Ethics Scandals and Local Church Autonomy

The Oxford Concise English Dictionary defines autonomy as (1) the possession or right of self-government, (2) freedom of action. In other words, autonomy is the freedom to make choices according to the individual or group’s own principles and values. It’s freedom of conscience.

For Christians and New Testament local churches, autonomy is 100% conditioned by obedience to our Lord. In that sense, we have no autonomy. But in relation to those other than ourselves and Christ, we do have autonomy: the freedom to act according to what we believe to be the will of Christ.

We should view that kind of autonomy as precious, fragile, and a sacred trust.

We may better understand and value it if we consider it through a historical and theological lens. That consideration may also help us better understand how allegations of misconduct among members (including staff) ought to be handled.

Some Historical Light

During the Reformation, as churches were recovering biblical views of Christ, faith, and grace, they were also recovering a more biblical understanding of church structure and order. All reforming churches rejected the authority of the Pope and the traditions of Rome. Congregationalists went a step further, rejecting episcopal and presbyterian forms of church government.

(”Congregationalism” is used two, somewhat overlapping senses: (1) in reference to local church autonomy vs. the authority of some body outside it, and (2) in reference to the authority of the congregation vs. that of church leaders within it, such as elders or a single authoritarian pastor. My focus here is on the first sense.)

In England, seven congregationalist Baptist churches published what came to be known as the First London Confession (1644, revised in 1646: Theopedia). Article XLVII reveals a bit of their thinking on on autonomy (emphasis added):

And although the particular congregations be distinct, and several bodies, every one as a compact and knit city within itself; yet are they all to walk by one rule of truth; so also they (by all means convenient) are to have the counsel and help one of another, if necessity require it, as members of one body, in the common faith, under Christ their head. (Reformed Reader)

Though reforming churches everywhere drew heavily from England’s Westminster Confession of Faith after 1646, congregational churches objected to its presbyterian model of church governance and discipline.

Accordingly, Congregationalists in England published the document now commonly known as the Savoy Declaration, in 1658. This confession adopts nearly all of the Westminster (more on that), but includes an extended section focused on church discipline and local church autonomy. Some of the same language appears in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Philadelpha Confession of Faith of 1742.

A few excerpts might convey the essence of their belief and practice (emphasis added):

4. To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his Word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe, with commands and rules for the due and right exerting and executing of that power.

6. Besides these particular churches, there is not instituted by Christ any church more extensive or catholic entrusted with power for the administration of his ordinances, or the execution of any authority in his name.

22. The power of censures being seated by Christ in a particular church, is to be exercised only towards particular members of each church respectively as such; and there is no power given by him unto any synods or ecclesiastical assemblies to excommunicate, or by their public edicts to threaten excommunication, or other church-censures against churches, magistrates, or their people upon any account, no man being obnoxious to that censure, but upon his personal miscarriage, as a member of a particular church.

Paragraph 26 endorses voluntary formation of a special purpose “synod or council” as needed, but adds that

these synods so assembled are not entrusted with any church-power, properly so called, or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures, either over any churches or persons, or to impose their determinations on the churches or officers.

The word “autonomy” does not appear in the Declaration, but the authority of local churches to govern themselves, answering only to Christ, is unmistakable – especially in response to wrongdoing by members.

Theological Light

Several theologians of note also offer helpful summaries of the congregationalist understanding of local church autonomy.

Martin Lloyd-Jones seems to have been more Presbyterian than anything else, but spoke well of congregationalism.

The Congregationalists—those who believe in the congregational system—affirm that every local church is an entity in itself, that it has supreme power to decide everything itself. It is a gathering of Christians who believe that the Lord is present and is the Head of the Church, and who believe that, as they look to Him and wait upon Him, He, by the Spirit, will guide them and give them the wisdom they need to decide about doctrine and discipline, and so on. The local church is autonomous, it governs itself, and does not look to any higher body, be it a bench of bishops, a presbytery, a general assembly or anything else. (Great Doctrines of the Bible, Vol. 3, 22)

After complaining that there seemed to be no congregationalist churches left, he gave the idea a hearty endorsement.

