How Discipline Died
The Protestant reformers named three "marks by which the true church is known": the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline to correct faults. Today, church discipline is feared as the mark of a false church, bringing to mind images of witch trials, scarlet letters, public humiliations, and damning excommunications. Does discipline itself need correction and redemption in order to be readmitted into the body of Christ? We have asked several experts from different (and sometimes contrasting) professional and theological backgrounds to explain how church discipline fell into disrepair and how it can be revived, so that the true church can fully embody the pure doctrine of the gospel once again.
Who killed church discipline? As in any good mystery story, fingers point everywhere.
It's tempting to finger the megachurch as the prime suspect, if only for its size. In such settings, it is hard to keep track of the membership rolls, let alone members' personal lives. Congregants from the 9:30 service rarely meet those who attend the 11:00 service, even if they may be committed to biblical mandates to help a fellow church member in spiritual or moral trouble. But how can one even tell a member? Many people attending these churches may be church hoppers or perennial visitors, considering themselves free-floating Christians without accountabilityand they like it that way.
But so do those attending tiny congregations; the culprit is not size. Many Protestant churches, especially evangelical ones, have long disconnected salvation and church membership: a consequence of the enduring tradition of evangelism and revivalism centered in itinerants' parachurch organizations. The revivalist tradition has fostered the view that people might be members of a church without being saved. Despite the efforts of responsible evangelists from John Wesley to Billy Graham to engage converts with local congregations, converts accept salvation at some stadium and only secondarily get to a church, suggestingcontrary to the teaching of the New Testamentthat salvation is separable from accountable membership in a congregation.
Parachurch-focused revivalism, however, is merely an accomplice. The real killer of church discipline today is none other than Emperor Constantineor rather the long shadow of Constantinianism and its product, the state church. All of the major Protestant reformers kept the state-church arrangement and used the powers of the state to correct problems in the church, either deliberately or by default. Luther, for example, never instituted an order for church discipline, saying that if the state did its job of dealing with offenders, the church wouldn't need to. Calvin used the authority of the state to deal with both morals in Geneva and the doctrinal heresies of Michael Servetus.
This legacy is with us today in two forms, despite our formal separation of church and state. One is to continue to assume (or to hope?) that the criminal justice system will take care of many offenders, relieving the church of that responsibility. Of course, the state is most willing to accept this task, continually adding laws on all levels of societyfederal, state, municipal, and county. Too often, however, the church tends to go along with the state's valuation of what's important. Shoplifting must be prosecuted, but adultery is a nonissue for the state. Both are sins, but which may hurt society more in the end?