We are long overdue for a sustained argument about the purpose and means of church discipline as well as the broader role of Christian discipline in the life of individual Christians and Christian communities. By church discipline, I mean some sort of formalized process that an individual congregation or denomination would enact in order to correct lay people or clergy that have fallen into serious and unrepentant sin. By Christian discipline, I mean the broader set of practices and habits that are conducive to the Christian life.
There are three main reasons for this need, each of which we’re going to cover below.
The Benedict Option and End of Liberalism
There is a particular anxiety amongst many Christians today about the future of the church in the west. Much of that anxiety was made concrete in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. The book cracked a number of best-seller lists, which suggests it has enough broad appeal to connect with a variety of American Christians. The publishing trends right now would say much the same thing—Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, R. R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, and Archbishop Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land all cover much of the same ground as Dreher. Aaron Renn has used the helpful concept of a shift from a “neutral world” to a “negative world,” meaning a culture that is moving from being indifferent to the faith to actually hostile to the faith.
Moreover, a little more than a year after Dreher’s book, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed came out to surprising fanfare and escalated the conversation in precisely the right way, noting that it is not just the church under threat; it is actually the underlying social order that all Americans live under.
When communal life is under threat in the ways all these books describe, it is natural for the members of the at-risk communities to become anxious and begin developing practices and norms that will protect the group’s identity—disciplines, in other words. Thus it is no surprise that in a context where Dreher and Deneen’s work is finding such an audience that one of the more better received evangelical works on political theology would be those coming from Jonathan Leeman and 9 Marks. 9 Marks has been deeply concerned with questions of discipline for many years and it would seem they have found their moment.
That said, there are other Protestant attempts to address these questions as well. Though few have linked the conversations, much of what David Van Drunen is doing as part of his Reformed Two Kingdom project is implicitly concerned with these questions: By designating the church as part of the spiritual kingdom, Van Drunen’s work foregrounds the institutional church in ways not dissimilar to Leeman. Jamie Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project would fit into this broad category as well.
Brad Littlejohn’s The Promise and Peril of Christian Liberty is occupied with many of the same concerns as well, while arriving at very different answers than those proposed by either Leeman or the Reformed Two Kingdom school.1
For this reason, I hope readers in the DC area will attend an event that Davenant is sponsoring on precisely these questions. Speakers include Drs. Leeman and Littlejohn as well as Dr. Matt Tuininga of Calvin Seminary, who studied at Westminster California where Van Drunen teaches, as well as RTS professor Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn and Mere O contributor Joseph Minich, who reviewed Leeman’s Political Church for us.
Though I won’t spend as much time on this, it is also worth noting in passing that current movements amongst Anabaptists and Roman Christians suggest similar preoccupations with communal formation and identity. The renewed interest in traditionalism and even the Latin Mass amongst young Catholics reflects this anxiety, I think, as does the simple fact that the main flash point for current battles between conservatives and liberals in the Roman church concerns whether or not people in a particular situation are in active sin and should be denied access to the Eucharist because of their state of unrepentant sin. When group identity is under threat, it makes sense that we would ask what things make our group unique and how we can protect those things. And that is what I think we’re seeing across the board amongst various sorts of American Christians.
Second, the obvious failures of our existing institutions raises further questions about discipline as it relates to spiritual and theological formation and as it applies to major institutions.
We can see the failure of evangelical institutions under three main headings.
Under the first category, I am thinking of both things like the allegations of abuse or infidelity against prominent ministers ranging from Tullian Tchvidjian to Andy Savage to Bill Hybels as well as the ongoing problems connected with Sovereign Grace Ministries.
In one sense, these failures are not surprising and are not even necessarily reflective of deeper problems in evangelicalism. After all, ministers are sinful human beings and some of them will sometimes stumble in serious ways. That fact does not necessarily prove any broader narrative about unique shortcomings of evangelicalism.
However, there are extenuating circumstances in each case suggesting we do have more serious issues. Tchvidjian has continued to have a platform in some evangelical circles and one Anglican leader even suggested that he should be allowed to return to ministry. Meanwhile, Savage’s case may well be the most serious—a church covered up serious sexual abuse of a minor by a pastor and when the sin was finally exposed 20 years later, the congregation applauded his “transparency.” The whole thing was a farce and a blemish on the church of Christ in the United States. That said, the case of Bill Hybels is similarly alarming: Assuming Nancy Ortberg’s statement is accurate, it suggests a high level of negligence on the part of Willow Creek. And, of course, Willow Creek applauded for Hybels in much the same way that Savage’s church supported him. There is also the much-discussed case of Sovereign Grace. Again, assuming Rachael Denhollander’s statements on the matter are accurate, there was a similarly serious negligence in that case. So that is one category of failings.
Finally, the persistent support amongst self-described white evangelicals for a president who has had multiple alleged affairs with porn stars and credibly been accused—indeed confessed to!—sexual abuse further stains our reputation in the republic and weakens our moral witness.
Similarly, the long-term failures of white evangelicalism on questions of racism has brought about a reckoning. (I rather suspect that reckoning’s name to be “Donald Trump.”) While I have some reservations with the way that evangelicals have attempted to constructively address these issues, my greater concern is with the lack of constructive proposals put forward by the critics of The Gospel Coalition, the ERLC, etc. I heard a man say once that he liked so-and-so’s way of handling a problem better than everyone else’s way of not handling the problem. Such is the case with race and evangelicalism, I think.
