Church Discipline in a Consumer Culture: A Call for Compelling Community

In his essay, Matthew Brooks advocates the importance of church discipline, explaining how our culture of consumerism has undermined the biblical model. He presents the case for reclaiming biblical church discipline by, “pursuing a Trinitarian model of compelling community based on our unity in Christ.” He states that the root of the problem is that our consumer-driven individualistic society undercuts church discipline by viewing it as archaic and oppressive, thus leading people to believe that the church is merely a “vendor of religious services and goods,” where churches compete to offer the most attractive array of programs to gain ‘customers’. In this sort of environment it is not difficult to see why church discipline is ineffective, when people can easily move on to another church willing to serve their needs. Brooks asserts that real Christian unity cannot be achieved apart from the Triune God who unites us both to Him and to each other. He concludes that, “with a renewed desire for biblical discipline, the church will be more capable of transforming the wider culture by shining forth as an example of holiness and love, thereby attracting many to be transformed by the holiness and love of Christ himself.”
Church Discipline in a Consumer Culture: A Call for Compelling Community

6 Responses to “Church Discipline in a Consumer Culture: A Call for Compelling Community”

  1. Mike Says:

    This (IMHO) is just another example of a law centered gospel that beats God’s children into submission = “Act in this way or we will throw you out!”

    While the biblical model of church discipline is suggested, how are we to define that model? Are we to take the Bible literally? If this is the case then we must put out of our fellowship all those who are unclean (for any number of reasons) according to the biblical instructions found in Leviticus. This would include women who are in their minstrel cycle, for they are unclean. Ridiculous as that sounds, the point here is that church discipline, based on a biblical model, is impossible! It must either follow the Bible right down to the letter of the law or it is ‘humanly’ forced to discern what is useable and what is out of date. And as to the latter, who will be the judge as to what biblical practice will be used and what will not? (It is understood that the above example about women is not considered an act of sin thereby forcing the church to discipline its own. The question is: how far can a community take biblical obedience in order to rightly practice biblical discipline?)

    If we are to practice ‘Biblical discipline’ we must know the punishment for all things previously judged (by someone or some group) to be wrong. What would that proper punishment be? “Repent, and you can stay with us?” Would there be a sin or sins that would not allow for repentance? If that were the case, how could we possibly be practicing biblical forgiveness? Are we to say, “We forgive you, but what you have done is evil and not worthy of being in fellowship with the Christian community.?”

    Looking to the Apostle Paul for a decision as to what particular sin causes person to be expelled from the Christian community, we can see calls for the rejection of sexually immoral people. What does that mean and who is to discern what that means? Is it just the adulterer? What about those who have divorced and remarried? What about those who are involved in premarital sex? What about people who abstain from sexual intercourse until married but sexually satisfy themselves? Who else should we throw out…oh yes, lets not forget those practicing the homosexual and lesbian lifestyle.

    Now that we have purged the church from those ‘sexually immoral”, let’s turn our interest toward the rest of the Apostle’s list in 1 Corinthians 5. We should not associate with people who call themselves “brother” (Christian) who are “sexually immoral, or greedy, an idolater, or slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler.” Being greedy is hard to define. At what point in time is an entrepreneur to be considered greedy? When he has built his business to the point of being able to sustain more than his family and the future of his business? If he has two stores, should he be forbidden to open a third because this is to be viewed as greedy? And what of the idolater; are there any among us who view and use money in an idolatrous way? What about our ‘Christian brother’ who gossips? Is this not slander? How many beers am I allowed to drink before I am to be considered a drunkard? And finally, to insure that no one is swindling anyone, including the government; should we evaluate all tax returns before we continue to allow fellowship each year?

    Are there any sin free persons left in the church?

    Do you see how absolutely absurd and legalistic this can become? What I am asking is: “How far are we to take biblical discipline? We cannot simply say that the bible will decide; for human sinfulness will enter into discerning exactly what the Bible is saying and thereby causing the very extremes listed above.

    Should the Christian Church practice legalistic fundamentalism, seeking only to be the judge of others in its fellowship?
    Or should the Church practice forgiveness?
    Forgiveness, of course, is not for excusing the sin but about giving the judgment (and punishment) of that sin over to Christ. A Church centered in forgiveness, loves all of God’s children regardless of what they have done. A Church centered in forgiveness understands its own need for that same forgiveness given to them by God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

    Should we not ALL focus on that very forgiveness?

