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When church discipline is sin

Posted by on 26 March, 2013 in Church | 12 Comments

Church Discipline dropquote 4We all know intuitively that there is a line between giving your child a smack and physically abusing him. While we may draw our lines in slightly different places, all decent people understand that there is a line and crossing it is evil.

Church discipline is similar, but when it comes to church discipline, where is the line between loving confrontation and abusive harassment?

Recent decades have seen a resurgence in the practice of biblical church discipline within many conservative churches. This is good. But in recent years, I have noted a trend which I believe is dangerous both in the damage it does to individuals and in the damage it will do to the church as the state steps in to protect individuals from further damage.

One author promotes abusive discipline in this way:

If someone tries to resign mid-process in order to “escape discipline,” should the church just let them go? Of course not. That would defeat the whole point of church discipline. Instead, the church must retain the right to refuse someone’s resignation and send them out another way—through excommunication.

A second author says that one of the mistakes churches make in practicing church discipline is that “they fail to teach new members as they enter the church about the possibility of church discipline, and that preemptive resignations don’t work.” In other words, once you’re a member, you cannot resign church membership without the permission of the church/pastor.

Of course we might not be too surprised to find such thinking in the extreme backwaters of Fundamentalism, but neither of the above comments come from Fundamentalism. Rather, both were published by 9Marks, a ministry connected with Mark Dever who is a mainstream conservative evangelical and has been a catalyst in the resurgence of the practice of church discipline (first and second quotation source). A closer look at Dever reveals that the constitution of the church he pastors contains the following statement:

The church shall have authority to refuse a member’s voluntary resignation or transfer of membership to another church, either for the purpose of proceeding with a process of church discipline, or for any other biblical reason.

Raising the alarm

I appreciate Mark Dever’s ministry in general and have no desire to attack him or the ministry he is connected with. However, I believe this 9Marks-promoted teaching on church discipline is dangerous and needs to be addressed. I am, therefore, raising the alarm. Brothers, we must not mar the purity of Christ’s church either by refusing to exercise church discipline or by exercising it abusively. Doing so will damage individual believers, churches, and the reputation of Jesus Christ in the eyes of the world.

I’ll argue my case in a moment, but first, I want you to step into the shoes of Adam and Adele’s pastor.

Adele the adulteress

Adam and Adele were saved three years ago soon after their marriage. The first two years were full of spiritual growth and heavy involvement in the ministry of the church. More recently, things had been cooling off a bit. They still attended church regularly, but the excitement had drained away. Christianity had become somewhat routine.

Then a few months ago, you got a phone call from Adam late one night. He could hardly even get the words out: “She’s gone… she left me for a guy at work…” The following weeks were full of tears and talks, confessions and confrontations. Adele’s position was simple: “I love Jon. He treats me right. I’m not coming back.” Still, she thought of herself as a Christian and sometimes brought Jon to church of a Sunday night.

The morning after that first phone call from Adam, you had gone with him to confront his wife and urge her to change her mind. She felt sorry for Adam but was firm in her decision to stay with Jon. Over the following weeks, there had been many meetings involving many within the church body begging Adele to turn things around. Finally, after many weeks of tears and prayers and visits, the elders sent an email to Adele notifying her that as the matter has been addressed many times privately and she has refused to listen, on the following Sunday evening she would be brought before the church to involve the whole congregation in seeking to draw her to repentance. Within an hour of sending the email, the elders got a response.

To whom it may concern:

I hereby tender my resignation from the membership of the church. Please stop trying to contact me. I have made my decision and I’m not changing my mind.

Sincerely,

Adele

As you read the closing lines of the email, your heart sinks. After all the tears and discussions and prayers, you had desperately hoped it wouldn’t end like this. Now it has …or has it?

Five reasons “denying” resignations is wrong

Let me be clear. Church discipline is not abuse. Scripture clearly spells out the obligation that a church has to hold her members accountable. I am referring here to an abuse of church discipline that goes far beyond both the commands of Scripture and the purpose of church discipline.

In the first paragraph, I compared church discipline to disciplining a child. The parallel I intend to draw is not between disciplining children versus disciplining church members. That would be to misunderstand the relationship of church members to the church. Rather, I intend to contrast discipline with abuse. The first is loving, healthy, and wholesome. The second is sinful, destructive, and heinous.

Let me give you five reasons it is wrong to deny voluntary resignation.

1) The Bible gives no authority for denying a resignation.

