Home > Brandenburg, Methodology, The Church > Shameful Alternatives for Discipline in the Church pt. 1

Shameful Alternatives for Discipline in the Church pt. 1

July 23, 2009

Roman Catholicism has a long history of suppressing what it has seen as heresy in the church. The Roman Catholic Church enforced its beliefs and required practices by means of imprisonment and the threat of excommunication.  Finally the Catholic Church resorted to torture and executions to opposition.  In the thirteenth century, the Pope himself assigned inquisitors the duty of locating and then prosecuting heretics, which included burning at the stake.

In the colonial American Massachusetts Bay Colony, those who would dissent from Puritan doctrine and practice were often subjected to physical beatings as a form of church discipline.  Obadiah Holmes, the pastor of the second Baptist church in the American colonies, was tied to a public whipping post and beaten—his charge:  “disturbing the congregation in the afternoon, for drawing aside others after their erroneous judgments and practices, and for suspicion of rebaptizing one or more amongst us.”

Much church leadership desires a certain type of behavior from its people.  They want the  members to live in a way that lines up with scripture.    Churches and their leadership will use various means to acquire the desired behavior.

What Churches Should Do

Church discipline is required practice in scripture.  Jesus first laid it out in Matthew 18:15-17 and many other passages give similar instruction as what He did (cf. Titus 3:10-11).  The Lord instructed His disciples that they should first confront a sinning brother in private.  This limits the injury caused by the sin and avoids a public spectacle.  The point of the discipline we know to be restoration.  Later in Galatians, the Apostle Paul writes (6:1):

Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

If the brother repents, the church has gained the brother, and the discipline goes no further.   However, if the private confrontation does not lead to repentance, restoration, and reconciliation, the next step is to take witnesses.  Jesus referred to Deuteronomic law which required at least two or three.   These multiple witnesses would provide corroboration and also add a more serious dimension to the discipline.

If a brother won’t listen, only then does it go before the church as a matter of discipline.  Now the church judges the matter before the Lord and render a binding judgment upon the sinner based upon biblical principles, even then with a goal of potential restoration, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:5, “that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

Once the discipline has occurred, Jesus called for treating the unrepentant one as a heathen and a tax collector.  Other passages explain this as exclusion from the church membership (1 Cor 5:12b) and a degree of withdrawal or loss of company (2 Thess 3:6, 14).  The congregation is not to consider the former brother as a part of the church.

Jesus made this pattern clear.  The apostles reinforced it in the other New Testament books.  So is this what we see in churches today?  In most cases, we don’t.  What do we see?  I would like to mention and discuss some of the common abuses that I have seen in churches that consider themselves New Testament.

The Call on the Carpet

Many church leaders haven’t taught church discipline to their people.  In the absence of this biblical method, they have a kind of discipline once seen in the former Soviet Union.  The citizens watch for violations and turn the violators in to the authority.  Instead of the personal confrontation, the church member “gets in trouble” with a member of church staff or the pastor.  Another member sees the sin or at least a broken rule, and the member gets “turned in” by him to the church leader.

The next step in this kind of discipline might be a meeting in a staff member’s or pastor’s office.  It could be a phone call with a kind of warning.  It might be a change in treatment or a loss of position.  It might be some of the other forms of discipline found below.

When the person turns someone else in, of course he’s doing this as an act of “care” for the one he’s turning in.  He also might think he’s currying favor with the staff member.  The staff might put in a good word for him when it comes time to talk about new positions.  He might just like seeing other people get into trouble.  He could feel self-righteous because he is catching so many other people doing wrong.

The act of “turning someone else in” doesn’t require faith from the one doing the “turning in.”  He won’t develop the strength that comes from confronting sin personally.  He might not even want to do that—it’s too tough—so like the anonymous caller to the child protective services, he just turns someone into the office.

This form of discipline engenders pride in the church leaders.  They feel and even act like they are the only ones who can practice discipline, like they have a secret knowledge with which they have been endowed due to their positions.  They become very much like the leadership in Roman Catholic Churches, a special cadre that are beyond questioning.  When they say something in one of these office visits, it could take on the quality of ex cathedra.

Often what happens with this kind of discipline is that there is no due process.  Someone sees someone else “sin.”  He turns the sinner in to the office.  The office calls in the “perpetrator.”   The staff member confronts him about his sin.  He might ask, “Who told you?”  It doesn’t matter.  It could be that he knows who has turned him in.  He tells the staff member that he really didn’t do it.  He can’t be believed.  The person who has “turned him in” is always right.  He questioned.  Questioning is just another form of rebellion.

To start, of course, this method is disobedient to scripture.  It might seem like it will work or that it is even more practical than the biblical way, but it is disobedience to God.  Many of the people in churches that practice this way might think that this actually is the way that God wants us to do it.  They’ve been encouraged to think this way by their leaders.  Generations of people go on with the same false practice without ever understanding one of the most prominent teachings in the New Testament.

(to be continued)

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  1. July 23, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    This practice can only be stopped when the leadership itself stops listening to the informants and sends the informants to the “perpetrators.” This really is a serious fault in some “good” churches. Until the informant has gone to the perpetrator and the perpetrator has refused to correct his ways, the leadership is listening to gossip and possibly even slander when he entertains the news of some “wrongdoing” in his church.

  2. July 27, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Amen! Isn’t this what is meant by Nicolaitanism? Things that were written to/for all believers are seized upon by the clerical class for varying reasons, often because they viewed the laity as unable to competently apply Scripture.

  3. August 4, 2009 at 12:52 am

    Jason,

    Yes, I think it is a bit of Nicolaitanism, more acceptable, of course.

    Jeff,

    I used “informant” in my second part, due to your reminder of that word’s existence.

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