Sunday, January 20, 2008

WSJ on church discipline

Alexandra Alter wrote an article on church discipline that was published in the January 18, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal. It is ominously entitled, "Banned From Church." While I applaud the WSJ's effort to examine the "growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline" it is regretable that the article wasn't written by someone with more understanding of the subject at hand.

For example, Alter describes church discipline as "an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent." Doesn't that sound just like what Jesus prescribes in Matthew 18:15-18? Ms. Alter says that this passage teaches that "unrepentant sinners must be shunned."

Given this gross misunderstanding of the subject it comes as no surprise that the examples that are cited in the story tend to so extreme that most pastors I know who teach and lead their churches to practice discipline would not want to be identified with them. For example, Alter writes about a pastor who dialed 911 on two different occasions to have a 71 year old excommunicated woman arrested for sitting in a church service (the audio of the first 911 call is even embedded in the online text). As reported, this was not a biblically defensible action.

When a person is removed from the membership of a church in keeping with our Lord's teaching in Matthew 18, he or she is not to be "shunned." Neither should they be forbidden to sit under the public preaching of the gospel. They need the gospel and, while we cannot treat them as members any longer, we should welcome them the same way we would a "Gentile or tax collector" (in other words, an unbeliever). We recently had a member who was excommunicated several years ago show up for a worship service. I was glad he was there and told him so. I prayed for him during the worship, that God would capture his heart with the gospel. This is far from the caricature that is portrayed in the WSJ.

The article sites Southern Baptist pastors Jeff Noblitt of First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Alabama and Al Jackson of Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama as men who lead their churches to practice discipline. They are not quoted at length and, I suspect, were far too sane in the comments to be judged worthy of extensive coverage.

There is a difference in church discipline and "pastor discipline." I have known of a few cases where overly zealous pastors tried to remove problem members in the name of church discipline. But, because their congregations had not been adequately taught and were not fully on board with the process, it really wasn't "church" discipline at all.

One of the first things a faithful pastor must do when he finds that a church has neglected the practice of corrective church discipline is teach. He must carefully explain passages like the one cited above and 1 Corinthians 5. Then he must teach some more. And then some more. He must lead the membership to see and embrace what the Bible says about the integrity of a church's identity and testimony as the body of Christ. Only after a congregatoin has been adequately taught can they be expected to properly carry out the practice of church discipline.

Where this goal is intentionally pursued with patience and love, the practice often can be reinstituted in a healthy, God-honoring way. This is one of the greatest needs in American evangelical churches in our day. While caricatures must be avoided and abusive practices must be rejected, the engagement of loving oversight and accountability breeds vitality and unity in a church.

Anyone who reads only the WSJ article and does not investigate what the Bible actually says about this issue will never know this. But those who care enough to find out what God actually says in His Word, and not merely what others think He has said, will discover that this kind of relational devotion to one another is one of the great blessings of the church.


Terry Delaney said...

Dr. Hershael York of Southern Seminary was also interviewed for this article. Check out what he had to say about it on his blog:

I guess it is fitting that a secular newspaper would think church discipline to be news worthy and in reporting this news, would do the hatchet job they rail against the fundamentalists for doing.

However, I must side with the apostle Paul when he says in Philippians 1, "Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."

J.D. Rector said...

Tom and others:
I serve on the ministerial staff at Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn currently. I find it very interesting that the WSJ would do an article like this. The media persona tend to portray those who are striving to be obedient to the WORD as fundamentalists... when they also use that term to refer to the radical muslims who are terrorists.

For the record, and I have been on staff now for 19 years and before that I was the church pianist for nearly 5 years preceding my seminary days. Lakeview has only disciplined one person. That person committed adultery and would not repent. I'm not sure that we deserve recognition for "practicing" church discipline when only one case has occured.

Our pastor, Al Jackson, does preach the whole counsel of God. We are blessed to have a pastor who leads us not only to hear and read God's Word, BUT to obey it!

As Lakeview's statement of purpose says... "We believe that God's purpose for Lakeview Baptist Church is to love the Lord God, and to express that love by making, nurturing, and equipping disciples of Jesus Christ in Auburn and throughout the world."

My solemn prayer is that God would send a sweeping reformation across our denomination where churches would obey God's Word.

J.D. Rector

Wyman Richardson said...


A good friend of mine gave me this article last Friday, and I was happy to see that you've commented on it.

The article strikes me as one of those interesting moments when you're able to get a glimpse at how those outside of the church view biblical Christianity. It's just a matter of time before some dude with a British accent is narrating a Discovery Channel documentary exploring the congregational habits of that strange tribe called "Baptists." [i.e., "See them there, opening their odd book of primitive rites. Now they sing to their deity. Now they pass the sacred golden plate and accept alms"...etc.] :-)

Like you, I thought there were a number of regrettable things in the piece. "Shunning" is an Amish practice. Church discipline doesn't come from "a strict reading" of the text. On the contrary, refusing to see the biblical instructions on discipline can only come from "a very loose" reading of the text.

And, like you, I know of no pastor who would call in the State Troopers to escort anybody out of church unless they were engaging in disruptive behavior. I agree that biblically-based church discipline actually wants those who have been disciplined to be seated in the pews the next Sunday. How better to win them back than to have them sitting beneath the preaching of the gospel?

Also, the article represents a kind of Catch-22. When churches don't respond to malicious gossip and discord in their midst, the secular media loves to report on the division that inevitably comes about. They love to point to church splits in an effort to undermine the gospel. But when churches take gossip and discord seriously and try to stop it along biblical lines, they are lampooned for being some sort of inquisitorial body of fundamentalist lunatics who want unquestioned power. For all I know, some of the guys quoted in the article might have been lunatics, but most guys I know who try to lead their churches to practice redemptive church discipline are doing so (a) out of a deep love for Jesus Christ, (b)out of a high view of scripture, (c) out of a deep love for the body of Christ, (d) out of a deep love for the people themselves.

Anyway, interesting article, but largely wrong. I do wish they would have let Dr. Wills speak more! It would be good to see a biblical and balanced piece on church discipline in the WSJ, but I'm not holding my breath!

Thomas Clay said...

We were very disappointed to see that Bro. Jeff Noblit's input (my pastor where I serve as the music minister) was so sparingly used. We are making our True Church Conference centered on this very subject. (That may be why this reporter contacted Bro. Jeff.) I hated to see such an unbiblical application of "church discipline" used as the centerpiece of the article. However, we should not be surprised.

Tom, I like your terms "pastor discipline" and "church discipline". While holding to a very high view of pastoral authority, I've seen many abuses of "pastor discipline" in my time. By that, I've seen pastors who strive to protect the congregation but abrogate the biblical process. I'm so very grateful that I'm in a church that has a good (and ever-growing) understanding of biblical church discipline.

Thanks for all you do, brother!

Will said...

I get the WSJ and was disappointed in the article. clearly, the writer either did not understand or misrepresented what he was hearing about church discipline.

But we should not expect from a secular newspaper understanding should we? Perhaps more interesting is that a secular newspaper takes this issue on, and not our denomination?

Cedar Hill

Strong Tower said...

As ta reminds us, the end of discipline is reconciliation. The preaching/teaching ministry of the church is the means appointed for all of this. The root of discipline is discipleship and should not be left flat. It means that the person under excommunion has been placed outside fellowship only in as much as his sin has separated himself from Christ, and through repentance by the Call of the Gospel is welcomed. It is ours, the ministry of rconciliation, given to us to do to others just as we ourselves have been reconciled to God.

I would say that when Matt 18 is being carried out, it is too late to instruct the church at large, but definitely necessary to reinstruct at the time, so that all who see and hear will be warned and fear, as Paul said to Timothy, and as was graphically portrayed with Ananaias and Saphira.

The unfortunate thing is that the rejection of sound exegetical teaching of ministry in full scope has left us without the maturity that should mark the church. We should not fear in the least the world's criticism. Fear comes from the shameful weakness of our ability to rightly use the Word of God as its own defense.

Again, we could condemn the world for its criticism, or we could learn from it and take it as a prophetic voice, warning us that if we will not judge rightly among ourselves God will do what we refuse to.

pastorleap said...

Was 1 Corinthians 2:14 EVER more true than here? Paul said "a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." (NASB)

The fact that this issue even shows up on the WSJ radar is a shock to me. Nonetheless, I thank you for your dignified yet firm response to the issue. Because so many in the world reject the basic concepts of sin, the gospel and biblical reconciliation, it is no shock to me that they should cover such an issue as church discipline so poorly.

Let us pray for them.


risen_soul said...


I have no doubt that the wsj was unbalanced in it's article. But (and this is just a question) isn't it the case that church discipline also involves removal of fellowship and not just membership?

I certainly agree that reconciliation is the hope, but isn't part of the point of 1 Cor. 5 about removing the cancer before it spreads?

9 "I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."

That last line seems pretty strong, perhaps more that just loss of membership rights.

What do you think?

Tom said...

Risen Soul:

I think Paul's language fits perfectly with Jesus' instructions in that the church is not to be comprised of "Gentiles and tax collectors" (read: the unrepentant). But we must not limit our understanding of "church" to the church gathered on Sundays for worship. An excommunicated member should be excluded from the privileges of membership but not from the privileges extended to those we are trying to reach with the Gospel.

If a church is well-taught, then they will know that their relationship with a person changes if he or she is removed from membership. That person is no longer regarded as a member of the covenant family but as one who needs to repent and trust Christ. If the mere presence of such a person is disruptive, then there is probably a deficiency in the church's grasp of the Gospel and how it works in the life of the body. If such a person becomes intentionally disruptive then, of course, other steps may need to be taken.

Thanks for your comment. Hope this helps.


Strong Tower said...

Dis-fellowship, or not, is the result of the determination of Matthew 18. Membership is another matter. Generally, the disfellowshiping, or excummunion is done as a spiritual discipline. Further administrative process, and not really within the scope of Scripture, is ex-membershipping, which is a govenmental outworking. It only follows that if the excummunicant remains unrepentant, then they have severerd their membership, much in the same sense as one who abandons a marriage. We do not think it strange that court ordered separation would be a good thing, but it is meant to work peace and reconciliation. However, in the event that the estranged refuses to submit to the decree of court and reconcile, the absence of intent can be considered abandonment, and grounds for divorce.

We need to remember that membership is assumed and not explicit in Scripture. Membership is a construct that represents the reality, but not the reality. Fellowship is the reality, and it is upon this basis that one calling himself a brother is to be treated. The interesting thing is that this is not necessarily within the context of individual churches, but is body wide. It is how we should conduct ourselves with all brothers, members or not. It just so happens that it is the governmental means, "membership" within which we work out the directions of Scripture.

In a faithful city, or local community of churches, it should be found that there is respect for judicial decission of one congregation to the next. Though they are not binding, they surely cannot be carried out without complicity of the several fellowships in community. (See the 2nd LBCF) Membership then only means that one belongs to a unique local congregation, but fellowship means that one belongs to the body of Christ. Membership is actually, in that sense, a very poor tool of discipline, seeing as the wrong doer, can just pack it in and move across town. But, that results in transplanting the cancer, not excising it.

Sorry ta if I muddied this, and if it stepped on your response remove it, didn't mean to.

risen_soul said...

Tom, Strong Tower,

Thanks. I agree with you guys. I just thought this post was boiling it down to membership issue's rather than fellowship. I agree with everything you both said in your responses.

God Bless. I appreciate your blog Tom!

Karin said...

When I read this article last week my first thought was the timing of the article. My thoughts were that they were attempting a linking of this Baptist pastor and what they "do" in Baptist churches and the fact that Huckabee was a Baptist pastor and even served as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

I agree that the author of the article either did not understand or misrepresented what he was hearing about church discipline.

This article was brought to my attention by someone who was formerly a member of a Baptist church that did not practice church discipline (and is now a member in a church of a different denomination). We had previously had conversations about church discipline and this article brought up the discussion again.

It's too bad that this is the perception of what church discipline is that many people will be left with.

Obed said...


Like you I am pleased to see such issues being picked up by the WSJ. Whilst there is a limit to how much discernment we may expect to see from them, their ability to pick up on some very pertinent issues can be a great service to Christ's cause. I agree with Strong Tower's first closing observation.

I agree with you on what a faithful pastor should do going forward where he finds a church has neglected church discipline. But how do we deal with the few cases of churches where such “pastor discipline” has actively occurred?

Surely, these cases are more than pastors being “overly zealous”? If they are cases where the actions are not biblically defensible then surely we should call it for what it is – sin.
More than that, surely it is a sin that strikes at the very heart of the question of whether these men were ever biblically qualified for office? Particularly when they remain unrepentant years later.
You mention that most of the pastors that you know would not wish to be identified with such practises, but how do we deal with those pastors that we know that do perpetrate such actions?
How do we deal with pastors in oversight and advisory roles who explicitly support and sponsor such actions?
How do we deal with the supposedly good standing church members who may support and ratify and so partake in such sin? They may well be deliberately untaught by their pastors but they have Bibles, and they are required to walk justly and uprightly and uphold truth, integrity and justice.
What relevance is it whether the victim of such “pastor discipline” is a “problem”? The Bible requires that we act with impartiality and with due process. The failure to do that is a far bigger sin problem that needs to be dealt with.
If Christ died for such “problem members” what are these pastors and churches that seek to cast out such members out of Christ's body in an ungodly and wicked manner?
Perhaps the “problem members” became a disruptive problem when they began to see a pastor's persistent pattern of unrepentant sin? Aren't we supposed to have a problem with that? Perhaps they have gone to the pastor privately in accordance with the scriptures and are suffering precisely because they have been biblical?

Some evangelical churches and pastors today need to do more than institute church discipline properly going forward. In my view the Bible clearly requires them to actively repent for their sins committed and throw themselves down at the feet of their victims and beg them for mercy in Christ's name.

Neil said...

Good post. We really need to recapture the sense of church discipline. My church has orthodox pastors but they inherited a lot of Biblically illiterate members. It must be hard to institute discipline after the fact.

destinycreature said...

Yes I believe that we need to get back into the practice of delivering people to satan. It goes a long way.

For one, satan can't teach you to do good. Paul did so for a couple people well (1Tim 1:20,1 Cor. 5:3-13) True discipline produces good fruit, when sown with the right seeds.

People need too take the faith, God's word and the consequences for sin more seriously.