October 20, 2020

Where Is Church Discipline When You Need It? Part 3: Who Needs It?

It’s interesting to read the comments of the previous two posts and see how many people immediately see church discipline as….

-about public sins, usually sexual
-hopelessly prone to be a tool of abusive leadership
-unable to make needed distinctions
-destined to ignore some kinds of sin entirely

This is rather typical of the discussions I referred to in the first post.

I’d like to change the focus of the discussion by changing the kinds of persons we think about when we hear the subject of “Church Discipline.” At this point, I won’t go into a lot of detail about how discipline applies- I think that will be obvious to most readers- but I will attempt to show how these are persons in typical congregations who are desperately in need of the church using its influence to be helpful, promote justice and healing.

For the purposes of this post, all those mentioned are baptized members of the church.

A) Alice and John are faithful members and workers in the children’s department of their church, but John is regularly verbally and emotionally abusive to Alice. His temper is frightening and his words are threatening. He has never “laid a hand” on Alice, but she is beginning to suffer from chronic depression as a result. Alice is afraid to seek help because of her fear that John’s abusiveness will escalate. She would like to tell one of her friends at church, but she is afraid she will be labeled a liar or mentally ill.

B) The Smith’s 23 year old son Billy has been living at home for two years. Unemployed, Billy is playing in a local band but not making enough money to live on his own. He sleeps till the early afternoon, then stays out till 3 or 4 in the morning. When he returns, he often brings girls for overnight. The Smith’s believe he is smoking weed, though not at home. They want him to leave, but are unsure of what others will think of tossing out their own son.

C) Karla shared her sexual history with one of the pastors at the church, and now some of that information has come back to her from another church member. Confidentiality was clearly violated. She went to the pastor and he denied any breach of confidentiality, but Karla has good information that several of the pastors have heard the same story. Karla’s reputation is seriously damaged at church and she is reluctant to continue going to church.

D) Alan has been behind in his bills for years. His wife is working two part time jobs to help the family. Alan has been spending a large portion of his paycheck on his favorite sports: golf and fishing trips. He bought a new truck the family could not afford. His wife believes Alan is irresponsible, but no conversation with Alan makes any difference. He tells her to not talk about family matters outside of the home.

E) Aaron bought tires from a dealership owned by another church member. The tires had major problems after only two weeks, and the church member said the problem was Aaron’s responsibility. Aaron feels he was ripped off and has complained to the BBB, but when he sees this member in church he feels very angry.

F) Ellen’s husband has begun going to Mormon classes. He doesn’t expect her to come, but Ellen is disturbed because of her marriage and their four children. What if her husband becomes a Mormon? Can the church help? Ellen is unsure of who to talk to or even if it is appropriate to do so. Isn’t a personal matter of faith the right of each person? How could the church help?

G) Grant was removed as an elder because he criticized the pastor’s plan to borrow money to buy property. He was told he “did not perform his duties as an elder in an acceptable way.” Grant feels that his questions were reasonable and appropriate. His dismissal didn’t follow the procedures in the by-laws, but was done “for exceptional reasons.” He doesn’t know who to talk to about what has happened.

To be continued….

Comments

  1. I got the same sense from reading the comments as well. We hear the phrase “Church Discipline” and think of the extremes. I can remember when I was younger I had the Sunday School Superintendent lovingly tell me that I wasn’t putting the necessary effort into preparing for my Sunday School class.

    The next year I was runner-up to Teacher of the Year, and I was commended by both the Superintendent and teachers for how I was taking the time for the kids and how the kids (grade 2) looked forward every week to come to Sunday School.

    This is what I would call a good application of church discipline, lovingly pointing out to someone where they are falling short, and encouraging them to make things better.

  2. This is such a necessary discussion! I like the way you switched things around to extend our thinking…I actually was exactly like Alice in scenario one. And church discipline failed me utterly.

    I look forward to the continuation

  3. One of the reasons why church discipline is so unpopular is that it is so hard to do well. The situations you have outlined here could send a lot of pastors to the ER with chest pains from the stress, so they would prefer to put it out of sight and out of mind. Loving confrontation is never fun, but it is always necessary. Problems don’t disappear on their own.

  4. I’m really interested to see where this goes and what you recommend, because it’s an issue that has come up in various church groups I’ve attended. I remember that when I was a co-leader of a Bible study for women in college, several of the girls wished us to ask an openly gay woman to stop attending because of her orientation, despite the fact that she was not engaging in a homosexual relationship.