And that is why I suggest the local independent view: it seems to me to approximate most closely to the New Testament pattern. Each local church should be autonomous and independent, but ready always to meet in fellowship with those who are like-minded and of a like spirit. (23)

Turning to Baptist theologians, Roland McCune is concise:

The Local Church Has the Authority to Settle Its Internal Affairs

Concerning saints going to law against other saints (1 Cor 6:1–5), Paul directs the local church at Corinth to care for its difficulties. No committee was formed and no pressure was brought to bear either by other churches, apostles, or ministerial executives. The decision of the local church on the matter was final. There is no higher court of appeal or body of jurisdiction; the local church’s judgment is final (Matt 18:15). (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Vol. 3, 236)

Local Church Government Is Biblical in Constitution

The authority, principles and rules of organization are to be found in the Bible alone: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ … he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Tim 6:3–5).

Local Church Government Is Congregational in Form

Each local church has supreme authority in its own affairs. It cannot be dominated, coerced or interfered with by any power outside itself. This does not preclude cooperation with other local churches, but such cooperation or association has no authority over the local church. (236)

Augustus H. Strong wrote of local church authority in matters of discipline, also noting what should happen when the church leadership botches their part of the job (emphasis added):

As the Prudential Committee, or Committee on Discipline, is simply the church itself preparing its own business, the church may well require all complaints to be made to it through the committee. In this way it may be made certain that the preliminary steps of labor have been taken, and the disquieting of the church by premature charges may be avoided. Where the committee, after proper representations made to it, fails to do its duty, the individual member may appeal directly to the assembled church; and the difference between the New Testament order and that of a hierarchy is this, that according to the former all final action and responsibility is taken by the church itself in its collective capacity, whereas on the latter the minister, the session, or the bishop, so far as the individual church is concerned, determines the result. (Systematic Theology, 926)

Conclusion

The goal here has been to clarify what the idea of local church autonomy is, and, along the way, also demonstrate that it wasn’t cooked up by a few fundamentalists in the 1980s. The idea is verifiably as old as the Reformation. The biblical support – which I’ve made no attempt to cover here – points to its origin under the leadership of the Apostles.

For the biblical case for congregationalism, I recommend the systematic theologies by Strong (904-908), Millard J. Erickson (1079-1080) and McCune (232-237) as well as Larry Oats’ article at Proclaim and Defend, Andy Naselli’s post at Thoughts on Theology, and Fred Mortiz’s “Congregational Government: a Response to James McDonald” here at SI.

How should belief in local church autonomy shape our response when members of a congregation have accused other members of unethical conduct? We should understand the following:

  1. The moral and ethical standards come from the congregation itself as it strives to obey Scripture.
  2. Since the congregation has established its own ethics standards, it alone has the authority to enforce them.
  3. Where civil and criminal law is relevant, law enforcement operates separately and in addition to the local church’s discipline process, though law enforcement action may have to precede church action chronologically.
  4. Churches following New Testament order (autonomous, congregational) should ensure that informed consent is built into the membership process, so that everyone who joins is fully aware of the church’s ethical standards, consequences for violation, and how investigations will be conducted (when necessary). Typically, when lawsuits have resulted over church handling of ethics scandals, it’s been the result of alleged defamation, emotional distress, etc., by individuals who have been disciplined.

For more on discipline and legal matters, see Jay A. Quine, “Court Involvement in Church Discipline, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Issue 593; and “Court Involvement in Church Discipline, Part 2,” by the same author in issue 594. The following are also helpful, and more current:

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There are 28 Comments

Fred Moritz's picture

1. Self-governing

2. Self-supporting

3. Self-propagating

Aaron Blumer's picture

I believe in all three of those things, but personally don't prefer to lump them together with the term "autonomy." I usually use three terms, more like: 

1. Autonomous
2. Self-supporting
3. Self-propagating

Just my preference though.

Clarification

On this point in the article...

3. Where civil and criminal law is relevant, law enforcement operates separately and in addition to the local church’s discipline process, though law enforcement action may have to precede church action chronologically.

