Monday, June 8, 2015

The bizarre world of modern church discipline

Man confesses to child porn; church disciplines his wife

As headlines go, this Baptist News Global article by Bob Allen, dated May 29, 2015, is an award-winner. Bob might not appreciate it but it's right up there with the classic, "Headless man found in topless bar".

Sadly, the article reported on an actual case of a Southern Baptist church which exercised their church discipline process in such a way that was reflected in the concise and striking headline. The church has since apologized.

As a pastor, one of my churches was among the many in the SBC who have extensive records, minutes of church conferences or business meetings, that contain instances where members were brought, sometimes in person, sometimes in absentia, before the congregation for sins such as card playing, dancing, causing strife, non-attendance, drunkenness, or other offense. Sometimes the records would show a subsequent congregational meeting in which remorse, repentance, and restoration was described. Sometimes not.

These 19th Century tales are a staple of shop talk among ministers and occasionally make it into a sermon as an illustration ("This church used to kick out members for playing cards. Ha. Ha. Anyone for spades after church tonight?").

I doubt that many in SBC life who have watched and followed such things would not recognize that this is part of the thrust dominated by Calvinistic voices and churches. Tom Ascol has written and spoken elegantly about the matter. Al Mohler has some articles on recovering the lost practice of church discipline. Some, perhaps all, of the calvinistic networks and organizations that are popular and active in SBC life call for discipline to be normalized as part of a healthy church. Some prominent SBCers not identified with Calvinism have joined the conversation calling for such.

Baptist Press, usually nowhere to be found when there is negative publicity about an SBC church spreading like wildfire, carried a story about discipline that is timely and helpful: Public apologies spur discipline warnings.

BNG has a similar story by Jeff Brumley: Public church discipline a reminder of Baptist past, if not present.

The world of contemporary, Southern Baptist church discipline is a bizarre world that deserves some reflection.

1. Before quoting Jesus or Paul on church discipline, it might be wise to ponder some definitions and recognize some prickly issues.

Membership numbers are an easy target and no one disputes that in some cases Southern Baptist churches and pastors have been irresponsible or lazy with the concept of membership, but where do we get this business of church "members" anyway? Many churches have lists of "active" and "inactive" members; lists of "resident" and "non-resident" members. Some have that strange category of "watchcare" members. Some have "members" who for various reasons aren't on the list yet are clearly part of the gathered community. I always resented the idea that reported numbers ought to be used as a presumption of an unregenerate church.

Since churches have assets (buildings, vehicles, endowments, investments, bank accounts, etc.), budgets, and paid staff all of which in congregational governance are controlled by "members" does this color our policies and practices? You had better believe that it does. You cannot escape it.

One of the most important things that can be said about the ecclesia in the New Testament is that it is only an incipient ecclesia. I'm Baptist by both conviction and choice and believe in congregational rule, not elder rule, not CEO rule, not hierarchical rule but I recognize that there are a lot of variations and expressions of what can be legitimately be called a "church." Our own Baptist Faith and Message Statement has only the barest outline of ecclesiology.

2. Since Baptists don't have a codified system of canon law, discipline almost always ends up being arbirtary.

What triggers a process of discipline? Adultery? Divorce? Pornography viewing? Profane language? Not tithing? Abuse of your spouse? Drunkenness? Habitual lying? Non- or sporadic attendance at worship or small group? Gluttony? Is the triggering behavior described in any church document?

Who should initiate the countdown to expulsion? Pastor? Deacon? Sufficient proportion of pastor/elders? Any member? A formal church group assigned the task?

When an actionable sin is found, how long should be process last? What constitutes repentance? How many relapses are allowed? Those who offer Matthew 18 as a mantra ("...tell it to the church"..."...let him be as an heathen man...") or a formula or a neat protocol are overreaching.

Along with a thrust to recover "biblical discipline" is a revival of church covenants. Covenants have a long history among us. Is it incorrect to say that they are aspirational goals for members of a congregation who are on a quest for holiness before God? Is a given church's covenants that or a contractual obligation between church leadership and congregant? Lawyers now advise some churches on the language of 'covenants' that members are required to sign because church or minister actions against a member can have legal ramifications. These are legal documents, not aspirational statements of common goals.

When discipline is left to church leaders, and it almost always is, it has a way of becoming a route to exercise authority and control by those leaders. Show me one case of egregious and sinful behavior by a church member that is singled out for discipline and I'll show you a hundred cases where other sins are deemed acceptable and not subject to discipline. There are numerous anecdotes where favored and powerful church members (or ministers) are ignored in their sins while powerless and insignificant members are singled out for discipline because of their sins. No minister or church ever admits to this, of course.

3. "We do discipline right"

In the past when this subject has arisen, invariably someone will agree with me in principle but maintain that, "We do discipline right." That assertion is almost always accompanied by phrases like "lovingly applied" and with "redemptive results" and "glorious restoration."  The descriptive language has become creepy, almost cultic. I cringe when I hear it because it often has accompanied spiritual abuse in a church.

4. Patriarchy and power.

When a senior or lead pastor, a man, or a group of elders, all men, sit in judgment of females who make up the majority of church membership, perhaps there can be essential elements missing. The most prominent cases of church discipline gone awry (or, alternatively seen, working as designed) like the present case involve groups of men bearing down on isolated females. How can a system designed for good end up with a headline (husband with porn problem...wife under discipline) so bizarre? I'd offer a conjecture that part of the reason has to do, consciously or subliminally, with gender and power.

5. Matthew 18 and Galatians 6.

When I see Matthew 18 invoked, it is almost always formulaic, as a protocol, and with the presumption that what Jesus calls for is simple and uncomplicated. When someone sins and will not repent, the church should together decide to treat them like a pagan. Simple enough? Not exactly. But it is simple enough if you need something to justify a congregational lynch mob.

Galatians 6 (" who are spiritual...gentleness...") seems to be much more straightforward and far simpler to implement.  Notably, it doesn't call for shaming, expulsion, or punishment. It does call for self-examination ("you who are spiritual"), moderated behavior ("gentleness"), and personal wariness ("watch yourselves"). Not insignificantly, the oft-invoked verse is followed by "bear one another's burdens."

I always led my churches to practice discipline; however, in each church I knew, personally, every active members of the church. It was a part of shepherding, pastoring, and discipling. Not once did I single out an individual, go through some canned discipline process that ended up with the entire congregation being notified of some member's unrepentant sin. Often, my informal process concluded with repentance and restoration but occasionally, with departure.

What about large churches, megachurches, those congregations too large for the pastor to know each of the sheep? Check with Roman Catholics there. They have a system.

If a pastor feels compelled to institute a system of discipline in his church I'd see how taking Galatians 6:1 seriously could be a part of the pastor's role and also that of the gathered, visible community of believers. If Galatians 6:1 doesn't look like it will do the job the pastor thinks needs doing, then maybe someone more spiritual than the pastor is needed. Maybe he is the problem.

1 comment:

Ed T. said...

Good timing, William. I've been having a discussion with my preacher-in-training son about this issue. I'll pass your post along.