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
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.
It is an interesting topic, Charlie. Here are three examples of church discipline, one nineteenth century, the second from 1905, and a third during my lifetime, the first two copied from a writing I have tentatively finished:
Churches in the South were very strict about personal behaviors. In the 1800’s, my great-great grandfather was kicked out of church because he played his fiddle at dances (Carpenter, WJ, a memoir), and his descendants have played at dances “ever since.” His grandson, my paternal grandfather, was a seminary grad who also chose the fiddle over the pulpit and never attended church after graduation.
A remarkable example of oral tradition from the 20th century is in a comb bound book I discovered of recollections told to & recorded by a prof I knew. Same tune, different verse: “A fiddler’s convention was held in Dahlonega in 1905. My husbands’ grandfather was there that day. When a certain tune was being played that day his grandfather, old as he was, got up on the stage and danced... He was real old and back then a member had to live by the church rules or else be dismissed... They had conference day once a month. If someone had done something wrong or used a bad word was really dismissed. Dancing was not to be allowed. They heard about Bill’s grandfather. They brought a charge against the old man for dancing. He had attend church on that same day and he stood up and made an apology he told them that he was sorry that he had done it but that every time he heard a tune called ‘Katie Hill’ he couldn’t keep from dancing. The church agreed to keep him, but on the records it shows that they couldn’t get the old 87 year old man to say he would not dance anymore” (Trammell, p. 74).
Some churches had meetings, when a member went “awry” from the expected church behaviors, and came to a consensus as to punishment for errant behaviors. I was at one such in the mid-60’s where two members, the pastor and another, were castigated for inviting African Americans to the church. Different tune, same verse.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Very interesting Dennis,
Thank you for sharing. I wonder what the faithful would say about King David dancing before the Ark of the covenant and making merry before the Lord while half naked (2 Sam 6:14-23)?
Trying to put myself in the mind of a nineteenth century evangelical, I think the difference would probably be in the application of music and dance in the 19th and early 20th century. In the case of a square dance and of a fiddler’s convention, these “threats” to the church were probably associated with “demon alcohol,” which many Christians were working to have prohibited then. Alcohol was and is associated with secular frolicking at dances, thus this form of music and dancing would have been evil. Conversely, the music within the church would have been seen, like 2 Sam. 6, as music to exalt God, thus holy. Even “dancing,” or dance-like motions, whirling, bodily twitches, laughing and shouting was observed in some revivals in the 19th century, and can still be found in some churches. When associated with church, it’s associated with the Spirit; when at a dance, with “spirits” and the Devil. (Pun intended.)
Putting it back in my critical perspective I don’t think that was the purpose of the dancing (or “whirling” in my Jewish translations) in 2 Sam. 6. It pointed back to Noah’s nakedness & curse (Gen.9) and forward to the nakedness of Bathsheba in 2 Sam. 11 to reinforce God’s displeasure of Saul through the punishment of Micah for chastising David for his nakedness. (If he was whirling in the garb worn, he was exposing himself.) Michal is punished with the penalty of being childless, which meant that there was no Davidic line involving Saul. There would be no uniting the two “houses” (dynasties). Curiously, the line passes to Solomon, son of the naked Bathsheba David had viewed.
It is a lesson for its time. Michal, who loved David, (though there is no evidence he loved her), had saved David’s life, while he was playing the lyre. She later criticized him for his nakedness and for “speaking up” she was doomed to being childless. It is a lesson that tells the audience that women shouldn’t criticize men in the patriarchal age and that God will punish even the lineage of one who did not completely obey the god who tells one to “Spare no one, but kill alike men and woman, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.” First and foremost, gods must be obeyed without questioning.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
“There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders.” Adolph Eichmann
“A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy.” Dr. Debora Bishop, District Superintendent, UMC.
"As one of those who signed a letter charging Attorney General Jeff Sessions with violating the standards of the United Methodist Church, I never expected the charges to result in any significant censure of Mr. Sessions. This is not because the charges were not serious. Sessions is implicated in the systematic abuse of thousands of children who were forcibly separated from their parents as they entered the United States. It’s hard to know exactly how many children were separated, because the administration did not keep accurate records. Separation was carried out without any plans for the reunification of families, and many children might never be reunited with their parents.
This policy is not only immoral, it is clearly incompatible with the standards of the United Methodist Church. In the words of Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, the policy was, and is “incompatible with Scripture and Christian tradition.”