1409592_gavel_2Let’s be frank. The Bible says nothing explicitly about the procedures for membership in a local body. Membership in the Universal Body is clearly taught (Ephesians 4:4-6) and membership with a local assembly is assumed and implied. But nothing is said about the procedures, if any, for such membership. Typically, Baptists conclude (as do I) that there was some sort of formal membership in the early local church. We even tend to follow the practice of offering letters of “transfer” for members who are moving from one church to another. This seems to be based on a few passages in which Paul, a man with apostolic authority, commends a Christian leader to a church (e.g. 2 Corinthians 8:23-24, Philippians 2:29, Colossians 4:10, etc.). Still, the instruction on church procedures of this nature are non-existent. Any “instructions” must be inferred from comments in the epistles and even then we must assume that such comments in the New Testament are prescriptive (what we must do), not merely descriptive (what they did).

Jamieson’s argument from Scripture is weak:

When your church made [a] person a member, you were declaring to the world that this person belongs to the kingdom of Jesus (Mt. 16:18-19). By regarding this person as a member, your church affirmed that he is indeed a “brother” in Christ (1 Cor. 5:11-13).

So what’s the problem? Hebrews 10:24-25 commands us not to forsake assembling together. Therefore, any professing Christian who quits going to church is living in habitual, unrepentant sin. And the way a church addresses unrepentant sin is not by merrily sending that person on his way, but by removing their affirmation of “member” and “brother” (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). When the player quits showing up on game day, the team has to take back his jersey.

The obvious question is, in what possible way can we construe accepting the fact that someone has resigned and is no longer within the circle of our authority “merrily sending that person on his way”? Especially when the person leaves during the process of discipline!

Let’s look at how this would look in the case of Adele. The Sunday evening following the email from Adele, one of the elders stands before the church announcing that during the process of discipline, Adele has chosen to resign from membership in the church. He explains that the church needs to continue to pray for and reach out to Adele to try to draw her back to obedience to Christ, but sadly, for now, the church had done everything in its power/authority to restore her and the relationship had been severed.

In no possible sense could this be construed as “merrily sending [Adele] on [her] way.” She is no longer counted among the membership. There has been a clear break. As the process was not completed, it is impossible to legitimately affirm as a body that she is not a sister in Christ, but then Scripture never gives authority to do so even after discipline. What Scripture says is that the one who is put out from the church is to be treated as an unbeliever (Matthew 18:17). As the process was not completed with Adele, the outcome is somewhat more ambiguous. Nevertheless, the biblical obligations of the church have been fulfilled and no one is under the illusion that the church is comfortable with where Adele is at spiritually. Even if Adele’s sin had been private and the confrontation limited to a few key people in the church, an announcement of her resignation along with indication that the circumstances of her resignation were not good fulfills the purpose of church discipline by ensuring both the purity of the church and doing everything possible to bring the sinner to repentance.

2) Theology argues against denying resignations.

The most relevant doctrines are the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of man. I will address the former in a moment, but the latter is of crucial importance. If we truly believe the fundamental doctrine of total depravity, we know that every form of human government is highly susceptible to corruption. Even church government. This danger is magnified in circles of Fundamentalism where a “senior pastor” is often given near-absolute authority in the church. Such scenarios consistently and predictably lead to the abuse of authority.

There are many reasons why a person might legitimately need to resign and move to another church and in which it is unlikely that a letter of transfer would be granted. For instance, the church may have weak or false doctrine or an unbiblical leadership structure, there may be irreconcilable doctrinal disagreement, there may be philosophical differences, a church may be in sin (such as not handling a situation biblically), a pastor may go rogue or be in unrepentant sin, etc. Sometimes the reasons are more innocent. For instance, a family wants to help out with a new church plant or a church has been found where the doctrine and philosophy of ministry is more in line with a person’s convictions.

In each of these cases, a person may be refused a letter of transfer by a church/pastor. In many circumstances, we would accept that the person should leave anyway. Should their resignation then be “denied” and church discipline pursued? Surely this places an unacceptable level of authority in the hands of church leaders who are then controlling the lives of the other church members.

This brings us to the doctrine of the church. As we know, the church is not the building and it is not the organisation. The church is the people. And the head of the church is not the pastor or the board or the congregation. The head of the church is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ told us in no uncertain terms (Matthew 13:24ff) that the visible church will have members who are not believers. The solution Jesus gives is not to go on a witch hunt to work out who is a true believer and who is deceived. Jesus specifically warned what will happen if we try this approach: “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.” Rather, we are to leave such cases to God.

