Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Church discipline: the when

Last week's post on how to handle cases of church discipline got me thinking about when you need to do this. Here's my take on the subject:

There are really only three reasons to discipline a church member:
  1. You need to keep this person from hurting people. Pedophiles are an obvious example; so too would a church member who uses their contacts with other members to run a Ponzi scheme.
  2. You need to make sure this person knows what they've done is wrong. I once had a convicted rapist say what he'd done "couldn't be that bad," since he was still a member of our church. This gave us a chance to provide him with a "learning experience."
  3. You need to protect the reputation of your church. In 30-years of ministry, I've never needed to do this . . . but if a church member was guilty of something like genocide, then it would be nice to find a way to let the public know that we don't approve of this.
You have six options for disciplining a church member:
  1. You can ignore it. You're not a private detective, after all -- and in some cases, you have nothing but rumor to go on. So leave it be, and see what develops (if anything).
  2. You can ask them to step down from church office. If you have a cantankerous Pathfinder leader, for instance, this may be your best option.
  3. You can ask them to drop their church membership. They know they've done wrong, and they know they're not about to change . . . and sometimes, they just want to move on.
  4. The church may vote to censure them. This removes them from church office, freezes any membership transfers, and gives them a limited time to make whatever changes are needed. At the end of that time-period, you revisit the case and decide where to go from there. (But no, you can't keep censuring them indefinitely.)
  5. The church may vote to drop their membership. Churches hate, hate, HATE to do this -- and the pain of doing so will linger for years. But sometimes, what can you do?
  6. You can tell them not to attend church. If you have a convicted pedophile who will not agree to whatever conditions you've set for that person to attend church, then you will need to tell that person they're not welcome to worship with you. And no, this isn't fun -- but I've done it, because the alternative was worse.
One last piece of advice: If you're going to vote on dropping a member, then decide in advance what kind of majority is needed to do so. In our church, for instance, we've decided . . . okay, it was my decision, but nobody has challenged me on this. Anyway, it's been decided that we don't vote to to accept a new member or drop someone's membership unless there's a three-to-one vote in favor.

1 comment:

gwalter said...

Good, clear guidelines Greg!

I wish it was always this easy.

It has been my experience that doing this in a business meeting is very messy - especially if it is contested.

Membership in the church is more like membership in a club. It would be best if the church board, or a membership committee handled this.

Many evangelical churches leave this decision up to the pastor - but only when the pastor answers to a governing board, not a working board.

A few years ago, two of my small group leaders, who were married to other people, decided they wanted to be in a relationship with one another. We had to remove them from membership, there was no other choice. But the only drama took place via email between me and one of these individuals - because of our structure, even the board was not involved.

At another church, I discovered that not only were several people involved in similar situations, but we had a couple of convicted sexual predators still on the "books."

Ugh. It took months of church board debates/discussions, letters, phone calls, emails, policy revisions, and finally a business session to have these people removed from membership. Too much drama.

A more apostolic model is called for. Let's save the drama for the Latter Rain!