Monday, December 29, 2014

Church Discipline and Membership

Let’s imagine a (hopefully semi-plausible) business scenario that may, if all goes well, turn into something of a parable.

We’ll say that I am a night supervisor working on a single floor of one of those corporate telephone solicitation colossi. I have under me perhaps a hundred employees coming and going on a regular basis. Some work on my floor only briefly before moving on to other departments. Others stay for years. I do not hire them, and I do not fire them. My role is simply to confirm that they have what they need to do their jobs and to work with them to make them better telephone salespeople.

Under these circumstances, I find myself writing an email to my department manager.

As per supervisory directives, I should report that on Friday the 23rd we had an incident on the floor. Joe Smith, who has worked night shift for only two days, is accused by an afternoon shift CSR named Barbara Jones of using racist language. The exchange was overheard and documented in an email exchange in which I am told Mr. Smith doubled down in his criticism of his fellow employee and made further inappropriate comments.

I did not witness the incident and do not have access to employee email, but in discussion with Ms. Jones’ direct supervisor it was determined that if the information received about the incident is accurate, Mr. Smith’s actions constitute cause for dismissal.

Based on the testimony of his fellow employees, we have no recourse but to request that you authorize Mr. Smith’s immediate termination.

On behalf of the weekday supervisors,

Leaving aside the smarmy corporatism of my imaginary email and any little details which may not directly parallel the situation in a local church, I wonder if my position as night shift supervisor is just a little bit like that of those responsible for the initiation of church discipline?

As Tom the Supervisor, Mr. Smith’s acting out presents me with a fundamental problem, and that’s this:

Who Has Authority Over Joe Smith?

My problem is one of authority. In my job I can’t always be completely sure whether or not I have jurisdiction over a particular employee.

This may seem laughable unless you actually work for a large company, but it is quite possible for someone to appear on my floor without me having any direct knowledge of where he or she came from. Employees simply show up from time to time, announce that they have been hired, and report for work. My job is not to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that they are who they say they are or that they have actually had the experience they claimed to have on their resume. That is left to Human Resources to determine. I just assign them a desk, show them where to find the washrooms and employee lounge, and teach them how to do their new job.

Joe Smith may have wandered in off the street hoping to pick a few twenties out of the wallets of people in my office. He could also just as easily have been assigned by my own boss to check up on how well I am training those entrusted to my care. Joe could even be related to the owner of the whole operation, which would leave me in the unenviable position of riling up his benefactor by presuming to discipline him.

So because I do not get involved in the hiring or firing process apart from having to request it when necessary, I cannot be sure that I actually have any authority over Joe Smith.

*   *   *   *   *

This scenario is very roughly analogous to the situation in which a local church frequently finds itself. It is a problem for elders, pastors and possibly even priests (I have no idea how Catholics proceed with discipline issues in their congregations). People show up. In many instances we don’t know who they are or where they came from, nor really does it matter. They say they have come to know Jesus Christ and they’d like to worship with us.

But they may be liars. They may be angels. And they may even be real believers who subsequently fall into sin. And no matter what they are, it devolves on the church to figure out what to do with them.

How on Earth Do We Know Who Falls Under our Authority?

Christians have traditionally elected to solve this problem in various ways:

¨ Membership: One attempt at a solution is formal membership, in which you actually sign a specific contract that at least theoretically allows the church to discipline you. I quote from a pamphlet sent to me by a friend who attends a church that “recognizes the need for formal membership” on the basis of what they call “principles of accountability and commitment to the local body of Christ, as defined in the New Testament and practiced in the early churches”:
“3. I accept my responsibility for how things are done here and submit to the authority of the Elders and leadership of the church.”
¨ Rituals: Catholics, on the other hand, solve the problem of recognizing who belongs to them through a series of “periods” and rites including purification and baptism. Going through a lengthy public process has a way of making it clear where loyalties lie and of weeding out any who are not committed.

¨ Being “in fellowship”: Most local churches without denominational affiliation would balk at the prospect of initiation or the signing of a written agreement, but instead observe a variety of less-formal processes by which they distinguish between those who are in fellowship and those who are just visiting.

The Problem with Formal Recognition

While all of these are very natural ways to solve common problems, I observe several difficulties with the way we tend to make such distinctions:

¨ Formal recognition is an extra-scriptural concept. While accountability and commitment are certainly principles found in the New Testament, the need for formalizing an ongoing commitment to a single, specific group of believers is nowhere spelled out as such and is certainly not commanded. The idea that those responsible for church discipline ought to have a list of believers who are under their jurisdiction is nothing more than a convenient inference.

¨ Formal recognition is useless when discipline is needed. Formal recognition is only a way by which the discipliners confirm to themselves their own authority. They point to a signature or a ritual as proof of their entitlement to exercise it. Furthermore, it is rapidly becoming popular as a way to inoculate the church from the danger of lawsuits, though I suspect any security offered by a contract, whether written, oral or implicit, will quickly crumble the moment it is contested at law. But no mere contract can bring to heel a sheep that no longer acknowledges the authority of its shepherds. 

¨ Formal recognition is unnecessary. Real spiritual authority does not require a piece of paper. The authority of the church is not bureaucratic but spiritual in nature, and as such it has an efficacy that no process or contract can ever duplicate.

Real authority makes a mockery of lawyers, bureaucrats and procedurists.

In the great house that is the church of God, one of the firm and foundational principles is this: “The Lord knows who are his”. If the Lord knows, it doesn’t matter whether I as an elder, pastor, priest (or whatever else I may be) happen to know who are his. What matters is that HE does.

Because THE LORD is the one actually applying the discipline to a sinning believer; the church is merely the vehicle through which he makes that fact apparent.

