American churches remind me of those ads for Bally’s health clubs. You know the ones — they show attractive people with perfectly sculpted bodies lifting weights, running on treadmills and dancing or kick-boxing energetically in perfectly choreographed aerobics classes.
The message those ads intend, I think, is that if you were to join Bally’s, then you could look like this. You, too, could soon become an attractive person with a perfectly sculpted body, the ads suggest. (Although it’s not clear to me how any amount of disciplined exercise would also produce the perfect white teeth, exquisite bone structure and unblemished skin that also characterizes all the beautiful model-atheletes in those ads.)
The problem is that those ads also send another message. They tell us that Bally’s is a place for people who look like this. And what that also tells us is that Bally’s is not a place for people who do not look like this.
Bally’s is thus advertising itself as a health club for people who do not need a health club. Want to get healthier? Don’t go to Bally’s. If you’re not already in perfect shape, then you don’t belong there.
Anyone who needs to go there won’t be welcome.
That’s also the message that many American churches are sending out. We try to convey the message that we’re Good People and that this is what church is and what church is for — a gathering of Good People who’ve got it all figured out. The result is that we come across just like those Bally’s ads. We wind up unwittingly suggesting that if you’re not already a Good Person and you don’t already have it all figured out, then you don’t belong here — that sinners aren’t welcome in the body of sinners.
That’s backwards. Being a sinner is actually the only prerequisite for coming to church.
Hold on a minute, some will say, shouldn’t that be “a repentant sinner”? After all, if we’re just going to go about continuing to soak in our sinfulness, without ever repenting or changing or growing, then why bother?
That’s a good point, up to a point. But as we like to say around here, it’s more complicated than that. It does seem wrong to have someone regularly participating in church while continuing unrepentant, unchallenged and unbothered by their sin. But surely that can’t mean that moral perfection should be made a requirement for membership in good standing.
Here again I would turn to my favorite book about the church, which isn’t really about the church at all. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is partly set at Ennet House, a half-way house for recovering addicts. It’s one of my favorite portrayals and explorations of the world of Alcoholics Anonymous — which I think provides one of the best models for anyone trying to understand what the church could and should be.
AA isn’t anything like Bally’s. It doesn’t portray itself as a gathering of beautiful people who’ve got it all together. Quite the opposite. For AA the message is that anyone who needs to be there is always welcome.
Big Don Gately tells the new residents of Ennet House that this is “a truly great thing about AA: they can’t kick you out. You’re In if you say you’re In. Nobody can get kicked out, not for any reason.”
This had mystified Gately for a long time. How can a community remain a community if that’s the case? Shouldn’t it have some rules and some way of enforcing them? How can it keep order or keep its identity without some sergeant at arms to enforce discipline?
But eventually he realizes it has that. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus:
It had come clear to Gately that Boston AA had the planet’s most remorselessly hard-ass and efficient sergeant at arms. Gately lay there, overhanging all four sides of his bunk, his broad square forehead beaded with revelation: Boston AA’s Sergeant at Arms stood outside the orderly meeting halls, in that much-invoked Out There where exciting clubs full of good cheer throbbed gaily below lit signs with neon bottles endlessly pouring. AA’s patient enforcer was always and everywhere Out There: it stood casually checking its cuticles in the astringent fluorescence of pharmacies that took forged Talwin scrips for a hefty surcharge, in the onionlight through paper shades in the furnished rooms of strung-out nurses who financed their own cages’ maintenance with stolen pharmaceutical samples, in the isopropyl reek of the storefront offices of stooped old chain-smoking MD’s whose scrip-pads were always out and who needed only to hear ‘pain’ and see cash. … AA’s disciplinarian looked damn good and smelled even better and dressed to impress and his blank black-on-yellow smile never faltered as he sincerely urged you to have a nice day. Just one more last nice day. Just one.
You’re In if you say you’re In. Nobody can kick you out and nobody can force you to stay In. But if you decide not to come back, the sergeant at arms is patiently waiting.
Mark Driscoll, the neo-fundamentalist pastor of Seattle mega-church Mars Hill, has a very different idea of church discipline.
Driscoll wants to make the sergeant at arms an officer of the church — he wants to serve in that role himself. And that means, inevitably, that he has a very different notion of what it means to say extra ecclesiam nulla salus — “outside the church there is no salvation.” For Big Don Gately, that meant that the choice was always yours — “nobody can kick you out.” For Driscoll it’s all about control and authority. His control and his authority. It means that he can always kick you out.
