Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Has Church Discipline Been Outmoded?

One of the greatest quandaries faced by contemporary pastors is the thorny issue of discipline. While this paper is far too short to deal with all the relevant questions, we will try to make a few suggestions and amend a few misconceptions along the way.

There was a time in the history of the Church when discipline was definite and specific. When one reads the works of Tertullian in the early Third Century and Basil a century later, one sees a definite plan and a prescribed method for dealing with all sorts of incidents. The early Church used a practice known as exomologesis. While this practice is difficult to define precisely, it is clear that it was founded on the desire to obey the command of Scripture to, “bring forth fruit in accord with repentance.”1 Various sins were dealt with by a predefined set of disciplinary actions intended to be a corrective to the sinner and a deterrent to the weak and tempted. 2 The chastisement usually involved public confession and exclusion from the Lord’s Table during a specific period of time to be determined at the bishop’s discretion.

Time both weakened and corrupted this practice. By the Middle Ages, punishments were prescribed by the priests upon a person’s confession that were intended to be a payment or propitiation for their sin. Thus by the Fourteenth Century, the Church was inundated with a host of merit-earning and sin-atoning devotional forms and acts. This was partly because rules about various forms of correction were frequently used in the monasteries. 3 This created the notion that these acts were the provenance of the spiritually superior. Once this happened, the purveyors of this “discipline” began to believe they were superior.

There were two basic flaws in the thinking that pervaded the Church in the Middle Ages with regard to discipline, and these two problems are still prevalent in our day. This first is a misconception about the meaning of the word “discipline.” Discipline should be understood, first and foremost, as a “molding or shaping of character toward a desired end.” It is the process whereby someone is made into what they should be. However, the word has almost always been understood in the sense of “punishment.” While this is inherent in the word, it is only a secondary meaning. The word “discipline” comes from the word disciple, i.e., matqhthv - a learner, a student, a follower. Thus discipline is not mere punishment. That is only one of several means of attaining its end.

The second flaw is treating the mis-defined discipline as meritorious. In Catholic theology, devotional activities, such as prayers, are prescribed as payment for sin. The result is that people instinctively dislike devotional activities because they associate them with punishment. And people begin to believe that their “Hail Marys” earn them favor with God. The result is a thoroughly Pelagian theology that does not need the sacrifice of Christ because each sinner can and must pay for his own sins. Penitence was replaced with penance. Starting in 1215, penance at least once a year was made compulsory. 4 Then the whole understanding was developed in a new way which was eventually codified at the Council of Trent, when penance was made a sacrament.

If we can first overcome these wrong conceptions of discipline, we can then move forward to a positive implementation of true discipline in our church communities.

The first step in implementing discipline is self-discipline on the part of the shepherd. Self-discipline is indispensable. As water cannot rise above its source, so no church will be better disciplined that its pastor. In his classic work on the duties of the clergy, St. Ambrose, Augustine’s mentor, spent the first fifty chapters discussing the private character of the leader himself! 5

The second step a leader can take as a foundation to effective discipline is to instill into his congregation a deep sense of belonging. How effectively this can be attained by means of a membership process is perhaps outside the scope of this paper, but there is no doubt that a meaningful membership structure is of utmost importance. Without this, erring members will simply float away rather than stay and face correctional action.

This brings us to a most peculiar difficulty. The very possibility of correctional action in severe cases has been effectively eroded because of disunity. Before the Great Schism of 1054, a person under disciplinary action anywhere in the world was under the censure of the worldwide Church. When the East and West divided, they no longer recognized the legitimacy of each other’s corrective policies. After the Reformation, the situation was worsened because the Protestant churches began to disagree and split into ever smaller factions. This has in point of fact declawed the lion. Punishment no longer stings. A person censured in one congregation can simply pull up stakes and move to another one. More likely than not, the new church will sympathize with the person and disregard his former pastor’s decision. I am personally aware of cases where a member has committed a grievously immoral sin. When the individual was expelled from the church, this person simply moved down the road a few kilometers and was received with open arms into another church – only to repeat the cycle there too. It is rather sad that only cults and the Roman Church can effectively excommunicate members if the need arises.

If we can’t resolve on a method of effectual expulsion or correction in extreme cases, we must not lose heart and forsake all attempts at discipline.

It is for this reason that many pastors opt for a short-cut. Christian leaders are increasingly applying principles from the corporate world to the Church. Thus they are often like elusive or self-important CEOs. It is assumed, rather erroneously, that this pompous air will fill people with fear or respect for the aloof leader. The people will be less likely to cause trouble thus lessening the need for his involvement in their daily lives.

The second short-cut is the megalomaniacal method that is becoming frighteningly more common. Many pastors enforce draconian policies through Machiavellian leadership tactics in order to attain discipline in the church. Rather than be servants of God and His people, they are “Kim Jung-Il” type dictators. This is the coward’s way of achieving discipline and it pushes the church in the realm of the cultic. This is a particular problem in countries where the Roman church is dominant. People are born and raised on the Roman philosophy that the priesthood speaks directly for God and must therefore never be doubted of questioned. As far as I know, no evangelical pastor would claim infallibility like the Pope, but many pastors behave as if they possess it. Matters of doctrine and practice can never be discussed because “Rome has spoken,” i.e., the pastor has given his declaration on the matter and any question is regarded as a challenge to his authority.

