Friday, August 4, 2017

What "The Church" Produced: The Contemporary "Scarlet 'Letter'"


One would think that "hit lists" are only reserved for Mafioso circles, political strongholds, and the seedy underworld. Unfortunately, the fact is some church leaders and their followers conduct themselves in ways at which even Newt Gingrich and Michael Corleone would marvel.

I remember many years ago a young preacher who was ostracized as a result of a seemingly innocuous decision to speak at a celebratory event held to honor a denominational minister. Of course, the reaction from the ministers in the surrounding area was sharp, prompting them to convince him (read: threaten him) to repent (read: comply with their demands to fall in line). When the preacher didn't, the group of ministers (read: unofficial council) proceeded to prepare a "letter of withdrawal" ("LOW") that circulated nationwide. The young preacher left the church but eventually returned years later. To this day, I have not seen or heard of a letter welcoming him back into the "fellowship of the saints".

This is an example of the disturbing fallout from the dreaded "LOWs": dispensed, publicized, bandied about, debated, and fancied as a tool of subjective control in the name and under the guise of church discipline. This manipulative machination has been a favorite go-to for many dogmatic, uber-aggressive, legalistic-leaning, power-hungry, self-justified, Type A church leaders - mindsets that embody very little Holy Spirit yet just enough self-centered arrogance.

I must stress the disturbing nature of the fallout that occurs from this document, one that I will call a convenient piece of legislative church propaganda. Convenient because the recourse one can fall back on is, "I got Bible for it!" Legislative because it has the flavor of procedure and protocol...and what slightly tyrannical boss doesn't love those things. Propaganda because the letter has the potential ability to sway a mass number of saints in one fell swoop because it must have been necessary to put that erring Christian on blast...regardless of whether the Christian is actually in sin or not.

And what you ask is the ultimate fallout? Lost sheep. Ostracized, possibly misunderstood, branded as outcasts, disenfranchised, occasionally victimized, at times falsely accused, disrespected, or (wait for it)...hated. Wait a minute...the hate sometimes takes place before the rough draft of the letter. But I thought that Jesus' sheep was never supposed to be able to get snatched out of His hand?? Or maybe the letter-wielding leaders make the restoration-eligible sheep feel so small or not worthy enough of mercy that they merely slip through His fingers.

And just like Hester Prynne in the novel, The Scarlet Letter, they end up being stigmatized to no end.  As a result, they wander almost aimlessly, looking for other shepherds because they were left hanging by their previous ones who decided that the stains in their wool are too much for them to scrub clean.

I'm waxing poetic a little bit, but this is the picture.

Do not misinterpret the line that I'm drawing here. Church discipline, two words you will not find together within the pages of Holy Writ, is a necessity. It is set in place by the Lord Himself to protect the people of God from sin and doctrinal error, among other purposes. Yet godly discipline must have the end goal of restoring those who are in said sin or error.

God chastens whom He loves; He doesn't love first, then put conditions on His love while He chastens.

I wonder what the "A"  would stand for in our contemporary church context.

However, it is sad that there are brethren in our midst who fit the mold of what Wayne Jackson, long-time editor of the Christian Courier, described in one of his articles:
(They are) bloodthirsty radicals (who) go for the jugular on every imaginable issue. Cocky brethren strut about with letters of withdrawal in their pockets—looking for names to fill the blanks. Thankfully, they are a rather microscopic few, and are growing significantly smaller as they fight and devour one another.
So how do we deal with this issue, seeing that there appears to be a standing concern with the influence of "LOWs" and those who either draft, stand by, or are subject to them? Here are my recommendations:

No more "LOWs" - it is NOT the Biblical model. One can try to make the case that the Apostle Paul's mention of church discipline instances in his divinely inspired discourses shows that "LOWs" are Scripturally justifiable. But that dog won't hunt. If that were the case, using that reasoning, the entire first epistle to the saints in Corinth would possibly have been 14 chapters shorter. To put it bluntly, Paul (or any other apostle) did not make it a point to go out of his way to show that documentation in the form of a letter was needed to discipline, much less restore, those in error concerning doctrine or practice.

