Church Discipline: Evaluating the Claims.

Christians make a lot of claims regarding church discipline–which is a huge mistake, because we can test those claims.

The whole culture of church discipline is an(other) arrow to the knee for Christians’ supernatural  claims. If church discipline categorically doesn’t do what its adherents say it should do and it doesn’t accomplish the goals they claim they want to accomplish, then they are obviously not getting their marching orders from an omniscient, omnipotent god. Further, if their system fails even themselves, then they are decidedly not qualified to push this system onto others without their consent.

Astute observers might note at this point a possible reason why Christians get testy when we start examining their testable claims.

Rotten fruit. (Flavio~, CC.)
(Flavio~, CC.)

The Reasoning Behind Covenants.

Church discipline starts with a covenant between a potential member and the church’s leadership, so first, let’s look at what all these covenants are actually supposed to accomplish.

There is as much consensus among Christian leaders regarding covenants as there is about anything in their world–which is to say, none whatsoever. As with every other doctrine and practice in the religion, every TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who goes in for covenants has their own idea about what they look like and is sure that their interpretation is totally for sure the only reasonable one.

Thom Rainer, along with a great many of his peers, simply takes for granted that covenants are necessary, though his target audience of fundagelicals are not uniformly persuaded of that point. Others go the same route in letting congregants assume on their own that covenants must be accepted despite being all but unknown until about 10-20 years ago. (Gosh, isn’t it totally lucky that someone finally figured out this essential idea?)

Of the ones that do include some kind of reasoning, they don’t make much more sense:

  • 9Marks, a group of Calvinist church leaders who have gained great power in fundagelical circles, think covenants help Christians live according to their stated beliefs. (Because being possessed by Jesus and living under a constant threat of eternal torture isn’t anywhere near enough to make them behave!)
  • John Piper, a major Calvinist leader who has inspired a requisite parody Twitter account (or two), thinks that covenants help define Christian churches and reinforce Christians’ cultural rules and values. (By this of course he means those of his type of Christians, since quite a few other Christians don’t think that highly of his own cultural rules and values.)
  • The Village Church (TVC), that Texas megachurch we’ve been looking at lately, seems to think that their covenant makes their group extra-hardcore, cohesive, and committed. (Because nothing else they’re doing appears to be capable of producing that effect.)
  • And this Christian lawyer thinks (mistakenly, it appears) that covenants protect churches from lawsuits brought by church members who’ve gotten a taste of “discipline” for themselves. (Can’t wait to see what happens when churches take this advice seriously!)

But these reasons don’t hold much water. Given how Christian leaders and congregants alike actually relate to covenants, one fact becomes abundantly clear about their real purpose:

Covenants exist to give church leaders a perceived license to control and retaliate against members who don’t obey their every command.

That, seriously, is it. Covenants lend legitimacy to that system of public humiliation, shaming, and shunning that toxic Christians call “church discipline.” These pseudo-contracts lend an element of coercion to membership to replace the domination that those leaders are losing thanks to their religion’s dwindling political, financial, and cultural power.

And how, we might ask, is church discipline working for Christians?

The answer depends mightily on whether or not the Christians in question are ministers or laity.

Rotten Fruits.

1. Abuse stories are rife in churches that practice church discipline.

Thom Rainer himself has written extensively in Double-Creep-o-Vision about how wonderful church discipline is. In one of his posts on the topic, he names a bunch of reasons why many churches refuse to get involved in church discipline–and every one of those reasons sounds totally reasonable despite his best efforts to paint their pastors as fake Christians who don’t care about their flocks like his kind of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do.

But read the comments on that shameless bit of propaganda and you’ll quickly notice non-stop horror stories from Christians who’ve been on the receiving end of church discipline–and these stories sound very similar to each other. “Heartspeak” writes that he’s been unjustly accused of wrongdoing and kicked out of churches–twice. “Robert Bridges” says that he and his wife were “destroyed and [their] reputation ruined” by their pastor. “Out West” found out the hard way as well that church discipline is not the sweet, loving practice that its proponents paint it as. Even the ministers themselves, describing their own adoration of church discipline, can’t help but sound like sanctimonious, controlling jackasses committing pious fraud.

Along similar lines, a blogger has located and compiled a very similar batch of abuse stories from TVC victims–one of whom flat-out calls the church “a Mars Hill train wreck waiting to happen.” (A couple of years ago, Mars Hill melted down after a bunch of scandals broke around its abuse of congregants under the guise of church discipline.) One story sounds eerily similar to that of Karen Hinkley: TVC’s pastors tried to interfere with a woman’s decision to divorce her violently abusive husband, and then helped her abusive husband find a free attorney when she went ahead with her divorce plans against their wishes.

These stories and more and worse crop up wherever church discipline takes root, and nobody at all has any real suggestions about how to prevent this abuse or to stop abusers once they’ve been detected.  

2. Covenants may actually produce compliance and greater retention in members–at least until the discipline itself gets handed out.

It should not surprise anybody to know that there aren’t a whole lot of actual studies done about the effectiveness of church discipline. One decidedly-unscientific and biased source outlines a shockingly brutal system of shunning and public humiliation that worked, it is claimed, 79% of the time for the three churches using it–which means that they lost one out of five people they mistreated (a number the site thought was excellent). And that source is from the year 2000, before Christianity began its nose-dive. Since we aren’t told what churches were using this system, we cannot verify how it worked in the long run. Likewise, Thom Rainer tells us that the healthiest congregations he’s encountered tend to use church discipline, but does not tell us any real information about it–not even exactly what his version of it looks like.