  5. pinoy_crc says

    very interesting!
    i think cases A, B, D and F complicates the situation because it is within the realm of a family unit or a domestic issue. the leaders (pastors, elders etc) will tread a fine line in getting involved.

    i have seen case E a lot in my church and relationships within the church is strained because of business transactions gone bad. i think church members involved in such deals form undue expectations just bec they are dealing with christians. though, i would like to believe that in these instances we should be more excellent in handling such situations compared to the world. unfortunately, in my experience, unbelievers are better and more professional to deal with.

    i am very excited in how this discussion will develop. church discipline is an oft neglected aspect of our church life.

    thanks

  6. It does seem like we do much better imposing “discipline” on others than we do at imposing it on ourselves. Particularly the disciplines of discipleship.

    Daily Prayer
    Daily Study
    Actively Listening in Church and testing what is said against the Bible. (An excellent corrective to errors from prosperity gospel to liberation theology)
    Treating those we meet as our neighbor

  7. I wonder if the concept of church discipline is foreign to the thinking of most churches because the emephasis is on “getting saved and knowing that you’re going to heaven when you die.” If that’s all that matters, why worry about earthly sin and the need for discipline? Some of our leaders met with a person over some “issues,” and were told by the person, in effect, I don’t care what you say because I know that my God has forgiven me. Well, of course, God has but the person missed the part about not being a jerk to other Christians.

  8. Not going to put myself in the role of “the Catholic” to comment — don’t have that much “inside” experience — but —

    All of the above would be a matter for counseling and sacramental reconciliation. If that’s what you are calling “church discipline,” then — yeah, we do that….

  9. GratefulForGraces says

    iMonk, these are excellent examples, and I’m looking forward to reading how pastors would discipline in these instances.

    What do you think, however, of situations where church members wouldn’t consider themselves to be under the leadership or authority of the pastor/elders? What I see are people who belong to congregations, but basically as “consumers of church”. They may be very involved in the life of the church, but don’t consider themselves having to submit to the church body or its leaders. They would bristle at the pastor, deacons or elders “getting up into their business.” How would you approach these people?

  10. I’m with you, Pastor M. If the focus is purely on being saved, then should any member of any church worry about trying to do any better? I see that a lot down here in the South.

    Paul was caught in that. He’s always disciplining here and disciplining there, but on the other hand he’s Mr. Faith-not-works.

    Switching gears, personally it’s very difficult for me to put myself under the authority of any church leader. I know I should. It would be easier if they were Christ-like and not regular sinning humans.

  11. This is very interesting, and such a “hot” topic to many. Recently it came to light that a man who is a “pillar” of the church I grew up in, has been molesting his granddaughter. The situation was revealed when she went for pre-Baptism counseling. I had this man for a teacher in high school, and felt he “leered” at me, but back then it wasn’t anything I could definitely point to, just a feeling. Since I stopped going to church there soon after graduation, I don’t know how he presented himself during all these years, but I am wondering now if some good ole “Church Discipline” hadn’t been in order years ago. And if it had been administered in a prayerful and Godly manner, perhaps this eight-year-old child would have been spared this heartbreaking and tragic situation.

    Something else that comes to mind along these lines: My son attended a non-denominational Christian school from K through Grade 5. During his 5th grade year a “Spiritual Committee” was appointed to keep the school in line with Biblical principles. You wouldn’t believe the uproar when they decided that it was no longer appropriate for Easter decorations in the rooms to depict the Easter Bunny, or at Christmas for Santa to be displayed in any manner. You would have thought they had asked the kids to fast every Tuesday or something! The nasty emails were flying from parent to parent against this so-called “Spiritual Committee”. Who did they think they were! Blah, blah, blah. I wrote a letter outlining the fact that if true Biblical principles were being followed, we wouldn’t be singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus anyway on December 25. It’s easy to delve into the pagan beginnings of Christmas and Easter. How do you get three days and nights from Good Friday? I simply pointed out that the problems weren’t the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. I gave this letter to the principal first, and she looked at me like I was crazy, and said the rest of the parents as well as the Spiritual Committee members weren’t even close to being able to understand my points, so I dropped it. But we have always told our son that Christmas is just a fun holiday, but not related to Jesus in any way, and I just was trying to let everyone see the silliness in all this anger and finger pointing. I know this wasn’t exactly “Church Discipline”, but my point is that said “Discipline” needs to be addressed prayerfully and by those who in no way are feeling smug and self-righteous, or it won’t get anywhere. These parents who were so angered by the findings of the “Committee” are people who don’t want sin addressed, even in sermons, much less by people who are pointing it out specifically to them! And, sadly, I believe this to be true in most churches.

