Sunday, January 20, 2008

Banned From Church

Friday’s Wall Street Journal carries the story of Allen Baptist Church in Allen, Michigan practicing what is commonly referred to as church discipline. It seems that 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey (pictured), a church member for 50 years who taught Sunday school and tithed 10% of her pension had been banned from the church for gossip, slander and idolatry. When she showed up for church anyway the pastor called 911 and had the police come and arrest Mrs. Caskey for trespassing.

Journalist Alexandra Alter goes on to let us know that Mrs. Caskey “moves with a halting gait, due to two artificial knees and a double hip replacement. Friends and family describe her as a generous woman who helped pay the electricity bill for Allen Baptist when funds were low, gave the church $1200 when she sold her van and even cut the church’s lawn on occasion. She has requested an engraved image of the church on her tombstone.”

The article goes on to describe how church discipline has been increasingly practiced in churches across America and several times has resulted in lawsuits of the shunned church member against the church.

From Alter’s information there is no question that the church is wrong, right?

I appreciate Alter’s article and, the case in question is obviously fascinating. I do wish Alter had told a little more of the other side of the story, namely that many times church discipline has positive and healthy outcomes. When gossipers clean up rumors and the sexually impure clean up relational messes and the financially unethical begin dealing honestly, it is to everyone’s benefit.

In some ways the church is in a no win position in the court of public opinion. One of the major criticisms of the church is that people are hypocrites. But, when a church seriously deals with character flaws and thus the hypocrisy issue, then the church is charged with being judgmental.

First let me quickly admit that many times church discipline is poorly handled. The goal of church discipline should always be the loving restoration of an erring member. Many times the discipline simply comes off as punitive rather than redemptive.

Church discipline is supposed to be a process as outlined in Matthew 18 which has most of the engagement with an erring member happening in a private and confidential manner. It only goes public when the member refuses to respond with repentance. Banning or shunning should always be an absolute last resort.

Let me also admit that I don’t know who is right in the case of the Michigan church. My reflection on the article really centers on the public sentiment that churches are harsh or judgmental if they enforce a high moral standard. The bottom line is that the Church, which includes every local congregation, belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the one that sets the standards and He is the one that calls for the purifying or sanctifying of the Church.

Remember, it was Jesus who came down pretty hard on the Pharisees and priests (religious people) because He expected more out of them than who they had become.

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