While there are certainly unhelpful ways of addressing the question, I have yet to hear any proposal from TGC’s critics that would allow for a frank discussion about the unique challenges facing African Americans in the United States. When you consider this point alongside some of the troubling stats in the recent survey of PCA elders on racism—including one result finding that 6% of elders in the PCA do not believe the Bible condemns racism as a sin—I am far more disturbed by the aggressive posture that some have taken against TGC than I am by the credulity of some of the white people with ties to TGC and the ERLC.
In any event, due to the issues raised above, this is a time where a clear moral witness is needed and yet as the backlash against the MLK50 event shows, we are a long way from reaching that collective clarity, though I am encouraged by much of what has come out of the past few weeks, including this excellent post on generational guilt by Thabiti Anyabwile and this post by Kevin DeYoung that is attempting to identify some common ground.
Finally, there are also questions about dogmatic failures within evangelicalism. In one sense, this is just part of a much larger problem that American evangelicalism has always had—the issue of authority—which Molly Worthen raised in Apostles of Reason.
But there is also a more acute pressure currently because of aberrant views on the doctrine of God found amongst some extremely prominent evangelical leaders. Bruce Ware is a former president of ETS. Wayne Grudem is the author of the most popular systematic theology amongst evangelicals. And both men have said things over the years about the Trinity that sure sound like a species of tritheism. If recent events are anything to go off of, at least one of the parties involved has learning basically nothing from the debates of two years ago. Addressing these issues is complicated, obviously, but it seems relatively plain to me that we should want to be orthodox in our understanding of the doctrine of God and that when theologians are not orthodox on such things, something should be done to correct them—just as seminaries have, in the past, made major moves when something like the doctrine of Scripture was under threat. But the response amongst those in a position to do something has so far been to dismiss critics without bothering to consider the merits of the case.
Even as the threats to the church and to common life in the US more broadly continue to grow and the need for a helpful understanding of discipline grows with it, the church is beset by internal failings that call into question the legitimacy of our current practices of discipline by causing them to appear selective and haphazard.
Third, as the sexual revolution takes its toll on the world outside the church, refugees will come to the church.
I remember hearing a story during my time at L’Abri about a tough shepherding situation that Francis and Edith Schaeffer faced during their time at Swiss L’Abri. Briefly, three young people from France who were in a menage a trois came to L’Abri together and by the time they left all three had made professions of faith. So: What happens next? When can they be baptized? When do you admit them to the Lord’s Supper? How do you counsel them to deal with their relationship? Can two of the parties stay together and marry, provided they are of the opposite sex? Or do all three need to separate?
Or here’s another example from the summer I spent in Zambia: A rural pastor had a new convert come to him. The man was distressed because he was a new Christian who had multiple wives and he wasn’t sure if he could stay married to them as a Christian. The rural pastor actually counseled him to divorce all of them and that is, sadly, what the man did. A Zambian pastor friend of mine told me the story as an illustration of the challenges the church is facing there. “What should he have done do you think?” I asked him. “The pastor should’ve told him to take no additional wives, to continue to provide for the wives he has, and that he cannot be an elder or deacon because he has multiple wives.” I still am not sure what that means for the sexual relationship with the various wives, but so far as it goes my friend’s answer seems sensible to me.
Finally, one more story. Suppose a straight cohabitating couple with a small child begin attending your church. Now suppose both of them end up making a profession of faith not long after. They are living together and have a child. How do you counsel them? It’s one thing if you’re counseling an unmarried couple without any children and tell them, as several pastor friends of mine have, “I would like the two of you to live separately until the wedding.” But what about when a kid is in the picture?
Or, push it an even harder direction: What if a married same-sex couple that has completed the process of adopting a child begins attending your church and they make a profession of faith? How do you handle that situation? They are legally married in the eyes of the state and the child is legally theirs.
In addition to these particular situational issues, there is also the problem of how you handle recurring long-term struggles that an individual in your church might have. One pastor friend of mine had a man in his congregation who struggled with same-sex attraction and drug addiction. So if he relapses and spends a night with another man or goes back to drugs and then confesses to you and is genuinely penitent, do you still withhold the Lord’s Supper?
One answer to these kind of questions is the one put forward by Wes Hill over at The Living Church and here at Mere O yesterday. Having spent time at L’Abri and heard many hard stories, I feel the force of Wes’s position. That said, I rather suspect that Matt’s rejoinder—that such a position essentially renders all church discipline invalid save in situations where the church is existing within a Christian society—is probably correct and is, therefore, a serious problem for Wes.
That being said, even if you propose a firmer line than Wes, that is not an easy way out in itself. It is a different answer, to be sure, but assuming you have an ounce of compassion you’re still going to feel the enormous emotional weight of some of these cases. Moreover, a stricter line may well impose additional burdens not only on the lay person, but on the leadership. And if you are not willing to help bear those, it seems to me you’re falling into a different version of clerical failings that play alongside lay failings and reinforce them in certain ways.
This, then, is the crisis before us: At the same time that the church’s institutional existence is under perhaps the greatest threat it has faced in American history, the church’s moral and dogmatic witness is particularly weak. And this is the opportunity before us: As the moral lies of the sexual revolution are revealed in the lives of more and more of that revolution’s victims, the church has a chance to model a better way, to show what healthy communities look like and what submission to God’s moral law can look like.
Put another way: The crisis is that we are not prepared for this opportunity.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).