The church is however obligated to address obvious sin within the church according Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth. The text of 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 says it plainly: “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (emphasis added). Once a person has resigned from the membership of the church, they are no longer “inside.” They are “outside.” And it is at that moment that the obligation—and the authority—of the local church stops. To continue to pursue confrontational contact with Adele after her email would be abuse, not obedience.

3) History argues against denying resignations.

Jamieson argues that Baptists have long rejected voluntary resignation. Without entering that argument in depth, it seems odd to argue based on this point since church history is dominated by an almost unending succession of abuses and misuses of disciplinary power. The Roman church used prison, torture, and execution-by-fire among their “discipline” practices. The Protestants did the same at times. It was the Baptists themselves, ironically, who often argued against such abuse of Scripture and the church’s power.

If history teaches us anything about church discipline, it is that human leaders cannot be given absolute power without being corrupted.

Let’s look at Adele’s situation again following the idea that her resignation can/should be “denied.” The elders respond to Adele’s email—against her explicit request—stating that they do not accept her resignation and that they intend to continue with the discipline process as planned. Adele responds demanding that they leave her alone. On Sunday evening, the elders bring her situation before the church. The church members are urged to confront her and urge her to repentance as is Scriptural at the final stage of discipline.

By Tuesday, Adele has received visits from multiple church members as well as phone calls and emails from concerned believers and she has had enough. She writes to the elders again insisting that the visits, calls, and emails stop. The following Sunday, the elders affirm that the church must continue to confront her and so the contacts continue. Within a few days, Adele is frazzled by the barrage of unwelcome confrontations and contacts the police asking what she can do to stop the harassment. She is advised that she will need to contact a solicitor and so reluctantly commences the process of seeking legal protection from the church. As it happens, the church finalises the discipline process before any significant legal action is required, but the damage is done. The church has crossed the line from loving confrontation to harassment and bullying and Adele’s heart is forever closed to that congregation—and any similar congregation—not because of loving confrontation, but because of the harassment and the utter disregard for her dignity, freedom, and privacy. Unfortunately, the damage is broader than that. The police officer who took Adele’s call has mentioned the situation to several other officers as well as his wife. The solicitor and court clerk and judge are also aware of what happened. Furthermore, unbelievers and young believers who have been attending the church become aware of the situation. Adele’s sin was a tragedy. The sin of the church is a greater tragedy.

4) Logic argues against denying resignation.

The Constitution of the church Mark Dever leads outlines the purpose of church discipline:

a) The purpose of such discipline should be for the repentance, reconciliation, and spiritual growth of the individual disciplined;
b) For the instruction in righteousness and good of other Christians, as an example to them;
c) For the purity of the church as a whole;
d) For the good of our corporate witness to non–Christians; and
e) Supremely for the glory of God by reflecting His holy character (p. 3, ll. 21-41).

So let’s look at Adele’s situation. If she resigns, is the purpose of the discipline process accomplished? Well, it hasn’t resulted in repentance or reconciliation, but then neither does church discipline if it gets to the final stage. Still, every attempt to draw Adele to repentance has been made.

Second, do you think it would even be possible to preach about the damage of adultery without every person in that church thinking about the tragedy with Adele?

Third, there was sin in the church. It has been removed. The purity of the church has been protected.

Fourth, the testimony of the church in the community is protected because a clear, public break has occurred. If someone at the local hair salon were sharing the gossip about Adele’s adultery and someone said “Wait, isn’t that the Adele that goes to the church down the road?” the answer would no doubt be “Well, she used to, but they got on her about her relationship with Jon and she left.”  In other words, the relationship with the church has been severed one way or another and the purpose has been met.

Finally, points three and five are related as fire is related to smoke. God is glorified in the purity of the church.

So here’s the big point: If resignation meets the purpose of church discipline (and it would be hard to imagine a case in which it didn’t), what right does the church have to deny resignation? Why would it want to or need to?

5) Legal concerns argue against denying resignations.

I want to be clear. Legal concerns are not decisive in such matters. But where Scripture is silent, or leaves room for varying approaches, legal concerns are an essential factor for those who take Scripture seriously (Romans 13).