All kinds of similar references can be found on-line regarding UM discipline particularly with regard to "avowed" homosexuality: a director of a child's choir fired from his job, a pastor who married his gay son, etc. There is also strong push-back regarding how these matters were handled.
What is your point about these issues you have brought to the attention of the readers of the blog?
Your blog is titled "Church Discipline." I've given a few examples of discipline, or not, in the UM Church, of particular interest to me since I was a UM pastor for five years and UM was a merger of Methodism and the Evangelical United Brethren Church which I attended growing up.
Good Evening Charlie,
1) You hit the nail on the head when you stated that church discipline was (and still is) an attempt at controlling the thinking of the members of the congregation... Do you think this is a primary reason that church attendance continues to decline? Speaking for myself, that was the main reason I stopped going to church many years ago.
2) Have you ever witnessed the practice of shunning? I personally have not. If you were to witness it- how would you respond to it if it involved yourself or a close friend? Would you speak out against it?
3) Do you think it is necessary for churches today to discipline their flocks? Other than egregious errors like disrupting the service or destroying property or something outright illegal.... Why do churches even need to discipline their members?? It seems unnecessary to me.
4) Your article did not mention disciplining church leaders themselves... That seems to be the real issue at hand. And I'm not merely speaking of the well known cases of abuse by Catholic priests... Believe me, as much or more abuse has taken place in Protestant church leadership. I could name 5 women off the top of my head who were propositioned and molested by highly renowned church pastors and/or counselors. They prey upon the most vulnerable of women- those who come in for counseling and healing from abusive relationships. I would never reveal their identity, but I assure you there's way more than five that I can personally think of right at this moment. It is horrific and unconscionable that this goes on without any consequences whatsoever. Why do you think the Bible does not address the need to discpline the pastors themselves?? Don't you think that is equally important? Have you ever been involved in a church dispute? (not that you were in need of disciplining- but were you called upon to counsel someone else?)
Many thanks as always!! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
1) People without curiosity, I suspect, find it easier to surrender their independence of thought and that is true particularly in the church. It does not work with me, however; and as you say with you as well.
2)I have seen how it works in a TV documentary. If one has invested their life in the community, I suspect that it would be crushing. In my case, if I am not wanted I would simply move on.
3) Most organizations have rules governing membership. In that respect the church is no different.
4) The main reason, I suspect, is that the texts in the New Testament were written by the leaders. But that said, there is criticism of other leaders who disagreed with the author of a given text. For example, in Galatian 1:6-9 Paul severely criticizes other leaders who disagree with him. In my case, I have never been officially charged with heresy, reprimanded, or disciplined, but I have been harshly criticized.
Just to clarify, Charlie... you said most organizations have governing rules for membership. And of course this would apply to churches as well as any academic institution, corporation, non-profit organization, etc. The difference with churches and the role of governance & discipline has to do with "thinking." So my question is really this: Do churches have the right to govern our thinking? And therefore exert discipline when our thinking gets out of line with its membership rules? Don't you think that is outdated and unnecessary today?
(I suppose there are a few colleges who attempt to "govern thinking" when they disinvite speakers such as Ben Shapiro or Candace Owens because their thinking is not in accordance with the university's world view... Certain churches are no different in some regards)
Thank you as usual, Elizabeth
Good Sunday afternoon Elizabeth,
Here is my general answer to your first question: churches have the right "to govern the thinking of its membership" only to the extent that the membership allows. If you are asking me should churches attempt to control the thinking of their membership, the answer is no. I do however believe in education where all sides of an issue are presented and individuals are permitted to make up their own minds, as I have repeatedly urged in this blog.
