Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Church Discipline

A certain Protestant takes understandable exception to a failure of discipline in the the Filipino Catholic Church. I am by no means going to defend the situation he describes, which is a notorious one. On the other hand I'm not going to stand by and let his characterization of Protestant church discipline go unremarked, either.
I can guarantee you one thing, my church would show no hesitation in excommunicating such men for rendering false witness of "their" Savior, thus showing they have no Savior at all other than themselves.
Glad to hear it, but let's not pretend that this gentleman's experience in his own congregation is representative of Protestantism generally. It may not even be representative of his own denomination, assuming that he's part of one.

What's to stop Mr. Inveterate Protestant Sinner from picking up his blocks and going to some other Protestant congregation down the road if he's called on his behavior? Hmmm...exactly nothing. And if he moves to a congregation lacking institutional ties to his old one, what force will any excommunication done in the old one have? And I wonder what the odds are that church discipline will be exercised in the first place? And given the propensity of Protestant denominations (or even congregations) to split over various and sundry doctrinal or ethical issues, is it even reasonable to suppose that discipline related to doctrinal disputes would be likely to have much force in most cases among Protestants?

On the other hand, I've been part of a Bible-believing Reformed denomination where (presumably) discipline was taken seriously. Take, for example, the congregation where a single mom was excommunicated...because she didn't homeschool. Yes, I'm serious. No, the congregation didn't offer to subsidize this by making up the income she would have lost by staying home to teach her kids. Did I mention she was a single mom?

Or take the example of another congregation in the same denomination where laymen had to beg the session to exercise discipline in the case of a member who was sinning flagrantly and publicly. If congregants hadn't forced the issue, nothing was likely to have been done at all.

Or take the congregation in the same denomination that excommunicated a group of men for something or other. At least one of the men moved to a different congregation in the same presbytery where his excommunication was ignored (to my knowledge the matter never went up for appeal to the presbytery).

Or we could take the example of the presbytery that included a congregation known for holding views on certain confessional matters that were certainly not heretical by WCF standards but which were (and are) out of the mainstream in that denomination. Upon receiving a request from that congregation's session to receive "weaker brother" treatment with regard to their views during meetings of presbytery, the presbytery responded not by disciplining them, and not by honoring the request, and not by explaining why they didn't feel the request was worthy of either discipline or being honored, but by dumping the request in the ashcan of parliamentary procedure so that a "yes" or "no" would not be necessary. Impressive!

The point here isn't to say that denomination is bad, bad, bad (particularly since I don't think that it is). The point is not that our critic's congregation isn't maybe the Eden of church discipline, either. The point is that discipline problems exist everywhere. They always have, and they always will. It's unfortunate to say the least. But in the real world - where the sinners include not just those that you or I might think are worthy of excommunication, but the men responsible for exercising discipline, too - things are messy. On top of that, we don't always have all the facts when we are criticizing the ones responsible for discipline, and the very exercise of discipline is a prudential one. Yes, it could be done more consistently. No, it will never be perfect, particularly in the eyes of picky laymen like me. Mother of God, pray for us.

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