Driscoll is back in the news due to his decision to “excommunicate” a member of his church. It will not surprise anyone who is at all familiar with Driscoll that the purported reasons for this excommunication and shunning involve sex and authority. Those two things and the intertwining of them seem always to be at the heart of Driscoll’s ministry.
Matthew Paul Turner revealed the full story of this incident in two posts that I recommend reading in their entirety:
I also highly recommend Dianna E. Anderson’s correctly furious reaction, in which she invokes Hairspray to summarize Driscoll and his fan-base: “a whole lotta ugly comin’ at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.”
What happened was that some guy at the church cheated on his girlfriend by falling back into bed with his former fiance. That’s wrong. One ought not to cheat. Betrayal is bad. It’s mean and hurtful — a sin.
But the cheating isn’t what caused this to flare up into a Defcon 1 crisis for which the entire church leadership had to be mobilized. That only happened because this particular sin involved sex.
There’s a fundamental confusion at work there — one that can be found in many, many places other than Driscoll’s mega-church. It’s the confusion that sees sexual betrayal as bad because it involves sex rather than because it involves betrayal. The same confusion leads many Christians to see sexual predation as bad because it involves sex rather than because it is predatory. This arises from a warped and stunted notion of sexual ethics which offers nothing to say about the subject other than that it’s acceptable within marriage and unacceptably wicked in any other context. Thus even a malicious act within marriage is commended while even a loving act outside of that context is condemned.
That’s pretty screwed up. But it’s not nearly the worst part of this story.
Once it was determined that a member of the church had committed a sin with his naughty bits, meetings were convened and a contract was written up.
A contract. You can see the thing in all its glory at Turner’s blog. It’s labelled “Mars Hill Church Church Discipline Contract” and it outlines a “Plan of Discipline” that is luridly precise and creepily controlling. It includes this:
- Andrew will write out in detail his sexual and emotional attachment history with women and share it with XXX.
- Andrew will write out in detail the chronology of events and sexual/emotional sin with K and share it with XXX and Pastor X.
- Andrew will write out a list of all people he has sinned against during this timeframe, either by sexual/emotional sin, lying or deceiving, share it with XXX and develop a plan to confess sin and ask for forgiveness.
But it didn’t stop there.
The church leadership then sent out a letter to every member of the mega-church — all 10,000 of them — informing them that Andrew was “under church discipline” and forbidding any of them from associating with him except “for the purpose of admonishment.”
Robert Cargill isn’t wrong: “That is the definite activity of a cult. … If you are a member of the Mars Hill church, get out.”
But perhaps I’m being unfair or uncharitable. Maybe I’m just overreacting because I’m not as convinced as Driscoll is about the pre-eminence of genital sins.
For Driscoll, sex is a supremely important consideration. What if the matter involved were, instead, something that I considered non-negotiable and of paramount importance? In other words, what if instead of involving some guy who slept with someone other than his girlfriend it involved some guy preying on the poor and despising or manipulating the weak? What if, instead of infidelity and sexual incontinence (the latter of which I regard as far, far less consequential), the sin in question involved deliberate cruelty, bigotry, destroying the livelihoods of the poor, devouring the houses of widows or any of the other sins that I think of as the worst of the worst? What if it were my church and, say, Jamie Dimon or Rush Limbaugh or Scott Walker or Mitch McConnell began attending there?
Neither of those posts recommends anything like what Mars Hill is doing, or even anything to which the problematic category of “church discipline” really might apply. What I think is called for in such situations is more like the old proverb describing the role of the pastor: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”*
For an example of what “afflicting the comfortable” looks like in practice, let me repeat Clarence Jordan’s story from the latter of those two posts:
Clarence Jordan, the late founder of Koinonia Farm (the community that gave us Habitat for Humanity), used to tell a story about an old hillbilly preacher in the 1950s who invited Jordan to come and speak at his church in rural South Carolina. Jordan arrived to find, to his surprise, a large, thriving and racially integrated congregation — a remarkable thing in that time and place. (Sadly, it’s actually a remarkable thing in any time or place.) So Clarence asked the man how this came about.
When he first got there as a substitute preacher, the old man said, it was a small, all-white congregation of a few dozen families. So he gave a sermon on the bit from Galatians where Paul writes: “You are all children of God … There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Here I’ll pick up from Tony Campolo’s retelling of Jordan’s story:
“When the service was over, the deacons took me in the back room and they told me they didn’t want to hear that kind of preaching no more.”
Clarence asked, “What did you do then?”
The old preacher answered, “I fired them deacons!”
“How come they didn’t fire you?” asked Clarence.