I was going to edit this, but it works OK as is. I do want to clarify that 1 Cor. 6 is meant to instruct believers not to sue other believers in reference to what we today call civil law. I'm no lawyer, but others have written extensively on this topic and I agree generally that 1 Cor. 6 is about civil law, whereas the kinds of crimes that prosecuting attorneys take to criminal courts... I believe churches need to involve law enforcement in these cases, while also exercising their duty to discipline.

Bert Perry's picture

Regarding the use of Matthew 18:15 to argue that the local church's judgment is final, please consult 2 Corinthians 2:6, where the Apostle Paul, absent from the church of Corinth, specifically modifies the church's punishment of the man who had his father's wife.  Obviously as far as Paul was concerned, he was empowered to second guess the Corinthian church's behavior in this regard.  What's worth noting as well is that in the same letter, Paul actually has to defend his apostleship--making the argument that his readers understood and respected his use of apostolic authority less tenable.

Sorry, but once again, the New Testament is not the story of absolute church authority to handle these cases, rather of limited authority which may be revisited.  Moreover, the very existence of the New Testament, including several books NOT written by apostles (Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James and Jude) is testimony to outsiders telling the church what to do.  So is the example of the Prophets of the Old Testament, really.  

Moreover, it's very significant that fundamentalists have never applied such a doctrine consistently.  Look at our debates of Billy Graham, the FBFI, and the like.  We are not shy about telling other churches how to manage their affairs, to put it mildly, so if we really value the autonomy of the local church, maybe repentance starts at home.

And regarding 1 Cor. 6 and lawsuits, let's just say good luck trying to apply that one when the nonbelieving parents of a kid who comes to AWANA on your bus, or the nonbelieving parents of a kid in youth group, find out their child has been molested, raped, or assaulted.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

The NT is what we have of apostolic authority today. That being the case, believers must decide what they believe the Scriptures teach. There is no escaping that. In local churches, likeminded believers band together and discern together, as best they can, what Christ and His apostles have revealed.

This is basic biblical ecclesiology not invented by fundamentalists, Bert. The brief excerpts of 17th century creeds in the article are enough to make that evident. But there is so much more evidence.

"it's very significant that fundamentalists have never applied such a doctrine consistently"

No, it really isn't very significant. Everyone knows that the degree to which people consistently or inconsistently obey a command has no bearing on the validity of the command. Try telling the traffic cop that people have never consistently stopped at stop signs.

And regarding 1 Cor. 6 and lawsuits, let's just say good luck trying to apply that one when the nonbelieving parents of a kid who comes to AWANA on your bus, or the nonbelieving parents of a kid in youth group, find out their child has been molested, raped, or assaulted.  

You seem to have not read what I said about that completely. 1 Cor. 6 is about members of local churches taking other members to court. The many other scenarios that occur would call for thoughtful application of a variety of principles. But as a matter of biblical reasoning, the difficulty of applying any biblical teaching is not grounds for dismissing it. Simply put, we are not free to set aside the Scriptures because we think we know a better way. 

As for "molested, raped, or assaulted," these are crimes (and felonies!) and I've consistently stated the obvious about crimes: that they must go before law enforcement promptly.

By now, it's hard to believe you don't already know this. You aren't srenghtening your case by transparently misrepresenting my position when everyone can easily see what I'm actually saying.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Looks like we are probably agreeing to disagree.  I do think everyone agree, however, that the law needs to be called in when a crime has been committed.

I appreciate the link to the Paige Patterson article.  I was in the dark on that one.

But there is a lot we do not know.  We hear of these scandals and dirt coming out from matters that occurred years (or many years) ago.  I would suggest we ponder the following.

1. We do not know the percentage of problems that were handled rightly or successfully.  Who knows how many pastors retired or left the ministry because of behavioral issues?  When you think of all the former pastors out there (and there are SCADS of them), how can we know WHY they are former pastors?  I personally have known some who left the ministry because of an affair.

