Friday, October 15, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Church of the Revolving Door

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Almost all in-groups, public or private, have some form of disciplinary process in place. At work, if you engage in behavior the company defines as “harassment”, you will generally find yourself in front of a supervisor and a Human Resources rep, either to be written up or dismissed. The NFL regularly suspends players who don’t comply with its codes. Even Twitter will freeze your account for expressing what it considers to be inappropriate political views. All of this is standard procedure.

Tom: If you read a fair bit of recent online commentary, you might be forgiven for thinking that contemporary evangelical churches are the only institutions in existence that have no self-policing mechanisms in place.

A Tragic Neglect

For instance, Wayne Jackson calls the lack of church discipline today a “tragic neglect”. He says, “There are countless congregations belonging to Jesus Christ across our land where little, if any, discipline of the wayward is ever enacted.” Albert Mohler says, “The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church.”

What do you think, Immanuel Can? Is church discipline on a major downturn? It seems to me there sure used to be a whole lot more of it.

Immanuel Can: Yes. I think the basic problem was identified quite a while ago, by sociologist-of-religion Peter Berger: it’s the consumerist situation of the modern, evangelical church. It makes discipline very difficult to put into practice.

Tom: What’s the catch, IC? You say it’s related to consumerism, which suggests that Berger’s probably not just talking just about the fear of lawsuits. Or is he?

IC: No. He’s talking about how in olden days you had limited options for church. You lived in a fairly restricted area, in which there was likely to be only one church of whatever denominational persuasion within range. Thus, to be disciplined by that church was enforceable and had minimal consequences for the church as well. But in the modern situation we’re all transient. We choose our churches by personal preference and have many within range. When we don’t like what one says, we vote with our feet and go elsewhere.

Today, we might say, the local church has a revolving door. This makes enforcement of any discipline very problematic.

Bring on the Lawsuits

Tom: Right. So when people know something about the way they are living is likely to bring them criticism or potentially cause them to be ostracized by Christians in the church they’re attending, they scoot before anyone can tell them to scoot. No blame, no shame.

But if the sin is major — and I mean major in the 1 Corinthians 5 sense — you would think the church of which they are currently a member would read them out anyway, wouldn’t you? Unless fear of being sued really is a modern problem …

IC: Fear of being sued is perhaps a reality, and perhaps increasingly so; but I think it’s not very high yet. More pressing is the PR problem posed by appearing “harsh” in indicting somebody for his/her sins. The perp will likely make a scene and leave; but so will a whole lot of people who sympathize with him/her, or who just feel uncomfortable with anything that appears “judgmental” in church leadership. So a number of the consumers move off to consume a different religious “product”, and the disciplining church takes the hit.

Taking Sides

Tom: Surely that whole “taking sides” thing must have been a problem for first century churches as well. The “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” in Crete were said to be upsetting whole households, which suggests there were people in the church there who didn’t know who to trust and what to believe, and might have sided with the Judaizers if they were subjected to discipline. But Titus was still supposed to deal with the troublemakers.

IC: Well, yes. None of the difficulties mean that the church can just dispense with discipline. But we still need to recognize that obedience comes with a cost, in this case; and in the modern context, that cost is likely to be quite high.

Tom: Agreed. And too few of us recognize that the long-term cost of disobedience is always higher than the cost of obedience. You almost need to have had the experience to know that. Still, I believe there are a great many Christians out there who are willing to pay whatever it costs to be on the right side of these issues. What often causes disagreements within a church about discipline, I think, is not so much fear of the consequences, but genuine questions about whether the situation is being handled correctly by leadership.

IC: Especially in a society that is omni-tolerant, has no clear conception of sin at all, and is extreme on the idea that the individual’s conscience is the final arbiter of truth and justice.

Blurred Lines and Questioned Judgment

Tom: Exactly. So something like purging a church of a sexually immoral person, to use the language of 1 Corinthians, seems pretty clear cut. But you might run into serious disagreement over whether a three-a-day craft beer drinker is a “drunkard”. Some Christians would call that one a slam dunk; others would say it’s borderline, or maybe even a non-issue so long as he’s not out running around the streets in his underwear. Or what precisely is a “reviler”? You or I might look at the Greek and feel pretty confident what sort of behavior is in view. Convincing a whole church of that, though? That’s another story.

