“Mr. Smith” Goes to Church, but Should He Be Allowed To? (When Should Churches Exclude People?)

“Mr. Smith” Goes to Church, but Should He Be Allowed To? (When Should Churches Exclude People?) October 16, 2013

“Mr. Smith” Goes to Church, but Should He Be Allowed To? (When Should Churches Exclude People?)

            Raise the possibility of excluding anyone from church in the circles I move in and you’ll get push back immediately. “Church is for everyone; we welcome all.” That’s the attitude of a lot of well-meaning Christians in America today. Even membership is often held as “open”—to anyone who affirms Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—regardless of other beliefs or lifestyles or practices. The result is what used to be called a “mixed assembly”—a collection of people who little to nothing in common beyond the bare bones of belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—whatever that may mean to them.

            This is usually only a theoretical attitude, however, and it weakens the moment someone mentions: racism (e.g., White Supremacy), sexual abuse, blatant heresy (e.g., rejection of the deity of Christ or the Trinity), aggressive divisiveness, etc. It may not melt away, but it weakens. I find many contemporary American Christians claim (even to themselves) to want an “open church” and recoil at the words “church discipline,” but have never given the matter serious thought.

            I grew up in a church that practiced church discipline, but it was often just a matter of the pastor and elders meeting with someone and cautioning them about their openly held opinions that were contrary to the church’s teaching or their lifestyle or behavior. Occasionally, though not often, someone was “churched” which meant stripped of their membership and possibly told not to come to church at all. The latter only happened in extreme cases.

            Some churches still practice that. But many do not. Even many churches that consider themselves “conservative” or “evangelical” have no mechanism for disciplining members. But can there really be discipleship without discipline? And can there really be community without commonality?

            I know some people will immediately suppose that I am calling for uniformity. I’m not. I’m only raising the question whether we American Christians, by and large, have gone to the opposite extreme and embraced sheer pluralism such that “Christianity” is whatever an individual church member decides it is. The condition I’m calling into question is not diversity but total lack of consensus.

            If Christianity is compatible with anything and everything, it’s literally nothing.

            If Church membership is compatible with anything and everything, it’s worthless.

            So let me offer some real life anecdotes to illustrate my concern. These might make you think again about whether church discipline ought to be reinstituted. I think it should be.

            Over the years I’ve been involved in many churches—as member, faithful attender and supporter (when I lived away from my home church temporarily), officer (deacon, executive council member), staff clergyperson (youth pastor, Christian education director, associate pastor, interim pastor), parish associate, etc. In all, if I count up the number of individual congregations where I have been one of the above, the number comes to eleven. But I have been involved in many other churches less directly—as consultant, speaker (in multi-Sunday adult Sunday School or multi-Wednesday evening Bible study series), frequent visitor (when visiting friends or relatives in cities distant from my home). I have also, of course, studied churches as part of my professional life as a theologian.

            Many years ago, when I served on the pastoral staff of a “mainline” Protestant church, I became very well acquainted with an elder (in both senses) named “Mr. Smith.” (I am changing the name to protect his living descendents and friends.) Mr. Smith was the typically “church pillar”—devoted to the church throughout his long life (he was in his eighties), having served in virtually every lay capacity (especially ruling elder), and faithfully supporting and promoting the church in the community. Mr. Smith was also known to most church members as “The Candy Man.” He always brought candy to hand out to children when he came to church. They flocked around him to receive his little gifts. He was beloved and influential in the church.

            I was in charge of the church’s “food pantry.” The church stood in a very poor, inner city neighborhood. Part of my job was to take sacks of groceries to individuals and families who could not come to the church to pick them up. I also taught Mr. Smith’s adult Sunday School class—a class of about twenty men and women who considered themselves confirmed Christians. Mr. Smith was the most outspoken member of the class. Others tended to either agree with him or be silent when he spoke. I don’t recall any member of the class (other than me) expressing disagreement with him.

            One week I had the privilege, sad as it was, to take two sacks of groceries to a new family in the neighborhood. They did not have transportation, so could not come to the church. I put the sacks in my car and went looking for their abode. It turned out to be a one room “apartment” in what looked like an abandoned corner grocery store. The ground floor was completely empty with broken out windows. The upstairs contained several one room “apartments.” The family consisted of a woman in her thirties and two little girls—about four and six. They had no furniture other than a mattress on the floor. I checked their cupboards (in the tiny kitchenette) and saw immediately there was no food in the apartment. One of the little girls was holding a moldy orange and asking her mother if she could eat it. They were obviously all hungry. The woman said they had just moved to town and her husband was out looking for work. The whole situation felt like something right out of a Charles Dickens novel. I left the groceries and promised to check back with them in a few days.