This is a perilous situation – for both sides. As Philippine patriot Jose Rizal noted in his Letter to the Maidens of Malolos, “The priests are emboldened to command vile things because of the people blindly obey.” 6 Once people surrender their reasoning and discerning powers, there is no end to the evil they can be driven to do. Ron Enroth 7 has documented many churches and para-church organizations that have run into the grossest of immorality (wife-swapping, incest, group sex, etc.) by the direct command of the leader/pastor, who usually claims to be speaking with full Divine inspiration and/or authority. Unquestioned power is a drug to its possessor, creating an insuperable addiction that, barring Divine intervention, is impossible to surrender.

The key word that should define discipline in our minds is: Structure. A disciplined life is a structured life. We discipline our children by setting guidelines and limitations they are expected to abide by. If we decide that their bedtime is 8 pm; then we must consistently put them to bed at 8 pm. If they are not to watch television until their homework is finished, we must always enforce this policy and be consistent about it – despite their protests until the habit is ingrained into their character. It becomes instantly apparent that more “discipline” is required on the part of the parent than the child. They are simply made to do as we command; we must be habitual and consistent – or else all is lost. “Hit and miss” discipline creates only confusion and anger.

The second keyword is Humility. St Peter warns us about “lording it over” 8 the church. And immediately after this he admonishes us to humility because “God resists the proud.” 9 A pastorate is not a vice-presidency at a Swiss bank! And by the example of Christ himself who washed His disciples’ feet, 10 we are walking in great foolishness when we begin to exalt ourselves with various forms of ostentatiousness. It is true that we are commanded to respect those in authority in the church, 11 but this is a far cry from demanding blind, unquestioning obedience. We are all aware of the blasphemous way Benny Hinn and his ilk have interpreted, “touch not mine anointed.” 12 Unfortunately scores of otherwise orthodox pastors have unwittingly fallen victim to this same corruption of Biblical leadership. Many pastors never verify the legitimacy of such an interpretation and so falsely assume that pastors are spiritually superior to “average” Christians. This is a reversion to Roman Catholic priesthood. The Bible teaches what Luther called “The Priesthood of the Believer.” 13 As pastors, we are not to act as if we are the congregation’s mediator between them and God and we are not to allow them to think so either.

Of course, Love must not be neglected. Jesus spoke rather harshly to His disciples at times. 14 But their final analysis was, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” 15 People will endure strict discipline if they are thoroughly convinced that it is being done out of love. You cannot correct a man you don’t love – and he knows that too. This is why I mentioned the importance of a sense of belonging. If people do not have a deep sense that they really and truly belong, they will not believe the sincerity of any form of correction and will most likely leave rather than face the potential embarrassment. 

No leader can afford to be without Wisdom. The Bible refers to God's people as “sheep.” 16 Someone has cleverly quipped, “Sheep are dumb.” Sheep certainly do not have a reputation as the most intelligent creatures on four legs. There was a reason why the Scripture chose to identify God's people with these creatures. It is for this reason that a leader cannot be without great practical and Biblical wisdom. People are by nature gullible. The world’s plethora of harebrained superstitions is testimony to that fact. If people hear anything long enough they will start to believe it. The biggest fool in the congregation is the pastor if he doesn’t realize this fact. The media has people believing that the secret to happiness is found in a soft drink and that every pubescent sexual fantasy imaginable can be attained by the use of the right body spray. We are absolutely crazy if we think that people aren’t na├»ve in doctrinal matters too. 

Another keyword is Impartiality. The leader must establish structure, but he must be ruthlessly neutral. By His own character, God warns us against favoritism. 17 The moment equality is compromised meaningful discipline goes out the window. Impartiality is easier said than done. We all have “favorites.” But we dare not let these feelings cause us to treat some people’s sins lighter than the same sins in others (especially those we don’t really like). The Bible warns against such unbalanced judgment. 18

Finally, leaders must be Conciliatory. The ultimate goal in any punitive action is the eventual restoration of the erring individual. The person is not punished so that the leader can flex his muscles and feel important. Nor is the congregation to treat the erring person as a leper after the period of correction is finished. St Paul makes this extremely clear to the Corinthian church. 19 Paul unhesitatingly demanded that the sinning man be excommunicated immediately. But his motive was the eventual restoration of the man’s relationship to God and the church.

In conclusion, we return to our earlier remark: Self-discipline is indispensable. The task of shaping, molding and forming the character of those under our charge requires more out of us that it does of those under our care. They may never even realize that fact. Without self-discipline, chaos and destruction will reign. 20 We must be structured; we must be humble; we must be loving, wise, fair and conciliatory. Without these ingredients, there can be no meaningful discipline in our Christian communities.

1. Mat. 3:8
2 One can see examples of such things in Basil of Caesarea, Letter CXCIX, to Amphlilochus, concerning the Canons.
3. See The Rule of St. Benedict
4. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “Penance”
5. Ambrose, On The Duties of the Clergy, Bk. 1
6. Jose Rizal, Letter to the Maidens of Malolos
7. Ron Enroth, Churches That Abuse
8. 1 Pet. 5:3
9. 1 Pet. 5:5
10. John 13:14
11. Heb. 13:11
12. Ps, 105:15, cf. 1 Sam. 24:6
13. 1 Pet. 2:9
14. see Mat. 16:23; Mk. 4:13
15. John 6:68 ASV
16. Psalm 23:1ff; 74:1; 78:52; 79:13, etc.
17. Romans 2:11
18. Proverbs 11:1; 16:11; 20:10, 23
19. 2 Cor. 2:5-8 cf. 1 Cor. 5:5-12
20. Proverbs 25:28

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