    CJH

  12. Here is my take:

    A) Once someone knows the situation is going on they can approach John. At the 3rd phase “take it to the church” Alice can be required to talk by church leadership. If John really is a danger church leadership should get the secular authorities involved as well.

    B) Not sure how this is a church discipline situation unless Billy is a member. If he is a member then it is handled like any other member engaging in fornication, sloth and drugs. But someone who is this openly sinning is pretty unlikely to be positively effected by discipline.

    C) Karla has a clear cut case. On the other hand the real problem is unlikely to be fixed by discipline. Karla has shame and regret which means she is still attached to the past in which she did those things. She hasn’t given them over.

    D) This depends a great deal on that attitudes of the church towards male headship.

    E) Clear cut case.

    F) Ellen’s husband is clearly flirting with apostasy. I think the church can do some good in making that clear to him if it isn’t already, but that is unlikely. Churches can’t discipline apostates.
    For many churches excommunication creates a situation of “unequal yoked” and allows for divorce but that is well down the line.

    G) Absolutely should go to church discipline procedure. This is a “minister” trial and those are in many ways the most important.

  13. I only consider some of these examples to fall under the category of “discipline” (notably the breach and abuse of pastoral responsibilities).

    Most of these examples, to me, fall under the ministries of care and intervention. It’s a shame people in our churches are not cared for well enough and do not have the needed friendships to share deeply about the strongest concerns of their lives without being ignored or judged.

    Pastors, elders, and other church members need to come alongside these hurting people and help them, perhaps speaking the truth in love to the offenders.

  14. At our church only members are subject to church discipline. Regular attenders are not. When a person requests membership we make it clear that they are asking for accountability. Accountability does not mean meddling in their lives, but if something is wrong we will discuss it.

    Example: A man who is very faithful at our church requested membership. He is a long time member in the local Masonic Lodge. Our pastor’s position was that if he became a member he would be asked to leave the masons. He was told that him and his wife were loved and that we wanted them to be continue to be active in the church, but membership is a higher calling. This was over a year ago. They still attend faithfully but withdrew the membership request. They know our position on Masonic teachings so we do not badger them about it. We simply love them and teach the Bible. As non-members, they cannot teach.

    Example: A married woman who was a member and a teacher of teen children began to work with a man who was attending our church. They were driving alone together on many occasions, even late at night. I approached her and told her this situation does not look good. I did not accuse her of anything other than the appearance of impropriety. Another woman came to me in tears saying this woman was committing adultery. We did not tell her to quit her job or even accuse her of adultery (here say) but we did tell her she must no longer be alone in a car with this man. She left the church, divorced her husband, is no longer with the other man.

    Discipline is to be firm, loving, not accusatory, and for members. After 10 years in a small church plant we think we are doing it right, but each situation brings new challenges.

  15. Well these are very interesting situations which we all have experienced in some way. I do not know what the big deal with dealing with them is though. I know they are sin but I think we are missing something in discipline. That it has to come from a place of relationship. Without relationship we can not speak into anyones life and if we keep relationship as the key we will have the opportunity to speak into situations with much more clarity.
    So as we talk about church discipline I have a few questions.
    Who is the Church?
    Are these situations for Church leaders to deal with or people with in the Church?
    If we bring church leaders into these situations, where do we as members have the responsibility to come along side people who are struggling?

  16. A local Protestant church I had attended with my family — children in the Sunday School — had a classic schism because of pastoral disciplinary action. The minister was a well respected figure in the entire community, a down to earth very steadfast and sober guy. We had moved away and heard about this when we came back a year later. The church bitterly split into two separate groups after he got up one day on the altar and announced that he was excommunicating a long-standing female member because she was having an adulterous relationship. More than half the congregation followed her out.

    I have never seen or even heard of anything close to that in a Roman Catholic Parish.

    I agree with you, Jeremy.

  17. C) She should leave the church, and the pastor who violated her confidentiality should be disciplined by the denomination – if the church is a part of a denomination. Personally, if I was a member in that church and knew what happened I would leave as well, but not before pointing out the fact that it shouldn’t matter what ANYONE did before they were saved, we are new creations in Christ.