But leaders take great pains to document efforts, retrace steps, do due diligence, and prepare these letters...sometimes in an effort to silence or, in some cases, "excommunicate" those who obviously need to be corrected. Scripturally, the concept of a letter does not have evidentiary support. In fact, if relationships in the Body were healthy on their face to begin with, typing a letter to someone we know personally and intimately would look rather foolish and suspect.

Biblically speaking, the explicit or implicit existence of a letter points to the absence of authentic koinonia (communion, mutual partnership, intimate connection). Paul's anecdotal references to Demas and Alexander in his letters to Timothy in no way reaches the level of attention to detail and recounting of infractions that "LOWs" typically contain. However, what Paul does say hints at broken fellowship between him and the brethren who either renounced their faith in Christ or were making it look like the SS Minnow.

So save the keyboard pecking for more worthwhile and Biblically supported efforts. In the final analysis, if there were any mention of an actual "LOW" in any 1st or 2nd century writings, or one written on a parchment in Koine Greek that is still in existence, it likely would've surfaced by now.

Just withdraw - that IS the Biblical model. I am friends acquainted with another young preacher who has, in the last few years, made some very controversial and Biblically illogical moves. Upon trying to meet with him on several attempts to reason with him, including once in person, he shared with me his decision - via email, mind you - that he had nothing more to say on the matter after having discussed his emerging ecclesiology with many others. So I made my decision to withdraw myself from him. Point blank.

Peep my logic: Sending a "LOW" addressed to him, sent to the congregation where he preaches, and circulated to the church at large would serve no productive purpose. It would, however, do the following: potentially turn him into either a pariah, sympathetic figure, or symbolic martyr to those in his current cohort; incite more division and muddy larger fellowship waters; force him to look upon me with bias and not spiritual integrity; strip others of the power to independently deal with the matter based on their own conscience and understanding of Scripture; and subjectively distract from the real issue (a Kingdom relationship gone sour - at least from my viewpoint - due to unplucked or unaddressed "weeds").

What I choose not to do in a "LOW" I choose rather to do in person should our paths cross in the future. I don't need a letter to withdraw (and note that I did NOT attach the word "fellowship" to "withdraw"), nor do I need to alert him to the fact that I'm withdrawing from him. That is the principal force of Romans 16.17-18 and 2 Thessalonians 3 (without elaborating further on those passages just yet...keep reading).

But how do we warn others about his behavior? Paul in these two passages does not drop names. He merely says to "mark" and "avoid" anyone who desires to espouse a doctrine or practice foreign to proper Biblical interpretation. The judgment shoud rest on the individual or congregation to ascertain if this brother or sister should be entertained.

Put another way, the church needs to be wiser readers and interpreters of spirits. So instead of excusing bad behavior with affectionate arm extensions or dismissing a clear lack of Spirit-saturated attitude, membrs would be better served to "call a spade a spade" and not hold on to the shovel when it should have been used a long time ago.

But what about Matthew 18.15-18? Well there is context and principle here. The context is specific to one offending or sinning against the other...not the teaching that is at odds with the Spirit or will of God. There is principle in the attempts to restore what is broken (i.e., "due process" similar to Titus 3.10-11). But when there are wayward doctrinal applications that fail to uphold the "whole counsel of God", the admonition is to simply withdraw. And the full force of that withdrawal is felt upon personal interaction; a "LOW" misses that personal touch, regardless of what Hallmark says. (And I mean no disrespect to Hallmark.)

How much more attention-getting and sobering would it be to the erroneous one when his long-time brother decides not to shake his hand or stay in touch anymore? If there was ever an authentic relationship, the impact of brokenness would and should hit like a ton of bricks. If the relationship was superficial or simply because "we go way back", one has to wonder if it would be worth the effort to hit "Send" or "Print". (And if he happens to be reading this blog post, I tried...my...brother...)