  2. Matthew Brooks Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mike. Defining the “biblical model” of church discipline obviously fell beyond the scope of my essay. I hope it was clear that I was speaking of the New Testament church (which excludes the need for one to be “ceremonially clean”). Obviously individual churches would need to to asses each situation prayfully and in light of scripture to determine when discipline is appropriate and how exactly it should be carried out. I do believe that the exercise of corrective discipline by the church is our duty to fellow believers. I would look to passages such as Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5, and Galatians 6:1 as examples of what this looks like. What needs to be stressed here is that the point of biblical church discipline is never punative (to punish the offender). There are cases (heretical teaching, divisive gossip, etc.) where church discipline is exercised to protect the rest of the church from the negative consequences of a persistant and unrepentant area of sin but the primary purpose for church discipline is for the benefit of the sinner. If we allow an unrepentant person to persistantly sin in a visible way without confronting them and doing everything we can (up to and including withholding fellowship) to repent we are not truly loving that person. The motivation should never be to punish as you correctly point out we must leave judgment to God. Never the less God has charged us with the responsability to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” and one of the key biblical tools for doing this is the prayerful and loving application of church discipline as exercised in the Bible.

  3. heffe Says:

    Matthew. Thank you for writing this essay. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and your thoughts just happen to parallel my own. I agree with Mike’s frustrations with discipline becuase enevtibly the “list of sins” can become very subjective and can lead to a “do and don’t” model that is already prolific regardless of discipline.

    I think that church discipline works best when we take away the shame and embareassment that church discipline can invoke. If working properly, I would think that everyone would have some kind of discipline going on from the pastor all the way down to the regular attender. I arrived here when thinking about the old testatment system of cleanliness. Its like we add this value judgement that unclean = bad. When that isn’t true. There were hosts of people that were unclean at one time or another in Israel and I don’t believe that those people when they were clean again were looked down upon or anything like that.

    Just is the case with church discipline. We are all sinners and fall short the glory of God. When we see that our sin is no different then the sin of our brother, then we can work together and to spur each other on. We can remove the foundation for gossip, guilt, and shame by being honest with each other and not trying to hide our sin or to project an image of holiness that is frankly not there. By doing so, we can work together as a Trinitarian community to lift each other up and to become more like the person that we already are in Christ.

  4. Matthew Says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and kind words. It is quite true that church discipline should not promote legalism and that not every sin can or should be brought into the church discipline process.

    You raise a valid point that while we tend to focus on the final stages of church discipline (removal from fellowship) in discussions like these all of us who have had sin pointed out to us by fellow believers have experienced biblical church discipline. If we repented when confronted we did not find shame but grace and peace. If we absolutely refuse to repent of sin that clearly violates Christ and his teachings we should be ashamed and embarrassed of ourselves, not because we have “fallen short of the glory of God” but because we are grieving our Lord who died to save us. This shame should be there whether the church confronts us or not but the confrontation presents us with an opportunity to repent and remove the shame. The goal of church discipline then isn’t to create shame but to remove it by encouraging repentance.

    I also agree with you that an environment of grace where confession of sin and genuine repentance is encouraged and not punished must go hand in hand with the biblical process of discipline. Where grace is lacking what church’s call “discipline” can become punitive punishment where shame is used as a weapon against those who have fallen short of legalistic standards. This is contrary to Biblical discipline which only seeks to correct for the good of the fallen brother or sister.

  5. Tami Says:

    I am someone who was disfellowshipped this four days ago without notice (I had not attended services for months out of respect for the pastor with whom I disagreed over non-doctrinal community issues.) I have been careful not to slander this pastor, but have heard several comments from others that have been made about me. I was not given the opportunity to discuss or repent for whatever is so grievous to the pastor(s) prior to my name being given to the deacons as one who is not allowed on the premises. As a founding member of this church, and a former member of leadership, and a person who has not been informed of the charges based on which I have been disfellowshipped, I find the experience to be much more punitive than protective of the church community.

  6. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    Hi Tami, what you write about is a tragic reality, and in my opinion, a perversion of the design of church discipline. As Matthew has pointed out in the comment above yours, the Biblical sense of discipline is to seek to correct for the good of the fallen brother or sister.

    Because this is a blog about race and class issues, it is not necessarily going to be a good place for discussing your specific situation, other than to say as a pastor that I am very sorry that this has happened to you when leadership is not being up front about what is at issue.

    It has taken a great deal of time for me to come to terms with the idea of church discipline being a good thing, and it hasn’t been until thinking of it, and seeing it portrayed as part of discipleship and as a function of love that I have been able to come to this sort of realization.

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