    D)It seems to me that worthless men are becoming an increasing problem in the church. It’s one of the problems of our perpetual youth culture. I sincerely doubt that this worthless man is the only one in the congregation. He’s just the one who has come to the leadership’s attention. Maybe part of the way to deal with this is to preach a sermon about the responsibilities of being a man. Most evangelical churches love to preach about women submitting to their husband, the woman in Proverbs that we all hate. I hear very little teaching on how men are supposed to love their wives as Christ loved the church – even unto death. I hear even less about how 1 Timothy 5:8 says: But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

  18. I have been thinking a lot about church discipline over the past 4 years. It seems to me that the reason we get nervous about church discipline is that we have become accustomed to letting things go for too long. If we did the first steps at the first signs of problems more people would respond to it, and we would not be as scared about it. We do not hold each other accountable which makes the whole process seem foreign.

  19. Michael’s examples demonstrate the need for ALL of discipline. Here is an outline from a Campbellite:

    What Does “Church Discipline” Mean?

    I. What Does Discipline Mean?
    A. Webster:
    1. Discipline: (1.) PUNISHMENT (2.) INSTRUCTION (3.) a field of study (4.) training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character (5.) a: control gained by enforcing obedience or order b: orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior c: SELF-CONTROL (6.) a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity
    2. The English word “discipline” is not found in the KJV New Testament, but the Greek noun paideia and the verb paideuo carry the same meaning.
    B. Thayer:
    1. 3809 paideia: 1. the whole training and education of children Eph.6:4). 2. whatever in adults also cultivates the soul, esp. by correcting
    mistakes and curbing the passions; hence a. instruction which aims at the increase of virtue (2Tim.3:16) b. chastisement, chastening,…: (Heb.12:5)
    2. 3811 paideuo: 1. to train children (Ac.7:22)(Ac.22:3): to be instructed or taught, to learn (1Tim.1:20): to cause one to learn (Ti.2:12):
    2. to chastise; a. to chastise or castigate with words, to correct (2Tim.2:25): c. to chastise with blows, to scourge (Heb.12:7)
    3. paideia and paideuo are translated in the KJV with the English words nurture, instruction, instructing, teaching, taught, learn, learned, chasten, chastened, chasteneth, chastening, chastise, chastisement

    C. “Church Discipline” summed up
    1. Instruction and Training
    It embraces the idea of instruction, learning education, doctrine. Training or experience that corrects, molds, strengthens, or perfects the
    mental faculties or moral character. To develop by instruction and exercise, to train in self control.
    Chastisement
    It may also have reference to chastisement inflicted by way of correction, or training by way of suffering; correction or chastisement or
    punishment for the sake of training — control gained by enforcing obedience or order
    All the processes or means by which a church trains and educates it’s members to “walk in the light”
    This meaning is exemplified in many NT. passages: (2Tim.4:1,2; Titus 1:9-11; 2:11-15; Heb.5:12-14; 1Tim.1:20)

    Church Discipline is Two-Fold
    2. Instructive: Preventive in nature `Prevention is always better than cure, and is always preferable to correction – “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”
    a) Remember! Teaching Is Discipline!
    3. Corrective: Chastising or penalizing in nature
    a) Withdrawal of fellowship is corrective discipline, and is the final resort in trying to restore a person.
    D. Three Categories Of Church Discipline
    1. To the faithful – Teach
    2. To the wayward – Warn
    3. To the impenitent – Withdraw

    Dan in Reno

  20. It’s a pity we can’t generate this much detailed discussion with specific ideas and instructions for each other when we address issues such as forgiveness, unconditional love, blessing one’s enemies, peace-making, etc.

    Examples are fine, but our tendency seems to be to immediately start weighing / categorizing each according to some kind of “badness quotient” and assigning the response accordingly. Every individual and every situation are unique, and should not be subjected to pat answers. Pretty soon we’ll be in in-depth discussions about what work is allowed on the Sabbath…..

    I believe that Jesus was intentionally vague in Matthew 18 as to what constituted sinning against one’s brother. That would seem to give equal weight to all conflict between believers, regardless of our desire to rank-order them.

    The seemingly most insignificant slight can fester into huge problems when not handled early.

    In each of the examples given the steps should be the same and step one is a one on one conversation between the parties. Since Jesus outlined a process of escalation, he was acknowledging that this first step would not always work (as many of these examples portray.