2. Ethics have changed a whole lot over the decades.  We tend to focus on what has gone downhill from the Leave It To Beaver days. However, some things have greatly improved.  Child sexual abuse, in the "good old days" was much more often covered up and unaddressed.  The same is true with lewd comments and what we now consider sexual harassment.  If you watch some of the old game shows from the 1950's  (including What's My Line, my favorite), the wolf-whistles when an attractive contestant enters are loud.  The comments by the panel members (Bennett Cerf, for example) would not be acceptable today.  Past wrongs that were glossed over because the culture said they were passable are now -- almost all of a sudden -- being recognized for being wrong (which they were and are).  Folks, in this regard, we now have a better standard. The boundaries are firmer.

We are right, I think, to presume that innuendos, solicitations, and lewd comments have been the norm for centuries and perhaps millennia.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Sexual abuse is not always a criminal matter, Aaron, as it can also involve a pastor using his authority to seduce adult women in the church.  That--e.g. Jimmy Swaggart--risks civil action and (probably more importantly) disgrace to the cause of Christ.   Moreover, if we wait until the police get involved and civil suits are filed to get another set of eyes on the data, we will find that the reality of "discovery" makes it difficult to be open, as everything one learns will be available to those suiing the church.  

Sorry, no distortion of what you wrote.  You just happen to be wrong in this regard. Scripture contains numerous examples of outsiders rebuking insiders and being taken deadly seriously, and to argue that this doesn't apply today, you've got to more or less argue something that Scripture doesn't say; that the practice of outsider rebuke was intended only for apostles and prophets.  Given that there wasn't a "seal of approval" on prophets, and given that the Corinthians are on record as doubting Paul's apostleship, it moreover is dubious that the ancient church would have recognized such a doctrine.  Rather, a compelling argument from an outsider was regarded as compelling.  Those who say "mind your own business" to outsiders ought to take careful note.

As I noted in the other thread, if your version of the notion of local church autonomy was normative, then you would have no problem giving concrete examples of this from the New Testament.  Your claim of Matthew 18 has been refuted, and so we're left with thin gruel. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Don Johnson's picture

Bert keeps arguing with a position Aaron isn't taking. Pretty incredible to watch.

and Bert keeps talking about "numerous" Scriptural examples without providing any.

interesting

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

"Sexual abuse is not always a criminal matter"

Yes, it is.

https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/sexual-assault-overview.html

The relationship between civil and criminal is complicated and often overlapping (often, the same act can be tried in both criminal and civil courts - this is helpful: http://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/criminal...) but sexual "abuse" is always criminal. 

Also helpful: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/soloish/wp/2017/12/21/whats-the-diff...

It's not quite as easy to find precise definitions of "abuse," because it's not really a legal term. But for many years, "child abuse," "spousal abuse," and the now more common "intimate partner violence" has referred to violent acts. I would suggest that broadining the term "sexual abuse" to include non-violent acts is not fair to those who suffer sexual violence. It's an unfortunate diluting of the concept.

Abusers should be punished in criminal courts. Always.

Edit: Actually, not as hard as I thought to find "sexual abuse" defined credibly...  Here's a couple.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/legal/sexual%20abuse

http://www.apa.org/topics/sexual-abuse/index.aspx

Bert Perry's picture

You have given a definition of sexual assault, not a definition of sexual abuse, and the Post article you link actually describes a category of sexual abuse that does not necessarily rise to the level of sexual assault.  Put bluntly, Bill Cosby has been convicted of crimes, and Harvey Weinstein has not (yet), largely because it is illegal to use Quaaludes to get sex, and it is not illegal to use power and prestige to get sex.  Both would qualify as abuse, really. 

And that links to a huge category of sexual abuse, really.  I remember back in high school and college, we all knew of guys that we would NEVER introduce to a young lady because they were known to have a habit of manipulating women into bed for quick flings.  Sometimes it was "candy's dandy, but liquor's quicker", but a lot of the time it was simply the use of prestige/power as in Weinstein's sins.  Or, for that matter, Tullian Tchividjian's.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

From the Webster link

Legal Definition of sexual abuse

: the infliction of sexual contact upon a person by forcible compulsion: the engaging in sexual contact with a person who is below a specified age or who is incapable of giving consent because of age or mental or physical incapacity

: the crime of engaging in or inflicting sexual abuse

From the APA link

Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.

