Another post from my colleague, Mary Veeneman, based on a book by Harper and Metzger. Let’s hear what you are thinking about church discipline.
When I was in college, I had a professor who had previously
been a full-time pastor. In a
discussion on ecclesiology one day in class, the subject of church discipline
came up. Our professor told us
that in the church he had led as pastor that he would contact the former church
of anyone who sought membership in his church who had not recently moved to the
area to ensure that no one was seeking a new church to avoid the discipline of
another church. When asked how
other churches responded, he told us that more often than not, the pastors of
other churches seemed to be annoyed to have to take the time to answer the
What do you think?
Have evangelicals neglected church discipline? Do you think churches should practice church discipline? Have you seen it work effectively? If so, what should it look like? What solution (if any) is there to the problem of
His point was that evangelical churches often do not do
church discipline well if we do it at all. This is the same point made by Bruce Harper and Paul Louis
Metzger in Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction‘s chapter on church discipline. The
authors begin their discussion by explaining the development of church
discipline across the history of the church.
In the earliest period of church history, questions were
raised about whether any sins committed after one’s baptism could be
forgiven. Many in the early church
believed that they could not, and this led to many, including the Emperor
Constantine to receive baptism only when death seemed imminent. Eventually, the idea of penance and
restoration to the church became more prevalent. Starting as a way to readmit those to the Church who had
renounced the Christian faith or in some other way betrayed the church in the
face of Roman persecution, over the next several centuries, a system grew up
where one could enter the order of the penitents, carry out a penance that
would often last several years, and eventually re-enter the church. While this was originally only
permitted once in one’s lifetime, eventually a system of confession and penance
rose for all kinds of sins whether grave, mortal sins or venial sins.
In the pre-Reformation church, church discipline was
universal. Harper and Metzger
point out that if one was excommunicated in that period of time it was
universal. After the Reformation
with the fracturing of Protestantism, they argue evangelicals often respond to
church discipline (when it is even carried out) by simply going to the next
church down the road.
Essentially, Harper and Metzger identify two key problems. First, they note that although the New
Testament is clear that churches do need to carry out discipline at times, the
lack of specifics as to how this is to be done often results in churches
neglecting this mandate. Second,
they note that because of the fragmentation within evangelicalism, church
discipline is easily ignored.
Those who find themselves under discipline can simply go to the
evangelical church down the street.