            The next Sunday I asked the adult Sunday School class to take an offering for the woman and her children and shared my experience with them. I wanted to buy them some items not in our food pantry—fresh meat, milk and eggs, for example. (Our food pantry contained only non-perishable items.) And I wanted to give them some cash to buy clothes if not furniture. Most of the people in the class were eager to help and I raised about $200 (which thirty-five years ago was worth more than now) that morning.

            However, I had to contend with Mr. Smith who spoke up most vehemently against helping the woman and her children in any way. He spoke long and passionately about how charity makes people dependent. He made clear he was opposed even to the church having a food pantry. I asked him whether he thought there was a legitimate place in society for The Salvation Army and similar charitable groups. He said no. He was in principle opposed to all charity of any kind. Then he went on a rant about the Ku Klux Klan, saying his grandmother was a founding member of the Klan in her city and how he witnessed a lynching when he was a child and thought it was a good thing. Then he spoke warmly about Hitler and said the Jews “got what was coming to them” in the “so-called holocaust.”

            I sat stunned. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The rest of the class members just sat silent during Mr. Smith’s diatribe. He left no doubt that he was a “white supremacist” and anti-Semite. I finally closed the class session and left—after making my disagreement with Mr. Smith clear. I queried some of the class members about this later—hoping that perhaps Mr. Smith had lost his mind or that his “speech” could be chalked up to senility. They said that he had always held and expressed such opinions.

            Mr. Smith came to church, but should he have been allowed to?

            More specifically, my question is whether someone, the pastor and elders would make good candidates, should take someone like Mr. Smith aside and exercise some “pastoral care” toward him and tell him that his beliefs are inconstant with the church’s beliefs and with Christianity and that he must change them or at least keep them to himself or else resign from the church and stop attending?

            I wouldn’t want to be in that pastor’s shoes in that or a similar situation. But I also don’t want to be a member of a church that permits a “Mr. Smith” to express such heinous opinions openly within the church—especially as an official of the church! (And, just for your information, I was not actually a member of that church. I worked for it without ever officially joining it as it was of a different denomination than my own.)

            I’m sure someone is thinking my example is extreme, that there are very few “Mr. Smiths” in Christian churches in America. Perhaps so, but my point is that every church ought to be prepared to deal with someone like Mr. Smith whether that person be a racist or cultist (many religious cults are not exclusive and even encourage followers to join churches to infiltrate them with their distinctive message or practice) or abuser or exploiter or whatever.

            Wait! “Exploiter?” What do I mean by that? Up until I said “exploiter” many people were probably agreeing with me—even if they normally think they don’t believe in church discipline.

            So let me offer a hypothetical “Mr. Smith” to illustrate what I mean by “exploiter.”

            Suppose a member of a Christian church named Mr. Smith isn’t a racist but does own a “Payday Loan” operation in or near a poor neighborhood that charges 30% interest on loans to poor individuals and families and repossesses their car when they can’t pay back the loan plus interest? He’s living a life of luxury based on selling repossessed cars. Meanwhile, poor families who took out loans to feed their children have no transportation.

            Is this “Mr. Smith” any better than the first one? Personally, if I had to choose, I’d rather go to church with the first Mr. Smith than this one! And yet, I suggest, in most American churches, if they practice any kind of church discipline at all, the first Mr. Smith is more likely than the second one to be called in for a conversation with the pastor and deacons or elders.

            But I’m not just talking about Payday Loan operations. By “exploiters” I mean people who engage in any business practice that takes advantage of weak people.

            But wait! Even that’s too soft, too easy. I would lump into the category of “exploiters” not only people who actively take advantage of the weak but those who justify taking advantage of them or even just ignoring them—leaving them to their own devices. To my way of thinking Social Darwinism is that—an ideological justification of leaving society’s weakest members to their own devices without help. Churches ought to step up and openly oppose Social Darwinism which is increasingly rampant in our society. Like the World Communion of Reformed Churches (then the World Alliance of Reformed Churches) that declared Apartheid apostasy, Christian churches should declare Social Darwinism heresy if not apostasy and make clear that it will not be tolerated among them.

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