The Wall Street Journal seems shocked--shocked!--that the age old (and might I add, biblical) practice of church discipline is rearing its head. Of course the article starts off with a 71 year old Bible class teacher being led from church property in handcuffs, but rather than being a return of the Inquisition it can be a sign of a healthy church:
Her story reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.
The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
The article paints the practice as the capricious prerogative of a threatened leadership. Obviously, any leadership worth its salt can stand honest and open questions. Church discipline is not to be used as a tool of intimidation, but rather as a means to remove the leaven from the lump (ie, an unrepentant bad influence on the congregation) and to impress upon the one being disciplined the seriousness of his spiritual condition.
Contrary to some opinions, discipline exercised by a church has no bearing on the disciplined member's status before God:
The process can be messy, says Al Jackson, pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala., which began disciplining members in the 1990s. Once, when the congregation voted out an adulterer who refused to repent, an older woman was confused and thought the church had voted to send the man to hell.Neither I nor anyone else can send someone to hell. One's status before God will be a reflection of one's own attitude and actions, not those of someone else. But that does not mean that congregations do not have a God-given responsibility to discipline members when it is called for, while still treating the errant member as a brother, not an enemy. That means if someone is not actively disruptive to the proceedings at hand, I would think worship is exactly where the unrepentant member needs to be in hopes he will be encouraged in the right direction. Dragging little old ladies away in handcuffs tends not to be the way to go.
The real problem many churches face is that without proper leadership, ie, scripturally appointed elders, the process of discipline is very hard to initiate and even harder to carry out effectively. And once again we return to the problem of a lack of strong leadership among churches being our greatest crisis.
[Thanks to Wild Bill for the article]