Neither churches nor religion exert much weight (if any) when it comes to discipline, compared to several hundred or even 100 years ago. I doubt that any churches practice boring holes in one’s tongue for uttering an oath, or cutting off one’s ears for not paying attention to admonition (the first tool of church discipline), as happened in 17th century America and England. “Shunning,” excommunication in those days was bad emotionally (when community was more important than individuality) and bad economically (since it included isolation both by the church and by the town), but it sounds really ineffectual (and even a tad silly) in a secular society these days, especially since one in four isn’t even affiliated with a church and individuality is valued. Church attendance is the lowest it has been since they began reporting these numbers. Related to that, surveys also reveal that much of the cultural lag of official church policy isn’t reflected in the views of church members, consequently most of what might have gotten a member into “trouble” even fifty years ago wouldn’t be supported by the members. Most have a “middle ground” position on views of homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, marriage, death penalty and other “social issues,” therefore the idea of a church having some kind of quasi-supernatural control of one’s attitudes or behaviors is not found in the data, from what one can see in Pew and Gallup. One wonders if that is a reason evangelical politicians are so insecure they feel the need to codify their religious foolishness into law, since even in evangelical groups there is the “threatening” diversity of opinion.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Hi Charlie, most of the "thought control" takes place in small group and social settings, especially in churches that are very tight knit. One may think that they are speaking in front of the group freely and unencumbered, only to have their comments repeated to the elders, leaders, etc... So the membership itself is who enforces the thought control. I come from a long line of Bible study teachers and have witnessed numerous little dramas with regard to doctrinal disputes. Now is that most churchgoers experience? It just depends on how plugged in they are to the social ecosystem- and my family was very plugged in. So I very much appreciate the attitude of you and your blog and being allowed to voice my opinions and questions without fear of repercussions.... And without anyone attempting to impose their own perspective upon anyone else. So thank you! Elizabeth
Good Morning Dennis,
Interesting comment! If certain things don't "show up in the data," I would think that it is because of the questions pollsters are asking. Would you agree, or is there another reason?
Not necessarily, Charlie. According to a 2014 Pew survey (cited below), one third of evangelicals support abortion, 48% believe that the situation defines “right & wrong,” 36% think homosexuality should be accepted, 28% support same-sex marriage, 45% say strong environmental laws are worth the cost, and 30% say common sense, not religion, is the main guide of their “right & wrong” decisions. In other words, a sizable percentage don't "believe" the words of the church leader, thus one can't legitimately use the paradigm of another "controlling one's mind."
While it is certainly correct that one doesn't know what all the evangelical churches have as tenets, these percentages are certainly higher than I would have supposed, especially those dealing with "situational ethics" and looking at religion as the only arbiter of "right and wrong." When one looks at other responses, too, dealing with abortion, homosexuality, these give what I considered surprising numbers showing that, if tenets of evangelicalism are things like the inerrancy of the Bible (which relates to vehement opposition to situational ethics), homosexuality, gay marriage, etc. then the notion of the leader(s) of the church controlling the mind of the members doesn't really seem accurate.
I think it is more a matter of "obedience," or the will of the parishioner, which can be and has been operationally quantified, as opposed to the effect of the leader. (In the ‘60’s & ‘70’s Stanley Milgram was a pioneer in that area. He did some experiments with a "shock machine" at Yale.) There is a large difference between the sci fi idea of someone controlling another's mind (as brainwashing a captured adversary), and a subject obeying because the conditions of obedience have been met by the subject. It is the willingness of the subject, not the power of the church leader, I think.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
To continue briefly, there are, of course, other variables, but I wanted to briefly say something about the conditions of obedience:
The conditions of obedience have to do with trusting the one in authority, being in a subordinate relationship (in other words the leader is considered the one responsible... That's what he said), having socially accepted norms that might make one uneasy to speak up, redefining evil & good ("Compared to this [evil], that is good" (although it is also "evil," and using ambiguous situations. (For instance, one example is what I heard after the 2016 election: "I don't believe in everything he has done, but I have to support him because..." (& they give a reason). When one is in a situation where all of these are met, one will likely be obedient.
Looking at the Pew survey, it looks like in many instances, many evangelicals are not comfortable with being "tenet tools." While their beliefs, family, friends may coincide with the church, they are "their own" when it comes to colliding with cultural standards that are at odds with the church. The stereotype is somewhat faulty.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Evening Charlie!
The only people in churches who care about social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, legalizing drugs, etc are extremists- whether on the right or the left. Most people in the middle such as myself don't feel strongly either way- it's only a handful of fundamentalists. I see no difference between extremism and fundamentalism, do you?
Church leaders allow for a diverse array of positions on social issues, that's nothing new. In other words- it's not considered heresy. Heresy has to do with church doctrine, which is completely different and separate from modern day social issues- and those are changing constantly. Polling is only a snapshot of shifting and frequently evolving ideas & attitudes of complex individuals. Polls are snapshot of now- they do no predict future results.