The legal term is usually "sexual assault." 

The Wapo article explains one view on why it's important not to conflate assault with other kinds of misconduct.

The relevant fact here is that sexual abuse is criminal behavior and requires law enforcement involvement.

As far as relevance to my article goes, the paragraph below is intended to include sexual abuse cases. 

Where civil and criminal law is relevant, law enforcement operates separately and in addition to the local church’s discipline process, though law enforcement action may have to precede church action chronologically.

Aaron Blumer's picture

I think have to concede that there is an unfortunate amount of ambiguity in the term "abuse," mostly due to sloppy popular usage. But even "sexual assault" has some variety in meaning from state to state. It's always criminal though.

"Sexual misconduct" is an umbrella term for everything inappropriate. "Assault" is always criminal. Much of the other stuff is not.

It's probably best to say that when churches are facing any kind of nonconsensual sexual conduct related problems between members (including staff), they need to pursue it as church discipline but should also have at least one conversation with a lawyer to see if there is anything they need to do to be fully legally compliant as far as getting law enforcement involved. Or, if funding isn't available for that, there is no harm in reporting the matter to the police, regardless. They have a pretty good idea of what they need to get involved in, and what they do not (and are usually busy enough to prefer to not get involved unless necessary.)

This seems pretty common sense to me and is probably the only way to be obedient to NT teaching regarding church autonomy but also obedient to Romans 13, etc. regarding the "powers that be."

Misconduct allegations that are determined by legal counsel (or local police) to not require law enforcement involvement could either be handled 100% internally as discipline or, optionally, with the help of outside investigators in an advisory role only. The NT does not permit churches to abrogate their responsibility and authority to outside organizations.

Parachurch ministries are a different ball game and not the topic I've been considering here. In general, I think the parachurch org's should handle these things pretty much the same way non-profits and businesses in general do, with the additional layer of seeing to spiritual matters on top of all that.

​​​

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert said:

You have given a definition of sexual assault, not a definition of sexual abuse, and the Post article you link actually describes a category of sexual abuse that does not necessarily rise to the level of sexual assault.  Put bluntly, Bill Cosby has been convicted of crimes, and Harvey Weinstein has not (yet), largely because it is illegal to use Quaaludes to get sex, and it is not illegal to use power and prestige to get sex.  Both would qualify as abuse, really. 

I appreciate your comment,  Bert, although Aaron, as above, is not talking about matters that are illegal.  Still, unless one is in law enforcement or an attorney, etc., it can be difficult to know what is not legal in contrast to what is unethical or immoral.  Sometimes the lines are not clear.  And, in a sense, that could be an argument to get outside counsel, esp. if no church officers have this kind of background.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, what you've proved is that you've chosen one out of several definitions of sexual abuse, nothing more.  Some define it your way to mean the same thing as sexual assault, some define it solely as child sexual abuse/molestation, and some others define it in the way Ed notes, the way I've noted, and the way a church ought to apply the notion; as a category somewhat broader than sexual assault (to include sexual assault of both adults and minors) that would include things like a pastor using the prestige of his office to seduce someone outside the church--say the Tullian Tchividjian case, perhaps the Frank Page case. 

Here's a recent case from Minnesota as well--the behavior was 100% legal but icky.  Notice that the church put the pastor on leave four days after the reports broke and had hired an independent investigator within two weeks.  That's how you do it right.   Note also that the church's website explicitly concedes that organizations can and do circle the wagons to protect leaders. 

And of course, many/most of Harvey Weinstein's transgressions fall into this category.  He's not been convicted, yet, because his drug of choice was power and not Bill Cosby's Quaaludes.  A lot of those sins are 100% legal and 100% abusive.

The question, then, is whether an organization can afford to wait for clear indication of criminal behavior before getting some outsiders to take a look.  For example, Tullian Tchividjian gave all the signs of midlife crisis-working out, tattoos, change of wardrobe, etc..--but all of this either slipped the elders, or was ignored by them.  

