"The Protestant reformers named three "marks by which the true church is known": the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline to correct faults."
Christianity Today did a series on church discipline back in 2005. Although I have subscribed to this magazine for quite a while, I must confess that I wasn't paying close attention to church discipline when it was being discussed in that series. The quote above served as a heading for each of six articles that were published. What follows was also part of that heading:
"Today, church discipline is feared as the mark of a false church, bringing to mind images of witch trials, scarlet letters, public humiliations, and damning excommunications. Does discipline itself need correction and redemption in order to be readmitted into the body of Christ?" We have asked several experts from different (and sometimes contrasting) professional and theological backgrounds to explain how church discipline fell into disrepair and how it can be revived, so that the true church can fully embody the pure doctrine of the gospel once again."
Here are the CT articles that were in that series in case you'd like to do further reading on the stimulating topic of church discipline.
Day One: How Discipline Died Marlin Jeschke
Day Two: Shaping Holy Disciples Mark Galli interviews Mark Dever
Day Three: Spheres of Accountability John Ortberg
Day Four: Keeping the Lawyers at Bay Ken Sande
Day Five: Healing the Body of Christ David Neff
Day Six: Our Uniquely Undisciplined Moment Thomas C. Oden
I find it extremely interesting that the following phrase was included at the top of each article: "Today, church discipline is feared as the mark of a false church, bringing to mind images of witch trials, scarlet letters, public humiliations, and damning excommunications."
YOU BET CHURCH DISCIPLINE IS FEARED, AND FOR VERY GOOD REASON.
CHURCH DISCIPLINE HAS GONE ROGUE IN SOME CONGREGATIONS!
Wait a minute, you might say. This is the 21st century, and the witch trials, scarlet letters, public humiliations, and damning excommunications died with the Puritans. Not so fast! Let's take a look at the discipline policy of Cornerstone Church of Knoxville, which is included in its Membership Commitments to see whether church discipline has once again gone ROGUE. Here is that pertinent excerpt:
"The Process of Church Discipline
"Jesus outlined a process for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17. 12 Initially, the process is informal: if a member or other Christian observes ongoing, unrepentant sin in a member, he or she should graciously confront that person. If the person refuses to repent, then the concerned brother or sister should involve one or two others, which may include a pastor / pastors. If this group confirms that, in fact, the sin or doctrinal error continues without repentance, the church will initiate formal steps.
When the church begins to formally discipline a member, one or more of the pastors will meet with the member to confirm fact and to appeal for change. The pastors may also inform certain other members of the church of the erring member and his sin, urging these other members to contact the member and appeal for repentance. During this time, the member under discipline may not participate in the Lord’s Supper.
If, after a reasonable period of appeal, 13 no repentance is forthcoming, the pastors will inform the church of the unrepentant sin and that they must remove the individual from the church membership. The pastors may inform the church by either (1) making an announcement at a church “Members’ Family Night”14 or other private meeting (2) if there are circumstances which in the discretion of the pastors require a more immediate notification, sending a letter to each member. In the announcement at the Members’ Family Night or, if applicable, in the letter, the pastors may communicate that the individual will be removed from membership as a result of unrepentant sin, describe the nature of the sins which require removal from membership and the process undertaken by the pastors in coming to this decision, and provide any other information relevant to the situation.
12 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
13 The pastors may decide to abbreviate the process of appeal for repentance if the sin is especially notorious, or if the member proves to be factious, disruptive, or leading others into sin or error. In these cases, the pastors may ask church members to avoid all contact with an individual in order to mitigate his sinful influence.
14 A “Members’ Family Night” is a meeting which takes place separate from the regular Sunday morning worship service of Cornerstone Church and which is announced as being open for the attendance of members of Cornerstone Church only.
Relating with Removed Members
Church discipline involves first confronting in love and gentleness and, if unsuccessful, withholding biblical fellowship. Church discipline has nothing to do with “shunning” a person. It is not a complete rejection of a relationship but a change in the nature of a relationship. Thus, it is appropriate for members of the church to interact with a person who has been removed from membership pursuant to church discipline, but they should not have “fellowship” as the Bible defines it. Rather, they should appeal for the former member to turn from sin and put his or her faith in Jesus’ work on the cross. If a person under discipline is not factious or disruptive or a harmful influence, he is welcomed to attend all church meetings that are open to unbelievers with the exception of small groups that meet for the purpose of fellowship.
