On Church Discipline

Eariler I suggested that we today are ill at ease with church discipline. I now want to claim that this is as it should be. However, we ought to make sure that our discomfort is for the right reasons. It is not sufficient to object to church discipline on the grounds that we do not like others telling us what to do and think. Being told how to live is something Christians should be used to – after all, we are precisely the kind of people who are trying to think and do what another (Jesus) has already thought and done. And herein lies what ought to be the real source of our discomfort with church discipline: Jesus. I suspect that if Jesus were living his radical life in our churches today he may well be excommunicated. At least he would be asked to tone it down, We may well send two or three people to talk to him about his extremism. ‘Sell what you have and give it to the poor.’ ‘Love your enemy.’ ‘Be servants of one another.’ ‘You hypocrites,’ said to religious leaders. Our response would be, ‘Come on, Jesus, give us a break! You are far too critical. Lighten up and be positive. This is no way to foster church growth.’

Jesus was a subversive force within the Jewish establishment. What does this mean for Christ followers? Are we not, like Christ, and with the prophets of old, also called to be subversive people, even in our own communities? And if so, how ought subversive people deal with subversives among them? It seems to me that if we refuse the legitimacy of this question we make church discipline out to be merely a tool of conformity for conformity’s sake. And this is the worst kind of Christian hypocrisy. The issue should not be conformity but embodiment of the teaching of Jesus. This embodiment must be the yardstick for both the how and the when of church discipline.

Some of us in evangelical churches remember a past when church leaders were given the authority to exercise church discipline in much the same way as coaches in baseball. That era is long gone. The earlier model was not a particularly good one to deal with the prophets among us, since it often evoked a direct clash with the role that was conferered upon them. Yet with the passing of this era we have not been successful in finding an office for this task. If discipline is to be more than an exercise in coercively maintaining the status quo, we need to find new church structures for distinguishing true from false prophecies among us. We certainly dare no ignore nor excommunicate our prophets. – Echoes of the Word, 111-112

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