Trapped

While Australia does not have a bill of rights (at least not yet), we do subscribe to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states simply “No one may be compelled to belong to an association” [s 20(2)]. This is so obvious and basic that it shouldn’t need to be said. In fact, all the words we associate with keeping someone against his will are negative: Prison, slavery, trapped, snared, cornered, kidnapped, custody, etc. This is not God’s plan for the local church.

But there is another legal issue at stake. If we, as Christian churches, will not restrain our authority and use it in ways which are consistent with freedom and human dignity, the government can, should, and will step in to protect her citizens. In some places, this has already happened. We would be foolish to think that we can badger, harass, intimidate, and/or bully and then expect the government to sit back and do nothing. They should act to stop such abuse. But do we really want to force a parliamentary committee to set out legal guidelines for church discipline? How much better to solve the problem ourselves by careful study of Scripture and firm self-regulation?

Conclusion

There is no excuse for the church to seek to dominate and control the lives of her members. Those who are Christ’s are members of his universal body regardless of our processes and approaches. While the obligation to church discipline is a solemn duty, we must not carry it out in a way that brings dishonour to the name of Jesus Christ, the head of the church, and presents him to the community as a heavy-handed thug.

To put it another way, God is sovereign. He doesn’t need us to be.

Grace to you.

Jason

About Jason Harris

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Jason loves to communicate God's word both in the local church and at conferences and retreats. Jason has been involved with Worship Music since 1996 and InFocus since 2005. Jason has degrees in theology, music, and accounting and is currently a research student and lecturer in the School of Business at James Cook University, Cairns. You can contact Jason at jason@teaminfocus.com.au.

Comments (12)

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  • avatar

    Al Garlando

    Given the Biblical analogy of marriage to our covenant relationship to Christ, I think that the reverse principle of 1 Cor 7:15 would apply to the matter of membership.

    “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

    I think you’ll also agree that one of the mistakes that Churches (and parents!) make with discipline is that it isn’t and shouldn’t always be punitive. Discipleship and discipline have the same root and similar meaning. Correction is necessary, but not at the expense of modeling, training and teaching godliness.

  • avatar

    Jason Harris

    That’s a good point Al on 1 Corinthians 7:15.

    I agree on the punitive aspect, though I wonder if “punishment” is ever a legitimate goal of church discipline…?

  • avatar

    Albert

    Jason, whilst I agree with you 100%, the fact that this article needed to be written or that there could be a differing view in some local churches, is really scary.

  • avatar

    Jason Harris

    I agree Albert. I don’t know how prevalent the teaching is in Australia, but I do know it exists here.

  • avatar

    Kirk

    Jason, I appreciate your writing and obvious thought you’ve put into this. Church discipline is a difficult subject and I can tell that you desire to look at it humbly and biblically. I have a few thoughts based upon this that I think may be helpful.

    I should admit that I have been (we recently moved for work/family reasons and are in the process of transferring membership) part of a church very similar to what you are speaking of in terms of church discipline. Knowing this may help reveal bias in my comments! :) Admittedly, all churches are different and it is wise for either side to not solely defend/critique all churches as one.

    Therefore, I’d like to point out some possible errors in your logic based upon the excellent church that I was a member of, but will readily say that there are most likely churches that do take things too far, as you have expressed concern about. I do not attempt to defend unloving ways of handling church discipline.

    First, in your excellent example regarding marital infidelity with Adele, there is the assumption that the church will continue “the attack” after she has attempted to tender her resignation. While this perhaps has happened, the church which I was a part of (which did pattern itself in many ways after IX Marks-like polity) would always honor the request to be left alone, but would continue in the discipline. Frankly, I’m not sitting here typing in the “what if” but thinking of specific instances of nearly identical discipline cases to what you have described. Generally what would happen in this instance, was that as soon as the individual expressed a desire to no longer be contacted, one last letter would be sent by the elders saying something like “OKay, we received your request to no longer be contacted and we will honor it. We love you, and this will be the last time we contact you. Please know that we will be putting your name before the church in our next Members Meeting on [day of the week], [Month] [Time of Service] for excommunication from the church. We love you and use this one last letter as a means of calling you to repentance. Please know that at any time up until and during that meeting, you need merely call or even text your desire to meet with us and consider the things we have said and we will take your name off the table in the hopes that we can meet and can see your genuine repentance. Please know however to honor your wishes, this will be the last time that we or anyone from the church contacts you regarding this.” -love the elders, church, blah blah

    Was there continual encouragement for the church body to call and make contact before this point? Absolutely, but there was a genuine respect for her wishes and understanding of legal matters to no longer maintain contact… though she would still be informed that she would be removed from the membership. There would be no “easy way out / slipping away”.

