Jonathan Merritt has an interesting two-part post chronicling reaction to the struggles of The Village Church, a large (twice the size of at least two NAPARC denominations) multi-site Acts 29 congregation in Texas, with a church discipline case. In this case a woman discovered that her husband was addicted to child pornography. She sought an annulment of the marriage without consulting the church leadership (I’m unsure, whether, in their polity, they are elders) and she found herself under church discipline for proceeding with the annulment without consulting the church. This, they said, violated the church membership covenant to which they both had agreed. She renounced the jurisdiction of the church and they proceeded with public discipline, including a mass email to the membership. The move by the church to discipline the woman caused a storm of protest. In response the pastor has apologized for the way the case was handled.
In his posts, Merritt interviews Jonathan Leeman at 9 Marks about his understanding of discipline and Eugene Volokh about the law surrounding this sort of case. Both Leeman’s and Volokh’s comments are helpful. Volokh notes that most such cases should stay out of the civil courts but that churches who abuse the process could find themselves liable to civil action. Leeman is correct that the intent behind church discipline is to restore and the abuse of discipline is grievous and abuse does happen.
Wade Burleson, whom Merritt quotes, is surely right when he says, “Church discipline doesn’t mean kicking people out when they fail…it means loving people enough to walk with them through their valleys.” Amen. We should remember some basics, however. Nowhere in Merritt’s two-part post is any reference made to Matthew 18:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:15–20; ESV)
Our Lord himself outlined the basic procedure for church discipline. In the case of personal offense, one ought to be reconciled to another. The church as an institution becomes involved when the offender is resistant. Only after the impenitent person refuses does it the procedure become more formal. Our Lord did say, “tell it to the church.” That is a public announcement to a congregation, to the visible, institutional church. Should one remain impenitent, that person does lose status in the church. It’s in this church-judicial context that our Lord spoke of binding and loosing and a gathering of two or three. We cannot be faithful to God’s Word and not excise this passage from Holy Scripture.
The instruction is so plain, so straightforward that the real question here seems to be whether there is such a thing as a visible church, whether there are officers, and whether they are charged with the matter of discipline. Merritt seems to cast doubt on the perspicuity of Scripture but it’s difficult for me to see how, in light of this passage and Matthew 16, one could think that our Lord Jesus did not establish an institution and a process for discipline. We see it also reflected in Paul’s dealings with the Corinthian church.
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:4-5; ESV )
These passages, taken in context, clearly say that Christ gave the keys, including discipline, to fallible sinful human beings. They will err. When they do, they should be held to account. We should also remember, however, that discipline cases are often very difficult. I’m sure that many ministers and elders can remember cases that they wish had been handled differently and many others that they wished had turned out differently. What faithful minister has not wept before the Lord over a discipline case? What elder has not trembled at the thought of reading a sentence of excommunication in a public worship service? I have sat in consistory (elder and pastor) meetings to pray with men about what to do about one who has walked away from the church. I’ve heard arguments in favor of erasure and arguments in favor of discipline of those who walk away. That is a difficult case in which good people will disagree.
Merritt wants to leverage the interpretation of Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, however, with a dictum from Augustine about love. If an interpretation leads to more love, it’s likely more true. Okay but who gets to define love? On what basis? Augustine was not a late-modern subjectivist. When he spoke of love, he was speaking of God’s love that is objective more than affective. In our culture the very act of church discipline, of calling people to accountability for sin or for impenitence, is considered unloving and yet Scripture would have us regard it quite differently. Those who’ve been faithful through the process of discipline know the hours of grief and suffering and self-sacrifice involved. Most believers will never see that process. Some of us have even seen cases where the person under discipline has repented because of the process. That’s the joyous desired outcome.
Finally, Merritt’s article might give the impression that the practice of church discipline is either a novelty or something those wacky colonial congregationalists got up to but that would be a false impression. In the Reformed churches our process is laid out in church orders that have their roots in the 16th century. I don’t know much about the polity of the Acts 29 churches but in the Reformed churches officers are accountable to broader (or higher) assemblies and courts. Our process to excommunication takes months and years. Before one may be excommunicated the case must go to the regional assembly of pastors and elders (classis) and the procedure reviewed. Sometimes classis says, in effect, “Not yet. Keep trying.” In other words, in a Reformed church there are checks and balances. If there is abuse at the narrower (lower) level there are places to which one may appeal. I have seen laity pursue cases all the way from consistory (the local elders and ministers) to classis and thence to synod only to see synod, the last court of appeal, overturn the previous assemblies and vindicate the laity. I suspect that when some people talk about discipline they’re only thinking of local, unaccountable pastors. In Reformed churches it isn’t so or at least it ought not be.