Church Discipline: Good in Theory But…

Disclaimer #1 Generally speaking, this blog is about what I think and feel. It allows me to work out issues in my life and vent to the ether about things that I see going on around me. I do think that from time-to-time, other folks will agree with me.

Disclaimer #2 The topic that I’m addressing today is one of the minefields that Protestants tend to inflict on each other much more often than they should; I never hear of these conflicts in Roman Catholic or Orthodox circles. On balance, it seems that Protestants do this way too much and the other two branches of the Church not often enough.

This topic came up at the monthly men’s meeting at my church yesterday. The topic was a most unsatisfying discussion on church membership. As one of my MBA professors used to say, “Quit circling the airport and land the plane.” The discussion was meandering all over without much point.

The conversation tried first to talk about becoming a member of a church. The kneejerk reaction was baptism makes you a member. Then I threw the bomb on the table and said, “What about a person that was already baptized ‘in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’ and then is told that they must be baptized again because the other baptism is not valid”?

Then one guy piped up, “As an adult”?

I replied, “Why does it matter? The Bible only knows one baptism. There is no biblical warrant for rebaptism.”

Without dealing honestly with my question which is very much something that my wife and I are actively dealing with (see my previous blog on When Baptism Doesn’t Count/ ) the pastor just shut the discussion down and went to another subject.

Soon the discussion was about Church Discipline. Again, the kneejerk reaction was that we should recognize the discipline of other churches. The default position was that someone disciplined by another body would not be welcomed to membership in our church or allowed to Communion. (More on this in a minute.)

The next question that was raised was does another body in another church or denomination have the right to discipline someone in our church? Again, the kneejerk reaction was “NO”.

I then cited one of the most well-known examples in Church history. St. Patrick once had to deal with this very issue. A man that the English Church refused to discipline was sailing to Ireland, murdering men, and kidnapping women and children and selling them into slavery.  Oh these men, women, and children were Patrick’s Christian converts. Since the English Church refused to act, Patrick wrote a letter of excommunication for someone that was technically outside of his jurisdiction and not part of his flock. This letter survives to this day. It is the Epistola.

Per Cahill and “How the Irish Saved Civilization” , Patrick’s goal was to isolate Coroticus, hopefully having his Bishop even excommunicate him, until his captives were free. Serving an excommunicated leader would cause his soldiers to fear serving him as they would believe they too would be damned.

Download: Coroticus

I was promptly cut-off with a derogatory comment about Catholics. However, I did retort that the Church in this part of the world was not controlled by the Roman Church until much later. Casting pearls gets me nowhere with this group.

I tried to point to an historical incident because first it is true and second it should not have the emotional response that may be attached to a contemporary example.

It was at this point that everyone started piling on about the problem with the church being that we don’t recognize each other’s discipline and a member can simply move to the church down the street without fear of repercussions. I understand their initial response but if these guys would do an honest examination of how churches use discipline then they might be more charitable.

I can say straight-out that half of the excommunications that I have been in, under, and around were completely unbiblical. Let me cite a few instances.

Disclaimer #3 If you are offended with me mentioning real situations then please stop reading now. Any names mentioned are fictitious, but the events are true.

#1 Gentleman and Lady
Jay was attending a conservative Protestant church. He was a college student (or had just recently graduated). He met a young lady at school and fell in love. He was serious about this girl. She was a Christian but went to the wrong church. Upon finding out that Jay was in a serious relationship with this girl, apparently, he was ordered by the pastor to breakoff the relationship. Jay refused and was excommunicated. Later, Jay and the young lady were wed.

#2 Rogue and Wench
Chris was the pastor of a local church. It was his first assignment out of seminary. One day, as part of the service he pronounced the excommunication of a young girl that to my knowledge had never once attended a service at our church. I know that she certainly was never a member of our congregation. Apparently, she had gone to him for counseling and not heeded his advice. She wanted to keep cohabitating with her boyfriend even after being told that it was sinful.

#3 Damned if you do
Pastor Bob had a small mission church. Over time, Pastor Bob’s study of the Scriptures began to lead him toward different doctrinal positions than his current denomination. Bob was an honest and forthright guy. He went to his church’s leadership and told them that his views on some things were changing and asked to leave the denomination. In response the current church excommunicated him. As a result, the church that he was wanting to associate with refused to take him since he was under discipline in his current denomination.

#4 Damned if you don’t

As a seminary student, Nate was an all-star. His church’s leadership really liked the guy. They told him that in time he would be a great leader in the church. The first church assignment that he had was going very well. The Mission plant was up to about 80 members. Nate had been there for about seven years and was in his early thirties. Nate became the West Coast representative for his denomination. But he had grown restless.

