Church Discipline: An Ignored Truth

( [email protected] ) May 10, 2004 01:23 AM EDT

Last week Cardinal Francis Arinze, a high-ranking Vatican official said in a news conference in Rome that Catholic pro-abortion politicians should not be served communion. Arinze, a Nigerian who has been mentioned as the Pope's possible successor, refused to comment directly on whether presidential candidate John Kerry should be excommunicated. But the inference was clear and the cardinal left no doubt concerning Kerry and his pro-abortion politics, saying, "If they should not receive, then they should not be given.”

According to the New York Times, church officials say that failing to call prominent Catholics to account on such issues creates the impression one can still be a good Catholic while disobeying church teaching. Without question, Cardinal Arinze's statement clarifies that U.S. bishops not only have a right to address matters of "serious pastoral concern," but also a responsibility. Some leading Catholic laity and clerics have already told Kerry he is excommunicated because of his abortion stance.

At the risk of being perceived as cruel and hard-hearted, I rejoice in seeing a renewed emphasis on the practice of church discipline. If Catholics had taken this approach toward homosexuality years ago, then the large number of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse would have likely been avoided. Eighty percent of the abuse cases at issue were of a homosexual nature. The scandal cost the Catholic Church more than $500 million and created a tremendous credibility gap in the church's witness.

Church discipline, which is today largely an ignored truth, needs to be revived not only in Catholic circles, but also in Protestant ones. Last August, the Episcopal Church USA approved its first gay bishop, Gene Robinson. The situation threatens to split the denomination. The fact is, however, if Episcopalians were committed to the Bible's authority and its demand to discipline wayward members, Gene Robinson would have been defrocked and removed from church membership long ago. Moreover, Methodists recently missed the mark when they acquitted a lesbian minister after she and her partner went to Portland, Oregon, to "marry.” Now the same kind of rift that occurred among Episcopalians may be brewing among United Methodists.

At the turn of the last century and as recently as 40 years ago, church discipline was not uncommon in America. Today, we look back on that time and largely view it as a relic of our puritanical past. We think of ourselves as more enlightened and tolerant. But interestingly, this same misguided notion that essentially turns virtue on its head, calling evil good and good evil, is the same predicament Paul rebuked when he commanded the Corinthian church to discipline a man who was carrying on an illicit sexual relationship of a most unsavory nature. The Apostle wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians, "And ye are puffed up and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you” (I Cor. 5:2). In other words, Paul was horrified the church was not mourning the sinful condition of this man. Instead, they were arrogantly boasting of their spirit of inclusiveness.

When churches demonstrate an acceptance of open and flagrant sin in their midst, they are showing a complete insensitivity to the destructiveness of sinful behavior. If left alone, sin becomes like a spiritual cancer that invades pollutes, corrupts, and finally destroys both the individual and the moral integrity of a congregation. Therefore, Paul instructs: "[D]eliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaventh the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump” (I Cor. 5:5-7).

A renowned Baptist minister, the late Vance Havner, once said, "Folks are saying there is plenty of room in the church for everybody, but I think that when there is plenty of room in the church for everybody, that's too much room.”

Church discipline ought to be understood for what it's really about. It's not about hatred or bigotry, as some will claim. It's not about pushing people away from the church. It's not about punishment, for punishment's sake. It's really about love -- church discipline can and should be a demonstration of affection for congregants who have gotten on the wrong side of life. Its objective should be reconciliation and restoration.

Commentator Knofel Staton writes on this matter: "What happens in this kind of fellowship-separation is the same thing that happens when children leave the family. While teenagers, they can have all sorts of disagreements with Mother and Dad; but when they leave home, the family life is suddenly so wonderful. In a small way, this kind of psychological and sociological discipline happens when we send our children to their rooms and they cannot participate with the rest of the family in the games or discussions. It also happens when we discipline them when they are older by not permitting them to spend some time with their friends when their friends are engaged in various activities. We call it 'grounding.'”

When I was a boy, there was a time when my mother would rarely correct me about anything. One day, our pastor's wife confronted her about my lack of discipline. To which she replied, "Yes, but he's just a boy and I hate to see him sad because of a spanking.” Firmly, our pastor's wife said to my mother: "Then you don't love him as you ought. Either watch him cry a little at the present because he's been corrected, or eventually both you and your child will grieve deeply because he's a crook and in jail.” Needless to say, my mother got the message!

The church's failure to deal with blatant sin among its own is a malfunction of love. The failure to discipline not only gives the errant individual a false sense of security about their spiritual condition, but also seriously compromises the light of the church in a lost and dark world.

The NFL Team, the New Orleans Saints, lost several games in a row back during the 1980 pro football season. Often fans would come to the stadium wearing brown bags over their heads. Many of the bags had "AINTS” written on them. When the "AINTS” finally won a game, the fans had a huge bag burning celebration.

The principle of church discipline is a simple one: When wayward professing Christians are obstinate and unwilling to lovingly be persuaded to live up to their calling as Saints, then the church should treat them like they "aint” until they do!!!