“I have come to realize more and more that the greatest disease and the greatest suffering is to be unwanted, unloved, uncared for, to be shunned by everybody, to be just nobody [to no one].” Mother Theresa link
I used to work for a major pharmaceutical company. One day, I had a meeting with a man in another division. We had different bosses and our specialties rarely overlapped. While in his office, I saw a lamp sitting in his trash receptacle. I asked him if it was broken. He said he hated the lamp which had come with the rest of his office furniture and he had been given a new one. He tried to return it to maintenance but they said to trash it even though it still worked. My little office was equipped with overhead florescent lights which had the annoying habit of flickering. So, I asked him if I could have it and he gladly gave it to me. I returned to my office, put it on my desk and and enjoyed the less harsh light.
I was much happier, that is, until the end of the week. One of the big cheeses who oversaw my section of the company, came marching through our offices, looking furious. He showed up at my door and, in a loud voice, said "Why do you have that lamp in your office? Where did you get it?" I knew I was in deep trouble but didn't know why. After I explained, he proceeded to berate me, saying that I was not at the level of management which was allowed to have a lamp.
When I said that I had no idea of that rule, he angrily stopped me and said "Hand over the lamp!" He furiously headed for the next division, lamp in hand, where, according to my lamp-giving friend, he berated the man for giving me the lamp. He insisted that it be placed on his desk, even if he never used it, because it was a symbol of his position.
I went through the personnel book, looking for any regulation stating who was allowed to have lamps on their desk to no avail. I even asked human resources about it and they said they had no idea that such a rule existed. But, it was a decree and you can bet I never put a lamp on my desk in that office again.
The lamp, as a symbol of office ranking, is one of those implicit "rules of the game." It isn't discussed, it isn't written any where, it just has a life of its own. There appeared to be a small group of bosses who knew and enforced that rule. I bet if I had stayed longer in that company I would have found other such commands which were dreamed up by this small group of enforcers.
If I had continued to disobey them and kept a lamp on my desk, I bet I would have been brought up for insubordination and possibly fired. One might argue that he couldn't legally fire me for something so ill-defined. Well, that might be technically true but, if he wanted me fired, he would have found a way to do so.
I believe that the church often functions in the same way. Each church has spoken and unspoken mandates and the church attendee is expected to figure them out.
Years ago, I talked with Jeff Anderson, the famous attorney who has successfully sued the Roman Catholic church on behalf of those who have been sexually abused by priests. Jeff is an awesome man. When I discussed my plans to start a blog, I asked him for some advice. He gave me two pieces of information. The first was to always write what I believe to be the truth. In other words, I could not intentionally make something up (lie) in order to harm another. That has never been a problem since I seek truth.
The second thing he told me is that he could not prevent me from getting thrown out of any church. He said that church membership is outside the purview of the courts. However, there are steps one can take to prevent churches from unduly harassing an individual who wishes to leave a church as well.
Before I begin, I refer you to this post of an example of an effective, low key discipline effort which resulted in a changed life. I am not against church discipline per se. I am against how I see it being applied in today's authoritarian churches. There are good churches out there. There are many good pastors who are actually humble (as opposed to those who write books on how to be humble). However, there are also many churches with pastors and elders who are sinful and self absorbed, truly believing that they are in charge.
What precisely does a church mean when it uses the word "discipline."
This is the crux of the matter. When you read the following two quotes from yesterday's post on a church covenant. what do you think about? What do you think they mean. In fact, do they even know what they mean?
1. Church discipline is plainly taught in the Scriptures. It is one of the primary means that the Lord has ordained for bringing about repentance and restoration in the lives of His erring children.
- If it is so clear, why do I have no idea to what they are referring?
- Are they referring to God sending people into captivity in Babylon for building idols?
- What about the dude who was living with his mother in law and said that such a thing was hunky dory? That seems to be pretty serious but I have heard people being disciplined for silly things.
- Is there discipline for gluttony, greed, arrogance, lying, letting the sun go down on my anger, being snippy with my husband, etc.
- What are the parameters? When is it enforced? Do elders/pastors get a pass?
In the past, I would sign such an agreement thinking, "Gee, that wouldn't happen to me because I don't do really bad things." However,since starting this blog, I have seen discipline applied in rather bizarre ways, leaving me to question the arbitrary nature of the whole process.
2. Should a member become guilty of sin that the church deems scandalous, the church may excommunicate him immediately and without prior implementation of less drastic means of discipline, such as private expostulation or public rebuke.
Whoa, whoa whoa…catch this. If you do something scandalous, you get thrown out of the church immediately. Therefore, this means that regular, run of the mill discipline is for everyday sin matters. What's up with that? Here are some actual events shared by our awesome readers.
- They told us we would be arrested if we set foot into the place again because, after three years of attendance, we wouldn’t submit a membership application.
- After asking a question about the church budget: A friend of mine (who has commented here in the past) tried to resign her membership in a local church. She was “church disciplined” after she left and shunned by almost all of her former friends in that church.
