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:
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:
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:
And Luther (who knew something about a tortured conscience and endless confessing of sins!), wrote in the Smalcald Articles:
In the Small Catechism, Luther then describes how the pastor should respond when such a confession is made:
"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.