  21. Dan Smith:

    An excellent summary or outline! Several comments mentioned how many people don’t want or believe they need any kind of training or correction. This could be used as the basis for much needed teaching in our churches. If we could get a well-know someone to make a “40 Days of Discipline” program based on that material, think of the possibilities…

    Subtle sarcasm is tough in print, but seriously, a great foundation to start rebuilding a much needed piece of our churches.

  22. Steve in Toronto says

    My main problem with church discipline is that it typically forces the church to “take sides” when a couple divorces. In the case of my divorce our (Anglican) priest determined very early on that the marriage could not be saved (my ex had mental health issues as well as a very serious drug problem that she refused to address). How ever he felt that it was more important to maintain a pastoral relationship with her than to publicly sanction her. Once my ex-wife voluntarily left our church and he was no longer her pastor he felt free to testify for me in court (my wife had made false accusation of abuse) and preside over my second marriage.

    Many churches that practice church discipline will not remarry the “innocent” party in the divorce of two Christians unless the guilty spouse has been formally “excommunicated”.

    I am convinced that this is the wrong approach. My wife was (is) very disturbed but I never doubted the sincerity of her faith (It the principal reason I tried so hard to save our of 13 year marriage the last 7 years of which were a living hell). Forcing people like her out of the church deprives them of much need help and support.

    God Bless

    Steve in Toronto

  23. I still must comment that the New Testament examples of “church discipline” weigh most heavily on financial offenses — the only time Jesus himself engaged in severe “church discipline” was in kicking the swindlers and cheats out of God’s house: Ananias and Sapphira dropping dead on the spot for financial indiscretions. There’s really no other directly related incidents that come close. But you don’t see this being “disciplined” verbally or otherwise in churches today. What went on in those examples is standard business practice now — it’s what got us in the worldwide mess we’re in.

    Some are calling for the CEO’s to be fired and the CFO of Freddie Mac just killed himself, but can you imagine a pastor kicking one of these fat cats out of his congregation? He or she would be committing career/financial suicide.

  24. Sherwood MacRae says

    Since these stories reveal the sordid activities that go on in many churches, it should be up to us to stop talking about them and start praying for those who have been hurt by others and those who do the hurting.

    At my age, as one who has spent much time in the church, I no longer get involved in the “administration” of the church, as I do not want to be involved – except, as I have already suggested, I pray!

  25. PA Merritt says

    I agree with Jeremy Hoover’s ideas above. At what point can we step away from the concepts of church discipline, which in our day and age are so charged with exclusionary, punishing tendencies, and instead work to discern through prayer and discussion how to share the grace of God, and let that grace be visible in these types of situations?

    The words “discipline” and “disciple” come from the same source, right? Why is one so often a negative action and the other a desired result?

  26. This is a great topic and the posts and commnets have provided much food for thought. Thank you, Michael and all.

    One thing that strikes me as a major factor in the church’s current lack of discipline is the consumer-oriented approach of evangelicalism in particular. Under this approach, the church is basically a business, members and attenders are consumers, and the gospel and salvation are commodities. Churchgoers may like the store and the sales tactics and the products, but that’s a far step from trusting the promoters and salespersons with thier deepest problems and issues and sins.

    Admittedly the above is an oversimplification with a bit of hyperbole, but here’s the point: community and close relationships (and the maturity that develops through them) are the exception, not the norm, in such an arrangement. Most of the examples in this post could be addresed to a some extent, or even fully, through the honest advice and confrontation of a close, trusted, mature and wise believeing friend.

    But those are rare, because the culture and atmosphere and structures in which those kinds of relationships can develop and fluorish are rare in most churches.

    In short, it’s the price we pay when the church starts being something other than what it ought to be.

  27. btw, I’m a Campbellite like Dan Smith!

    I do think there is a place for “church” discipline in the case of egregious, heinous, community-embarrassing sin (i.e, 1 Cor 5) or divisiveness. The divisive one is held under discipline by the church leaders to prevent (further) division.

  28. If I could add something… often, the lightest, lightest touch is all that is needed. I’m reminded of St.Philip Neri. One of his penitents, a rich Roman lady, invited him over to a party she was holding for her worldly relatives. He did nothing to discipline except to arrive with his beard half-shaved-off, as a silent reminder of her lukewarmness.

    St.Francis de Sales admitted in his old age: “Every time in my life I have been the least bit harsh, I have regretted it” and he is the meekest saint I know.

