The Wall Street Journal recently ran a long article on the subject of church discipline. Titled "Banned from Church," the article ran with the subhead, "Reviving an ancient practice, churches are exposing sinners and shunning those who won't repent." It is a disturbing article for various reasons.
First, it gives the statistic by scholarly estimates that about 10%-15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice church discipline. That means that in 85%-90% of these churches there is no such thing as church discipline. Given that the Journal article mentions things such as adultery, drunkenness and theft as some of the sins that the minority of churches are disciplining, we are left with the somber fact that in almost all America's Protestant evangelical churches grievous moral sins will go unaddressed and unpunished. That is serious. When you add that in mainline denominations church discipline is almost non-existent you can see that churches have made themselves very comfortable with sin in the camp. Is it any wonder there is so little blessing from God in their services?
Second, some of the reasons given in the article for excommunicating people appear frivolous, or at least whimsical.
Third, in most churches, especially in independent churches, there appears to be little or no established order for church government and for the process of charging and trying a member's sin. This has led to all sorts of public actions that are both unnecessary and often counter-productive.
Fourth, I gather from the Journal article that in a great number of cases, members look at their sins, even those involving a loss of public testimony, not as so many attacks on the honor of the Lord or the testimony of His church but as purely personal affairs. Hence, if they confess their sins when confronted by their pastor, they treat that as a personal, confidential conversation and are ready to sue him if he brings it before the legitimate church authorities.
The Journal article seems to draw no distinction between very different causes for church discipline. It treats people accused of adultery and those accused of speaking ill of their pastor as if they were morally equivalent. Unfortunately, even pastors often seem not be able to draw necessary distinctions in the severity of censurable conduct by their members. Many of them act solely on their own initiative. That is one reason why I am glad to be a minister of a Presbyterian church where I must act in accordance with clearly recognized principles for ensuring due process; and where I must act in concert with the elected elders of the congregation. When a member is disciplined, it is with a view to restoration. Here if a member feels aggrieved by a decision against him he has the right of appeal and may indeed ask the Presbytery (the combination of ministers and elders from a number of congregations) to reverse the decision against him.When all is said and done, the process of discipline is never easy, but it can be richly blessed by the Lord. Churches need to have properly established church courts (elder boards) and appeals processes; members need to respect them and abide by their decisions; and all together need to make the process one that will seek to restore the erring ones and reflect positively on the public testimony of the church.