“Well, they never hired me,” the old preacher responded. … “Once I found out what bothered them people, I preached the same message every Sunday. It didn’t take much time before I had that church preached down to four.”
That, I think, would be an appropriate response if, say, an unrepentant Donald Trump were suddenly to begin visiting one’s church. Preach the same message every Sunday until he repents or runs away.
But in any case, WWFD? is a far less interesting and far less important question than WWJD?
“What would Jesus do?” In this case, or these cases, we don’t have to speculate. The Gospels provide us examples of Jesus’ responses both to the unchaste and to economic oppressors. In the former case, Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of the unchaste. He hung out with them as a friend, shared a pitcher at the well, accepted their gifts and defended them in court. There is nothing in Jesus’ dealings with the unchaste to hint at anything at all like Mars Hill’s notion of “discipline.”
And what of economic oppressors? Their sin was one Jesus frequently condemned in no uncertain terms, so if he was ever going to subject anyone — anachronistically — to “church discipline,” then surely it would be them.
And so we come to the story of Zacchaeus, as told in Luke’s Gospel:
[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.** So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
The grumbling crowds weren’t wrong. Zacchaeus was a sinner. He was a big-time sinner, a corrupt collaborator with the Imperial Beast and an oppressor of the poor. It’s not a stretch to say that Zacchaeus may have been the worst sinner, the worst person, in all of Jericho. He was notorious enough that even out-of-towners like Jesus had heard of him.
So what does Jesus do when he catches sight of this infamous sinner, this downpresser man responsible for the misery of the poor whom Jesus loved? He approached him and said, “I’m going to your house today, I’m going to your house today.”
Interesting. Jesus chose to fellowship with this hateful sinner. He didn’t tell Zacchaeus to repent of his sins and correct his injustices or else he would never share fellowship with him. That wasn’t Jesus’ M.O. — not in this particular case and not in the larger scheme of things. “While we were still sinners Christ died for us,” St. Paul wrote, “while we were enemies.”
This is what we tend to get backwards whenever we speak of “church discipline.” Our idea seems to be that if someone is, like Zacchaeus, a sinner, then we should cut off all fellowship with them until they stop sinning and submit to our correction.
Jesus did the opposite. With Zacchaeus and, more importantly, with us.
Jesus entered into fellowship with Zacchaeus. He offered Zacchaeus the chance to escape from the sergeant at arms.
And look what happened next:
Zacchaeus … said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation*** has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Jesus’ response to the sinner was to seek him out. Jesus walked up to his tree and informed him that he needed to set 13 extra plates for an unexpected party.
Jesus did not present Zacchaeus with a detailed contract outlining the steps he would need to take, the submission to authority he would have to subject himself to, if he was to be saved. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” That’s all he said.
And for Zacchaeus, that was enough. Once Jesus showed him that salvation and restoration were possible that was all he needed to hear. He repented and made things right as joyously as Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.
What if he hadn’t? Zacchaeus’ sin had made him a very wealthy man and his salvation meant an end to all that. What if all that wealth had too much of a hold on him and he had been unable to repent?
I suspect the meal Jesus shared at his house would have been much less joyous and far more uncomfortable all around. And perhaps Jesus would have left it at that, allowing Zacchaeus, like a different rich man in the Gospels, to go “away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Or perhaps Jesus would have stayed another day, and another, and another. Perhaps he would have been like that old preacher in Clarence Jordan’s story: “Once I found out what bothered them people, I preached the same message every Sunday …”
But it’s nonsense to believe that Jesus’ Plan B for Zacchaeus involved anything like the Church Discipline Contract quoted above.
And it’s nonsense to believe that any follower of Jesus should be employing such a crooked and cruel device in his name.
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* Both clergy and journalists claim this as a motto. I have to say that I heard it invoked far more often during the 10 years that I spent working at a seminary than I ever did in the 10 years that I spent working in a newsroom. But I don’t think that suggests the clergy have the better claim — I think it just reflects that I worked at a good Baptist seminary and at a bad Gannett newspaper.
** Hence the words to the Sunday school song quoted in the title of this post: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man / a wee little man was he …” So please don’t think that title is only a too-easy joke about the possible physical shortcomings that might contribute to Driscoll’s preoccupation with sex, authority and sexual authority.
*** Jesus once again is using the word “salvation” in a way most American Christians can scarcely recognize. Ask a hundred American evangelists what you must do to receive salvation and I’ll wager that not one of them says, “Give half of your possessions to the poor, and if you have defrauded anyone of anything, pay them back four times as much.” What that suggests, obviously, is that Jesus didn’t have a firm grasp on the orthodox Doctrine of Salvation.