Shepherds or shamers? The rise of church discipline in America (ANALYSIS)

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Old village stocks located in Chapeltown.

Photo courtesy of Austen Redman, via Wikimedia Commons

Old village stocks located in Chapeltown.

(RNS) 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 megachurches in America.

After learning her husband was entangled in a decadelong child porn addiction, Hinkley decided to call it quits. But as a member of The Village Church, a congregation of more than 10,000 people outside of Dallas, she was then subjected to disciplinary action that included formally airing the details of her marriage to the entire church body.

While there are no reliable figures, some church followers think the number of congregations using “church discipline” is growing among conservative congregations. As more cases come to light, they raise questions about the biblical basis and legal implications of such practices. Are these church shepherds just doing their best to care for their flocks, or are they crossing a line by shaming and shunning their so-called sinners?

Jonathan Leeman, author of “Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus,” runs a Washington-based ministry that believes rigorous church discipline is one of the nine central components of a “biblical church.”

If a church member is found to be participating in significant sinful behavior, the congregation should enact discipline. This may include excommunication or public disclosure of the 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,” said Leeman, whose organization is called 9Marks. “It should be two loving friends talking to each other.”

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.

Former Seattle-based pastor Mark Driscoll oversaw the public shunning of members deemed to be sinful, a practice that contributed to his later resignation, for example. And Chicago-area pastor James MacDonald was recently forced to apologize for disciplinary actions that included labeling three church leaders as “false messengers.”

But church discipline critics claim that abuse is the rule rather than the exception, and they argue the Bible doesn’t teach church discipline as it is commonly practiced.

Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., said it should look more like helping alcoholics overcome addiction than public shaming of those going through divorce.

“Church discipline doesn’t mean kicking people out when they fail,” he said. “It means loving people enough to walk with people through their valleys.”

Between 3,000 and 4,000 congregations nationwide are affiliated with the 9Marks ministry, which hosts conferences around the globe and operates on a nearly $1 million annual budget. Many similar ministries, including pastor John MacArthur’s $19 million-a-year Grace to You ministry and the 500-church Acts 29 network, promote similar teachings and are thriving, too.

Discipline throughout the centuries

Those who promote rigorous church discipline say they have history on their side. And they are at least partially correct. But when Christians speak of church discipline today, they may not be referring to the practices of yore. Even the most stringent adherent would not condone behaviors reminiscent of American witch hunts or the Spanish Inquisition, for example.

“The Puritan model is to put people in the town square or the village green in the stocks as a way of shaming the individual,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Dartmouth College and author of “The Making of Evangelicalism.”

But stocks — devices used to partially immobilize people, to the scorn of passers-by — have all been moved to museums, and public behaviors have legal implications.

After her church shamed Hinkley by publicly disclosing details of her personal life, some argued she should lawyer up and sue for slander or defamation. Others said she should have seen it coming.

When she and her husband, Jordan Root, joined The Village Church a few years earlier, they willingly signed a five-page membership contract. By so doing, the couple agreed to submit to the authority of the church leaders and receive any discipline administered if the couple sinned in the leaders’ eyes. The couple also agreed to marriage reconciliation before seeking a divorce.

‘If you don’t like the group’s rules, leave’

Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA Law School, said the law protects congregants from discipline by religious institutions when the case involves battery. But religious groups are free under the law to expel people or even shun them by urging other members to disassociate from them.

And what about sharing personal information with a large group of people? It’s a question of consent. If people have joined the group as adults and have signed documents agreeing to these kinds of disclosures, the institution may be protected. But institutions should be careful not to disclose false information, which Volokh says might lead to a successful lawsuit.

“Generally speaking, the law’s reaction to any social, emotional, reputational mistreatment of a person by members of his own religious community is: ‘Don’t call on the law to remedy your problems,'” said Volokh. “If you don’t like the group’s rules, leave.”

In Hinkley’s case, the ensuing fiasco brought about an apology from TVC’s pastor, Matt Chandler.

“It is clear that we have not communicated — in multiple cases now — the gentleness, compassion, and patience that our elders are called to walk in,” he told Christianity Today.

In a sermon on forgiveness this past Sunday (May 31), Chandler went even further, asking his congregation for forgiveness for instances where leaders overstepped their authority. The question for TVC now is whether and how this confession will lead to changes in policies.

TVC is but one example that suggests church discipline proponents may need to engage in more rigorous self-critique. Jesus taught that one could judge the goodness of a tree by the fruit it produces. There are too many instances where current church discipline practices lead to abuse, oppression and pain rather than love, joy and peace.

Augustine taught that one could tell whether a Bible interpretation is sound by looking to see if it leads to greater love for God and others. If an interpretation is not leading those who hold it to love others more, then perhaps the interpretation itself needs adjusting.

Church leaders are to be shepherds of grace and love who lay down their lives for their flocks. When shepherds become shunners and shamers instead of servants, they are no longer walking the way of Jesus.


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  • “But he also readily admits that church discipline can become authoritarian and abusive.”

    Why isn’t it obvious?
    There are no checks and balances in any direction:

    1. Who decides which JESUS to follow and which JESUS to ignore?:
    “Forgive not 7 times, but 70 times 7” – JESUS
    “Judge them unworthy…remove your blessings!” – JESUS
    “Avoid Them” – (romans 16:16)

    2. Or which JESUS to invoke?
    “Forgive always” – JESUS
    “They are dogs” – JESUS
    “Testify against them!” – Jesus

    3. Who decides the judging has gone too far?
    “Forgive them” – JESUS
    “Execute them” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    In the Parable of the Minas Jesus is the Nobleman who commands executions.
    Regarding the adulteress , Jesus says only the sinless may execute.
    In another situation Jesus says prepare for battle: “Buy a sword” – JESUS
    Yet another, Jesus says “Offer the other cheek”

    Jesus encourages every decision – no matter how contradictory.