Binding and Loosing

I haven’t heard it done, but it’s quite possible for someone to dispute this last point I’ve made by referencing the Lord’s words in Matthew with respect to church authority, which reads:
“… whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”
It is, I suppose, possible to suggest that the Lord was here conferring such a degree of authority on those who exercise discipline on his behalf that they could conceivably wreak all manner of havoc on earth by doing so inappropriately. After all, we might argue, God backed up the leadership of Moses even when he disobeyed God by striking the rock in the wilderness instead of speaking to it as he had been instructed. And yet God graciously sent water to meet the needs of the people even though their leadership was out of line with his will.

Taken at face value, it sounds like the “binding and loosing” concept gives the church authority to do anything and everything, with the powers of heaven sure to play along.

Think back on those you’ve known in your lifetime that purported to exercise ecclesiastical authority and that may indeed present itself as a terrifying prospect. Rather than “on earth as it is in heaven”, we would have “in heaven as it is on earth”.

There’s a scary idea.

“In My Name”

Fortunately for everyone this is not what the Lord was telling his disciples. The power and authority to bind and loose conferred in verse 18 and the “anything they ask” of verse 19 are limited by a statement in verse 20, which reads like so:
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The significant words here are “in my name”. To gather in the name of the Lord is to gather according to his character, with his purposes (and no other) in view. It is not simply with the hope of putting others in their place, exercising our own gifts or demonstrating our own power. It is definitely not so we can ascend some sort of spiritual pedestal from which we deal out God’s justice to those who we think have run afoul of church order.

It is my experience that those who have attempted to exercise inappropriate personal clout in disciplining others have, unlike the apostle Paul, found themselves strangely without support from the Authority to which they sought to appeal.

On the other hand, any two perfectly ordinary “lay” believers who genuinely have the Lord’s desires and purposes in view and respect his sovereignty over the church have considerably more authority to “bind” and “loose” in the spiritual realm than those who assemble lists and enrol members.

Because we always need to remember that church discipline is not an exercise of the authority of the church so much as it is an appeal to the authority of the church’s Head.

Back to the Corporate Colossus

Let’s return to my would-be parable for a second.

Say I send off my email to my boss, including with it my recommendation that on the basis of the information I currently possess, Joe Smith ought to be fired. So what happens now?

Well, my boss has a thing I don’t possess. In the IT world it is frequently referred to as “permissions” or “privileges”. It means he is in possession of all kinds of information I don’t have. In Joe Smith’s case, it means he knows instantly whether Joe actually falls under my authority or not.

In the unlikely circumstance that Joe is not an employee at all, my appeal to my boss will expose him, and Joe will disappear from my life without further ado. If Joe is a “plant” from upper management sent to observe my teaching skills, it will be established that I have followed procedure where he was concerned. Even if Joe happens to be my employer’s kid brother, I have only offered a recommendation in good faith based on the facts known to me.

Even supposing Joe is a perfectly ordinary employee (as is likely the case), my boss is equipped by his permissions and privileges to read Joe’s emails and establish whether or not Joe actually said what is alleged. He’s not omniscient, but he’s in a far better position than I am to evaluate the situation and determine what ought to be done.

Authority in the Local Church

Where the local church is concerned, the Head of the church is also in a far better position than elders or other leaders who seek to follow the guidelines of scripture because he actually IS omniscient. Where my boss has to read emails to get a sense of what may have happened, the Lord Jesus knows exactly what has gone on including any mitigating circumstances that may exist, and is fully prepared to deal with each situation appropriately.

So do we need a list or some form of formal recognition of members to commit a professing believer to the discipline of God when he or she sins? I am confident we do not.

If in fact we have no authority over such a person because they are not actually a Christian, the Lord knows this and will surely respond accordingly, perhaps by making that fact clear to all.

Supposing the facts as presented to us are wrong, despite our due diligence and our best attempts to investigate an accusation, I feel very comfortable in the knowledge that the Lord will surely vindicate the innocent.

But even if the facts about any particular case of misconduct on the part of a believer turn out to be true, and even if we DO have authority over such an individual, no list or contract is terribly likely to persuade a sinning Christian to change their mind — nor, for that matter, is it likely to insulate us from the legal repercussions that may ensue when we point out that they have ongoing sin in their lives of which they need to repent. However, far more importantly, if the Lord has genuinely conferred authority over such a person to the local church they attend, no amount of wriggling around, equivocating and self-justification on their part will enable them to escape dealing with the Head of the church himself.

Under such circumstances, often the only thing that may change such a person’s mind is the direct intervention of God in their lives, such as was feared by Simon the Magician, experienced by the unnamed Corinthian believer or evidenced in the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

Such is the authority of the Head of the church.

As for the under-shepherds tasked with responsibility for the flock, the only ones who need lists are those who do not have the confidence (or maybe the humility) to make regular and fervent appeal to him.

1 comment :

  1. Interesting thoughts. One of the more subtle verses in the context of local church discipline appears in Hebrews 13:17. It reads as follows in the NASB:

    Obey your leaders and submit [to them], for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

    There's lots to be said about an elder's need to give an account for how they treat the sheep. But it's that last phrase that is the money phrase as far as I'm concerned. It's unfortunate but I've seen more than enough from people who feel that elders are a wonderful target for abusive and personal attacks, outright rebellion and general mayhem. Who suffers? Yes, the elders definitely do suffer - though it's pretty clearly God's desire is for them to be able to serve joyfully. But the *real* sufferers turn out to be the difficult sheep - the phrase "unprofitable for you" is pregnant with meaning and ought to be bring us up a little short when we are inclined to stir things up unnecessarily.