    Second, based upon this, it must be pointed out that in following Matthew 18 (though admittedly, some discipline cases are unique in how they begin… especially a sin that immediately involves a large number if not the whole of the church with the one individual), there is no room for “quietly slipping away” without repentance. If the brother/sister is not brought to repentance in Matthew 18, the next step is that they are brought before the church. Someone who is confronted privately by individuals/elders and then decides at that moment that it would be less awkward to “skip town” and leave quietly is then immediately ushered into the next realm of Matthew 18. According to the Bible itself, this must be told to the church. I may have misunderstood you on this point, and you may agree with me here, but I am curious to know if you would want it handled another way. As far as I can tell from your illustration, especially in the opening part, Adele has not yet been brought in front of the church and I believe you are in danger of skipping out on the last part of Matthew 18 by allowing her to quietly slip away. This goes into the third concern I have.

    Third, By allowing an individual to quietly slip away, it denies the other members three things (at least, a smarter person may be able to think of more! :). It denies them:

    (1) the merciful warning of seeing how faithfully and seriously sin is taken. If sin is allowed to grow and fester and then a person can quietly move on out without “upsetting” the apple cart and being publicly voted on by friends and family, it encourages the lie that sin loves to tell: that sin is easy and painless. I have seen amazing repentance of sin in tears by a majority of my church after a particularly difficult discipline case. I myself was moved to be more aware of how grievous my sin is, that it leads to death and not life. This would rarely happen if sin is continually hidden when all a person needs to do is “tender their resignation more quickly than the next Members Meeting.”

    (2) It denies the congregation the confidence that sin cannot be easily hidden. Their sin and the sin of others. If the elders allow anyone to leave whenever they sin grievously enough to warrant discipline… without actually being disciplined… then the member will undoubtedly wonder how many other times has that happened? How often is sin covered rather than brought to the light to be addressed publicly and with grace that they “may be handed over to Satan so they may be saved on the last day.”

    (3) It denies the members clear direction of what to do next. There are passages of Scripture that deal with unbelievers in a certain way, and then there are passages of Scripture that deal with unrepentant and disciplined members (don’t even eat with them!)… where does Adele fall into? What should her friend Cindy do if she’s used to getting lunch with Adele every Tuesday? Should she “hand her over to Satan” as well and refuse to give her the feeling of “your still one of us” by refusing to eat with her unless they can speak of repentance? But how can she really do that if Adele’s not even been disciplined out… but left by her own means??? In fact, how can she even do that if Cindy DOES NOT YET KNOW Adele has even “left” since the elders in your example would have allowed her to slip quietly away. In my experience, there has always been a brief instruction time followed with lots of prayer for how to handle a “removed” brother/sister. I myself have run into a removed brother on the sidewalk and asked him in love to repent and return to us. If I had not known he was removed because the elders never told the church, I could never have had that chance to call him to repent!!!

    Anyway, I do appreciate your thoughts, but would encourage you that it is still not quite as simplistic as you make it sound (especially labeling this type of discipline as sinful in your title), and far from being dangerous. I have seen from first-hand experience how truly gracious and filled with love this idea is. Admittedly, I agree that it’s not a “required biblical black and white issue”, but I do feel for the reasons I proposed above that it would be wise to consider strongly not allowing a person to fade out of the church without the church knowing.

  • avatar

    Kirk

    Follow-up… well I made a mess of things. I failed to read the paragraph carefully enough where you suggest in your “Adele” example that the pastor would announce to the church that she had resigned, etc. Therefore, this gets rid of a number of my points regarding being concerned that it was privately being pushed away. I apologize for the confusion. Perhaps my biggest remaining question after reading it (well this time:) however would be that it still seems more faithful in following Matthew 18 to still notify her and go through with church discipline as in my suggested letter from the pastors, rather than simply announcing that she’s gone. I can see and appreciate your thoughts more however after reading that paragraph and at least understanding that you’re not suggesting she’d just be let go without any public notification…. anyway, I apologize again for being a doofus and not reading well the first time…

  • avatar

    Garrett Conner

    Jason,

    I applaud your work here. However, being one who has know the horrible side of abuse in church discipline, even I see problems with what you’re saying.

    How does resignation negate the call in the text to take it to the church?