To your knowledge, is there a universally agreed upon definition of "evangelical?" If so, do social issues have anything whatsoever to do with it?? If so, that's news to me. My understanding is that "evangelical" has to do with believing in the Resurrection, The Virgin Birth, embracing the Nicene Creed, the Trinity, Inerrancy of scripture, and Witnessing or Spreading the Gospel to others. But I read that definition in an article on Vox.com... I had never actually thought of it before, and I wondered what your definition would be.
With regard to church disicipline, my experience and observation shows more of a focus on theological issues like belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus or whether or not there's a Trinity.... Those things can get you kicked off of a church committee or Bible study group or being an elder or deacon in a heartbeat. Those issues are sacrosanct, and to even hint at questioning them would not be tolerated publicly for one nanosecond in a conservative Protestant evangelical church. So when I think of discipline, that's what comes to mind- not abortion. Any thoughts? Elizabeth
If I may present my two cents. Looking at my Greek Lexicon, "Evangel" occurs throughout the NT in the following forms: noun. euaggelion "good news" (gospel); verb. euaggelizo "to bring, announce, proclaim, preach the good news;" euaggelistas "preacher of the good news, evangelist." For example: Mark 1:1, Matt 4:23, Luke 1:19, Romans 15:20, 1 Corinthians 15:1, Ephesians 6:15, 1 Peter 4:17, Revelation 14:6, Acts 15:7, as you can see, from the earliest literature to the latest literature.
The foundation meaning of "good news" seems to be, "Now I would remind you brothers and sisters of the good-news that I proclaimed to you...For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins...that he was buried...that he was raised on the third day...that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve..." (1 Cor 3:ff). But it may also have the meaning of the "story of Jesus" at Mark 1:1, "The beginning of the good-news of Jesus Christ..." And then it seems to have morphed into 'obedience' to a developed system of behaviors (1 Peter 4:17), "For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?"
In broad brush terms this may be the history of the Evangelical movement. Evangel initially referred to the overwhelming change of heart which is represented in the public's mind by what occurs in an altar call, say at a Billy Graham crusade; but perhaps eventually it equally came to represent obedience to specific beliefs taught by many of the spiritual advisers and counselors of the movement.
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I have little striking to say on the subject of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. The dictionary defines them pretty much the same way--with the exception that Fundamentalists are seen as being a bit more extreme in their zeal. Evangelicals are defined as a religious group emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual. In my personal experience with members of both groups Fundamentalists seem angry and argumentative in their demeanor so that it is difficult to carry on a reasonable conversation. Evangelicals I have found to be generally more personable, although no less zealous in their faith.
The term "evangelical" as it is applied today and retroactively applied to the First Great Awakening and a bit earlier (for me), came about in the first half of the nineteenth century (Religion in American Life, Butler, et.al.), probably because the major effort came from the revivals and itinerant Methodist, Baptist, Congregational/Presbyterian and other preachers. It is used (euaggelistes) thrice in the New Testament (Acts 21, Eph 4 & 2 Tim. 4), people who were "spreaders of the good message" as you say, Gene. Another fact is that, though there are over 50 evangelical church organizations (not including the "associations"), the name "evangelical" also applies to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is mainstream. The descriptors are well-known. It differs from fundamentalism (other than the origins of the two) primarily in its attempt to engage the world, whereas fundamentalism would retreat.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I don't know what order my other post will arrive, but the subject of the second sentence, "It," refers to the noun "evangelist" not the adjective "evangelical," as it might seem. (I was thinking of the job description.)
Dennis Dean Carpenter
"Evangel initially referred to the overwhelming change of heart which is represented in the public's mind by what occurs in an altar call, say at a Billy Graham crusade; but perhaps eventually it equally came to represent obedience to specific beliefs taught by many of the spiritual advisers and counselors of the movement." Thank you Gene- these terms definitely evolve over time and I've heard many different definitions through the years. A reporter once asked Billy Graham what the definition of an evangelical is and he reprised, "That's something I'd like to ask someone myself."
Charlie, I couldn't agree more about Fundamentalists... Sometimes their anger and argumentativeness is not so obvious at first. They can appear very warm and engaging until you hit a hot button issue- then the mask comes off and you see what is underneath. When we drive to Texas to visit my family, there's some organization we pass by on the freeway in Dallas called "The Council of Adamant Believers." (I googled it once, but I can't remember what it's purpose was all about) Evangelicals do seem to be better at masking their fundamentalist beliefs regarding scripture and salvation. Thank you, Elizabeth
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