Prince Raney Rivers: Church discipline?

Is church discipline a relic of the past or an essential practice for vital congregations today?

Is church discipline a relic of the past or an essential practice for vital congregations today? How in the world do you talk about church discipline in a postmodern Christian culture?

In a recent book review, Bill Leonard writes, “In the eighteenth and nineteen centuries Baptist churches in the South seem to have had three primary purposes: to preach the gospel, to bring sinners to repentance, and to throw people out of the church.”

Sin is nothing new to the church, of course. We’ve all been sinning a long time. What has changed is how we deal with this perennial problem. Today, we flinch before even considering excommunicating the unrepentant offender.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the days are behind us when a pregnant teenage girl is forced to stand alone before the congregation as if she conceived by the Holy Spirit. It is comforting to know my church is not having a meeting this month to receive accusations against wayward members, as was the case in previous centuries. But I wonder if we have become so inundated with ecclesial scandals and so unskilled in the practices (or inarticulate in the language) of repentance and confession that we have unintentionally condoned what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Do we neglect to excommunicate because we have learned true humility? Or have we simply dropped the practice of church discipline?

I’ll be the first to admit that the line between humility and cheap grace is difficult to draw. One way to make the distinction is that humility empathizes with the other and wants to see the offender restored. Cheap grace sentimentalizes the situation and grants forgiveness without any acknowledgment of error.

Recently a pastor returned to his pulpit after a brief hiatus following the news that he had a child out of wedlock with a member of the church. The title of the sermon he preached that day was “I’m Still the Man” in which he exonerated himself by twisting the text about Nathan’s confrontation of David after his affair with Bathsheba. The overwhelmingly positive response was a sure sign that the church had nothing to offer except cheap grace.

Cheap grace says, “We all make mistakes, right?” “Who are we to judge?” Humility says, “We are brothers and sisters who love one another. We love one another so deeply that we will not allow each other to persist in self-destructive behaviors.” So, although we do not condemn, we do judge. To condemn is to render final verdict. To judge is to discern between the good and the bad. We are never in a position to render a final verdict on someone’s life, but as a community we lovingly and prayerfully guide one another to a faithful understanding of God’s “good and perfect will” with the hope that we’ll see the log in our own eyes in the process.

Let’s not rush to go back to the good old days, which may not have been so good. But let us also remember that Christian leaders are called to do more than damage control. So when we fail, and we will, maybe we should take another look at what it means to love one another. The integrity of our institutions, congregations and communities depends on it.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.