I love the way the Wall Street Journal covers religion. Rather than focus on political-religious stories as so many other media outlets do, the Journal frequently looks at stories about actual religious life. Many readers sent along Alexandra Alter’s fascinating analysis of church discipline:
On a quiet Sunday morning in June, as worshippers settled into the pews at Allen Baptist Church in southwestern Michigan, Pastor Jason Burrick grabbed his cellphone and dialed 911. When a dispatcher answered, the preacher said a former congregant was in the sanctuary. “And we need to, um, have her out A.S.A.P.”
Half an hour later, 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey, a church member for nearly 50 years who had taught Sunday school and regularly donated 10% of her pension, was led out by a state trooper and a county sheriff’s officer. One held her purse and Bible. The other put her in handcuffs.
The charge was trespassing, but Mrs. Caskey’s real offense, in her pastor’s view, was spiritual. Several months earlier, when she had questioned his authority, he’d charged her with spreading “a spirit of cancer and discord” and expelled her from the congregation. “I’ve been shunned,” she says.
The online article has some great multi-media features. You can actually hear the the 911 call as well as an interview with constitutional law professor Doug Laycock, who discusses the legal implications of church discipline. There’s also a brief history of shunning and excommunication. Here are the nut graphs:
Her story reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.
The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
I cannot say enough how pleased I am that this topic is being covered. But my problem with this article is the same problem I have with how with excommunication and church discipline are always portrayed by the media. It is always presented as horribly unkind, unloving and unchristian.
My church body practices discipline and while I can’t say I’ve been witness to it terribly many times, we are taught about it regularly. We are taught that it is to be done in love for those who have lapsed into serious sin or error that might destroy their salvation. And the primary purpose isn’t to get rid of a member but to bring the erring member to repentance and back into full communion. And, in fact, the vast majority of the times I’ve seen church discipline carried out, this is exactly what happens — and usually pretty quickly. I know it’s not as salacious to write about, but I think this is the more traditional view of church discipline and should be included in a story about the topic.
Let’s look at that last line of the excerpted paragraph again. It is not untrue. There is a passage in Matthew that says unrepentant sinners should be treated as a heathen. But immediately preceding this passage is the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus says, “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” And then immediately after that passage you have Jesus reminding Peter of the obligation to forgive his brother “seventy times seven” times. Not that these are the only verses about church discipline, but the context is pretty clear.
The article gives many examples of how church discipline is carried out in American churches. Examples of unrepentant sin range from adultery to gossip. Alter also explains some of the legal skirmishes that have arisen out of church discipline cases.
The article begins and ends with Caskey’s case. Alter presents her in a most sympathetic light:
When [church discipline occurs], it can be humiliating. A devout Christian and grandmother of three, Mrs. Caskey moves with a halting gait, due to two artificial knees and a double hip replacement. Friends and family describe her as a generous woman who helped pay the electricity bill for Allen Baptist, in Allen, Mich., when funds were low, gave the church $1,200 after she sold her van, and even cut the church’s lawn on occasion. She has requested an engraved image of the church on her tombstone.
The sympathetic description goes on for several more paragraphs. There are also two pictures of her — one in front of glowing stained glass and another of her reading her Bible. And for all I know, Caskey is a saint who has been horribly wronged. But it’s all very one-sided. All my life I have been blessed with the most wonderful fellow parishioners. But I know enough to know that people don’t stop sinning when they become 70-year-old grandmothers. Fact is, all the best gossip at my church comes from the over-70 crowd. Just kidding. The other problem with the Caskey case — and the others mentioned in the article — is that it’s equivalent to saying that all discipline of children is bad because some parents beat their kids. That’s just not a fair way to treat the subject
Anyway, the article is very detailed and interesting. Alter has the history of shunning, a discussion of the various ways churches handle removal of members, and information on how many Protestant churches practice it. It’s definitely worth a read.