are pruned, the fruitless ones or the fruitful ones?
Jesus says it's the fruitful ones that are pruned! Contrary to terminology in some quarters, no person can be "pruned" from the church. People "pruned" are always disciples, growing disciples. The ones cut off are the fruitless ones, but these are not said to be "pruned". Also notice that this action is carried out by the Father, and strictly speaking (in this context) is not "pruning." Rather, it's analogous to Jesus' nauseated action in Rev 3.16. Here Jesus is the only one doing the spewing!
Just as in humility we rightly hesitate to say "I saved someone," since this is God's doing and prerogative, so I would suggest we hesitate before saying "We pruned him."
Pruning is simply what faithful, fruitful Christians undergo at the hand of God. This "cleansing" occurs through the power of the word of God: perhaps in a sermon, a discipling time, or through dealing with temptation, pressure, persecution, leadership changes, moves, etc. Pruning is both highly desirable and ongoing. Let me stress this again, we all need and deep down want to be pruned.
At the personal level, our characters are pruned. Painful as this may be, it's essential if we are to mature (and thus bear even more fruit). Many scriptures speak of this: Heb 12.11-12, Jas 1.2-4, Rom 5.3-4.
Can the church be pruned? Yes, in a sense. Pruning may well describe the overall effect of preaching the word of God -- a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. The implication is that some are cut off -- but note that this isn't Jesus' usage of the term. Pruning isn't so much clearing away deadwood as cutting back living, green, healthy shoots.
Now I think in principle we're perfectly free to modify the word pruning in any meaningful, helpful way, yet the sense of the passage and the usage of Jesus don't allow us to base our interpretation