church discipline, spiritual abuse

>Church Discipline or Spiritual Abuse?

>An article in the Wall Street Journal (Banned From Church – WSJ.com) tells of a growing trend of churches practicing “church discipline.” My first thought is, good. Those who covenant to live life together in the Body of Christ should submit to the accountability and discipline of the Body. The failure of most churches to practice church discipline has led to a spiritual and moral laxness in our culture that surely grieves the heart of God, no matter how many people we pack into our seeker-friendly megachurch services.

Unfortunately, this article does not signal a positive movement in the area of church discipline. In fact, the sort of thing described in the article could do serious damage to the Church in general and to the legitimate practice of church discipline. The problem is that many of the situations described in the article are less issues of church discipline than they are the abuse of power by apparently insecure leaders in an attempt to shield themselves from the scrutiny and accountability of the Body.

The key case in the article is a 71 year old retired woman in Michigan. According to the article, when a new pastor arrived at her church in 2005 she began to encourage, and later to press, him to appoint a board of deacons. The pastor rebuffed her, saying that the church was not large enough to require deacons. Fair enough, I’m thinking. After this, the woman raised the subject at church business meetings from the angle that the church constitution and bylaws required a board of deacons. At this point, the pastor sent her a letter stating that the “This church will not tolerate this spirit of cancer and discord that you would like to spread.” When she continued to press the issue and insist that the church’s constitution be followed, the pastor sent out a letter to the congregation stating that this woman and another couple had been removed from the fellowship for failure to repent.

Now, let me first of all express that, as a pastor, I understand that there are always two sides to these stories. However, I cannot see anything but a blatant abuse of power in this pastor’s actions. I actually agree with his initial assessment that the church was too small to warrant deacons. That being the case, he should have brought before the congregation an amendment to the church’s constitution to bring the body’s rules in line with their current practice. But to accuse a woman who seemingly just want to follow the establish rules of the body of spreading a “spirit of cancer and discord” and then to unilaterally remove her from fellowship? This is nothing more than blatant spiritual abuse masquerading as “church discipline.”

For the sake of those churches who practice legitimate church discipline, this sort of abuse must be called out and condemned. It is unbiblical, un-Christlike, and unworthy of the Body of Christ. One of the purposes of church discipline is to call the Body of Christ to a higher standard of conduct than the surrounding culture. Leaders who abuse the practice make it a farce and an object of derision rather than a useful tool to elevate the life of the Body. They carelessly wield a double-edged sword, wounding the immediate victims as well as the reputation of the whole Church.



8 thoughts on “>Church Discipline or Spiritual Abuse?

  1. > “Surely those who have discernment bear some responsibility for those who, for whatever reason, do not.” Point well taken Dwight. Those who have greater discernment do bear some responsibility for those who don’t. Yet, I wonder about those who have no desire for discernment. Thanks also, Stan, for setting the record straight on your situation. The only word I can think of is “tragic.”

    Posted by Mark Mathews | January 23, 2008, 12:16 am
  2. >Mark,At the time I was at the bottom floor of a brand new Calvary Chapel. They were meeting in my house. I played the keyboard for the singing. There were a total of no more than 10 people at the time. I suspect that the pastor was afraid that offending one (the woman I didn’t hug) was too expensive when you take into account that she was 10% of the congregation (and likely 50% of the offering). Other than that, there were no clues, but it was too young of a church to tell.

    Posted by Stan | January 22, 2008, 11:35 pm
  3. >You make some great points, Mark. My only issue, and perhaps this is my spiritual elitism shining through :), is that most people in our churches simply don’t have the sort of discernment that you’re talking about. And a whole bunch of them don’t really want it. They like having a strong figure such as a pastor do their thinking for them, which inevitably leads to problems of one degree or another. I guess one might say that falling victim to spiritual abuse is the logical consequence of failing to exercise discernment. I can’t leave it there, though. Surely those who have discernment bear some responsibility for those who, for whatever reason, do not.

    Posted by Dwight | January 22, 2008, 7:18 pm
  4. >I don’t think we can cast a blanket over all independent churches, even though I think denominational affiliation is probably the wisest choice. What this signals is the need for discernment. We are told, “Don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see of they are from God.” There are a lot of crackpots operating under the guise of a “church.” What some consider a church is a far cry from a biblical understanding.This is why it is wise to visit churches, speak with the pastor, some of the elders and/or deacons, and find out exactly where the church is on particular matters. Certainly this does not prevent every problem but it is the least one should do.I think the article in the WSJ is indicative of the cook-fringe with regard to these situations. However, as Stan mentioned, he was thrown out of a church for not hugging a woman.”As one who was kicked out of a church because I didn’t hug a lady…” I would have to ask, were there not other indicators that there was a serious problem in this church. It seems terribly strange that one day you refuse to hug a woman and the next you are thrown out of the church. Certainly they must have had some other peculiar habits. Moreover, in what situation would one be “forced” or “coerced” into hugging another person, especially one of the opposite sex? Sounds like a pretty strange event!My point is, surely we are discerning enough to know when there are problems, at least of this magnitude. Often I find people taking the co-dependent stance with a church that has obvious doctrinal problems. The idea that God has called someone there to fix the problem is probably not a biblical one. All churches had problems, but situations like these are extreme and should be identifiable long before the explosion!

    Posted by Mark Mathews | January 22, 2008, 12:50 pm
  5. >The best we can do is join a denomination. Groups like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, for instance, can help provide doctrinal unity but there is not authority behind it. Or if independent Bible churches are going to remain independent, they need to have elders. Even a church of 30 people can have at least one elder other than the pastor.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | January 22, 2008, 12:09 pm
  6. >Yikes. And all too often its a smokescreen to mask the sin of the ostensible leader. And the truth is that it is an exercise in frustration to even think about fixing this problem of abuse. I think we can almost all agree that it would be great to have some mechanism in place to prevent this as much as possible. But what in the world would that possibly look like? You can’t even say that the inspired Scriptures are that mechanism, because every independent church simply interprets it independently. I’m not about to cast my vote for all churches submitting to some central authority like the papacy, for there are obvious problems inherent in that. The only thing I know to do is to pray that God keeps me humble and keeps me from wielding any spiritual influence that I have in this way. And to expose it when I see it.

    Posted by Dwight | January 22, 2008, 5:28 am
  7. >As one who was kicked out of a church because I didn’t hug a lady, I agree that too often “church discipline” is more of a power play than an attempt to turn a brother from his sin.

    Posted by Stan | January 22, 2008, 3:40 am
  8. >I read the article as well and it is clear to me that too many people in positions of power in churches abuse their position in order to quash any opposition to their “rule”.Church discipline should cut both ways. On the one hand, church members who are obviously committing major sins need to be approached, rebuked and, if necessary, expelled from the church. On the other hand, pastors and leaders who abuse their positions should be accountable for their actions.There needs to be some sort of clear mechanism within churches – especially independent ones – to allow objective, biblical and accountable steps to both enforce church discipline and to ensure that power is not abused.

    Posted by One Salient Oversight | January 21, 2008, 10:51 pm

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