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.

12 comments:

  1. 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
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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  2. 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)?
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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    1. 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
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  3. https://um-insight.net/perspectives/jeff-sessions-and-the-failure-of-the-united-methodist-church/

    “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.


    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Hi Gene,
      What is your point about these issues you have brought to the attention of the readers of the blog?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      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.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  4. 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

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    1. 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.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. 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

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    3. 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.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    4. 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

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  5. 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
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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