NOTE: This post is not about a certain well-known pastor, even though it involves the church he leads. In the discussion that follows, I am not interested in having us talk about this pastor personally. So don’t. Please keep the conversation on the subject of church discipline itself, more broadly. We focus on these articles because they present a detailed description of a church discipline process that gives us a rare inside look at how a congregation attempts to deal with Christian sin, repentance, and restoration in the church.
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In two emotionally-charged posts, Matthew Paul Turner has given a detailed account of the church discipline process in one well-known congregation. Here are links to the articles:
These pieces tell Andrew’s story. As a young man, Andrew set out on his own in an effort to find himself. So he moved to the big city and joined a well-known megachurch. He began dating a daughter of one of the elders and they became engaged. During their engagement, he spent an evening with an old fling and acted inappropriately. Feeling extremely guilty afterward, he confessed to his fiancee and another member of his small group. Then to his small group leader. Soon Andrew was involved in meeting after meeting in which he confessed other relational and sexual failures he had experienced in his life, including the fact that he and his fiancee had been intimate. A month later, he was informed in another meeting with a pastor and his small group leader that he was “under church discipline.” Soon he was sent a “church discipline contract” that listed the “background issues” (a list of his sins) and the “plan of discipline” they had set up for Andrew. (You can read the details of the contract at Turner’s first post.)
In the second article, we learn what happened next. Andrew waited and thought before signing the contract, and then decided not to sign. Instead, he contacted the pastor and informed him he was leaving the church. When asked why he made this decision, Andrew replied, “Because I felt that the contract was legalistic, voyeuristic, and controlling. I felt like it was putting them in the place of God, determining when my heart was right or repentant enough. I didn’t want that.” The pastor wrote back, warning him that this would lead to more severe action. Citing Matthew 18, other church members were notified via the church’s internal social media system that Andrew was under discipline and that church members were to treat him “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). The communique gave specific examples of the kinds of interactions that would be permissible and impermissible, along with practical examples.
Matthew Paul Turner takes a dim view of this “gospel shame” process of discipline:
Where do I even begin? Honestly, this letter speaks for itself in my opinion. The harsh heavy-handed “theology”. The misuse of scripture to validate their reasoning. The carefully worded instructions on what to say, how to act, etc. The term “gospel shame”? The assumptions that their decisions are to be viewed equal to God’s decisions. At times, this letter comes off like the Roman Catholic church during the Dark Ages.
…And if this is how they plan to treat Andrew–as an “unbeliever”? How in the world do they treat people who really are non-Christian? (And not to mention the fact that Jesus hung out with Gentiles, tax-collectors, etc.)
Fine. If they don’t want Andrew to be a member of their church, take his name off the list! But this? I mean, seriously, did any of this letter, except for perhaps the “heavy heart”, infer that Mars Hill loves Andrew? Oh I know they think their actions represent love. But really, many of us have experienced firsthand that kind of “love,” and we know very well that it’s an abuse of the term.
I encourage you to read these articles in their entirety. Then come back and share your opinions about how “discipline” should be understood and practiced in the local church.
As for my opinion, the whole process described here seems askew. I recognize that we are only getting one side of the story, and that is an important caveat to keep in mind. But if we are to take Andrew’s word as anywhere near accurate in the description of what he went through, then I would make the following observations:
- First, the “sinner” came forward and confessed of his own free will.
- Second, Andrew makes no mention that anyone he talked to offered him forgiveness or pointed him to Christ.
- Third, instead of absolution and restoration, a seemingly endless series of meetings began which only served to dredge up more sin and more shame, but still provided no word of forgiveness.
- Fourth, the end result of all these meetings and all these confessions was that Andrew was issued a discipline “contract.” This written and signed agreement gave him a list of “works” that he had to perform in order to “prove” that he was repentant, including detailing all the sins he could recall with regard to relationships, sexual behavior, and deception.
- Fifth, when Andrew rejected these demands, the entire church was notified and instructed to shun Andrew, only excepting conversations in which congregation members could appeal to him to repent.
- It ignored the principle that if we confess our sins, forgiveness and absolution should be granted (1Jn 1:9). It ignored the example of Christ, who said simply and immediately, time and time again, to those who came to him, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”
- Instead, it stirred up more and more talk of sin and repeated that talk in ever-widening circles until finally the entire congregation knew about it. In contrast to the Gospel — “where sin abounded, grace much more abounded” — this process just seemed to cause discussion of sin to abound. It put all the attention on this young man’s sin, repentance, and works.
- The contractual requirement that this young man write out his “sexual and emotional attachment history,” and give a “full chronology of events and social/emotional sin” seems invasive and inappropriate. Why document such things and why should anyone want to read them? That feels really creepy to me, not only encouraging morbid introspection, but also voyeurism. Manifestly unhealthy!
- Rather than count on Christ and his finished work, this “discipline” process put the onus on the sinner to feel sorry enough, to be repentant enough, to do enough works to prove his contrition and thus “earn” forgiveness and restoration from the church. That is not the Gospel.
Here is yet another instance where the evangelical world needs to listen to the traditions of the church. No system practiced by humans will ever work perfectly, but how much more like the Gospel is the simple practice of confession and absolution, the administration of the “Office of the Keys” that has been practiced for centuries?
Regarding the practice of confession, the Augsburg Confession states:
But of Confession they teach that an enumeration of sins is not necessary, and that consciences be not burdened with anxiety to enumerate all sins, for it is impossible to recount all sins, as the Psalm 19:13 testifies: Who can understand his errors?
And Luther (who knew something about a tortured conscience and endless confessing of sins!), wrote in the Smalcald Articles:
But the enumeration of sins ought to be free to every one, as to what he wishes to enumerate or not to enumerate. For as long as we are in the flesh, we shall not lie when we say: “I am a poor man [I acknowledge that I am a miserable sinner], full of sin.”
In the Small Catechism, Luther then describes how the pastor should respond when such a confession is made:
God be merciful to thee and strengthen thy faith! Amen.
Dost thou believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?
Yes, dear sir.
Then let him say:
As thou believest, so be it done unto thee. And by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ I forgive thee thy sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Depart in peace.
But those who have great burdens upon their consciences, or are distressed and tempted, the confessor will know how to comfort and to encourage to faith with more passages of Scripture.
“As thou believest, so be it done unto thee.” Go in peace. Because of Jesus, God forgives all your sins. Rise to walk in newness of life.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Gospel. So much better.