With such obvious blind spots, can a church afford NOT to hire someone who can help them with their mindset, procedures, and the like?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

GregH's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

The question, then, is whether an organization can afford to wait for clear indication of criminal behavior before getting some outsiders to take a look.  For example, Tullian Tchividjian gave all the signs of midlife crisis-working out, tattoos, change of wardrobe, etc..--but all of this either slipped the elders, or was ignored by them.  

With such obvious blind spots, can a church afford NOT to hire someone who can help them with their mindset, procedures, and the like?

Bert, we are probably close to on the same page on this. Frankly, I don't trust the church to do much right these days. However, are you really going to assert that elders are supposed to get concerned about their pastor working out, changing wardrobe and getting tattoos and somehow connect the dots to sexual abuse?

Bert Perry's picture

GregH wrote:

 

Bert Perry wrote:

 

The question, then, is whether an organization can afford to wait for clear indication of criminal behavior before getting some outsiders to take a look.  For example, Tullian Tchividjian gave all the signs of midlife crisis-working out, tattoos, change of wardrobe, etc..--but all of this either slipped the elders, or was ignored by them.  

With such obvious blind spots, can a church afford NOT to hire someone who can help them with their mindset, procedures, and the like?

 

 

Bert, we are probably close to on the same page on this. Frankly, I don't trust the church to do much right these days. However, are you really going to assert that elders are supposed to get concerned about their pastor working out, changing wardrobe and getting tattoos and somehow connect the dots to sexual abuse?

Had the elders sat him down and said "hey, we've noticed X, Y, and Z, and we've looked at your schedule, and there's not much time for Kim and the kids, and we're concerned", it might or might not have prevented what happened next--if indeed the tats and such came first.  I'd guess they did from what I know of midlife crises, but let's leave room for doubt there.

What's really important here is that if the elders miss clear signs of something as obvious as that midlife crisis, it stands to reason that something else is likely to be off in ministry there, too.  To quote John Maxwell's comment when a subordinate walked past a group of people on his way to his office, "You just walked right past your work."   Barring the possibility that the elders did indeed have a few such meetings with TT, it appears they did as well, and an outside look by somebody that's not used to the culture there might be valuable. 

Put in a more general sense, and we might infer that churches and ministries do indeed have a clear indication of when they should get outside counsel; any time that events make clear that they have a clear blind spot in their culture.  A corollary theme would be that the more a church becomes aware of their blind spots, ironically the less they need outside help.   

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Joeb's picture

You Guys correct me if I’m wrong.  If you have a young gentlemen go to a bar and tells gals he is a rich Nero Surgeon and has a fake set of business cards to give them in effort to pick one up.   So you have a fraud and if this fraudulent pick up leads to a roll in the hay then in my mind this meets the definition sex abuse with no crime.  Same thing Bert is saying about a Pastor manipulating a young adult lady into an affair  

The young man is just taking advantage of some gals being Gold Diggers willing to do anything to hook a rich husband.  Believe me Gals used to go to certain bars in Philadelphia where Jefferson Medical Students hung out in an effort to meet the down the road Doctor/husbands   

When I was at 10th  Pres Church in College the church had a Medical Student. Ministry and all the young college girls hung out with the Med Students.  The gals did not give the male college students in church the time of day.    It was pretty obvious if not laughable. Now there were some normal gals who used to laugh with us as these Gold Diggers threw themselves all over the male med students.  Of course it needs to be said that young ENGINEERING Students were in the same class as the Med Students.   

 

Bert Perry's picture

Joe, yes, that's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.  The med student, the football captain, etc., when they don't have ethics, are precisely the kind of guy that other guys learn not to introduce to their sisters and such.  When that kind of person gets into a pulpit, the church has some answering to do--some investigation, and an outsider to see what's up with their culture can be extremely helpful. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

On the niceties of how some use various terms, the facts have already been stated repeatedly and linked to. "Misconduct" is the umbrella turn for everything from hugging a bit too long to rape. "Assault" is the term normally used exclusively of criminal conduct. Joeb and Bert are using "abuse" as the exact synonym of "misconduct."  This is sloppy, but not important. None of this is relevant to the article or a biblical understanding of church autonomy and handling misconduct.

