The comment by Elmer led me to reflect on my past experience with “official church discipline”. Two stories stand out. The first is a memory of the council asking for prayer for a person who had sinned and was endangering his life with the Lord. It was an announcement being read in a public worship service. For a young person, it was a strange experience. On the way home we learned more: He had not attended church in years and had cut off contact some time ago.
The second story comes from a person who was called to make a public confession of their sin because she was pregnant before marriage. This public confession was required by the church prior to blessing her marriage and the baptism of her child. Her parents supported the council. She felt ashamed. It was a public shaming. Much more could be said about the circumstances which made the public confession more dubious in value.
These stories lead me to make a few comments.
First, respect for privacy - required by law- no longer permits such practices. That is one reason why the church order was changed some years ago. We changed because we were required by law to respect legitimate boundaries in relationships. Which makes me wonder: why is it that in both the practice of church discipline and in the abuse policies it is law of the land that leads the church to behave more respectfully of another person’s rights?
Second, in order for elders to exercise their shepherding responsibility and name sin in a person’s life, there needs to be a relationship of some meaning. We may be frustrated by another’s behavior but perhaps we need to reflect first on the nature of our relationship with the person. A pastoral relationship is required for elders to name sin and lead a person in the practice of discipleship.
Third, discipline is part of discipling. This means that elders need to take seriously their role in leading people in their walk with God (spiritual formation/ discipleship). This is not about calling people to be conformed to the standards of community, but to be conformed to Christ. Very few elders have developed the skills or knowledge to do this well - which means that many times elders are handicapped when trying to hold people to account for their behavior. Their credibility suffers.
Fourth, it is interesting that the sins we prefer to name are often the ones that are seen as shameful. Consider the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus (John 8). Of all the sins they could have named, it was this one that they brought forward. There was consensus that this was not only sin but worthy of public shaming. (In the paper today, there was a report of shopkeepers publically shaming shoplifters.) When I look at what Jesus condemned most harshly, the sins are different. Matthew 18 names the lack of forgiveness and being a stumbling block to the young. Matthew 25 speaks of the failure to be generous and hospitable to the hungry, the naked and the prisoner. These are condemned. What I find interesting about these sins is that these demonstrate a failure to imitate Christ, a failure to be like Christ. It jeopardizes our standing before God. Which makes me wonder – what sins do we focus on when we name sin? Do they reveal our community standards or our passion for becoming like Christ?
Elders need to concern themselves with sin. If we are serious, we need to engage ourselves in the practice of discipling – leading people to be formed in the image of Christ.