Sunday, September 8, 2019

Church Discipline

How should “erring” brothers and sisters1 be treated in a Christian community of faith that uses the Bible as a guide for life? Jesus followers and early Christians2 were scarcely consistent on this issue. I stumbled across the problem of church discipline in Baptist Bible Study one recent Sunday morning. We were discussing Titus chapter three (one of the Pastoral letters—First and Second Timothy being the other two) when the problem surfaced:

As for a man who is factious3 after admonishing him once or twice have nothing more to do with him (Titus 3:10 RSV; compare 2 Tim 2:23-26; 2 Thess 3:14-15).

This statement seems to evoke the practice of shunning. As far as I know shunning is not something that is practiced today in those mainstream Protestant churches that emerged out of the reformation. Some religious groups, however, do practice shunning as a form of religious community discipline.4 As I understand the practice of shunning, the excommunicated/shunned person may still live in the community but no one will have anything to do with him or her. This advice by the author of Titus (called the “Pastor”) seems to be an informal process, rather than an official act of the community, however.

            The passage that is best known is Matt 18:15-17, but recommends a different and more formal practice in dealing with erring brothers and sisters:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (RSV; see also 1 Tim 6:19-20).

This form of official discipline also seems to end in shunning. In ancient Judaism a proper member of the community would not associate with Gentiles or tax collectors.

            Paul, on the other hand, is somewhat more callous in 1 Cor 5:1-5. Here are his final statements on the situation in the passage: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2, RSV; i.e., put him/her out of the community), he writes to the church. And adds further: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5, RSV; see also 1 Tim 1:20, and similarly in Galatians 1:6-9). He does sound more compassionate in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (RSV; and similarly in James 5:19-20), but, alas, it is not how he treated the brother in 1 Cor 5:1-5 (quoted above).

            Suppose you were the one considered by others in the community to have erred in some way; how are you supposed to act? The principle stated in Matt 5:23-26 offers some guidance:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24, RSV).

If you are the erring brother or sister the principle reflected in this passage puts the responsibility for reconciliation on you rather than your accuser.

            The word “discipline” in English is generally used with an emphasis on control or punishment. Meanings of the word include “to punish or penalize for the sake of discipline”; “to train or develop by instruction and exercise”; “to bring (a group) under control”; “to impose order upon.” Hence, a “disciplinarian,” is “one who disciplines or imposes order.”

The basic goal of these passages in the New Testament related to discipline in the community of faith can be summed up as being for the purposes of punishment and group control—even though Paul states that it is for therapeutic purposes (1 Cor 5:5). One would have hoped that the practices of the community would have better characterized it as a center of healing and reconciliation, much as Paul envisioned in Gal 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (RSV; compare 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11).

The church as a center of reconciliation and healing remains an ideal to be pursued but it is scarcely a goal that can ever be achieved.

            At its base church discipline in the early gatherings of faith was an attempt at controlling the thinking of members of the community (Phil 4:2-3; 1 Tim 6:20-21; 2 Tim 3:8-9; 2 Tim 4:14-15; Heb 13:17), and it appears that it was no more successful then than it is now.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Those who disagree with the accepted views of the community may not think they are guilty of error, however.
2They are not the same thing.
3The Greek word translated by “factious,” (airetikos), according to the lexicon, relates to causing divisions, and is the adjective related to airesis “party, school, faction, or heresy.”
4For example, the Mennonites and the Amish.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Is Man the Measure of All Things?

In fourth century Greece, Socrates as a young man met and dialogued with Protagoras, who was then an older man (Plato, Protagoras). Protagoras spent some 40 years as a wandering teacher for hire (a sophist), who would have been able to take either side of an argument in a debate. Socrates, however, treated him as a serious philosopher. In another of Plato’s dialogues he depicts Socrates in dialogue with Theaetetus discussing “what knowledge is.” Theaetetus replies “Knowledge is nothing else than perception.” Socrates replies “good response” and adds that this is the same answer that Protagoras also used to give although he said it a little differently:

For he says somewhere that man is “the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.” (Plato, Theaetetus 152a; also Cratylus 386c and Laws 716c)

Socrates explains this saying of Protagoras, in this way:

Individual things are for me such as they appear to me and for you in turn such as they appear to you. (Plato, Theaetetus 152a)

               My question is whether or not this saying of Protagoras, as Socrates understood it, is an accurate description of the human situation in life? Socrates disagreed with Protagoras and says, “In our eyes God will be ‘the measure of all things.’” (Laws 716c). Most church folk would no doubt agree with Socrates and declare God the measure of all things (Job 38-39), and particularly of humankind (Ps 39:4-5). From my perspective, however, man is the measure of the Gods, of those that are and those that are not. That is to say, human beings invent their Gods, and each of us gets to decide which we will worship and which we will not. Even in the Bible God is depicted in various ways that cannot logically be harmonized.1

               Human beings are even the measure of what texts got into the Bible and have even determined what Scripture itself says. In the earliest days there was no Bible; there existed only individual manuscripts and later small collections of texts initially inscribed by human authors on disassociated papyrus and vellum manuscripts. These individual authors working in isolation recorded their religious experiences and personal faith. Their texts were part of the stream of western civilization. Later, others copied and recopied them and translators translated them into different languages. Small collections of these texts emerged. In the case of the Jewish Bible some of those smaller collections were gatherings related to law, or prophets, or gatherings of “Writings.” In the case of the New Testament, there exist among the papyri collections of gospels and epistles. These individual texts eventually became the religious collections of two faith communities, Israelite and Christian, and the collections are the “inventions”2 of those faith communities. Christian bibles today consist of three different collections: Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic.

               Since the enlightenment of the 17-18th Centuries modern critical scholars have gone back to the some 5000 or so original papyrus and vellum fragmentary manuscripts of the New Testament; they compared the different readings of each manuscript—for no two of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. The scholars decided by voting (not by praying) what the original autographs of each New Testament text should have read.3 Translators working from the critical text provided by scholars of textual criticism render the Bible into modern languages, and those translations are the modern literary equivalents of the Bible’s ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. This process, just described, establishes human beings as the “measure” of the Bible, even to the extent of deciding what the original authors wrote in their texts.4 In this way human beings have provided the raw data from which modern Christian believers develop their individual concepts of God.

The belief that God “divinely inspired” (i.e., influenced, moved, or guided) the authors of the Bible (from outside their minds) should be mindful of the fact that it was human ingenuity and creativeness that made the Bible possible throughout this centuries long process.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

2By “invention” I mean to say that the human members of each faith community decided what texts belonged to their collection of Holy Books.
3See Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.; 1994), 10*-16*.
4Is Mark 16:9-20 an original part of the Gospel of Mark? Ancient Christian tradition says that it is, and it is still part of the New King James Bible. Modern critical scholarship, on the other hand, has decided it is a later addition to the end of Mark and hence it was not a part of the autograph and is excluded from modern translations. See Metzger, Textual Commentary, 102-106.