    Doesn’t this feel like a “loop hole” in avoiding the accountability of church discipline?

    It sounds like, “We practice discipline, and excommunication; unless you resign mid-process. Then we will act like nothing happened. So even if you harm a member, and remain unrepentant, we can’t confront it in final discipline if you say, ” I’m out.”

    I’m struggling with your argument.

  • avatar

    Jason Harris

    Garrett Connor,

    I apologise for the delayed response. Thanks for raising these points.

    The call to take it to the church is relative. Clearly if you go to your brother and he repents, you aren’t obligated to take it to the next level. Inversely, if you go to your brother and he resigns and leaves the church, you are not obligated to take it to the next level and the next. Inherent in the text is the idea that there is a goal here and the steps are designed to achieve that goal. Once the goal is reached, the process is complete. A look at my comments in the post on the goal of discipline should demonstrate how this resolves question you raise.

    It is a loophole in the sense that the church is far from infallible and this helps avoid believers being persecuted too severely by the church. On the other hand, it is not a loop hole in the sense that these things can and do follow people for decades to come—whether the accusations are just or not. Ultimately, it in no way nullifies the accountability of discipline since it makes it impossible for a person to be a member in good standing with a church while in open, flagrant sin. There will be pressure to repent and either public rebuke or having to walk away from everything and try to start over somewhere else (including the process of trying to join a new church while in open sin).

    Regarding harming another member, that is a whole new ballgame. It depends what we’re dealing with. If it is criminal in nature, you don’t need church discipline to make it public. You do what needs to be done to protect the flock. If it is financial, it can be taken up with the person’s new church or where the person does not associate with a new church, in the courts. Or it can be forgiven if that is the way it should be. But there is no obligation to keep such matters secret. Each situation will require its own response, but the point is that church discipline is not the only way to deal with such things. It is a specific process designed for a specific context. Its purpose is not to be a fail-safe way to nail anyone the church believes is in sin. Its purpose is to keep the church pure, protect the testimony of Christ in the community, and to restore a fallen brother. This it does in either outcome.

    • avatar

      Garrett Conner

      Thanks Jason. It is hard to communicate all the particulars here and not take up too much time.

      In the church I pastor, no one comes into church membership by their own authoritative declaration. So, it is with their keeping their membership, its not declared by their individual power, but by the power given to the church.

      In the same way, everyone who leaves our church via “resignation”, — is a resignation I bring to the church in consistent accountability. What is key—- is that the church is able to examine myself (the eldership) on matters of any perceived mishandling of the resigning member. There is ample time for the church to make sure no one is being harmed. They do not accept members into membership without biblically credible evidence and they do not accept a resignation that is not credible. (Again, making sure we as pastors have not harmed them.)

      For example, there was a preemptive resignation for the purpose of pursuing “unbiblical divorce” in accordance with our documents. The resignation came because the process of discipline had began. By the way, the offended party in our small church is very visible/active and beloved.

      The congregation sees the injustice painfully every week. (try to sense the situation)

      After the person refused to listen in accordance with Matt 18, and based on the person’s request to not be contacted any more (which we obeyed), we gave the recommendation to the church that for our records that the resignation be rejected and that the person be removed as not in good standing. It currently mean nothing to the person who is gone and rejected the church as you say, and in fact we cannot update the person based on their request to not be contacted; however, it declared to our congregation that the unrepentant sin would be biblically addressed and our stance was clear.

      We obeyed Jesus in taking it to the church. The church obeyed and took a stand against the action of the person.

      The resignation was not the issue for us, but rather the command to take the offense at the last stage (which was a refusal to communicate) to the church.

      I truly don’t know how with good conscience we good do anything less. I guess my critique continues to be that your argument is weighs more heavily on pragmatism rather than simple obedience. People can leave anytime they want in real sense, but it does it mean the church should not take care of the ordering of the house. God will judge us for our acts of omission and commission. In our case, not acting would be an sin of omission in keeping with Matt 18.

      Again, this is from one whose family knows abuse of discipline.

      Thanks brother,

  • avatar

    Jonathan Leeman

    Jason,
    Like Garrett, I want to thank you for your post in this respect. It’s obvious you are seeking to protect and care for the flock, and to keep the flock from abusive leaders and churches. And insofar as you are practicing church membership and discipline at all, you’re heading into the wind of severe culture pressure to do otherwise. So first and foremost, I’m grateful for your partnership in the gospel. And one thing more on this note: if we’re going to error either toward leniency or authoritarianism, I think we should error toward leniency. Which means I appreciate the spirit and goal of your post.

