Friday, January 01, 2010

The Failure of Church Discipline and the Failure of the Reformation

It occurs to me that the reformation is failing, because church discipline, isn't working.
In my chosen denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, it is viewed that "the church" in Christ's description of church disciplinary procedure is the leadership. In a Presbyterian church, conservative or liberal, that body is the session. Ok, let's go with that. First though, let's look at the text of Matthew 18:
"If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church (ἐκκλησία-ekklēsia): but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
The Greek word for church (ἐκκλησία ekklēsia), really doesn't lend itself to a leadership gathering but more towards the whole church. That's the first point. The second is this procedure does not lend itself to tight control over the congregation by the leadership. Anything decided in private can be appealed to the most public configuration of the church and it's leadership, if it is indeed meant as it would seem here, that when you lose the one on one, the two or three on one, you take it to everyone. Since the word can mean the ENTIRE Church, such as the "Church Universal," it can mean a decision can be appealed to the whole of a denomination. This can only be undertaken when individual bodies are responsible to one another, hence, in part I would think, Presbyterian governance, and why I prefer it.

Taking the narrow interpretation favored by church and denominational leadership, that "the church" Christ refers to in disciplinary matters, is THEM, the leadership, there is still this uncomfortable reality. What if the session, who is the church in this formulation is held by someone, either in the session, or being accused before the session, to be wrong. It could be the accused, the accuser, a minority member of the session. Let us go to 1st Timothy 5:
"Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality."
The problem would be, that you could conceive of the session as of a Presbyterian church as a constituted court, as described in 1st Corinthians 6, but when that court behaves badly, who is the judge? The court? In the case of session misbehavior, either by one or all of them, the only place for such judgment is the church, because in misbehaving, one would expect that most of the time, they would cover their own misbehavior. 1st Timothy 5 then becomes a "never use" procedure, which I constantly refer to as the "emergency stop" of the movie "Spaceballs." (If you ever saw it, you remember that the "emergency stop" was labeled with a tag that said "never use.")

So of necessity then, the court of last resort in the immediate area of the church, is the church body itself, at the very least, because the issue of Elder misconduct is the province of the church as a whole. The discipline of the Elder, is to be public, for the specific reason that it serves as a warning to all. The church will publicly deal with it's highest leaders, and punish them publicly which is a statement that no man's power exceeds the rules of the church. The rules of the church as both Christ and Paul laid them out.

It may be that "going before the church" is going before the session, but if the session is questioned, as it is in my recent encounter with them, the battle goes before the church. Herein is the problem, because the denomination (and most of them for that matter) teach THEY are the court of last resort, not the congregation, and the congregation, eager to be uninvolved in the matter, assent to that. In trying to take the issue to the congregation, the congregation viscerally rejects hearing the case, and becomes angry, and the session becomes indignant, and then starts massively bending rules, such as deciding in private, receiving anonymous accusations and then employing the sword of civil authority, to enforce their views. How can this be the public process of Matthew 18 where accusers go in person, the courts of 1st Corinthians 6, which are to be used instead of the shame of public ones and the center ring keel-hauling of the elders? It's not. But that's the way things have gone.

The result of this is moral failings are not aired out in public, which is consistent with "confessing your sins one to another" and doctrinal questions don't get dealt with. Doctrinal failing on the part of an individual is "heresy." The session Polices membership, assigns the name heresy to doctrine, the member cannot be a member, or is thrown out of membership in private tribunals, and there can be no questioning of doctrine. We get then Westminster Confessions of Faith thrown in our faces, and while the Bible is supposed to be the final word, the real final word is the WCF vision of what the Bible says, and it can never be questioned, or you sin, and you're thrown out and the congregation doesn't want to hear it.

Why then haven't we reformed anything lately (Semper Reformanda)? Because you can't get anything past the guard dogs of the denomination, and the denominations as a whole, would prefer to sleep. The snarling reaction of my congregation this week which essentially was "I don't want to be involved," proving why we, as conservative reformed people, are dying out. Some estimates are that there are less that 700,000 in the United States and some of the larger denominations in this country are actually comprised of ethnic Koreans, evangelized and convinced, who have moved to this country. That's about 10% of conservative reformed Presbyterian membership all by itself. We stay perpetually stuck in the confessional mode, swearing to authorities like the WCF. Functionally speaking though, if anything is wrong with the WCF or various other reformation era catechisms or confessions, there is no way to change them unless what we do is destroy our faith, as theologically liberal denominations have done.

None of what happened this week was really a surprise. The minor details of exact procedure and speed of action could be said to be mildly surprising. I knew for instance, that the church would "Go G" on me, I just didn't know exactly how. I was fully expecting to be served, at work, with a restraining order. It just worked out a little differently than that.


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1 comment:

Convenor said...

Would you mind letting your readers know about the most recent issue of our Catholic Heritage Journal from Ireland:

http://catholicheritage.blogspot.com/2009/12/christvs-regnat-december-2009.html

It would also be very kind if you would link/blogroll/follow our blog:

www.catholicheritage.blogspot.com

Please pray for me!

God bless you!