    Like a good surgeon, as gentle as possible, as firm as necessary.

  29. This is exactly why the role of a “pastor” in church, the way we as humans have put it together does not work real well.

    A pastor is not likely to have all the gifts and skills needed to help in each scenario, and the congregation has been taught that the pastors “job” is to fix these people. This creates a status quo among the gathering and no growth. Are we not to be hands and feet of Christ’s body as “one” church? We need to step out in love and help each one of these individuals with the gifts God has given us.

  30. I think that if you start to look at each of these scenarios through the lens of “do to others what you would have them do to you” and “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” then the Church in Church Discipline ceases to be the institutional church. I may be naive, but I think each of those cases should be handled first within a small group setting and that they are handled better in a small group setting. That’s where the Holy Spirit moves quickest and with the most tenderness towards those who are broken.

  31. My extended relatives attended a church where it was not clearly understood that being a member could subject you to church discipline.

    The choir director was having an affair with a choir member. When this director was approached by church leadership, he privately acknowledged such, but refused to repent. He further stated that any consequential negative action in public (e.g. removal from position), or even addressing of his circumstance to the congregation, was considered by his attorney to be defamation of character and invasion of privacy, with potential for a libel lawsuit.

    Interestingly, the church’s attorney agreed with this legal opinion, because the church did not have an established (either in bylaws or in practice) record on how to deal with disciplinary issues.

    Even though the scripture seemed clear, the church had historically been inconsistent in its application of scriptural discipline, so singling out this one person could potentially have been viewed as malice of intent.

    It was a mess that took a long time to untangle.

  32. Dan Smith’s information on the language of discipline is important here. But I think one line gives away the main point: “The English word “discipline” is not found in the KJV New Testament, but the Greek noun paideia and the verb paideuo carry the same meaning.” That’s great until we find that the verses that use that term are not the ones in our church discipline discussions. This is the problem of coming up with our own language to impose on the text.

    It is one thing to ask what Matthew 18 is about. If you ask that as a narrow question, you’ll get one set of answers. But if you began with the Greek “paideia” you will have a very different discussion altogether. The bulk of the discussion will be Christian education that would have perhaps done away with a lot of the problems before they arose.

    Most of the material that could answer Michael’s questions is probably to be found in Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians rather than Matthew 18.

  33. Yes — Steve — this brings up an interesting point.

    All through ancient history — right up to the modern era — the religious authorities were the legal authorities. It was — and is — the First Amendment to our Constitution that changed this here and eventually in most of the world. Jurisprudence-wise, up until the the latter part of the last millennium the whole world was structured like today’s Islamic republics.

    Going back to ancient Scriptural and historical accounts of “church discipline” for guidance can lead today’s religious authorities into a legal minefield.

  34. I dunno, Surfnetter. Up until the year 300, or so, the Church had no legal authority. So how was church discipline handled up until the days of Constantine?

  35. kerner — “I dunno, Surfnetter. Up until the year 300, or so, the Church had no legal authority. So how was church discipline handled up until the days of Constantine?”

    Don’t think members had any legal rights to speak of, unless they were Roman citizens. And then — would the Emperor intervene on your behalf if you had a dispute with the Bishop? Would you even dare to bring it to any outside attention? After all, the religious/legal authorities of the day were interested in enforcing the cult of emperor worship. That was a direct route to martyrdom.

    But I do know that the First Amendment goes both ways — keeps the government out of church, and churches from having any legal authority beyond private interests. This situation has never existed until now. What kind of investigations would we have today in an “Ananias and Sapphira” church scandal?

    I shudder to imagine it. (are you listening, Nancy Grace …?)

  36. I have withheld from posting on this subject for a simple reason. GUILT. You see, part of the reason why Church discipline is such a difficult subject nowadays is because the Church misused authority so badly in the past that we have frightened people away from the proper use of authority. We, meaning the Romans and the Orthodox, are truly guilty in this area of the Christian life.

    But that does not mean that the Church has no right to speak into the lives of people. Every one, but one, of the cases that iMonk posted do belong in the realm of the loving guidance of the Church. The East looks at discipline not as the judgment of the Church, but as the medicine of the Church. Every one of the cases brought up, save for the “tire” case, does not need the juridical judgment of the Church, but the application of the healing hand of the Church. But, remember, that even a physician causes pain on the road to healing. So, Church discipline may cause pain, but it needs to be in the service of bringing those involved to spiritual health.

