What if church discipline becomes abusive?

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I recently wrote about how church discipline should function in the light of the recent Stephen Sizer case.  This did prompt one question about what to do with the church discipline process is itself abused. The example was given of a pastor who persistently contacted another church to presurrise them into keeping a former church member in discipline.

Now, it is worth saying at this point that it may well have been right for the other person to remain under church discipline. We do not have the facts in front of us. It may be that they had persisted in unrepentant sin.  It is clear in the Sizer example that a number of people question his repentance and believe that he should be disciplined not just by his previous church but by the one where he is currently a member. Whether or not it is helpful for the previous pastor/elders to pursue the matter is up for discussion. My preference has been to wait for other churches to contact us rather than in effect following a former member around.  That is unless there is a duty to report a safeguarding issue.

However, it is possible that discipline could be misused.  It is possible for an insecure leader to use discipline to quash dissent against them personally and to avoid proper scrutiny and challenge.  It is possible for discipline itself to be used in a manner that becomes abusive and bullying.  So, what then?

This is why it is important to be very careful to ensure that we do use discipline for the right reasons and to use the right processes.  This means that proper church discipline

  1. Must be for the right reasons. It should not be used to crush disagreement.  Discipline (where we are in effect talking about excommunication) is for serious, persistent, unrepentant sin.
  2. This form of discipline is in effect a last resort thing. We shouldn’t be too eager to reach for it as our first response.
  3. It should involve a way back for the repentant sinner. It should be restorative not penal.
  4. It should not be taken lightly and it is not for a few individuals, for the pastor and elders to determine on their own. It is a whole church decision. This also means that it is incumbent on church members not to just pass through a motion to remove a member on the nod. There should be proper consideration of the evidence and discussion. My advice is that you would allow two gatherings of the church, one for people to hear the evidence and discuss the matter and then another to come together and seek to be of one mind after much prayer.

So, when we talk about churches respecting the discipline of each other. This also means that whilst we don’t ignore when someone has been disciplined elsewhere but also we don’t just refuse membership in an unthinking manner. It is important that we take time to talk both with the individual seeking to join and with their previous church to understand what the issue was and to ensure that there were genuine reasons for the discipline and that the matter was pursued in the right way.  We should then seek to ensure that matters are resolved and that there is a recognition of restoration from the previous church.

It may be that there will be times when we discover that a person is under discipline from another church but that it is wrongful and even abusive.  In such cases, I would seek the help of outside bodies such as the church network we are part of to ensure that there is a right resolution of the matter. If we are not following through with the other church’s discipline then we need to be clear about our reasons and aware that this will affect our relationship with them.  That’s why I think it is helpful at that stage to involve others so that disagreement with another church isn’t just down to you.

The crucial thing is that we remember that both as individuals and as local churches that we are are not on our own. We are part of the wider body of Christ.

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