Have a heart. What "LOWs" have traditionally done is create an "us-versus-them" dynamic where the erring now are the enemy. This is in direct opposition to Paul's instruction in 2 Thessalonians 3 to not count the erring saint as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. Yet we see cut-throat approaches that do not yield the possibility of winning back the brother or sister.

I read of a situation where a "disfellowshipped" brother with a faithful wife would occasionally show up with her at church potlucks. The church leadership carefully weighed the matter and decided in a united fashion that the congregation should have no strictly social fellowship (e.g., fishing, going to a sports event) with him, but he should be treated kindly when he showed up for worship or a church function...AND encouraged to come again. The brother was eventually restored.

This is a wonderful example of how we can display the Spirit of Christ to those who are clearly in some form of Biblically legitimate error, be it doctrinal or behavioral. Sadly, this is the exception and not the rule. And the rule is as painful as teacher discipline in a 1970s elementary school.

No one should be happy or relieved when Brother So-and-So is not around anymore. Because the Spirit is not happy or relieved. In fact, He is grieved when any sheep is lost, potentially finding him/herself outside of the sheepfold on the other side of the Good Shepherd when night comes. And if we were in that brother's shoes, we would likely want someone to care enough, or at least try to be concerned enough, to go the length to search out for us and be willing to bind up our sin-sick infirmities and wounds. Just like the Good Shepherd.

The reality is when a good amount of sin is born out of personal pain and "church hurt", we will likely end up with a smaller flock. And those with that hurt are not in position to hear or read some insensitive and insincere church jargon on official church letterhead. At the end of the day, they don't and won't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Courageously confront those who attempt to discipline without the Spirit of Christ. Church leaders with sermons and Bible classes founded on a faulty platform of church discipline have ruled the ears of church members for eons. This has gone on despite very little happening to correct and check this teaching. But critical times call for courageous measures. And it must be those who know the Spirit and will of God well enough to say that something smells and it isn't the cleaning solution on the carpet.

Well-meaning, concerned, righteous Christians must speak up and speak out against a jack-legged, hand-me-down theology of church discipline. And these saints must not be content to sit idly by and wait for someone else to do the checking. By calling this teaching "on the carpet", it will prayerfully cause the teachers to dial down and double back on their faulty teaching. Of course, this activity would neither last or even begin if this next point was stressed to every child of God:

Study church discipline from a purely Biblical viewpoint - not from second-hand sources only. Far too often, we have had lessons on church discipline...not directly from the Bible, but from contemporary examples. Leaders who have modeled an un-Biblical approach that haphazardly slaps related Scriptures to it unfortunately capture honest hearts and shape them in warped ways. This has caused many in our churches to ask questions when disciplinary action is not taken: Why is there no letter, and what is the holdup? Why is the congregation not being warned about this individual or this congregation that is clearly in error? You mean I can't talk to this brother or sister anymore?

We should seek to maintain our relationships in the Lord, but the true test of a relationship is when both parties disagree on a major issue. The sharp contention Paul and Barnabas had over John Mark serves as a model. Through our eyes, one of them should have been running to get on Microsoft Word and do some typing. But they respected the Spirit enough to split up, because the sake of the Kingdom is generally much larger than our issues (emphasis on the word "generally").

This is not glossing over the overwhelming absence and serious need for discipline in our contemporary church atmosphere. But let it be known and stressed that the undeniable purpose of discipline was and always will be to restore, not to punish or be more right than the one in error. Or even this: to cover the multitude of sins committed by the one(s) dishing out the letter. I call this "changing the necessary narrative". All sin needs to be dealt with, not the ones that are the most salacious in the opinions of the leadership in a congregation, the local "fellowship" of leaders, or the national collective.

Sad to say, but some church leaders are about as "gangsta" as this guy here...

