Whatever Happened to Church Discipline?

Whatever Happened to Church Discipline? March 5, 2018

This blog post is intended ONLY for pastors and lay leaders of evangelical Protestant churches—especially in the U.S. I will invite theologians and biblical scholars to join in the discussion as well (so long as they also consider themselves evangelical Protestants). Please keep your comments relatively brief. This is not an invitation to post sermons or essays here. These are my musings and questions only; they should not be interpreted as speaking or asking for anyone else.

I have been an evangelical Protestant, mostly in the U.S. (one year in Europe) for sixty plus years. I can honestly say I have been in the “thick” of American evangelical Protestantism my whole life.

When I was growing up in that “thick of American evangelical Protestantism” it was simply taken for granted by most, if not all, American evangelical Protestants that their churches believed in and practiced “church discipline” which could range from a “pastoral visit to talk about an ethical problem” to excommunication from the church and possibly even an invitation never to return until and unless public repentance happened.

Few churches that I knew of (as a child, as a youth, as a young adult) had it all written down in some kind of policy, although I can remember seeing “Church Covenant” published in some churches. These church covenants usually amounted to a list of behavioral expectations of church members.

When I was a child my stepmother, who functioned as co-pastor with my father, “visited” women in our church who were known to be straying from the “straight and narrow.” She would go without invitation and for all practical purposes “barge into” the home and have the woman who was (for example) having an affair with a man at work, sit and listen as she read the Bible and talked and prayed with her.

Our church had elders and deacons; it was the elders’ “job” to take up cases of members who were “living in sin”—whatever that might be in specific cases. But certainly (!) people violating their marriage vows and people having sex outside of marriage would be visited by the pastor and one or two elders and, ultimately, without repentance and change, dropped from membership.

These cases usually happened in gradual steps. First, the person would be disallowed to teach Sunday School or work in Vacation Bible School or volunteer in any capacity. Certainly the person could not serve as Sunday School superintendent or serve on a committee or board of the church. Once the person repented and amended their lifestyle, they were welcomed back into full fellowship—with certain exceptions usually known only to the pastor and elders.

But!—at least on one occasion I remember a business man in our church who was known to be greedy and financially rapacious to the point of exploiting workers and over-charging (rent, interest, whatever) and whose whole life focus moved toward money. He received a visit from the pastor with the result that he eventually left the church. I overheard talk that he refused invitations to change his ways and was generally considered around town to be a “shady businessman.”

Divorced people were allowed to be full members and even teach and hold office in the church so long as the reason for the divorce was infidelity on the part of their spouse or severe abuse of spouse and/or children. Continuing abuse of alcohol or drugs was also considered grounds for divorce. Remarriage however was an entirely different matter. It was only allowed among members in cases where the person’s former spouse had remarried first or was known to be engaged in adultery.

I believe something like this method of church discipline was common among American evangelicals (not only fundamentalists) in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, over several decades, so it seems to me, things changed drastically.

I have taught hundreds, probably thousands, of Christian (mostly evangelical) college and university and seminary students over a period approaching forty years. And I have been deeply involved with American evangelical church life—through reading, through editing a journal, through speaking in churches, etc. From what I “gather,” church discipline has largely dropped away from non-fundamentalist American evangelical Protestant church life.

It is no longer uncommon for members of American evangelical Protestant churches to be engaged in serial marriages, extra-marital affairs, living together in what used to be called “living in sin” (living together without marriage), engaging in “shady business practices” (e.g., predatory lending), etc., etc. Today, so it seems, most moral problems are treated as “addictions” and church members’ lives are so individualistic that no member of the church leadership, even if they hear of some egregious moral failing, would dare to intervene in their personal lives.

What I would like to hear is how some American evangelical Protestant churches are handling these matters, how something like church discipline is being practiced—beyond purely ad hoc interventions here and there, now and then, in random (arbitrarily selected) individual cases of an extreme nature.

Are there non-fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant churches that have institutional ways of intervening in members’ personal lives in cases similar to ones I have mentioned above?

Do not post hyperlinks here. Give brief descriptions and perhaps examples (without identifying individuals). For example: “Our church is broadly evangelical, not fundamentalist, but we do practice church discipline and here’s how…and here’s a fairly recent example.” (Don’t name the congregation as that might give away too much about the disciplined individual.)

Please know that any uncivil, vulgar or disrespectful comment that is not helpful to this conversation will simply be deleted. And please keep it relatively brief!

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