- After becoming permanently disabled with fibromyalgia and other illnesses, said person was excommunicated from church because of laziness.
- A grandmother was told not to return to church after disagreeing with the pastor's decision to dissolve the deacon board. When she tried to attend a service in this church which she had attended for 50 years, the pastor called the police and she was perp walked out of the sanctuary link
- In 1994, I moved from Ohio to Texas to co-pastor a Sovereign Grace Baptist church in Elmendorf, Texas. I wasn’t there very long before I realized I had made a huge mistake. After trying to find a way to make it work, I decided to resign and return to Ohio. Imagine my surprise when I was told I couldn’t resign. Since I had to have the church’s permission to join the church, I had to have their permission to leave the church. Well, I resigned anyway and the church exercised church discipline against me. I was excommunicated and to this day I am considered a publican and heathen.
- This happened with our family. We were placed in church discipline AFTER leaving the church, unbeknownst to us. The pastor also followed my friend who also had left, Meaghan to her new churches she was trying out to “tattle” with the prospective pastors. There is a strong allegiance among pastors to believe another pastor before trusting a congregant.
- We were “defacto excommunicated”from a PCA church for the sin of “contumacy” which means disobeying our elders by deciding we no longer wanted to sit under the teaching of a pastor who was out of control.(It was announced just this way on a Sunday morning because they had never written formal charges against us or had any sort of trial.) Even some of the elders and other pastors in the presbytery agreed with my husband who tried everything under the sun to bring accountability into the situation. Following the proper denominational procedure, we filed a complaint with the presbytery who ruled in our favor. Then our elders filed an appeal and the presbytery ruled in their favor because they produced some document that said we had filed our complaint 24 hours beyond the allowed time to file. Righteousness fell victim to a statute of limitations apparently.
- (Moved from 9 Marks-Capital Hill Baptist Church to another 9 Marks church in Albuquerque) However, due to the delay in my membership process in the new church (waiting for the next cycles of classes to begin), it took about three or four months before I was able to actually finish the classes, sign the church covenant, and become a full-fledged member. During this “interim period,” I received a letter from one of the CHBC leaders, informing me that if I did not contact them before the next members’ meeting, I would be disciplined, and my membership would be terminated, given that it had, apparently, taken too long for me to become a member of the church in Albuquerque! I was absolutely stunned. I had been such an enthusiastic supporter of the “9 Marks philosophy,” both at CHBC and at my new church, yet now, I was being threatened with discipline for, seemingly, not sticking closely enough to one aspect of it! To be fair, I did contact someone from CHBC, after receiving the letter, and explained that the membership process was taking longer than I had hoped, and that I would soon be a member of the new church– thus averting “church discipline” from the CHBC elders.
- The above commenter decided to go back to the Catholic church. Guess what he claims Mark Dever did to him? About the senior pastor/main preaching elder unfriended me on Facebook, without a word, after I returned to the Catholic Church in 2010?
- A person who asked about the extravagant lifestyle of her pastors was told that he was "sinfully craving answers" and was put on church discipline and was not allowed to take communion. The entire church was notified of this punishment in a public meeting.
- One woman told us that she had been beaten by her husband for several years. Finally, he knocked one of her teeth out. She finally left him and took the children. The church put her under discipline because she refused to return to her husband.
- I had a run in with my last pastor because I asked him some sincere questions and was quickly (in one phone conversation) removed from leadership and told to take my whole ladies group and look for another church.
- My dear blogging buddy, Deb, was unfriended on Facebook by her former pastor's wife after he got mad at Deb for expressing her concerns about Mahaney, Driscoll, and the boys. Unfriending is the latest round in a game called "the shun" practiced by many of these authoritarian churches.
- A pastor started a successful church and then decided to join an association of churches which has a top down hierarchy. Several months after joining, the association comes in, tells him he is prideful, makes him step down and be a janitor in his own church for one year (to help him become more humble) while they replaced him with a pastor in his 20s.
- Since we hadn’t signed their papers,(covenant) they excluded us from communion (every week). I loved the connection I felt with many of the men in that group. We stayed for those 4 months because I was hoping they’d see the foolishness of their doctrine that excludes fellow Christians because a man-made document hadn’t been agreed to. We were told we needed to “join” so the pastors’ could know who they were responsible for. (This may not be discipline but it is important to understand that excluding people from communion is a common tactic.ed note)
- A church member was put under discipline for not attending her care group meeting because her son needed to be driven and picked up from his sports practice which was scheduled during the meeting.
Here is the bottom line. You have no idea what the church means by discipline. You do not know how, when or why it might be applied. Unless you have some special insight, you do not know the elders or the pastors and what pushes their buttons.
If they want to get you for some sin, they can do it. Why? All of us struggle with sin in our lives and can be called on it at anytime. So does your pastor but he has the backing of his elder board who will defend him to the hilt. Unless you have an elder board which is filled with sensible people, you will find that they will most likely side with the pastor. That is why they are chosen in the first place. Yes, there are good elder boards but there are bad ones as well. I still remember my former pastor telling us that his elder board only disagreed with him twice in 28 years.