    Within the context of a spirit of partnership, may I then push back, as someone who agrees entirely with Jamieson’s article, and who has written similarly? A few points of contention:

    1) I expect you don’t apply this standard to other domains. A citizen cannot “opt out” of citizenship on the way to being arrested for committing a crime. A doctor cannot “opt out” of the medical licensing society when charges are brought for malpractice and still expect to practice medicine in some other office. An athlete cannot “opt out” of paying a fine for some penalty before the trial is complete and still expect to play. in the first example, the state would prevent him from leaving. In the second and third examples, the society would say, “Sure, you can leave, but we’re going to revoke your license/membership.” And I don’t think you would fault them for doing so, would you?

    In other words, what we’re talking about here is the ordinary nature of disciplinary action. This is how it works, and there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it. The fact that you think it is suggests to me…

    2) You conceive of the local church as a voluntary society with no real authority. I agree the church is a voluntary society from the state’s standpoint. The state has no authority here. But it’s not a voluntary society from the standpoint of Christ’s kingdom. This is what Jamieson was getting at. The institutional church instituted by Jesus has an authority you and I as individual believers do not have (see Matt. 16 and 18). This sounds shocking to contemporary Western ears, but Christians have understood it for 2000 years.

    3) For a church to say, “We’re not going to accept your resignation but are going to move to discipline” is hardly a coercive action. The church’s authority is a declarative authority. Churches make declarations. Nothing more. So when a person acts like an unbeliever by prematurely exempting themselves from the processes of discipline, ironically, they force the church to make SOME declaration. To accept the resignation is to say, “Everything is fine with this person and their profession of faith.” To deny the resignation is to say, “Everything is not fine with this person and their profession of faith. In fact, since they are refusing to cooperate and show the signs of repentance, for integrity and honesty’s sake, we must remove our affirmation of their profession.” To choose the latter, as I see it, is not coercive; it’s just being honest. And the church doesn’t want to be in this situation; the person has forced it by refusing to go through the Jesus-instituted processes.

    You used the language of “persecution,” and while I agree churches can, in principle, persecute, it strikes me as strange, perhaps overwrought, to quickly jump to such language. Might I compare this situation to my wife insisting on a divorce, my refusing, and her saying that I’m “persecuting” her by refusing? It’s hypothetically possible that I am, assuming a whole set of other circumstances. But we would hardly say that, in principle, I am persecuting her.

    4) I fear you might be taking away the very tool that Jesus and Paul would give to the church so that it might do good for the sinner. Paul says to hand the man over to Satan so that his soul might be saved. You’re taking away the church’s ability to do that. Do you think Jesus and Paul meant, “Hand this man over…as long as he’s cooperative about that fact, because if he’s not cooperative, then you need to stop.” Discipline is for our good. If you don’t believe that, as most of us don’t automatically, of course it’s going to seem mean. But what if we (like Proverbs, like Hebrews 12) actually think discipline is for our good? Furthermore, the fact that the church has the authority to deny a resignation doesn’t force the person to stay, they can go any time they want. But it does put some pressure on them to explain themselves more fully, to work it out. Assuming it’s a healthy church, I don’t see that as a bad thing; in fact, it just might serve everyone.

    5) But don’t churches make mistakes, or become abusive and unhealthy? Of course they do (that’s why Jamieson does what he does); so do parents and teachers and courts and police officers. But each of these still have the ability to discipline. What protection is there against wrong decisions and genuinely abusive churches? You go to another church! Our church has allowed people to join on more than one occasion who were still under discipline from another church. Our elders investigated, decided that they disagreed with the former church’s actions, and let the person join. Each church has the responsibility to faithful for it’s part. So does each Christian.

    6) I think you’re emphasis on the “resignation” is actually putting something into Scripture that isn’t there.

    7) Bottom line: I think you’re at risk of undermining the very process of discipline established by Jesus. Discipline, by it’s very nature, is usually against a person’s will. Wouldn’t everyone just resign if they thought they could avoid discipline by doing so? Now, if we were talking about state church which possessed the power of the sword, that might sound pretty scary. In fact, I’m talking about a free church with the authority of declaration and nothing more.