To review, God has tasked His church with the job of handling the sins of its members. Congregations may choose to enlist the aid of outsiders, but the responsibility remains each congregation's burden. When crime is involved, the courts do their thing separately and -- from Bible-believers' point view -- in addition to, the church's action.

Whether we "trust" churches or not, is also not relevant. They don't work for us. Their Head is Christ.

As a matter of thinking clearly, it's common to cite examples of churches botching the job as though this proved anything more than that they ought to do it right. Doesn't follow. Nobody blames "skating" for the fact that nearly everyone does it badly... and talk all day about wobbly, faltering, knee-busting skaters says nothing at all about skating, except that it's difficult.

Yes, church discipline can be difficult. There are many ways to mess it up. It is the duty of churches (and no one else) all the same.

Joeb's picture

I worked with a young man who was from Africa.  I can’t recall the country he was from but his father was high up in the government and an Engineer. This young man came to America with his mother and siblings because his mother divorced his father.  He was able to get spot for his Education at the Local Bob Jones Church Christian High School. 

Now this young man was a believer and while at the school he met and fell in love with a white gal. After they both graduated and after he did two years at the local community college they got married.  They did this in secret due to the opposition in her Fundy/Evangelical Family  This opposition was mainly race based  and from the father 

His new Godly father in law expressed his opposition in clear RACIAL terms.  This new father-in-law called him stupid told him he would never amount to anything came close to using the N word and said he never wanted to see his half breed grand children ever.

 Well this greatly disturbed this young black man, who spoke French Portuguese and English fluently.  I told him that he should go to the Pastor of the Church and ask that his father in law be put under church discipline since father in law was always at his wife to leave this young man.  

Guess what both sides left the church so this was not an effective solution.  Hence my question .  In today’s mobile world even with believers how effective is church discipline if one can pick up and go across the street.  Now if one is born and raised in the same church and educated in the same church then church discipline may work.  Just a question   Is church disapline even relevant today as it was in the past.  

Note:  Just saw this young man three days ago.  His family is thriving.  Now another question with this Rogue Fatherinlaw, who goes to another Fundy Church,  is it appropriate to go to this new Pastor and have his fatherinlaw called out for his racism.  Does  the privacy issue exclude that.  

Note 2: If there ever was a model of an exemplary Fundemental Church with Bob Jones roots this is it.  The Pastor has no bus ministry and does not count numbers. His people lead people to Christ through personal relationships. On the Sex Abuse of Children issue the one incident they had they reported it immediately to the Police.  This church has never had a reputation of being cultish.  Conservative but never cultish   In fact the Pastor has been attacked on the Internet by fellow Fundies for having a Folk Type Gospel Couple sing at his church; allowing a Evangelical Pastor speak from his pulpit and allowing mixed swimming with his youth group.  Oh my God what a sinner.  

Jim's picture

Means much less today b/c

  • People just go to another church (especially if they are in urban area)
  • Many choices ... and will be welcomed warmly
  • The "tie that binds" (as in "bless be the ...") is a very loose cord

Strange one from my past:

  • Single deacon left my church blaming me because "he wasn't being fed" (Bill [not real name])
  • Others blamed me b/c that nice deacon left (I'm "under the gun")
  • Several months later our church secretary (Karen) disappeared (while her husband (Joe) who was an officer in the reserves was in Europe)
  • Joe called me from Europe to say Karen ran off with Bill
  • Joe comes home and sneaks into Bill's house and sees Karen's  clothes there
  • Bill had withdrawn from membership (b/c I was a lousy pastor)
  • We [the deacons] tried to track down the facts about Karen. It's a big city and we don't have police powers ... hard to affirm Joe's story
  • Within a year Karen and Bill marry ... warmed accepted into another church

 

Fred Moritz's picture

Jim, you mentioned the deacon who left your church because "he wasn't being fed."  That reminded me of Clearwaters' classic reply to that statement: "sick sheep don't eat."

