By Jeff Brumley
A Dallas megachurch got some unwanted publicity recently thanks to its harsh disciplining of a member some leaders believed improperly ended her marriage.
On May 28, however, Pastor Matt Chandler of the Village Church stepped in, stopped the process and later offered an apology to the woman who had left her husband when he admitted to a years-long child-porn habit, Christianity Today reported.
Public discipline actions like that brought against the woman at Village Church, a Southern Baptist multi-site congregation, may have been more common decades and centuries ago when Matthew 18 was followed more closely. But experts tell Baptist News Global such practices are increasingly rare today — and especially so in moderate and even conservative Baptist churches.
“I don’t think we gain very much by the public trashing of someone,” said Frank Broome, who has served as executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia for close to two decades. “In 18 years I have no example of anyone being dressed down.”
Revivalism ends discipline
But it does still happen on occasion.
In the Dallas case, Christianity Today reported that a church elder at Village Church opened the discipline process against the woman after she sought to end her marriage and requested her removal from membership. However that request was denied because she had not participated in the marriage reconciliation process required in the membership covenant.
“We have sinned against some people — and we are owning that before God and specifically before the people we have hurt,” Chandler told Christianity Today.
Such actions were much more common in American churches in the 1700s and 1800s, said Loyd Allen, professor of church history and spiritual formation at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
A study of church minutes from that era frequently show members “brought up on charges” like drunkenness and stealing and other behaviors which threaten individuals’ salvation and congregations’ reputations, Allen said.
But there was almost always an element of compassion in those actions, he said, and seldom was anyone permanently removed from membership.
Discipline was one of the ways churches formed disciples in those times, he added.
‘It’s not unheard of’
But revivalism eventually brought an end to that, Allen said.
“In revivalism, the emphasis was placed on getting people into church and less emphasis was placed on what discipleship was after that,” he said.
There was very little investigation of a person’s character when they joined a church. It’s the same now in moderate and conservative Baptist churches.
“Unless there is a scandal, they don’t react toward discipline,” Allen said.
Scandals, however, will sometimes elicit church-discipline actions in moderate and conservative churches, he said.
Allen recalled a moderate Baptist church where a member was being very critical of leadership. The member was eventually brought before the congregation where the behavior was discussed and that person was asked to leave.
“It’s not unheard of,” Allen said.
Most cases resolved
Some wish it were a bit more heard of.
“I’m a little to the right of the my buddies,” Kevin Glenn said of many fellow CBF pastors.
The non-confrontational approach to church discipline, while sometimes gentler, can lead to a lack of order in a congregation, said Glenn, the senior pastor of Memorial Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo. It’s one of the reasons moderate churches are declining in attendance, he added.
The biblical guidance on discipline provided by Matthew 18, he said, is adequate if used prayerfully.
Verses 15-18 of that chapter outlines a process involving confronting wayward members individually then, if necessary, with two or three witnesses. Failure to repent requires the entire community to call for repentance. Membership can be withdrawn if necessary.
“I do believe in accountability,” said Glenn, who has taken steps when a member’s or staffer’s actions have undermined the unity of the church. He said the goal is always reconciliation.
“In most cases it has been resolved, in other times [they] stepped down and left the church,” he said.
Churches must take care not to use scripture-based discipline as a weapon to silence people, he said.
“Do we really want reconciliation or do we use Matthew 18 to silence a dissenting opinion or to get a difficult member out of the way?”
‘A discernment process’
But there is more discipline going on in moderate churches than often meets the eye, Broome said.
Public humiliation in many of those congregations has given way to proactive forms of discipline, namely when choosing committee heads, deacons and other clergy, he said.
As an example, Broome said he has received requests to become CBF Georgia moderator from pastors who are not financially or missionally involved with the Fellowship.
Within congregations, it’s common to have members only lightly involved in the life of the community seek to become deacons or members of influential committees, he said.
But most of those churches have standards for that level of participation.
“There’s a discernment process that goes on that is proactive,” Broome said. “There is a semblance of disciplined life.”
Even in the Georgia churches where more traditional discipline has been used, the process has been applied with compassion.
One SBC church with CBF connections had a tradition of handing white Bibles to girls involved in purity ceremonies. After much introspection they gave one to a girl who was three months pregnant.
An area where churches draw a firmer stance is in cases of misconduct, Broome said.
“I have never seen the church look the other way … when the pastor gets caught” in an adulterous situation, he said. Though in some cases, ministers were given a chance to repent.
“In moderate life there is a tendency to want to give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “But if there is no change, eventually moderate churches will act on that.”
However, if a scandal becomes public knowledge, there is often a lower chance of making up, Broome said.
The church, whether moderate or conservative, will … act on that,” Broome said. “But most of these things are handled in such a way to save the minister’s career and life — as well as the church’s reputation.”