Church discipline has been a big topic in the last week or so, at least in the blog circles I read. I thought it was time I pitched my own tent on the battlefield.
I won’t mention any names this time (even though we all know which church sparked the conversation). I will say that I was appalled at the disciplinary contract. I wasn’t bothered by the idea of signing a contract. On the contrary, I think that can be a good thing, when it’s mutually agreed on (rather than forced) and has specific goals in mind. While I understand that there is nothing in the Bible about that type of contract, there is precedent. People made covenants with one another all the time, agreements which were typically mutually beneficial.
I’m also not against asking someone to leave who is consistently dragging down the church, blocking its mission, or who is predatory in word and deed. It’s not about simply banishing “unrepentant” people, it’s about what it’s doing to the health of the church. In my experience, it’s rarely necessary to bar someone from the church. People who refuse to acknowledge their problems typically don’t stay after they’ve been confronted. It’s the ones who insist on taking others down with them who create the most drama.
There is nothing wrong with using the Bible to understand spiritual discipline. But when it’s misused, there’s trouble. We are fortunate that the Bible tells us that we can lovingly correct someone who has done wrong. Unfortunately, it doesn’t spell out the specifics for each circumstance. We have to do that part on our own. I agree that Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are good places to start for a healthy overall approach to dealing with sin within the church. All they do, however, is give a framework. How we carry it out is up to us, and we need to be sure that what we’re doing has the purpose of healing, not shaming.
The problem I had with the contract that’s been circulated on the ‘net was its excessive demands, nebulous action points, and lack of time frame or end goals. The terms and conditions were confusing at best. There was far too much potential for the contract to become weaponized. As far as I could tell, without any real, measurable goals, the process could have been dragged out indefinitely by the elders. If their stated result was to restore the individual to full spiritual health, that was probably not the best way to handle it.
I look at spiritual restoration as being similar to physical rehabilitation. (Before anyone gets all twisted up about whether or not that’s “Biblical,” it’s no more or less “Biblical” than the contract in question.) When a person has been injured or ill, there are always specific goals in mind. Sure, the end point may be for the person to return to work or independent living, but that’s too broad a goal at the start. That’s a great thing to aim for after smaller steps have been taken. The goals are manageable, have a specific time frame, and never have in mind the idea of reminding the person of what they can’t yet do. I believe spiritual healing when sin has been uncovered (in whatever way) can follow the same pattern.
When we find ourselves needing to discipline those under our spiritual direction (and this applies to people in lay ministry, not just pastors and elders), there are key parts of the process:
1. Does the person understand and believe that he or she has done something wrong? If so, then discipline can begin. If not, then there are further actions as described in Matthew 18. I do think we’re misinterpreting the Scripture if we think it means to shun someone. Revoking member privileges and not allowing the person to continue to serve can happen first.
2. Is this a pattern you’ve seen before in this person? We do need to give others the benefit of the doubt. Unless it’s something illegal, there is no reason to assume it’s a pattern unless it’s happened before on your watch. This was one of my problems with the contract I mentioned. There was an underlying assumption that the person had habitually engaged in the same sin. That’s a thinly veiled attempt at shaming. Unless the person says it’s a habit, or unless there is a history of discipline over the same issue, assume nothing. It doesn’t foster healthy reconciliation.
3. The consequences should fit the sin. I don’t mean in terms of ranking sins according to how bad they are. I mean that the consequences should not be excessive and that they should make sense. We use this technique on our kids. We don’t just give them a time out or extra chores for every offense. That wouldn’t even make sense. The consequences of sin should not be for the purpose of punishment but for correction.
4. There should be measurable goals. What do you want to see accomplished as a result of the discipline? The end result may be for the person to regain full membership status and the same role as before, but that’s both too far out and too unfocused. If you have specific things in mind you want to see happen, or a level of accountability, then spell it out clearly and define the parameters. This is the step that should not just be meted out by the elders or the leadership or whomever. If the person under discipline is agreeing to the process, then he or she can be part of the solution. Again, we sometimes do this with our kids. They have ownership of their action steps and are usually more compliant.
5. There should be a clear time frame. The other big problem I had with the contract was that there was no end point. There was no time limit on the action steps. They could be carried out or enforced indefinitely. That’s not helpful because it never allows the person to achieve full spiritual health. It can’t operate on an “I’ll know it when I see it” basis. People get far too emotionally involved to be objective. Again, giving someone the benefit of the doubt will help here. If it becomes a pattern, then there is always room to revise. There should be dates by which steps will be completed, and an evaluation of their success by all parties involved.
6. Shaming or humiliation should never be part of the process. If your goal is restoration, then shame should not be part of the equation. There is absolutely no Scripture that encourages making someone feel humiliated, even when there is a need to confront the person in a wider circle. We all remember The Scarlet Letter, right? Right.
7. When there is no chance of reconciliation, there are two options: Let them go or ask them to leave. Sometimes, unrepentant people will leave. I’ve seen it happen. I have never, ever been to a church that chose to a) shun the person who left; b) ask members to refrain from friendship with the person; c) pursued them angrily, demanding that they finish what they started; or d) tell the entire membership what happened. People who choose to leave, leave. They may be given over to God, with the hope that they will eventually repent. It’s different if someone refuses to be corrected and insists on staying put. It’s healthy and appropriate to ask that person to leave, especially if he or she is creating tension. It can be healthy to continue to work with the person, even if they don’t believe they were wrong, if that is what the leadership chooses to do. I’ve seen that happen, and it can result in healing and deeper relationships. (In that case, it was a matter of doctrine, and it opened up great conversation.)
In all things, the goal should be to handle things with love and not anger. If someone in leadership cannot be objective, that person should not be responsible for discipline. I imagine that’s part of what got in the way in the Contract from Heck. (Of course, I think that church has other issues, but that’s another matter.) If we stop treating people like conflicts waiting to happen and see them more as children of God, we will be able to handle sticky matters in a healthy way.