Once the pastors make a member’s sin known to the church, they commit as well to inform the church of that member’s repentance and restoration to fellowship as appropriate to the situation and the good of the church.
Voluntary Withdrawal of Membership to Avoid the Disciplinary Process
At times, a member may seek to withdraw from the church to avoid church discipline and its consequences. Just as a good shepherd will go after a sheep that has wandered from the flock,15 so will the pastors and members of this church seek to restore a wandering member to the Lord through biblical discipline. Therefore, church discipline may be instituted or continued either before or after a member seeks to withdraw from membership in the church.
Removed Member Participation in Other Churches
If a person leaves the church when he or she is in the midst of the disciplinary process or has been removed from the membership of the church, and if the pastors learn that he or she is attending another church, they may (1) inform the pastors of the other church that the person is currently under church discipline, including the nature of the unrepentant sin leading to discipline, and (2) ask the other church to encourage the former member to repent of his or her sin and to be restored to the Lord and to any people against whom he or she has sinned. Such communications enhance the possibility that a person may finally repent of his or her sin, and, at the same time, serve to warn the other church to be on guard against the harm that the former member might cause to that church body. 16
Additionally, individuals who attend Cornerstone Church and who have been excluded from fellowship from another church will not be allowed to participate in fellowship at or be members of Cornerstone Church unless: (1) they repent of their sins and make confession and restitution with their former church; or (2) the pastors of Cornerstone Church are able to determine that the former church did not apply church discipline according to Scripture."
15 See Matthew 18:12-14; Ezekiel 34:4, 8, 16.
16 See Matthew 18:12-14; Romans 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-14; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2:16-18; 4:9, 14-15; 3 John 9-10.
These membership commitments are online, and anyone who has internet access can take a look at them. (I have already printed the 19 page document in case it suddenly disappears.)
What most people do not understand when they join a church is that the membership covenant is a legal document, despite what anyone including Mark Driscoll will tell you. It has being drawn up by attorneys to protect the church against lawsuits first and foremost. That is what the covenants are designed for, although the pastors may claim otherwise. We believe such covenants put church members at a tremendous disadvantage.
Did you notice that Attorney Ken Sande wrote one of the CT articles listed above? The title and subtitle of Ken's article are: Keeping the Lawyers at Bay: How to correct members while staying out of court. If you click on the title of Ken's CT piece, it certainly appears that most of the article is missing!
The heart of the issue is to protect the church against litigation. What happens when your church decides you have sinned through questioning, for example. Depending on how hyper-authoritarian your pastors are, you may be forced to undergo church discipline. What if you decide this is a bunch of baloney, and you choose to leave the church. Well, that was outlined above, but it bears repeating:
"If a person leaves the church when he or she is in the midst of the disciplinary process or has been removed from the membership of the church, and if the pastors learn that he or she is attending another church, they may (1) inform the pastors of the other church that the person is currently under church discipline, including the nature of the unrepentant sin leading to discipline, and (2) ask the other church to encourage the former member to repent of his or her sin and to be restored to the Lord and to any people against whom he or she has sinned. Such communications enhance the possibility that a person may finally repent of his or her sin, and, at the same time, serve to warn the other church to be on guard against the harm that the former member might cause to that church body."
In case you haven't heard of Cornerstone Church in Knoxville, this congregation is part of a "family of churches" called Sovereign Grace Ministries. Does that come as a surprise to anyone?
Here is our best recommendation. Don't rush to join a church. We strongly recommend that you "date" the church for as long as it takes to feel comfortable with the leadership, culture, and members. Perhaps you will find this post beneficial. If you have signed a membership covenant, you might want to read this post.
With regard to church discipline, if a sin is not of the magnitude we discussed in our previous post, it is NOT a church discipline situation. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise! Some pastors are using their Bibles as clubs to beat their sheep when church discipline is not warranted. Shame on them! Dee and I are committed to focusing on these topics as much as possible in 2012:
Many of the problems we have discussed here at TWW stem from churches gone rogue in these areas. We believe knowledge is power, and we are just getting started in educating our readership on these important matters. We dedicate this song to those of you who have been hurt through church discipline. May you find strength and healing!
Lydia's Corner: Jeremiah 4:19-6:15 Colossians 1:18-2:7 Psalm 77:1-20 Proverbs 24:23-25