He began associating with clergy from another group. Nate’s doctrine and what he taught in his sermons began changing. As word reached his superiors, they decided to investigate. Nate was removed from the pulpit by his boss—under the bylaws this was allowed because it was a still a mission.

Ten days later, Nate sent a letter to all members of his local church stating that he was now a clergy member in good standing with another church and that we should join him. He took half the local church and three or four other churches on the West Coast with him.

As always, I could list a few more but I think the above covers enough ground for me to make my point.

The Bible knows that humans by nature are all the same, but it also allows for the possibility of change. Unfortunately, we humans like our rote categories so we don’t have to use real discernment as we go through life. We tend to be just like the Pharisees, make a checklist and then follow that. It is much easier than judging righteously.

Everybody says they follow the biblical model of Matthew but do they really?

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Matthew 18: 15 – 22

Let’s breakdown a few parts of this passage.

Greek word translated “trespass” or “sin” Strong’s #264

The “trespass” or “sin” is a moral violation or breaking of God’s Law.

Greek word translated “tell him” Strong’s #1651

Tell him in the sense of reprove, rebuke, or convince

The person that was sinned against is to go to the offender and point it out in hopes of reconciliation.

To escalate the matter further requires two or three witnesses. This is directly from Old Testament Law.

The next level requires bringing the matter before the church. What this looks like is not defined in this passage.

When all else fails treat the person as a heathen.

This sounds simple enough but is it really?

The next stop on the excommunication train then travels to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. In I Corinthians, we meet a man that is sleeping with his father’s wife. Paul tells them to eject the guy and turn him over to Satan.

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.

And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.

For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed,

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ,

To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

I Corinthians 5: 1-5

The above passage is supposed to be the end result of the excommunication train. My only problem with this is that the process outlined in Matthew was not followed. It is assumed that either the Matthew passage was followed or that Paul pulled rank or some combination of both. Unfortunately, there is no proof of this contention.

The second part of the problem of applying the passage in Matthew is what happens next.

But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all.

Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.

So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.

Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him.

For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things.

To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ;

2 Corinthians 2:5-10

Paul tells the Corinthian church to let the guy back in. While the last part of this passage seems to echo Matthew, I don’t see in Matthew anything about reversing the decision. In fact, the next part of Matthew is about forgiving your brother. Then there is the whole issue of turning the other cheek. This isn’t as neat and tidy as some people want us to believe.

In the New Testament, I think you could count everyone kicked out of the Church on one hand and still have a finger or two left. It was rare.

I think it reasonable to narrow the scope of what is an offense worthy of excommunication. The Church has recognized two authorities that have direct bearing on this issue; God’s Law as found in the Ten Commandments and the Historic Creeds. Sorry but breaking the rules of a denomination is an intramural struggle that does not rise to that level. It should be possible to leave a denomination for another without being proclaimed outside of the Catholic Church.

The Creeds are the fence that defines the pastures of God’s People, as long as we stay within their boundaries we can wander into various aspects of Christendom.

God’s Law is the moral and ethical framework in which we live. Excommunication is the most extreme of all possible outcomes, but many lesser remedies are available as well. A careful reading of Old Testament Laws illustrates this principle, but it complicates the Pharisee’s checklist mentality so other remedies are typically ignored.

In example #1, the college student and his girlfriend were behaving in harmony with the Scriptures. Premarital sexual relations were never alleged much less proven. Both belong to churches that say they affirm the Historic Creeds. Thus, excommunication was wrong in this case.

In example #2, the woman being counseled by the Pastor was not a member of his flock, so even though she persisted in living in a sinful arrangement, excommunication was wrong. Why a young, single man is meeting with a sexually active woman for counseling is an issue no one raised at the time.

In example #3, the young Pastor was trying to be honest and open with his denominational leaders and he was blackballed for being truthful. He never went outside the limits set by the Creeds, he was just moving to a different part of God’s pasture.

In example #4, the Pastor never stuck around to see if he would be charged, counselled, or whatever; he just bolted. Even if he had been disciplined, the new church didn’t recognize the validity of the old so, no harm no foul was his viewpoint. It is not that he tried to go to a different denomination that was his problem but how he went about doing it. He snuck around and tried to do it without the notice of his elders. His intention was to take as many of his flock as he could to the new group. Subterfuge and deception are not the hallmarks of a man that deserves to be in the pulpit.

Denominations should not just rubberstamp the results of excommunication by other groups. They should deal with them on a case by case basis. I think until resolved, it is prudent to have a person voluntarily refrain from Communion until his case has been examined or a person has gone through some type of doctrinal instruction or whatever. If the guy in 2 Corinthians can be allowed back in the church as a member in good standing then excommunication should not be viewed as a one-way ticket or an immutable declaration.