WASHINGTON (BP)–As a growing topic of discussion among all evangelicals, church discipline has found renewed purpose in significant congregations across the nation. The advocates of church discipline are finding their voices heard in new ways by new publics. There is, of course, strong support for strengthening the moral fiber of the local church, and many believe church discipline is the biblical answer to what has become the sagging and insipid American church experience.
Congregations serious about church discipline maintain that membership matters so much that simply asking for it does not necessarily require that the church grant it. Gone are the days when simply joining a church meant walking the aisle during the invitation hymn, showing up at Christmas and/or Easter and contributing a bit of money during the year.
Hearty agreement across the spectrum of evangelicalism can be seen from divergent points of view. It matters not if the person holds to traditional Reformed theology or to flaming Pentecostalism — all agree that the way people are received into a local congregation is but the start of a journey toward heightened personal transparency, total involvement in the life and ministry of the congregation, and an expectation that no area of life remains totally private any longer once a person joins a church. The very idea of personal anonymity is dissolved as individuals and families covenant together to live their lives together “congregationalized.”
This fast-growing practice has but one hitch, which is also attracting attention by advocates and opponents alike. In some congregations what is touted as church discipline actually is spiritual tyranny. The result is that membership accompanies a tacit agreement that honest dissent is frowned upon. With congregational autonomy as the baseline of the discussion, the requirement of total agreement with church leadership often results in fear by the members to raise questions out of intimidation.
Young people of today will not abide by the old way of doing business in the local Southern Baptist church, and while the paradigm of old-style Baptist business meetings might amuse various and sundry power brokers in numerous churches across the SBC, those who simply show up to fight no longer have a place at the table in churches who actively embrace church discipline. And rightly so. Southern Baptists, in particular, are known more for their disagreements than their unity. How many vagrant Baptist church members actually have touted that the business meeting is the place where “being a Baptist” is on display?
That said, the antithesis of such a movement is also proving to be problematic. Questions from church members in “disciplined” churches are often seen as criticism — where disagreement is often branded as disloyalty. Church discipline can all too easily be turned into a machine to squelch quickly and even police the private conversations of members who dare to raise a question against the leadership of the church.
The result is a growing number of Christians who are convinced that the church must be more than a social gathering where doughnuts and Jesus appear together every week, but who also believe that no person should be made to feel uncomfortable, unspiritual, disloyal or in any way intimidated when the proper process of dissent is employed. When and where this happens, a local congregation can slide into cult-like status.
This progression begins when members express concerns about the trajectory of thought associated with a certain decision of the church leaders which leads to others asking and requiring that church leaders be consulted in private for fear of bringing disunity to the congregation. So great and powerful is the idea of disunity as a tool in Satan’s hands, that no serious Christian would ever toy with the idea that the implications of their criticism would in any way aid and abet the enemy of Christ’s church. Such logic sounds on the surface to be biblically correct. Yet, should there be a church member who is legitimately concerned or maintains a divergent point of view, church discipline can all too easily become the weapon of choice by church leaders.
What transpires if the person is persistent in his questioning of the leadership is the requirement, under articles of the church covenant, that he speak of the issue to no one else in the congregation — else he face accusations of slander which would then lead to church discipline by the leadership. The boundaries of such conversations need not center on areas of doctrine which comprise the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.
Controversy can arise all too easily over certain church practices which are not explicit requirements of the Christian as found in Holy Scripture. Whether a person lingers after the service for a specified amount of time or actively supports various initiatives of the congregation all too easily can become tests of loyalty and commitment to the work of reformation in a local church.
If the matter is not resolved, the only option offered at some point is to resign their membership and join another congregation. Indeed, this may be the best option for all, but congregations who require absolute agreement on matters not explicitly addressed in Scripture are in danger of becoming legalists who emotionally abuse church members and intimidate them into silence or resignation. Once this line is crossed, the privilege of Baptist polity has been compromised, and spiritual tyranny has begun.
The effect of such unintended consequences on the church at large is the fear that careful balance is too difficult to maintain. The abuse of power (especially among Christians) and the strong pull for personal status in spiritual matters is too hard to refute over time so the best alternative for modern Christians who are weary of old-style polity and church politics is simply to acquiesce and endure as the price to pay for good preaching and serious churches. This option, however, fails to address the problem in ways demanded by Scripture.
The best of men are men at best, and no matter how or when a man is commissioned as an officer in the church of Jesus Christ, his heart remains a deposit of, in the words of theologian John Owen, “remaining sin.” As men set apart for the service of Christ and his church, they should never be allowed to rise to levels where scrutiny and sanctification are mutually exclusive. One of the best defenses against such taking place in local churches is to require that church discipline be restored and church leadership be restrained under the authority of Holy Scripture by the congregation. Truly spiritual men should trust that God may often use the voices of those who oppose them as agents of His grace in sanctification.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area.