We had an interesting discussion of church discipline in class a couple of weeks ago, working from Harper & Metzger’s evangelical approach to church discipline framed as an element of service in the church.
My classmates and I are all Roman Catholic, so the story told in the text about a couple who was expelled from a local church because they had committed adultery was very alien to us. And none of us had very positive things to say about the analogous Roman Catholic practice of excommunication.
After we had spent some time critiquing the implementation of disciplinary practices of both traditions as judgmental and alienating, our professor challenged us on whether we were willing to accept the need for church discipline at all:
Why is it that people are more willing to accept the existence of rules in a bowling league than in a church?
Everyone accepts if you join a bowling league, or a bookclub, or pretty much any other kind of voluntary organized association, it’s accepted that there are rules you are expected to follow, and if you don’t abide by the rules, you will be kicked out of the club. If the bowling league requires that you pay $30 dues per year and attend 80% of the meetings, then nobody is too surprised that when Bob doesn’t pay his dues or misses every other meeting, he gets kicked out. Nor is anybody surprised when he gets confronted on it: Bob, where are the dues you owe? Bob, where were you last week? This is the 3rd time you’ve missed in 2 months; if you don’t shape up, we’re going to kick you out.
Why is church different?
I think it’s different for several reasons: church is supposed to be something like a family, and families (ideally) are supposed to be like that old saying about home: Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Church is supposed to mediate the presence of God, and God never forsakes us, never abandons us: we can turn away from God, but God will never turn away from us. Church is supposed to be welcoming to sinners, as Jesus welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors to his meals.
My professor argued that Christians were a little too concerned with privacy, a little too worried about being perceived as “judgmental”, and too willing to defer to our culture’s assertion that the individual is the sole arbiter of what is right and wrong for that individual. And it’s indisputable that there are scriptural texts on discipline, on confronting serious sinners. Mt 18:15-20 describes the procedure: the sinning person should be confronted about his actions, by more than one person if necessary. If he doesn’t reform, then the elders of the congregation are to confront him. And if he still doesn’t reform, then he’s to be treated as an outcast from the community.
Ferguson (385), also writing from an evangelical context, offers scripturally-based reasons for disfellowshipping in addition to the person’s own salvation: for the “purity of the church”, for “its reputation among outsiders”, and to “maintain respect for the Lord among church members and others.”
So in this context, I was interested to read, a few days later, a discussion of discipline in the Occupy Movement; or, as self-described “Old Hippie” Sara Robinson puts it, how the movement should handle its asshole problem.
The similarities are fascinating. In both cases (I think), there’s a reluctance to confront wrongdoers because of not wanting to be too judgmental or uninclusive or unwelcoming or intolerant. In both cases there’s a practical prescription for escalating confrontation. In both cases there are reasons given that have to do with the good of the community.
Here are some relevant quotes, but do go read the whole post:
Are you here to change the way this country operates, and willing to sacrifice some of your almighty personal freedom to do that? Great. You’re with us, and you’re welcome here. Are you here on your own trip and expecting the rest of us to put up with you? In that case, you are emphatically NOT on our side, and you are not welcome in our space.
Substitute “help bring about the reign of God” for “change the way this country works”, and it doesn’t sound that unreasonable as a manifesto for Christians.
She goes on to describe a “whole-group restorative justice process”:
In this process, the full group (or some very large subset of it that’s been empowered to speak for the whole) confronts the troublemaker directly. The object is not to shame or blame. Instead, it’s like an intervention. You simply point out what you have seen and how it affects you. The person is given a clear choice: make some very specific changes in their behavior, or else leave.
The procedure she describes includes commitment from the community, addresses one person at a time rather than grouping people together, and includes the real hope that the person will really “get” that it is a problem and reform their behavior.
And the purpose?
You’re eliminating distractions, which in turn effectively amplifies the voices and efforts of everyone else around you.
I particularly like the explicit connection between the actions of the individual and the effect on the larger group.
I also like the educational element of the process: “You did X and this is a problem because Y.” Too often I think that’s something that gets missed in discussions of church discipline: it’s assumed that the person understands why their sinful behavior is a problem: it’s a sin, what else is there to say? But there _is_ more to say, isn’t there? Why and how is this sinful? How does it turn us away from God? What bad effects does it have on us morally and spiritually?
I’m still not sure I’d want my church (denomination, local congregation, or religious order) to enforce purity in this way — especially in my tradition, where to be kicked out of the church can be understood as equivalent to being kicked out of salvation. But it’s given me some interesting food for thought.