This begs for a holistic understanding of Biblical church discipline. Conclusions that can be inferred from responsible Bible study and hermeneutcial analysis include but are not limited to the following:

  • Every situation requiring godly discipline and restoration is not the same. So treat each situation on a case-by-case basis. Church leaders would do well to avoid ham-handed, one-size-fits-all procedures. Responsible and seasoned leadership will seek wisdom and discernment directly from God, because some situations are intricately nuanced and, like the board game Operation, require "a steady hand".
  • If a person decides to leave the church and not return, that person has consciously decided to withdraw. Pray for that person to return yet avoid the urge to get those last licks in with a "LOW". That person, in breaking all ties, has essentially relieved the church of the need to send a "LOW", which would be pointless. He/She is already gone. How can you withdraw from someone who has already withdrawn from you? If the person never returns, that would be the time to remember 1 Cor 5, 1Tim 1.18-20, and Hebrews 6.6-7. (By the way, this also applies to congregations that withdraw.) Speaking of which...
  • Any individual or congregation can Biblically withdraw from another individual or congregation for legitimate error or sin. Each Christian has the scriptural right and responsibility to inoculate him/herself from heresy or iniquity, no matter if there is one or more people involved in the sin. Additionally, autonomy cannot be used as a shield for sin and error. The slice of bread containing a little yeast and still considering itself a part of the whole loaf can't claim that the yeast is self-contained. And oftentimes, that is how error spreads: when individuals in the Kingdom unwisely hand out unauthorized hall passes to their "friends". The Kingdom takes less of a hit when members and congregations learn to prioritize righteousness over relationships.
  • Church leaders must set the example by informing their churches when they have decided as individual Christians to withdraw from an individual or congregation. Wise leaders will be transparent with their church families about those from whom they have withdrawn, and communicate this without legislating in a top-down manner to their members who have the free moral agency to decide for themselves. Wise leaders must also empower their members with a healthy Word to make their own Scripture-based, Spirit-guided decisions instead of dictating to or pressuring their members to withdraw - to the point that they will withdraw from their own if they conclude that their members chose incorrectly who they should or should not withdraw from.
  • There has to be a blend of "tough love" and compassion in discipline. God chastens whom He loves, yet His chastening has an embedded element of mercy. By contrast, hard lines create hard feelings. As was mentioned earlier, "LOWs" and the theology that backs them produce an "us-versus-them" dynamic that goes against Paul's apostolic instruction to not count the sinful/erroneous as enemies but to admonish them as you would a brother (2 Thessalonians 3.15). They are still family, but we deal with them in a way that protects the rest of the family and teaches the importance of family values that must be maintained or else suffer the consequences of broken ties.

Keep this in mind: withdrawal takes place without "LOWs" ALL the time, and it has been happening for nearly a bicentennial. We just don't call it withdrawal. Individual Christians, entire congregations, or subjectively- (or selectively-)drawn "fellowships" do not associate or even have a "common meal" with others Christians based on:
  • obvious racism;
  • unwillingness to assimilate or dismissive tendencies on racial, cultural, geographic, or socioeconomic grounds;
  • differences in expediency (e.g., one cup, group singing);
  • purely fabricated sins (e.g., having a meal with a Baptist minister);
  • congregation/church building size;
  • who's in the pulpit/who doesn't have concerts/whose youth group is lit...et cetera, et cetera...
We don't CALL these situations withdrawal, but that's what it is. No matter how you slice it, there are two types of camps/teams: the "True Puritans" (no matter if they are justified or not) and the "Prynnes" (no matter if they are faulty or not). THIS is what "the church" continues to produce. And the recommendations above represent a potential path forward out of this hot mess.

Because when we fail to accurately study and teach the Word of God, and we neither own or learn from the good, the bad, and the ugly of our historical church context, we are unfortunately doomed to repeat it.
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NOTE: For an excellent study on the issue of withdrawal, please click on this link:
"Withdrawing Fellowship" by David Padfield

Sources:
Jackson, Wayne. "Singin' the Blues." ChristianCourier.com. Access date: June 5, 2017. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1384-singin-the-blues

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