Editor’s Note: We’re accustomed to thinking of the practices of the Christian faith as something that happens within the church, shaping those who engage in them. But we don’t always think about what it looks like when those same practices translate into and affect public life, informing society beyond the church walls. Comment asked some writers to explore this question in reference to a number of the distinctive practices of the Christian faith—like tithing, prayer, preaching, baptism, and singing.
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On the face of it, church governance is straightforward. God governs the church. She’s not a man-made institution that a bunch of people invented in order to impress God. Neither is she a convenient social club that organizes the activities of those who share an interest in religion. To be sure, worship and the formation of community are essential functions of the church. However, to start with what the church does rather than what she is inevitably leads us astray. The church is the bride of Christ, loved by God, and has a place in the world shared by nothing else. So when it comes to her governance, asking how she might live in accord with God’s will and desires are logical questions.
That’s simpler to say than to practice. Stories of hurt emerging from the misapplication of these are too frequent, both from history and the present. These difficulties, however, should not prompt the concession that religious leaders automatically use nefarious power arrangements to inappropriately influence and control others. I understand that the concept of external authority rankles those with dogmatic conceptions of individual self-determination. The irony of how their practice of socially excommunicating all who don’t conform to ultra-secularist orthodoxy is usually lost on them. Misuse of authority is a problem whether that authority is held by religious or non-theistic hands.
But I’m not going to resolve that debate here. Instead, I would like to consider the importance of the church practicing a biblical concept of discipline as part of her public witness. At a time when so many seek spirituality without religion—by which they usually mean religious institutions—the winsome and prophetic place of biblical discipline is a message that does not have appropriate prominence in our times.
The Heidelberg Catechism famously summarizes the comfort of the Christian life stemming from the fact that “I am not my own but belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ.” Belonging to a church is in itself a confession that I don’t have the answers, the rights, or the final decision-making authority in all things. I seek them outside of myself. I am part of a community that has been redeemed by Christ, purchased not with silver or gold but with His blood, and places her identity in Him.
Every community has norms. Recognizing the boundaries between who is to be considered inside and who is outside of a particular community is not an outdated practice. Declarations of heresy and excommunication happen every day—more often outside than inside of explicitly religious community. A business group disassociates a member with shoddy practices. A trade union removes a member who doesn’t support the collective decisions. A political party kicks out a member who criticizes it in public.
Excommunication happens every day. And so, the question that forms the debate regarding church excommunication is not the fact but rather the manner and basis of its occurrence. The question really is one that hinges on the church’s counter-cultural understanding of authority.
The question of authority has haunted Western civilization throughout history. The competition between church and state for the ultimate allegiance is a subtext of history, and the less-than-noble power games, self-aggrandizement, and bloodshed that forms part of that story should not be overlooked. True, historical norms have evolved—today, both church and state politics are exercised using intellectual and social weapons rather than physical ones, for the most part.
For most of history, the idea that God had authority which ought to shape the decision of both church and state had broad acceptance. The debate was which circumstances and which institutions were the appropriate ones to interpret the will of God. For the past few centuries, within the context of liberal democracy and pluralism, we have separated the functions of church and state much more clearly. “Freedom,” rather than obedience, became the watchword.
It is a particular understanding of freedom, quite different from the libertine version that some champion today, which accompanies Christian notions of church governance. I would also contend, however, that this Christian notion of freedom is far more liberating than we usually consider. Those who seek satisfaction in hedonistic license are certain to disagree, but I have yet to meet the person who will not concede that the short-term thrills of that lifestyle hardly warrant its commendation as a way of lasting satisfaction.
Biblical belonging is much more humane and principled than the democratic sort of self-reliance relied on by the secular orthodox crowd. When an individual believes and lives in a manner which publicly declares “I do not belong” while wanting to stay within a community of those who belong, a tension that must be resolved. The church discipline process is about resolving that tension.
Discipline affirms that authority in the church is top-down, not bottom-up. The church has the duty to maintain her identity as the bride of Christ. Failure to do so is living in continued infidelity to her bridegroom—the metaphor helps us intuitively understand why this is unsustainable. When the church fails to exercise discipline, it doesn’t take long for her identity as a church to become so sullied that there is nothing left to “belong” to.
Admittedly, it is most often in the “how” that church leaders stumble. The focus must always be on restoring the fallen member to a right relationship within the church. The aim is the wedding. Church leaders come alongside the wayward member, teaching, encouraging, helping, and, when necessary, providing discipline. Their intention must always be to restore the relationship.
This approach is different than in every other human institution. Other institutions kick members out in order to protect the institution, but the church relies on higher powers to protect her, and protecting her “brand” should never be the first motive. The salvation of the lost is the overriding focus. In fact, the Catholic canon refers to censures as “medicinal penalties,” while the forms in Protestant traditions almost universally speak of the intention that the offending brother “be brought to repentance and recovered to the will of the Lord.”
To be sure, the reality of church discipline is also a testimony to the ultimate authority of God, even against those who do not acknowledge Him. It is publicly proclaiming to the nations that even they, at long last, will also come to bow. Church discipline is a foretaste of that judgement, but also the mercy of God to the nations to the end of days. Is the implicit discomfort with church discipline tied to an implicit rejection that God is a God who judges? The good news is that church discipline takes place in time, and is also a witness to the fact that now is a time of grace, when reconciliation and forgiveness remain possible.
The manner in which church discipline is carried out also distinguishes the church from other institutions. To continue with biblical metaphors, the church is a body and when one part hurts, the entire body suffers. A cleric who exercises the authority of his office in matters of church discipline without feeling pain and prayerful tears dishonours his office. He denies the organic connection that ought to exist between members of a church, between himself and the wayward member with whom he is dealing.
I wonder if a key characteristic by which faithful church governance might stand out in our day is by the authenticity of her tears. This grief starts by understanding her identity as the bride of Christ and recognizing that unfaithfulness in her members is an affront to the sacrificial love of the groom. It impels not to a self-righteous sanctimony that elevates the position of those within but rather to a humble gratitude that incites a desire for purity.
The grief continues through the process with a patient and persistent pleading for those who are seeking their own, rather than living out of the joyous freedom of not being their own, highlighting the joy and fellowship that can be found within the body when she is united to Christ. It continues with teary prayers, pleading God to intervene and restore the relationship which once was. By God’s grace, it continues through the glorious tears of joys that come when broken relationships are restored and when harmony and unity replace the rancour.