Spare the rod, spoil the congregation

bannedI 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 While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and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.

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  • David Rufner

    I believe you are correct. The image of shepherding care given is one of a law enforcement officer rather than the care of a physician. The first being concerned with infractions. The second being concerned with healthy bodies. Certainly this story could be faithfully reporting a rise in ‘pastoral policing’. However, a better understanding (as you pointed out with Matthew 18) of Gospel admonition on the part of the reporter could have made for a much more honest AND interesting story.

  • Stephen A.

    Of course, the idea that this shunning was somehow “unfair” is all up to the context. When he “questioned his authority” and spread “a spirit of cancer and discord” what, exactly was that? Was she making up horrible lies about him or his family? Was she upset about her favorite hymn being banned by the pastor? We don’t know. Context is everything.

    I, too, am troubled by the one-sided treatment here. But then again, we have to remember that any kind of moral judgements made by people of Faith will be seen by the secularists and moral relativists in the media as “unfair” or evend “evil.” Stories like this, in their view, seem to be simply ways to highlight these so-called injustices and point out just how backward and unenlightened religious people really are.

    They’re wrong, of course.

  • Steve

    Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners…

    I wonder if the people who wrote and edited that struggled even briefly with whether to say “sinners” or “sin.” To me, the difference is pretty deep.

  • Ken (2)

    I would say that, in general, media presents the story – over and over again – of the good individual standing up against the bad authority figure. Certainly, that’s sometimes valid, but it’s such a standard template for this sort of story that I’m left wondering if reporters, editors, and enough readers (to make it profitable) are still emotionally in junior high school, always ready to whine “it’s not FAAAAAAIR!”.

    I should add that in my younger years I was friends with a family that had been read out of the Church of Christ for charismatic practices and (perhaps worse) fellowshipping with members of churches other than the Church of Christ. They found the whole thing rather funny.

  • Pastor K

    Wow, I’m sorry I’ve been away for several days – what a collection of stories!!

    Church discipline is difficult even without calling in local police or reporters to explain it all. And pastors must exercise incredible precision in exercising such authority. I would have liked to see more about that in this story.

    As Mollie and previous posters have observed, context is everything. The pastor’s position should have been expressed. In what way did he follow the Matthew 18 process, or the Titus 3 process, or what other process?

    The conflict seems to be whether there is distributed authority or centralized authority within the church’s power base. Mrs. Caskey wants deacons and distributed authority (and has the church charter on her side), Pastor Burrick does not. Even as a pastor, my sympathy goes towards Mrs. Caskey – even without the unnecessary melodrama of stained glass window backdrops, rickety knees and hips or grandmotherly-ness.

  • Mattk

    I was surprised to read “reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline.” I wonder why the reporter says this. It implies that church discipline has been out of vogue. It dosen’t jive with my experience. I wonder what the reporters source for this claim is.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Shortly after the church hired Mr. Burrick in 2005 to help revive the congregation, which had dwindled to 12 members,

    12 members!

    Mrs. Caskey asked him to appoint a board of deacons to help govern the church, a tradition outlined in the church’s charter. Mr. Burrick said the congregation was too small to warrant deacons.

    It is not uncommon for a struggling or failing church to hire someone to spur growth and then have that person’s efforts sabotaged by a few long-time members who insist that nothing in the church change.

    Mrs. Caskey pressed the issue at the church’s quarterly business meetings and began complaining that Mr. Burrick was not following the church’s bylaws.

    A critical omission from the article is the governing structure of this church. Can the congregation vote at a quarterly business meeting? What happens if the majority of the congregation is at odds with the pastor?

    In April 2006, Mrs. Caskey received a stern letter from Mr. Burrick. “This church will not tolerate this spirit of cancer and discord that you would like to spread,” it said. Mrs. Caskey, along with Mr. and Mrs. Church, continued to insist that the pastor follow the church’s constitution.

    If she said her piece at the quarterly meeting and her motion was voted down, then she needs to shut up or find another church. Apparently, she felt that she was above the authority of the church.

    In August, she received a letter from Mr. Burrick that said her failure to repent had led to her removal. It also said he would not write her a transfer letter enabling her to join another church, a requirement in many Baptist congregations, until she had “made things right here at Allen Baptist.”

    She went to Florida for the winter, and when she returned to Michigan last June, she drove the two miles to Allen Baptist as usual. A church member asked her to leave, saying she was not welcome, but Mrs. Caskey told him she had come to worship and asked if they could speak after the service.

    This is outright defiance of the leadership of the church. If it is tolerated, then you have complete chaos. At least Alter presented the real situation, but only after portraying Caskey in an extremely sympathetic fashion. The article is deeply flawed as a result.

  • Joe M

    If she said her piece at the quarterly meeting and her motion was voted down, then she needs to shut up or find another church. Apparently, she felt that she was above the authority of the church.

    This is outright defiance of the leadership of the church. If it is tolerated, then you have complete chaos.

    But … who made the pastor an “authority”? The article says that it’s an independent Baptist church, responsible to no denomination or oversight body. Why is his “authority” any more valid than her authority? If the membership invited him to come, and the membership doesn’t abide by its own charter, it sounds like the church already is chaotic in principle, if not in operation.

  • Mollie

    Please keep comments focused on journalism rather than personal doctrinal views.

  • steve wintermute

    Who, what, when, where, why. All the classic elements of good journalism are here, though I agree that more space could have been given to the why, not just of this church but of all denominations and religions, for context. And maybe the reporter did include more why but then ran into the ever present space problem, which meant the reporter’s story was cut and edited. (As have more than a few of mine over the years, like all reporters, including the ones on this blog – right guys?) It would be interesting to read the reporter’s original story and compare it to the one the WSJ editors ran.

  • Rick Ritchie

    I would have to wonder whether calling 911 was not akin to believers appearing against each other in secular law courts. I think St. Paul would tell the congregation that they have publicly admitted to being unable to handle matters themselves. It would have been better for them to suffer the trespass than to do this.

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  • undergroundpewster

    This article seems to have plenty of gaps that have been noted by the commenters. I am left wondering at what really offended the lady so much in the first place? Was it a religious ghost, or did she not like the man on a personal level?

  • Brian Walden

    I agree with Joe M. at #8, there’s a gaping hole in the article that doesn’t explain why a Pastor can ban a church member for the reasons cited. The article tells us the dispute between Caskey and Pastor Burrick was over the interpretation of the church’s charter. Caskey said the Charter required the election of a board of deacons and Pastor Burrick said the church was too small for deacons.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Pastor Burrick was right and the charter only requires a board of deacons if the church is a certain size. The article still doesn’t tell us why Caskey’s persistence in her improper interpretation of the charter and continued complaints at meetings are grounds for being banned from the church. Does a pastor have the authority to ban someone who (at least as far as the article states) isn’t spreading any theological or moral lies, but merely disagrees with how the pastor is running the church? If Pastor Burrick was in fact within his rights and duties as a pastor, he’s got more authority than the Pope.

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  • Bill S.

    There’s nothing rebellious in insisting the church follow its own constitution.

    And for good reason – deacons/elders are supposed to be there to hold the pastor accountable.

    The fact thiat this pastor doesn’t want deacons or elders overseeing his actions means he isn’t worth employing as a pastor.

    Shoot, we’re in a megachurch and members can see (going in person to the church office) the pastor’s and every associate pastor’s current salary.

    There are good reasons for organizations such as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA)