Yes, the local church is too often like a village with elders. And each village has its dynamic, culture, traditions, and power structure. All the villages have their political dynamic and the unspoken-but-felt vibe of whether one is in or out. Unfortunately, too many villages feel that they are safe from the abuses of a single chief because they have a council of elders and that is enough. But a council of elders is no guarantee against the abuses of a council of elders.
In the space of six months we have seen several high profile churches deal with the public consequences of their elders’ decisions and, in all cases one way or another, retracting previous unanimous elder-decisions.
- The 14,000 member Mars Hill Church closed its doors. Elders who were unanimous several years ago in their disciplinary actions toward two other elders recanted their decision.
- The elders of Harvest Bible Church in Elgin, Illinois issued an apology for their unanimously-decided rebuke of dissenting elders.
- The elders of The Village Church issued an apology for the way they dealt with a particular church discipline issue.
How could a group of elders be so confident that they would actually engage in actions that would hurt a brother and yet a mere few years later be no longer unanimous or confident in their elder action?
These churches have (had) this in common:
- A high view of church discipline and pastoral authority.
- A strong leader of “celebrity” status.
- A plurality of elders.
- Autonomy as a local church.
- Strong emphasis on the life of the local church and membership obligations to the local church as the central place for their spiritual growth.
This is a recipe for plurality groupthink and the consequences are dangerous, particularly when it comes to the very delicate business of spiritual discipline, rebuke, or issuing some kind of sanctioning action, whether that is advising the congregation to not fellowship with the person charged or by exercising a group policy in relations to any individual (as in “anything that is said to one of us elders about the church will be shared with the whole body of elders”). But this problem is not just a problem in the big churches, but it is prevalent in many small churches where there is plurality of elders.
In the Providence of God, I have been on both sides of the actions of this kind of plurality groupthink that was either disciplinary or sanctioning.
The idea of excommunication is sobering to me. It is rarely practiced and very few people have faith in the process. When we are about to practice church discipline on a person who has already abandoned the church I am often asked why we even bother going through the motions. “What difference will it make in their lives?”, they ask. I would suggest that a few of the reasons for this lack of faith in God’s process are as follows.
- Pastors lack the courage to follow through with a biblical and formal excommunication because so many other pastors in town will accept the excommunicated member without so much as pretending to do an investigation into their reasons for departing the previous church. Pastors seem to be the first to assume that they are the only reasonable leaders around and they easily buy into the notion that that the case of the disgruntled former members of the other church was severely mishandled.
- The Temptation of the Pile-On. Pastors sometimes lack the conviction to act so forcefully on the basis of one obstinately held sin. Thus, they find themselves wanting to build a case against the obstinate person and suddenly find themselves feeling icky. The icky feeling is simply because they have succumbed to the temptation of the Pile-On and feel like they cannot move forward unless they overwhelm the “jury” (the local church) with an onslaught of damning evidence against the obstinate and unrepentant church member. Consequently, they lose their sense of peace. This is as it should be. Confident and biblical men don’t need to pile-on evidence. They simply take it as a matter of faith that the one clear, biblically-definable sin combined with obstinate refusal to repent is sufficient enough for excommunication.
- The fear of interfering with Christian social life. Contemporary social life is so shallow and superficial that we don’t really have categories of social interaction. I have over 800 “friends” on Facebook. But are they really friends? We can find ourselves chatting with people we would normally never think of, much less fellowship with, on Facebook. The superficiality of it is probably mostly benign, but what about facebooking with people who have been excommunicated out of the church?
I don’t know the answer.
One of the most helpful things I’ve read on church discipline (and I’ve read a lot lately) is from William Ames’ (1576-1633) The Marrow of Theology. I wonder how this would fit with contemporary superficial socializing with technological media?
An obstinate sinner cannot be separated from the faithful unless the faithful be separated from him, and this produces a salutary sense of shame, 2 Thess. 3:14. Those who are lawfully excommunicated are to be avoided by all communicants. This refers not to moral and other necessary duties, but to those aspects of social contact which presuppose acceptance and inward familiarity. Speech, prayer, farewell, entertainment, table, are denied.
Does church leadership dare to ask their congregants to defriend on Facebook the excommunicated member?
I think people of faith are willing to ponder the hard realities of their convictions.
But one more thought. I think people have little faith in the process because it is entirely spiritual. Ames is particularly helpful here, especially when one considers the era in which he lived.
[Excommunication] pertains to all those, and only to those, who have the right to partake of the sacraments. To such people it applies the will of God, i.e., those means of spiritual reformation which Christ alone has given to his churches, 2 Cor. 10:4. Therefore, punishments and pains of body or purse have no place at all in ecclesiastical disciplines.
In other words, the person who asks, “What will it matter to them?” is demonstrating a lack of faith and conviction that our battle is spiritual and we do not wrestle with carnal means.