A Model for Church Discipline
Recently, here, I have been advocating a return by Christians to standards of holiness that many, if not most, evangelicals have forgotten. In my experience, very few evangelical churches (and I include in that category a wide range of denominations and specific “types” of relatively conservative Protestant churches) uphold or promote any specific expectations with regard to personal conduct. In general, with many exceptions, of course (and I am not including here real fundamentalist churches), American evangelical churches have allowed biblical and traditional virtues, values and rules to fall away. Individualism has become the norm; each church member’s lifestyle and conduct is solely between him/her and God. Church discipline hardly exists outside of near-cultic, fundamentalist-evangelical churches.
For many years I have brought up the subject of church discipline in my classes with almost uniform, predictable responses. Very few students grew up in churches that practiced any kind of church discipline. Those who did grow up in churches that practiced church discipline report its abuse.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I have recently talked here about an evangelical church I know very well. It’s not the only one like it; it’s only one I know especially well, having served it as a deacon and member of its governing board. Without giving anything else away, I will just say that I had very close ties to the leadership of the church. When I first joined it, it was definitely evangelical in its ethos. It is no longer (IMHO). But, from my observations, it is not alone in “slip sliding away” from evangelicalism. (And here I am most definitely NOT talking about politics; I’m talking about doctrine and ethics/morality.) Across the board in American evangelical life, there has been a mega-shift among evangelicalism as it once was, relatively counter-cultural in terms of beliefs and lifestyles, away from conservative beliefs and lifestyle toward reflecting the secular and pagan cultures of America.
We need a return to church discipline. I don’t expect that to happen; it’s hard to reverse the slip sliding away I’ve been talking about here.
So what might a church do when it recognizes that it is in danger of slip sliding away into permissiveness with regard to individual morality and belief—among its members?
First, every evangelical church should have something like a “church covenant” that expresses its doctrines and lifestyle expectations. And that church covenant should be prominently displayed and shown to every prospective member. Children should be introduced to it as they grow up in the church. At baptism or confirmation (or both) each person should be asked to sign it—especially if they are thereby joining the church as full members. New members should be required to take a class where they are introduced to the church’s covenant and reasons for it. They should be asked to sign it before becoming full members.
Second, every evangelical church should have elders who are the lay (or ordained) spiritual leaders of the congregation and who, among other things, visit members’ homes and talk with them about the church and the kingdom of God and the role the church and its members play in the latter. Elders should also visit members who fall into sin or heresy, correcting them and asking them to repent or recant. If they won’t, their membership should be put on “hold.” Until they do repent or recant they cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper, teach, or hold office in the congregation. They are free to attend, but not free to lead in any way.
Third, every member should be expected to give and serve in some way appropriate to his or her means and abilities. A model for this was laid out in a 1970s book entitled Call to Commitment: The Story of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. by Elizabeth O’Connor (Harper & Row, 1975). The book made a “big splash” when it was published because it described a relatively moderate-to-progressive Protestant church that required members to be involved.
What should the church covenant include? At a bare minimum the following: 1) Affirmation of the Apostles Creed, 2) Affirmation that the Bible is the ultimate authority for matters of Christian faith and practice, 3) Affirmation that Jesus Christ is Lord as well as Savior, 4) Affirmation that members be both converted to Christ by faith and baptized, 5) Affirmation that every member give and serve within the congregation on a regular basis—as possible, 6) Affirmation that every member live a life of love, showing dignity and respect to all persons of all kinds, 7) Affirmation that every member live according to basic biblical and traditional Christian principles of sex only within monogamous, heterosexual marriage, humility and modesty, avoidance of conspicuous consumption and worldly entertainment that is highly sexual or violent in nature, and seek to live in harmony and peace with brothers and sisters within the congregation and those outside the congregation, 8) Affirmation of the ideals and practices of witnessing, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to as many as possible, living a life worthy of being called a follower of Jesus Christ, receiving and using at least one gift of the Holy Spirit, and engaging in ongoing spiritual formation through prayer and Bible study, 9) Affirmation of the expectation of regular attendance in worship services, Bible studies, other church activities as possible.
Everyone who wants to become a member of the church or maintain his or her membership should know that he or she is accountable for his or her lifestyle to the elders of the church who are selected by the congregation after prayer and deliberation. Specific examples should be given for the sake of transparency. For example, “As evangelical Christians we do not condone divorce apart from spousal abuse or unfaithfulness. Any member of the church undergoing divorce must seek the counsel and advice of the elders. If the divorce is judged unjustified, the divorcing member’s membership will be put “on hold.” The same should be true of beliefs. A member should know that if he or she harbors serious doubts about the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity or salvation through Christ alone by God’s grace alone or the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the future return of Jesus Christ (etc.), he or she must report such to the elders and seek their advice and counsel. If the serious doubts about basic Christian beliefs are judged to be sufficiently serious, detrimental to robust Christian belief, the member’s membership will be put “on hold.”
Ultimately, a member whose membership is put “on hold” will be excommunicated (membership dropped) after one year unless he or she repents or recants and that is known to the elders. The person may still attend worship and Sunday School and Bible studies, but may not partake of the Lord’s Supper, teach within the church or hold office or lead in any manner or fashion.
All of this will only work, however, if the church is lively, vital, vibrant, nurturing, a community of love and faith where God is clearly busy. Otherwise, people will not care about being members. Only members can participate fully in the life of the church and benefit from that participation to the fullest extent. There is no point in the above insofar as the church is spiritually dead, lifeless, dormant, culturally accommodated to the point of not standing out in any way as special—compared with clubs, fraternal organizations, etc. But such churches should either undergo a revival or close their doors.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).