    It is when we look at Church discipline as fitting under the purview of Church courts that we make our biggest mistake. Even excommunication is seen by St. Paul (in 1 Corinthians) not as the judgment of the Church, but as the last opportunity of the Church to get the attention of the person involved so that they might return to God.

    In a case analogous to some of the ones listed above, I recently suspended our chanter for one week. The details are not important, but when he contacted his spiritual director, his director jumped on him and fully supported me. He served his one week discipline and has come out a person with a much better attitude since then. In fact, he has made some very worthwhile suggestions which I have implemented. His “healing” worked out for the improvement of our worship service.

    It is not about judgment; it is about building up the Body of Christ and bringing it to perfection.

  37. Surfnetter – in the example I gave, I think that church (after they had addressed the issue at hand) ultimately revised their employment policies, their bylaws, and their membership class.

    They documented that all members have consented to the Matthew 18 process of church discipline and correction if/when appropriate, and that appropriate utilization of this process would be considered in their ecclesiology as an act of love, not malice. They believe they’ve now cleared the legal minefield.

  38. Steve, that’s the problem, though. Instead of thinking in terms of sin and repentance, the first instinct was to reach for the lawyer. What part of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” needed to be clarified by m’learned friends?

    If, when it comes to a matter of spiritual correction and guidance, you need to get everyone to sign a legal document stating that “The party of the first part agrees to abide by the bylaws if the party of the second part follows the procedures outlined in the code of practice”, then I think we’ve got much worse problems than we realise.

  39. Steve — “They documented that all members have consented to the Matthew 18 process of church discipline and correction if/when appropriate, and that appropriate utilization of this process would be considered in their ecclesiology as an act of love, not malice. They believe they’ve now cleared the legal minefield.”

    The mines are now harder for the legal lay person to detect, and more legally binding and explosive. They have placed the security of their spiritual health in the hands of the secular (and crooked) judicial system.

    Wouldn’t make me feel more secure ….

  40. As a non-Christian, leftie liberal, this is a fascinating discussion to read!

    The “church discipline” name unfortunately makes me think of spankings. I gather you are not talking about physical discipline, which I’ve seen advocated on some extremely patriarchal Christian website.

    I am all in favour of pointed conversations with a person who is harming themselves or harming others. It ought to be confidential, not humiliating. Procedures would differ depending on whether the “church” is the person’s community, or their employer. (Secular approaches to employee discipline and conflict resolution would apply.)

    Some of the examples highlight behaviour Christians consider a sin, which I would call a symptom.
    – An effective conversation with the young man in situation B would focus on “how can we help you start doing something productive with your life?” not “Drugs and sex are evil!”
    – The people having affairs need to hear “Having an affair is a big sign that your marriage needs to change, or to end”, not be humiliated, excommunicated or destroyed by the (very common) sin of adultery.

    I don’t have confidence that all church leaders would have the grace to address these issues so thoughtfully, given how some Christians have demonized sex, drugs, and other activities that can be harmless in moderation. Thus, I suspect that some “church discipline” would be counterproductive.

  41. Teenage Mutant Ninja Tertullian says

    Allow me to propose a few more cases (much more problematic):

    1. Julie, a college student, has been dating the same young man for two years. People suspect they are sleeping together. Discipline or not?

    2. Bob and Ethel are a middle-aged married couple who just moved in from another city. They seem the very model of respectability. It gradually surfaces that they have both been married before–to other people, whom they divorced in order to marry one another. Ethel was a student in Bob’s college class at the time. Discipline or not?

    3. Bubba holds negative views about certain racial minorities. He denies being a racist, but insists that sociology is on his side. He also shot a deer out of season. Discipline or not?

    4. Wayne does not understand the Trinity, and confesses that he only recites the creed because everybody else does–not because he really believes it. Discipline or not?

  42. Considering discipline in the church or home or among friends – shouldn’t it really come down to love for the individual? So much of perceived “church discipline” is about enforcing the rules – although based on the Word – kind of like a referee at a football game.

    From my experience – both as a giver and a givee – discipline has to be based on love for the person in question based on what the Bible says or implies about a particular situation. It is easier to be invited into a situation, however, some situations demand intervention but still must be immersed in love and redemption.

    “I love you so much that I must say something about your destructive ways with yourself, family, church or all the above.”