Therefore, when a church discusses discipline, you need to understand that any and all cards are on the table and that means they can go after you for any little thing they like.
Which churches do this?
Just about any church that has a thing about "authority."
How can I tell before I join?
Read the membership covenant. These documents usually give clues about the "authority" structure of the church. Also, later in this post we have provided you with some links to help you evaluate church covenants, complete with a "test," featuring a real covenant with lots of red flags.
If the subject of church discipline comes up early on in considering a church, beware. For example, I know of one church which hired a new pastor. He did one of those typical "Who am I" letters to the congregation. He mentioned his wife and kids in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph he wrote something like this.
I am sure that we will disagree on some matters. Please feel free to come and talk about it with me. If we can't resolve it, you will need to learn to live with it. If you insist on discussing it beyond that, we will need to consider church discipline.
Recently, I met some folks who encouraged us to try their church. Here is what they said.
You would love it. We have a fine preacher and we practice church discipline.
Note: The emphasis on the preacher and church discipline. Good night!
Think long and hard about signing any membership contract/covenant.
It is imperative that you understand that the covenant was not invented with you in mind. No matter what they say, it isn't some lovey dovey, let's pray for one another and tiptoe through the tulips together. These documents were invented to protect the churches from lawsuits. Why? Because some church are led by dolts who do stupid things that could result in churches getting their pants sued off. (Oh yeah, before I forget: The pew sitters can be jerks as well but that is not my emphasis in this matter. I am addressing decent people who have been on the receiving end of the left boot of fellowship.)
Yesterday, Deb posted a membership contract that was honest about their intent.
Each member of [church name] agrees that he will not initiate or pursue legal action against the church, nor against the pastors, deacons, or church staff in connection with their performance of official duties. Any Christian considering legal action against another Christian is encouraged to heed 1 Corinthians 6:1-8."
Note: The members of the church are separately defined from "pastors, deacons, and staff." There is them "the leaders" and you "the pew sitters." Also, this agreement does not appear to prevent them from suing you.
Ask yourself a question. Why would you join an organization that is attempting to prevent you from suing them? Better yet, why would you join a church that is having you sign a binding agreement without advising you to consider consulting your own attorney before signing such a document? Isn't that deceptive?
Here are a few posts that we have written on this matter.
Three years ago, I spoke with a nationally well-known attorney who informed me that the only power that churches really have is the ability to throw members out of the church. They can do that with very little recrimination. But, they could have some legal trouble if, in so doing, they announce the former member's supposed "sins" to the full church if said member employs the following procedure. What we are about to discuss has been “run by” legal experts. However, TWW states categorically that this should not be taken to mean it is an official legal position. Please seek advice of an attorney for an authorized opinion. (See, we tell you to seek legal advice, unlike many of the churches we write about).
- Resign your church membership prior to the all-church announcement that you are under discipline.
- Keep your lips sealed.
- Do not tell anyone that you are going to take the following action. You do not want Sally Sycophant (we all know a few of these) to run to the pastors and report this, giving them an opportunity quickly schedule the all church gossip session.
We give special thanks to Arce, who knows a thing or two, for helping us with this format. Understand, this letter is formatted with the idea that you may be put on church discipline for leaving your church.
Send the following letter, return receipt requested (and tracking, in case the Post Office lets them have it without returning the card). Put the return receipt number on the heading of the letter (you can get the form with the number at the PO, before typing the letter).
To the pastors and administrators at ____________ church.
This letter is notice that I am not longer a member [attendee] at _______________ church, effective with the date of this letter.
As a non-member, I am no longer subject to any of your discipline as of (date on letter). After (date on letter), any publication, notice, or speaking about me by any church staff or recognized church leader is no longer authorized by me.
Any negative remark or statement about me, any encouragement that people shun me, or any action other than deleting me from your records will be evaluated for possible legal action for libel or other tort claim against the individuals involved and the organization.
If any one asks about me, refer them to me, any other action may result in a tort claim against you.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. You must desist from any act that may harm my reputation or me or come between me and other persons of my acquaintance. Legal action may ensue.
- You must mail the letter on the date on the letter and they will not receive it for a couple of days thereafter.
- Keep a copy, print out the tracking showing when it was delivered, keep the green card or, if it is refused, the returned letter (they are legally responsible for the content if they refuse it).
- Document any response or any failure to comply. If they (leadership or staff) call, listen but do not talk, except to say “I disagree” if they make a false statement about you.
- Document the conversation.
- Go to an attorney if they proceed to trash your reputation or that of your business.
- Do not respond by trashing the organization.
We have heard from several people that have employed this method. It has been successful but, as they say on TV, results may vary. Remember, churches do not want to be sued or to be talked about in the newspapers. Chances are good that they will back off.
For those of you who are new, we repeat one of our favorite clips on "shunning."
Lydia's Corner: 2 Samuel 15:23-16:23 John 18:25-19:22 Psalm 119:113-128 Proverbs 16:10-11