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  • JR

    Discipline of some sort is needed in any institution or else the message becomes meaningless. Shaming and public humiliation belong to the past when it was practiced by both secular and religious communities.
    Sins should be brought to an individual’s attention, but privately and with helpful concern. It is up to them to correct themselves or leave the faith they profess.

  • Earold D. Gunter

    What ever happened to following the bible, like the part in Mathew 7:1?
    Anyone who subject themselves to this sort of depravity really has to have some sadomasochistic tendencies. I mean geesh, doesn’t your mother provide enough guilt for you for not doing what she wants you to do?

  • Larry

    “Shaming and public humiliation belong to the past”

    You say the words, but your statements in the past certainly don’t jive with that.

    Public ostracism and attempts to banish one from their midst in an obvious manner is something you have had no problem supporting in the past.

    Using the alleged sins of others as excuses for treating people badly is par for the course for many Christians, especially of a “conservative” bent. All in the name of “loving and concern for their souls” of course.

  • JR

    Larry, you’re as absurd as ever. Keeping the gay agenda at bay is moral discrimination of the good kind. Discriminating against gay individuals is the opposite.

  • Larry

    So “Shaming and public humiliation belong to the past” unless you are talking about those people. Its amazing how full of crap some Christians get when their talk about their “love of thine neighbor” is put to actual practice.

    Here is a perfect example of such “Christian Love”.

    “People are beaten, raped, evicted and dismissed from their jobs because of their sexual identity or orientation,”

    Who is supporting such nastiness? Ultra-conservative AMERICAN Christian churches.

    How many other exceptions do you make to your prior statements about public judgmental behavior? Probably a lot more than you will ever admit here.

  • JR

    I don’t believe you are capable of rational or competent thought concerning gay/religious issues anymore. You are merely an instigator, a little imp looking for a fight.

  • Blue River

    Karen Hinkley resigned from TVC before the elders decided they had a right to put her under discipline and disclose painful details of her personal life in an email to 6000 covenant members.

    The TVC covenant she signed said she could not get a divorce without their approval. She got an annulment, which isn’t covered in the covenant and is hardly the same as a divorce.

  • I can’t help it if you are hypocrite.

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  • 1. When considering church discipline, The most basic biblical passage is Matthew 18 in which Jesus outlined the basic procedure for church discipline, in which he gave as the final step, “tell it to the church.” I’m a little surprised that this passage is not mentioned in the post. Perhaps I missed it?

    2. In confessional Reformed/Presbyterian polity it often takes years to get to that point of public disclosure (there are multiple stages and two assemblies involved) but when members are contumacious they leave the assemblies/courts of the church no recourse.

    3. The goal of true church discipline is restoration and reconciliation. Absent this goal, discipline is abuse.

    4. Our practice goes back to the fathers and to the Reformation. Our church orders date to the 1540s (not to the colonial period) and we confess it to be one of the “marks of the church” (sine qua non).

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  • Linda B

    Larry, may I give my testimony of how a
    christian can love a person without condoning
    their sin, whatever that sin is?
    My first cousin is a male who’s married to
    another man.
    They live in San Fran to feel more
    welcome. I love him & was
    close to him growing up. He too says I’m like
    a sister to him. However, I don’t condone his
    lifestyle nor do I tell him I’m happy for his new
    marriage to his gay partner. My love for him
    forbids me to. The bible says repeatedly that
    homosexuality is a sin.
    But the only unforgiveable sin is rejecting Jesus as
    Lord and Savior. All sin is wrong.
    Only Jesus can save us & cleanse us. We can’t
    change ourselves; we can allow God to
    change us from the inside out. The people that
    don’t love you are the ones that say go ahead
    and do what you want..”& be blessed doing it.”
    The word says the wages of sin is death! A
    truly loving person warns someone when they
    are in danger. A flatterer says only what you
    want to hear. Read…

  • Linda B

    Larry, my comment cut off what I was
    attempting to say….read John 10:9 in a bible
    or google it on your pc. If you believe in
    your heart that Jesus, as the Son of God,
    was raised from the dead to save us all
    from our sins, and you confess that with your
    mouth you will be saved.
    John 3:3 says you and I must be “born-again”
    by confessing Jesus as Lord to enter
    heaven when we die. Don’t attempt to
    change yourself in any way. Only God can do
    that. It would be futile to try to change yourself and
    it would not last anyway. Real change comes when
    we know God through His Son Jesus. Maybe you’re
    ready, maybe you’re not. But God loves you and
    longs to have a relationship with you. God hates
    religion as much as you and I do. He’s all about
    RELATIONSHIP…he’s the perfect Father we all
    wished we’d had growing up. Give Him a chance.
    I’ll be praying for you, Larry.

  • Loves God

    Concerning Karen Hinkley; maybe I missed something.
    The church came down hard on her for getting an
    annulment…what discipline did they administer to the
    husband who was found to be indulging in porn for
    ten years? And possibly other things that remain hidden?
    Did they also broadcast his sins to the church?
    The bible says clearly adultery is a sin. This man committed
    adultery by having sex with strange women in his mind
    and imagination, & of course possibly physically which I’m
    not sure was the case. I’ll have to reread the article. The
    scriptures also say God hates divorce, but that
    it’s allowed in the case of adultery. Porn is a form of
    adultery. “Do not even look at a woman lustfully”. She should
    have been defended in that church instead of being made to
    look like the villian. She was the victim. It makes you wonder
    why these “men of God” were so prone to defend this man
    even though he was the one with the hidden sin all
    those years.