Reflection: Church Discipline/The Ban
This reflection was initially prepared for my course Introduction to Christian Theology in Winter 2011.
Although it was not directly addressed by any of this week’s readings on ecclesiology, there were a couple moments that referenced one of the challenges of the church. Is the church supposed to be a place welcoming to all sinners or is it supposed to be a place for the holy and sanctified? On one extreme we see churches that would exclude from their congregations anybody who has an obvious sin even if they have truly repented and are trying to overcome it. On the other, we see churches in the name of inclusivity shrug off evils committed by their members. I’d argue that either extreme is unhealthy and dangerous.
All it takes is a look at Jesus’ life to realize how far off this attitude is from that of Jesus. He regularly ate with the worst sinners of his day; he seemed to prefer it over eating with religious leaders, in fact. He didn’t call the best, brightest and most popular to be his disciples; he called fisherman, much-hated tax collectors and even somebody who would betray him. Obviously the framework of having to be perfect – whether in doctrine or in morality – to be part of the church is missing the mark of the type of ministry that Jesus set up as our example.
In a liberal mainline school as I am, the second extreme is the one much more likely to be approached, but I think it is just as dangerous. I’ve often heard it said of the United Church that the general rule is that anything goes except criticizing that anything goes. That is a caricature of course, just as conservative churches aren’t really exclusive to all signs of sin (as they define them). Yet just as it is clear that the church must inherently include sinners, it is also clear biblically that Christians are supposed to be a new creation in Christ and that we should live like it. We shouldn’t allow for taking advantage of the doctrine of grace, a point that is addressed frequently by Paul. He does not deny the gospel of grace by returning to legalism, but he repeatedly rebukes sin as well, with the most famous being the man sleeping with his step-mother in Corinth. Not only that man, but the whole church of Corinth, is rebuked for allowing that.
It might sound oversimplified, but I think this is one of those issues where it actually is pretty clear in Scripture. Along with Paul modelling church discipline at times, Jesus also gives us a framework for what loving challenge looks like. Matthew 18:15-20 tells us to first approach the person individually, then with a couple others, and then finally to the whole church which at that time meant a house church who would have been close to each other. It is done lovingly, within the context of the church. If the person confronted still does not repent, we are to treat them as “a Gentile or a tax collector.” That sounds insulting, but Jesus showed us how to love tax collectors and Gentiles, so it is not a case of condemning them. Rather it is simply not being a part of a lie: I cannot call myself a Christ-follower if I am unrepentant of things clearly opposed to Christ. Ideally, it sends a strong enough message to cause repentance, and then they are fully welcomed back in the church.
I understand that the idea of church discipline is very touchy. It has been abused to condemn things that are arguably not even sins. It has been abused to condemn the culture around us rather than be an in-house discussion of the church. It has been abused to condemn other Christians that we don’t know well enough to be “our brother (or sister)” as the text specifies. It has been abused to make taking something before the church an act of shame in front of hundreds or thousands instead of in front of true spiritual family. In general, yes, it has been abused a lot. Yet I would still argue that most of those abuses could not have happened if the church actually followed this model of Jesus and Paul. Some essentially propose that the solution to bad church discipline throughout history is to have no church discipline. I disagree: the answer to something done wrong is not to never try again, but to do it right, especially in this case where we have a clear Scriptural teaching. The church will be better off when we can learn to embrace the sinner (every single one of us) while encouraging a more Christ-like life.