That said, we can make a few educated guesses about its effectiveness.

Generally speaking, writing stuff down makes us take it seriously. Even though covenants aren’t actually real contracts and can’t be legally enforced the way churches pretend (and hope, desperately) they can, there’s still a potent psychological effect sparked in people’s minds when we sign official-looking papers.

Though people famously don’t read contracts very thoroughly most of the time, they’ll at least understand the assertion of power that a covenant represents–and further, the sort of authoritarian followers who would sign off on these agreements would also view the discipline resulting from them as a positive thing for the most part–at least until they run afoul of it, at which point they realize all the many ways that these agreements can go hideously wrong. And if someone doesn’t know what their rights are, then these documents can look downright terrifying in their official-ness. As this ex-Mormon site points out, when a departing member makes clear that yes, they do know their rights, authoritarians tend to retreat.

So about all we can say is that these agreements may work on fundagelicals, since they are primed to accept overreach from their authority figures. Covenants may add in an extra layer of coercion to keep them in the pews longer than they normally would stay, and may also make church members feel that they must endure abuse since they “agreed” to it when they joined up. However, anecdotes (as unreliable as they can be) indicate that once someone gets burned by church discipline, increasingly they are leaving the church entirely rather than enduring further abuse as they might have in years past. (You can see some of the ministers commenting in that Thom Rainer “12 Churches” post complaining about exactly that point. How dare their prey refuse to submit to mistreatment!)

My personal suspicion, based on what I’ve read and seen, is that covenants may keep Christians in harness a bit longer than they’d normally last, but when they leave it’ll be because they were badly hurt or offended–and they’ll be more angry or devastated (or both) as a result, making them way less likely to consider rejoining that or any other church later. I’ve also noticed that Calvinist and other hardline control-heavy denominations really like covenants–and that affinity can’t be accidental. Feel free to weigh in though–as I said, there’s shocking little solid research on this question despite how popular church discipline is and how disastrous in practice it’s turned out to be, so I’m totally open to changing my mind if someone’s got evidence I haven’t seen.

3. Church discipline destroys churches’ credibility and reputations.

When the Jordan Root scandal erupted, people who’d never even heard of TVC, Acts 29, or even “covenants” heard of them all for the first time. How do you imagine all those people reacted? Considering how gung-ho for evangelism these covenant churches are, why weren’t this church’s pastors thinking about that at least, if nothing else? Certainly ministers do think of their reputations when trying to silence congregants talking about their disciplinary measures, just as TVC tried to prevent Karen Hinkley from publicly discussing her ex’s crimes.

These covenants strew abuse, heartbreak, galling hypocrisy, and vicious control-lust in their wake. And people are increasingly noticing and calling attention to these failures. Every single example of abuse caused by church discipline is one more brick in the wall of a non-member who resolves to steer well clear of these groups. There is simply no way that a fan of church discipline can describe how it works without sounding like the very worst kind of dangerous cultist.

A Complete Failure.

TVC’s church discipline process fails in every single way I just listed, but possibly the system’s greatest failure is that it reminds observers once again that Christians are not better than non-Christians in any way–and that their religion doesn’t appear to improve anybody on either an individual or societal level. Every time we see a new case of abuse resulting from this practice, we are reminded that Christians can’t possibly be right about anything they say about their god or their religion.

How were TVC’s anointed, divinely-appointed leaders so categorically incapable of rendering a morally-responsible, ethical, compassionate ruling in Karen Hinkley’s case? Getting behind someone trying to annul a marriage to a child molester shouldn’t have been controversial or difficult, especially not for people who imagine they have the ultimate source of objective morality in their corner.

The same exact ministers who were completely sure that church discipline is vitally necessary for Christians and that they were acting in a holy and Jesus-y way toward Karen Hinkley backtracked every single bit of their mistreatment of her once outcry was raised. The pastors jointly declared that “after further review of her situation [which, let’s not forget, wasn’t ever theirs to make — CC], that she did have biblical grounds for divorce or annulment [um, they damned well know it was an annulment — CC], that she should have been released from Covenant Membership as she requested and that she should not have been put under church discipline.” One of those pastors even vaguebook-preached a sermon admitting that their counseling had become very controlling, saying that “we did not act in accordance with the grace we have been shown by Christ,” though he didn’t once mention his victim by name.

TVC’s leaders only made the right decision after an outcry was raised about their handling of the whole matter. And that’s the only thing that pastors recognize as authorities over themselves. When the abuser in a broken system has unilateral power and their victim has none, there is no way at all to rein the wrongdoer in. The system relies upon the abusers themselves to recognize that they are in the wrong–and they aren’t going to do that because doing so would remove some of their own power!

There is literally no other way other than public outcry that TVC’s pastors could have been brought to heel. Whenever anybody did try to correct them, these holy men of “God” found a way to invalidate and punish the people bearing that unwanted message. They themselves demonstrate exactly why church discipline is something that all Christians should flee far away from!

Fundagelicals do so love that Bible verse about judging something by its “fruits,” or results, though they almost never apply that verse to their own practices and doctrines. If they won’t, though, then the rest of us certainly can. When we do, then we come out with a crystal-clear conclusion:

When power-hungry people want to abuse others, and they are given the means by which to do it and then access to victims, then abuse is exactly what will inevitably happen–and Jesus is not lifting a finger to stop it, except maybe this one (clearly aimed at the victims of these pious predators):

You heard him.
You heard me.
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