    So many times we must resort to “church discipline” because “friend discipline” was not nonexistence.

  43. I’ll politely disagree with those who think any of iMonk’s cases are *not* cases that call for church discipline. Karla is not the problem in (C) — the problem is that someone broke a confidence, and THAT person should be disciplined. The financially irresponsible husband’s case has nothing to do with who is the head of the house, it has to do with being an irresponsible adult. And the tires case is not about tires: it’s about fairness on the one hand and forgiveness on the other.

    The problem, of course, is that the church can only discipline those who have agreed to be accountable to it. I applaud those who make clear to their members that accountability is part of the membership “package.”

    Incidentally, I have always liked the Quaker term for discipline, which is “laboring with” someone. *Everyone* in the situation has to put some real work into it if anything is going to come right. Quakers have a long history of being very upfront with any of their members who have fallen into error. Unfortunately, Quakers also have as many problems as anyone else these days with those to whom the idea of being accountable in any way to their fellow believers comes as a nasty shock.

  44. Alana,

    I suspect that a number of us who hang out here agree with you that church discipline is handled poorly. Partly, because we have been hurt, or seen others hurt. I count myself in that number.

    I was talked to (and lost all respect for the pastor) because I questioned some statements that he made in a sermon. I did it privately, but even got slammed because I approached him in a letter than in person. I have never felt battered after a phone conversation, but I did with him.

  45. I’m not a pastor or anything, but I have noticed a change in church dicipline in the past 10 or 15 years. The political correctness of the world is alive and well in the church today. Judge not lest you be judged. We shy away from preaching the hard stuff and from calling sin sin. We are afraid to offend anyone. I agree with Martha, when someones’ reaction to church dicipline is to “lawyer up”, the church has some serious problems in the teaching and preaching department. While any kind of church dicipline is never easy, getting behind the “big” public sins like adultery are pretty much a no brainer and have the added benifit of giving those bringing the charges a bit of self rightousness over being scriptually correct and often comes off as being morally superior. Over the past 40 years or so, I can only think of about three times where the person being diciplined actually stayed within the same body of believers and worked through the issues and these examples were a long time ago. More recently, people just leave the church altogether or they just move to another body. It takes more time than Sunday morning and more people than just the pastor to restore an erring brother or to keep him from erroring in the first place. To me, church dicipline is tied directly to church dicipleship, teaching and loving each other. If we did more of the latter, the occasions to practice church dicipline would hopefully be few and far between.

  46. Deborah is correct. Most people who experience any kind of correction or discipline normally just move on to another church. Church Hoppers. They keep doing this until they eventually meet someone who helps them grow up. I know families who are on their 4th or 5th church after leaving ours, and we weren’t the first. I am sure it was the fault of all 7 or 8 pastors they have encountered, at least they would tell you so. I know we began with Matthew 18, but we are reminded in 2 Timothy that Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training. Use Scripture to back up your discipline, and as Galatians 6 reminds us, “restore gently”.
    Example D I have some experience with. Our man wanted the church to give him money. The pastor offered to give him private financial counseling. His wife was working 2 jobs. One of them was working with the pastor’s wife (pastor’s wife hired her). Without getting into too many details, in the end they left our church amidst a wake of destruction that affected the lives of nearly every member and attender. They even put the pastor and his wife on trial without even consulting me, the only other elder besides the pastor. All those who participated eventually repented (except the man). It still hurts to this day because their daughter was my daughters best friend at the time. Suffice to say, after it happened, I thought my pastor had handled it wrong, until they did the same thing in another church in our association. I am sure they would tell some “horror story” of how the church had hurt them. After 8 years I still miss them, but the man did not “respect those who were over him in the Lord”. 1 Thess. 5:12-13. As the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”.

  47. I think people missed the boat on D. The problem here is not the kid, it’s that the parents don’t know how to handle the situation in their own home. That doesn’t mean they need to be “blamed,” but they need help from the church in addressing a problem in their home — i.e. discipline.

    Church discipline isn’t ultimately about refereeing and enforcing the rules and making everybody toe the line, though that’s a common and understandable misconception. It’s about bringing the tools of the church — gospel ministry, fellowship, and pastoral gifts — to bear on the real life issues of people in the church.

  48. Sorry, that was B, not D, that I was referring to. But referring to D, I’ve never heard of a situation where “the husband is the head of the home,” no matter how strictly held, was construed as a license for the husband to act like an idiot toward his family without any correction being called for.