One spring night several years ago I stood in line waiting to buy a movie ticket. The young couple in front of me were talking about the Easter Sunday “disturbance” at their church.
“Well, it was a pretty short skirt,” said the guy.
“That’s just the way Julie dresses,” answered the girl. “She needs to have people notice her.”
“She got noticed all right. One of the deacons went and got a video camera and took video of her in that outfit so that when they confront her about it they’ll have visual evidence.”
“That’s just wrong,” said the girl.
“Which?” asked the guy: “Her skirt or the video?”
Sometimes I make things up to prove a point. This conversation, however, was real. I wish it wasn’t.
Setting aside for a moment the creepy factor of middle aged deacons running for a video camera to tape a girl wearing a short skirt, the case of the really short skirt demonstrates the reasons so many believers are done with the church. The incident makes it difficult to suggest that participating in church life is a vital aspect of following Jesus. It’s hard to be in favor of the church when the church is manifestly flawed.
But what about Julie? What if she really does “need to have people notice her?” Who will help her, and how can it be done? The camera wielding deacons are not the answer, they are part of the problem. Yet church discipline should exist to help believers find freedom in Christ.
“Church Discipline.” The phrase is either an oxymoron or a neon sign warning all who see it to run for their lives because this church is nuts.
But what about the example of New Testament churches? The Apostle Paul not only planted churches but considered church discipline a life-giving necessity, even if the words ring harsh in our 21-st centurty ears:
So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord . . . I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people--not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5: 1-5, 9-13)
What are we to do with Paul? No one would suggest that he is a camera-crazed deacon! Or what should we do with Jesus, who laid down guidelines for handling conflict within the church ending with, “if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Perhaps we need to be reminded that redeeming love extends to the life of the church as well.
Yet we must also acknowledge that church history is filled with bad examples of applying church discipline. So how does an obscure blog from the peaceful hills of Central Kentucky solve the problem? It doesn’t, other than to suggest three key factors every follower of Jesus should consider about church disipline:
1. Experiencing the presence of Jesus is the first and best kind of church discipline. Jesus is the head of the church. He is alive, active, and he has opinions about the actions we take and choices we make each day. The best way for a disciple of Jesus to avoid camera-wielding deacons is to live in the presence of Jesus as a way of life. The same gun-toting Apostle Paul who spoke such harsh words to the Corinthians concluded his advice to the Philippians like this: "All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you." (Phil 3: 10-11) Toward an immature church Paul raised a strong hand. To a healthy church he commended them to the still small voice of the Father.
2. Church discipline in the Western world is nearly impossible today...or, is it? In the U.S. alone there are more than 6,000 denominations today. That’s denominations, not churches. Is it any surprise in a consumer-driven society that a follower of Jesus would have 6,000 choices of how to express his or her faith? If your skirt is too short for one church, head for another. If you are a greedy idolatrous businessman you can fit in nicely somewhere. You don’t even need to change denominations, just “move your letter” to the other side of town. Even when church discipline is exercised with perfect love and care (a rarity, I grant you), the object of such love can easily pack up his problems and head somewhere else. The only difficulty is that the problems go with him: "wherever you go, there you are." Set your calendar, the need to be noticed--or whatever your problem--will surface again.
3. Loving someone enough to help them find freedom from their fears and appetites is the heart of church discipline. If you knew someone was suicidal, would you take action? How about alcoholic or anorexic? We instinctively agree that love takes action. Imperfect action is better than no action when life is on the line. But the truth is: life is on the line every day. What if Julie's need to be noticed grows into the choice to marry an abusive husband? By the time everyone agrees on taking action much of the harm is already done. Godly leadership (not the deacons in my example!) is empowered to see and take action. Godly leaders are the shepherds of our souls: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.”
Is that crazy talk? You tell me.
What about you? Do you have examples of church discipline gone bad--or gone right? Tell your story in the comments below.
Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He’s the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His newest book is Deeper Grace, a guide to the connection between grace and spiritual maturity. Ray currently lives in central Kentucky, coaching and consulting church leaders. You can visit his blog at Students of Jesus.