Growing up a the child of a pastor, I quickly got used to church members having opinions about me: what I should read, what activities I should participate in, and more than anything else, what I should or should not wear.
Somehow, it never became normal to me to see elderly men reaching out to touch dresses they didn't approve of, or middle-aged ladies making disrespectful comments about sleeveless dresses and saying "you should put on a sweater." When I was a young teenager, I just shrugged it off, or even bowed to these kinds of people.
When someone made the mistake of trying to adjust my clothing without permission when I was 23, however, I was furious. Whether because I was the pastor’s daughter or just because I was a woman in the church, certain people thought that my body was their business, to control and regulate as they saw fit without any consideration for politeness or my feelings. This wasn’t a question of modesty – it was a question of relationship. These people weren’t my friends or even my mother; they were people who thought they had the right to tell me what to do because we were members of the same church.
The question of church discipline is one of the most delicate facing Christians. Some people argue that churches are meant to be collaborative communities where members guide each other in their spiritual walks and hold each other accountable, avoiding the conflicts and lawsuits of the world around them. Others will argue that the spiritual environment and pressure to provide a good witness to the world around them makes the church a breeding ground for passive aggression, power plays, and judgment, whether it manifests as open letters by bloggers about yoga pants or qualified people being kept out of church office because someone is holding a grudge.
In Galatians 6, Paul teaches a policy of church discipline that is both gentle and firm, based around relationship and accountability. “Brothers and sisters,” he writes, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ…Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else” (6:1-2, 4 NIV). These commands reflect the teachings of Jesus, who in Matthew 18 instructs that dealing with sin should ideally be a personal matter between equals: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (18:15-17 NIV). This treatment of a pagan or a tax collector that Jesus refers to is what Paul also speaks to in 1 Corinthians 5, where he differentiates between associating with sinners and tolerating blatant, unrepentant sin in the church. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” he writes. “are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13 NIV).
From these passages, then, we can gather two principles about church discipline: judgment applies only to those who are already committed members of the church, and it should be undertaken between those who are “brothers and sisters.” Discipline is based upon closeness in relationship – between people who are earnestly attempting to help each other live in Christ, not onlookers reaching out only to judge.
What about the opposite, however – when the majority of members in a church are behaving in an unChristlike manner, or a spiritual leader is abusing his or her power? We’ve discussed the church disciplining an individual; can an individual discipline the church? Some would argue that in a group situation that is either abusive or toxic, the only responsible decision is to leave. Such was the case for members of Marc Driscoll’s Mars Hill congregation, who left after finding the abrasive pastor to be domineering, isolating, and spiritually abusive. Theologian Thomas C. Oden, however, disagrees. “To flee the church,” he writes, “is not to discipline it. No one corrects a family by leaving it. Separation does not foster discipline. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love, and willingness to live with incremental change if that is what the Spirit is allowing. Discipline seeks to mend the broken church by a change of heart.”
Where does discipline end and abuse of power start? How can we seek to emulate Christ while guarding against the human impulse to judge and seize power? Should I keep letting people adjust my clothes in the name of Christian community?
Quotes to Consider:
“To flee the church is not to discipline it. No one corrects a family by leaving it. Separation does not foster discipline. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love, and willingness to live with incremental change if that is what the Spirit is allowing. Discipline seeks to mend the broken church by a change of heart.” –Thomas C. Oden
“We must know that is not our human love which makes us loyal to the other person, but God’s love which breaks its way through to him only through judgment. Just because God’s Word judges, it serves the person. He who accepts the ministry of God’s judgment is helped.” –Dietrich Bonheoffer
Read through Galatians 6:1-6 below. What do you think this means practically for Christians today? How have you seen (or not seen) these principles at work in your own life or your own church?
1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
Take special note of Verses 4 and 5. Do these words mean the same thing as the common saying "Stay in your own lane?" What problems come about when people measure their own spirituality by comparing themselves to others?
At what point is it the right of members of a church to address or discipline fellow church members? For answers, read Matthew 18:15-20. What does this passage say about the process of dealing with someone's sins? Once you have discussed this, read the following passage, Matthew 18:21-35. How does this additional comment from Jesus affect our understanding of discipline?
How can power in a church setting be abused?
How should we react to corruption in the church? Can you belong to a corrupt church in good conscience? Why or why not?
1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Timothy 1:18-20 refer to people being "handed over to Satan" in order to be taught some kind of lesson. This is a very strange saying and it's hard to know for sure exactly what it means. So, what do you think it means? Read Romans 1:18-27 for some hints about how God expresses wrath by "handing over" people to the results of their own actions.
Some strong language is used in the New Testament to describe how people ought to handle their own self discipline. Read, for example, what Jesus says in Matthew 18:8-9 or what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. Some of the language seems a little bit violent, but what does it really mean? Do these instructions refer to our treatment of others or our own selves?
- Note Paul's use of an athletic comparison in 1 Corinthians 9. Read through that passage again, and compare it to Philippians 3:7-14. In what ways can these athletic symbolisms be a good comparison for spiritual life?