IC: Yes; because of the things I suggested. There’s a perception that any insistence on standards of conduct or rules of behavior is judgmental or legalistic. And one of the quickest ways for a local church to destroy its reputation is to be generally characterized as one of those things.

Comprehension and Trust

Tom: Oh, I agree about that. But beyond having accepted the world’s frame about judging sin, I think there are two additional problems with discipline that the early church had less of than we do: (1) comprehension, and (2) trust. The first is a problem because, unlike the Bereans, we have accepted as normal a church in which only the “pastor” and a few old-timers really study the Bible. In many Christian households, you can’t find a single person who could pick up a Vine’s or a concordance and figure out what is meant by “reviler”. Maybe — just maybe — some eager young guy might think to Google it. That’s not as big a problem if you have a church that trusts its leadership, but it’s very evident that in our present environment, trust is either in terminally short supply, or, oddly, is being extended where it shouldn’t be.

IC: Right on. And maybe you’ve hit on a key issue there. There’s little recognition of need for church discipline if the believers themselves are not capable of recognizing behaviors that the scriptures themselves condemn. You’ve got to have a certain dexterity with your Bible if you’re going to know when, how and why discipline is practiced.

Borderline Disorderly

Tom: I want to come back to a point you made earlier. One of the problems I suspect elders have with reading out someone who is thought to be ‘borderline disorderly’ or ‘arguably sinful’ in their conduct — especially if they haven’t been attending recently or if they are related to someone else in that church — is that, well … what’s the point? As you mention, such actions come with big risks of causing vitriolic division and very little upside. The elders know full well the troublemaker is going to be able to slide right into another congregation if they want to, maybe even in the same denomination or association of local churches. He or she may have already done so.

IC: Well, at least formalizing it removes the evil person from among you.

As in All the Churches

Tom: There is that. But that option to church-hop didn’t really exist in the first century, at least at the beginning. Not necessarily because letters of commendation were a universal practice — I think we can be fairly sure they were not. But the apostle Paul uses expressions like “as in all the churches” in several of his epistles, which suggests strongly that there was a body of commonly understood apostolic doctrine and practice that would have made elders reluctant to admit to fellowship a professing Christian who had been turned away elsewhere for reasons of immoral behavior.

IC: It was likely too early to have things like cults and denominations. At the time, Christianity was new — so new, that it didn’t even have an official name except “the Way”. In any case, it was certainly not a high-prestige belief-system that would attract imitators, so one group is all there really was.

Tom: True. But today, the leaders of one local church may be quite prepared to second-guess another church’s discipline even when they don’t have first-hand knowledge of the circumstances. Maybe that’s virtue-signaling or omni-tolerance, I don’t know.

Members in Transit

IC: Or just the fact that there are so many and such diverse churches and denominations that they don’t have regular communications, and cannot really know where anybody is coming from. People are so transient — they come in one week, then not for three, then back again, and eventually they’re just there all the time … or not. There’s no clear moment at which the question, “Where are you from, and have you kept up a good moral standing?” is evidently appropriate; so it never gets asked.

Tom: Well, I have noticed that some of the very large churches (like those of the Harvest brand) do indeed address previous church discipline in their codes of conduct, but that would only become an issue if and when an attendee applies for official membership. If not, theoretically he or she could lurk in the second balcony of the third campus for the rest of time breaking bread with the mixed multitude. Or maybe not. I may not be giving them enough credit.

A Different Definition

IC: But since membership is not required for merely attending Harvest, nor one required by many other churches, that’s kind of a dull tool for the task. It’s not biblical either — unless by “membership” one is speaking of the Body of Christ, not some administrative list held by clergy, but I suspect you were alluding to the latter, no?

Tom: Well, you and I use “membership” to refer to our relationship to the Body of Christ generally, by virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit, but Harvest and others often use it as shorthand for official association with their local branch.

Is discipline one of those church problems about which we have lots of horror stories and no real solutions to propose?

IC: Well, let me suggest something. I think discipline is likely to be less of a problem in congregations that are small and personal, where people really get to know each other, and in which keeping up the PR with the world is not the primary concern. On the other hand, in a big, impersonal, ceremonial (rather than relational) or program-focused church, I see no prospect of biblical church discipline being practiced again, except in the most obvious and extreme cases.

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