The Rise of Church Discipline in America
When Karen Hinkley decided to have her marriage annulled, she had no idea it would lead to a public shaming from one of the largest mega-churches in America. After learning her husband was entangled in a decade-long child porn addiction that led to a pattern of lies and a heap of secrets, Karen decided to call it quits. But as a member of The Village Church (TVC), a congregation of more than 10,000 outside of Dallas, Texas, such action triggered formal disciplinary action that included sharing the details of her situation with their entire church body.
While no major religious polling organizations posses recent data on how many American churches utilize similar discipline procedures, many believe the number is growing, particularly among conservative congregations. As more cases come to light over time, they raise questions about the biblical basis and legal implications of such practices. Are these churches doing their best to care for their flocks or are crossing a ethical line?
Jonathan Leeman is author of “Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus” and editorial director of 9 Marks, a Washington D.C.-based ministry that believes rigorous church discipline is one of the nine central components that comprise a “biblical church.” He says that if a church member is found to be participating in unrepentant, outward, and significant sins, the congregation should enact discipline. This may include excommunication or public disclosure of their situation, but usually it only requires personally confronting the sinner.
“In one sense, 99 percent of the discipline that happens in the church never reaches the whole church. It should be two loving friends talking to each other,” Leeman says. “If you don’t have a culture of discipleship and transparency and relationships where it is normal to speak into one another’s lives, then you probably shouldn’t be pursuing public excommunication.”
The purpose of church discipline, according to Leeman, is to protect Jesus’ name, show redemptive love for the sinner, and warn the broader church against a greater judgment in the afterlife. But he also readily admits that church discipline can become authoritarian and abusive.
For examples of abusive situations, church discipline critics have more than a few prominent examples. Former Seattle-based pastor Mark Driscoll oversaw the public shunning of members who were deemed to be in sin, a practice that contributed to his later resignation. Chicago-area pastor James MacDonald was recently forced to apologize for harsh disciplinary actions that included slandering three church leaders as “false messengers.” Several popular blogs including “The Wartburg Watch” and Patheos’ Warren Throckmorton have compiled dozens of additional tales of abuse.
“The abuse of authority, we believe, is a particularly heinous sin because it lies about God and his good authority,” says Leeman. “[But] you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater because someone has been a part of an abusive situation in the past....We should look to the bible and ask how to practice it in a healthy and balanced manner.”
But church discipline critics claim that abuse is the rule rather than the exception, and they argue that the Bible doesn’t teach church discipline as it is commonly practiced. Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma says it looks more like helping alcoholics overcome addiction than heaping public shaming on those going through a divorce.
“Church discipline doesn’t mean kicking people out when they fail,” he says, “it means loving people enough to walk with them through their valleys.”
Burleson believes the trend in church discipline is the result of a growing misunderstanding about the kind of leadership Jesus taught—a type focused on service rather than power. As support, he cites Jesus’ words in Matthew 20.