    It’s honestly strange to me to have these kinds of forthright conversations with someone I’ve never met, online and in public. I hope I’ve offered these challenges in the spirit of brotherhood and care. Forgive me if I haven’t. Thank you for your care in these matters. I pray both of us might come to a common mind, and that we both might learn.

    In a spirit of friendship,
    Jonathan Leeman

    • avatar

      Jason Harris

      Thanks for your comment and your patience with my delay. I appreciate the spirit of your comments and hope to reflect that back to you here.

      1) Your comparison to citizenship fails on two points. First, crime is unrelated to citizenship. A foreigner who commits a crime is just as liable to prosecution. Second, a crime against the state is not parallel to a crime against the church. Our “crimes” are against God and our relationship to God is not mediated through the church. That was the error of the Roman Church.

      Your comparison to a doctor fails in that a medical licensing society is hierarchically superior to any particular doctors office. There is no parallel in the church unless you deny the autonomy of the local church. This is made clear when you change the scenario to a doctor leaving one office on bad terms and then going to work at another office.

      Your comparison to membership on a sports team fails in that an athlete can indeed resign and walk away as long as the offenses are private matters (vs. civil or criminal wrong) and he is willing to give up the privileges of playing for that particular team.

      As you point out, the most a private organisation can do (assuming there is no civil or criminal wrong) is to revoke membership. Which of course no organisation does after a member has resigned. Because in every other domain, voluntary resignation is an option.

      2) No, I conceive of the local church as a voluntary society with real spiritual authority. The local church is indeed voluntary in every sense of the word. The fact that membership in a local church is not biblically optional in no way changes the fact that membership in any particular local church is entirely voluntary. The only other option is the Roman Catholic model of an earthly, visible, catholic Church. The authority of any particular local church is very real, but is also limited. It is limited, specifically, to her voluntary membership. A person can leave one local church and look for another one without in any way rejecting the authority of the local church.

      3) The notion that any organisation has a right to reject a resignation in the absence of legal or contractual obligations is untenable. Therefore it is absurd to suggest that acceptance of a resignation is a statement of agreement and approval. People who leave unexpectedly naturally raise the question of why they didn’t want to be there all of a sudden. There is a natural, inherent suspicion to news of sudden resignation which is the exact opposite of an implied statement of agreement or approval.

      To hold someone in membership against their will for the sole purpose of publicly condemning them and throwing them out is an act of aggression. It not about getting rid of the person or keeping the church pure (their resignation accomplished those), and it surely isn’t about helping that person because refusing their resignation can only lead to alienation; rather it is about power. It is heavy handed. It does nothing to help the church, the individual, or the cause of Jesus Christ in the community.

      4) You seem to be suggesting that when someone runs from the church, we have to pull them back in and then throw them back out. The passage you quote (1 Cor 5) deals with someone in open sin who is “among you.” Paul tells them to throw him out because he wasn’t running! He was hanging out IN the church, in good standing, as if everything were ok. In that case, yes, you do have to throw them out. But to twist this to suggest that we have to run after them, pull them back in just so we can ceremonially throw them back out is deeply immature at best and abusive at worst.

      None of this in any way calls the goodness of discipline into question. Biblical faithfulness requires being mean sometimes. Throwing someone out because they will not repent is merciful and is for their good and the good of the body. But this is not that.

      5) Your point here is fair enough, though a bit utopian in my view. The assumption that there is more than one biblically faithful church within a few hours drive of a previous one that is not politically/relationally tied to the first in such a way as to bias them severely isn’t reasonable in 90%+ of the world. Perhaps in the USA this sounds reasonable, but most of us are not so blessed.

      6) It’s a fair point. But then the same point is true of the “joining.” If you’re going to have one, the other necessarily tags along.

      7) I would feel the same way. I think you’re at risk of undermining the very process of discipline established by Jesus by abusing it in such a way that rather than helping the church, the individual, and the cause of Christ in the community, it will actually hurt all three. This will cause the pendulum to swing right back to the other extreme and the further to one extreme it comes from, the more momentum it will have coming back.

      I truly appreciate your time in responding here and pray that the discussion will be beneficial both for us, but also for others who read along.

      Grace to you.

  • avatar

    Todd Wilhelm

    Thanks for writing this article Jason. I have lived through the abuse you have described. As a member of a 9Marks church in Dubai I chose to resign my membership for issues of conscience. 6 1/2 months after I submitted my email to the elders I was removed from their membership roster. Nobody in church leadership had the decency to tell me of this, although they had no problems badgering me in the interim!

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