Thursday, October 08, 2015

Manual of church discipline

Recently I've done a number of occasional pieces on church discipline. I'll take the occasion in this post to systematize that. This is not meant to be exhaustive by any means. By "church," I mean a generic Bible-believing church.

I. Church attendance

As a rule, the church has an open door policy on attendance. We welcome just about anybody who wants to attend. About the only condition is that you not be disruptive. There are roughly two reasons for that:

1. Christianity is a missionary religion. We welcome strangers. We welcome seekers. Church attendance is a way for some unbelievers to become evangelized. 

2. Churches typically consist of families. And families typically consist of one or more believers along with one or more undecided. Due to the familial structure of the church, the average church is bound to have some unbelievers. 

II. Church membership

1. Formal church membership is an ecclesiastical tradition rather than a Biblical mandate. In the NT, baptism was the basic rite of church membership. In a missionary setting, that was typically administered to adults. There were no denominations back then, so you didn't join a denomination. 

2. However, formal church membership has some potential value:

i) If, say, you have a congregational polity, then it's important for those who vote on church policy, hiring and firing, &c., to be Christian. That's important for maintaining the Christian identity of the fellowship. Without a distinction between voting members (who are Christian) and attendees, unbelievers might have too much sway in setting policy. Lacking that distinction dilutes the spiritual integrity of the fellowship. 

ii) Likewise, membership simplifies excommunication. There are basic standards, and identifiable men or women who violate the standards.

That's important for distinguishing beween the professing Christians, who are held to a Christian standard, from non-Christian attendees, who are not.

And excommunication is necessary to maintain the fidelity of the fellowship. To be a church is not just to be something, but to not be something else. There must be boundaries. 

iii) The condition for membership is a credible profession of faith. That includes both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It's not enough to say you believe the right things. You must make a good faith effort to live according to Christian ethics. That rules out flagrant hypocrites. It's not sufficient believe the truth, you must "do the truth" (as St. John puts it).

iv) Of course, there are kids who are born into the church. Raised in the faith. But to become "communicant members," there comes a point where they must personally reaffirm what they've been taught. Communicant members must be believers. 

v) The doctrinal standard is higher for church officers. 

vi) It is understood that many men and women had a checkered past before they came to the faith. Likewise, some cradle Christians backslide before returning to the faith.

As a rule, the church is quite tolerant in that regard. In the nature of the case, Christianity is a very forgiving religion. The past is past,, so long as you are contrite. So long as you "turn from your wicked ways." 

III. Preemptive discipline

1. Psycho/sociopaths

i) By "sociopath," I mean a person who has a compulsion to commit heinous deeds. That includes serial killers, serial rapists, serial pedophiles, &c. People with an irrepressible urge to harm others. 

These are dangerous people. Antisocial in the extreme. Antithetical to the communal ethos of the church. They don't belong in church. They don't belong is society. 

Now, there are people who struggle with addiction, viz. gambling, pornography, substance abuse. They may fall off the wagon. But they aren't generally a threat to others. 

Someone might object that this denies the transformative power of the Gospels. By way of response:

a) The Gospel has transformative power for those whom the Gospel empowers. Born-again Christians.

But there's no presumption that a sociopath is genuine in his profession of faith. Indeed, manipulating others is a common feature of sociopathology. 

Normally, we can accept a credible profession of faith at face value, but in the case of known sociopaths or psychopaths, the stakes are too high if you are wrong. It is too risky to admit them into the fellowship. 

b) People can be morally or psychologically damaged in this life in a way that can't be repaired in this life. Sanctification doesn't cure all pathologies. In this life, sanctification has limitations. Some people are twisted to a degree that can't be straightened out in the here and now. Some of them may sincerely wish to do better, but they lack self-restraint.

An alcoholic may swear off the bottle today, but be right back in the bar tomorrow. He meant what he said today, but he lacks the willpower to stay true to his resolve.

I'm not saying alcoholics can't come to church or be part of the church. I'm just using that to illustrate the fact that even those who mean well, who struggle with temptation, may fail. 

To some degree, that's true for every Christian. But every Christian isn't dangerous. I'm referring to people who just aren't safe to be around. These are extreme cases, but they do exist. 

(For convenience, I'm using sociopathology and psychopathology interchangeably. Whether we count them as one or two makes no difference for my purposes.) 

2. Excons

i) Excons can be church members and church officers. They can be pastors. However, depending on what they did and how long ago, they made need to earn the trust of the church. "Fruits of repentance."

ii) It would be imprudent to hire a convicted arsonist to be the church custodian. It would be imprudent to hire a convicted embezzler to be the church treasurer. That's asking for trouble. Tempting fate. 


  1. Good examples. Of course Paul comes to mind and fits neatly in the ex-con camp I think.

    This also calls for wisdom because the Bible simply doesn't specify many, many situations. We need discernment and wisdom from the Lord.

  2. If someone disqualifies themselves from church office and then repents can they return to a church office? For example could someone who commits adultery while a Christian ever meet the "the husband of one wife" qualification?

    1. i) The NT doesn't really address that question. On the one hand, we should allow for the possibility of restoration. But if so, that should only be after the offender has had time to learn how to be an ordinary Christian. Be faithful in the "little things."

      At the same time, the Pastorals are also concerned with the reputation of clergy to outsiders. It can be scandalous if we seem to have a double standard for our own. A revolving door.

      So it's a delicate balance.

      ii) Paul's "one-woman" criterion is a bit obscure. In reference to 1C gentile churches, the talent pool for pastors was drawn from former pagans, nearly all of whom were promiscuous prior to their Christian conversion.

    2. To build on the talent pool argument that Steve used there, we can ask: is there such a dearth of qualified Christians in the community that the only person who could possibly be an officer in a church is one who engaged in behavior that disqualified him before?

      Obviously, we have to strike the balance between the fact that there is real, genuine repentance and learning, and the fact that sometimes you have to live with the consequences of your sins in a manner that appears to be disproportionate. But that's life in general (e.g., one person can sleep around with dozens of partners and repent with no lingering problems; another can sin just once and end up with an incurable disease for the rest of their life).

      To add on specifically about pastors, I think one problem in America is that we typically assume that every seemingly strong believer who says "I'm called to be a pastor" actually is called to be a pastor. Some people think they should be a pastor because that's what they think the highest pursuit in Christianity is. They honestly want to serve the Lord fully, but God wants them to be a banker or computer programmer or whatever instead. This feeds into the problem where you get someone who sinned in a manner disqualifying them from church office, but who thinks that being a church official is what he's called to do, and therefore he will go to a church that will accept him. Somewhere along the line someone needs to be saying, "Hold up. Is this really your calling? There's a reason you disqualified yourself the last time you tried this. Let's make sure it's not because you're unhappy in doing something that you're *NOT* called to do."

      With that in mind, forgiveness is real, and it's possible for a genuinely called pastor to sin even in ways that would disqualify them from being a pastor. In some circumstances, the congregation will best be served by that pastor showing repentance and continuing to shepherd the flock after he rehabilitates. But I would suspect that in the vast majority of cases, there is almost certainly a better qualified and *at least* equally called man who should be in that role instead.