One of the church’s long-standing dirty little secrets is the weird dynamics of membership. People have debated the necessity of church membership for centuries and continue to do so today. Books like “Stop Dating the Church” scold those with commitment issues, insisting you cannot really be part of the body of Christ unless you join a local church. It all sounds great until you discover that church membership is a lot like marriage: the church can divorce you for irreconcilable differences.
Church divorce doesn’t make sense. Churches teach the unconditional, un-earn-able love of God. They major on marriage-related issues like abstinence, faithfulness to marriage vows, and the evil of divorce. They highlight the parallels between marriage and the relationship of Jesus to the Church – his Bride. They teach that church membership is essential for one’s spiritual growth, accountability, and participation in the local body of Christ.
But then they practice something called church discipline. Church discipline is a way of dealing with sinning church members and can lead to excommunication (removal of someone from church membership) if the sinning member remains unrepentant.
The church can divorce you.
Seems like a good idea to know this before you marry join a church. You know, so you can write up a good prenup. I date the church to find out what I’m promising and being promised by signing or going forward or whatever the ritual may be to make our relationship official and binding. Dating a church is one way to learn if we are compatible or doomed to divorce from the get-go.
I didn’t know any of this when I first joined a church as a newlywed. Since then, I’ve watched the divorce discipline process unfold numerous times. In most cases, the end result was removing from membership those who didn’t want to be there anyway – husbands and wives who left their spouses and children for others.
But I’ve also seen it gone wrong. Church discipline is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the abuse of power. Too many churches use Matthew 18 to bully people into conforming to their narrow idea of righteous living. It is often used to shame young people who conceive babies out of wedlock. The unspoken message is, “Abortion is murder, but keeping the baby will feel like living death.” Perhaps most tragic of all are the churches that use discipline to cover up the sexual abuse of minors by forcing the child to confess their fault in the abuse.
The shunning and removal of sinners doesn’t match up with God’s behavior in the Bible. God reveals Himself as the covenant-keeping God from Genesis through Revelation. He is so committed to His people that He keeps His promises to them no matter how bad they are, how far they stray, and how long they rebel. (This doesn’t mean He shields them from natural consequences of their unfaithfulness to Him, and that’s where the story gets really messy, but God never abandons them for good.)
In one of the best stories in the entire Old Testament, God told one of his prophets, Hosea, to marry a whore, have children with her, and stay married to her even when she went whoring again. His marriage was a living example of God’s faithfulness to Israel. What’s even more incredible is that God became human to keep Israel’s part of the promises. Jesus kept every promise that Israel broke. And then He opened the door for non-Jews to participate in these covenants and become God’s children too.
This is the kind of commitment we’re supposed to emulate. By dating a church for awhile, you have a better chance of seeing what kind of spouse they are. Roll up your sleeves and get dirty, sweaty, and tired together so you can find out who they are when they’re at their worst. Watch how the people respond to financial pressure. Pay close attention when a family encounters a crisis – does the church blame them for lack of faith or rally around with love and support? Most important, examine how they handle people’s failures. Look for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and restoration. Look for practical help with recovery. As cheesy as it sounds, look for what Jesus would do. If they run the person out on a rail, run as fast as you can.
God goes to superhuman lengths for His children. He refused to divorce Israel even for repeated infidelity. Jesus lived our lives and died in our place to preserve our relationship with Him. So why do so many of His churches fail to do the same?