Joeb's picture

Jim I have heard you preach.  Your tremendous.  Your reputation in feeding was very good among my friends, who were members of your church.  The only thing holding you back is your being in denial about the possibility that you are my cousin.  

Aaron Blumer's picture

Real cases present difficulties every time. My attitude has been, you can only do what you can do, as a church, but need to do everything you can do.

Sometimes the member you want to discipline is in jail in a different state. What are you going to do then? In one case I was involved in, the church could not exactly conduct an investigation, and in any case, the member was not denying his actions. What we decided to do was remove him from the membership then take the matter up again when (if) he became accessible to us in the future.

It felt mostly symbolic, but sometimes symbols are important (like weddings, for example).

In another church I was involved in, the pastor got involved with a woman during a conference trip and decided he wasn't coming home. The discipline process was painful, but there was no avoiding it. Much had to be done long distance with poor communication, it seems (I was in the congregation at the time, not staff or deacon, so we did not have every single detail. We had the information we needed though.) There was eventually repentance and a kind of restoration, but returning to the pastorate was never on the table.

On the topic of Jim's preaching :-) 

My former church was blessed to have in the pulpit a few times also, and for most of them I was able to be there as well. I was always fed and blessed.

Sometimes, the "not being fed" thing (which is really another topic entirely) is a reality even for good preachers though. We all preach at different levels of sophistication, and sometimes a member is getting nothing because it's all going over his head. Other times, he's getting nothing because it's all too elementary. Solutions to that? I don't know. Another topic.

Kevin Miller's picture

Jim wrote:

Means much less today b/c

  • People just go to another church (especially if they are in urban area)
  • Many choices ... and will be welcomed warmly
  • The "tie that binds" (as in "bless be the ...") is a very loose cord

Strange one from my past:

  • Single deacon left my church blaming me because "he wasn't being fed" (Bill [not real name])
  • Others blamed me b/c that nice deacon left (I'm "under the gun")
  • Several months later our church secretary (Karen) disappeared (while her husband (Joe) who was an officer in the reserves was in Europe)
  • Joe called me from Europe to say Karen ran off with Bill
  • Joe comes home and sneaks into Bill's house and sees Karen's  clothes there
  • Bill had withdrawn from membership (b/c I was a lousy pastor)
  • We [the deacons] tried to track down the facts about Karen. It's a big city and we don't have police powers ... hard to affirm Joe's story
  • Within a year Karen and Bill marry ... warmed accepted into another church

 

Now, instead of Bill just being a deacon at your church, let's suppose Bill is a nationally published author of religious books, one of them even being a book of marriage advice. Does Bill's public status mean that the details of Bill's relationship with Karen should become public knowledge? If it DOES become public knowledge, should the public's reaction be a factor in whether the new church initiates church discipline?

Joeb's picture

That’s a tough one.  How far does one go.  One can make the allegation very public but Karen is just going to allege that the first husband cheated on her overseas and beat her and verbally abused her.  She was just escaping an intolerable situation that she knew Jim’s church would tell her to stay in.  That’s the reason they both left.  To me one is wasting ones time.  Now if it’s criminal like sex abuse of a child then it’s no holds barred.  Public condemnation got Godly Savage out of the pulpit.  Also the current church of the Pastor that covered it up got the boot.  So Church discipline can be done by another church with information to act on   If you remember Savage the fine repentant man lied to the very end   Sad because the whole thing played out before the nation   

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

A truth to keep in mind with all this is that when the church takes responsibility for disciplining its members, including its leadership, but botches the job and doesn't oust someone who should be ousted, they are truly going to answer to Christ. Our natural human bias is toward the immediate, and thinking that if we don't see justice here and now, there is no justice. But if we reflect on this, we all know (I hope) that this is simply not the case.

14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (ESV, Ecclesiastes 12:14)

31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (ESV, Acts 17:31)

5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (ESV, 1 Peter 4:5)

Do we trust God enough to do things His way and leave it to him to settle the scores?

Lee's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

...

Do we trust God [scripture] enough to do things His way and leave it to him to settle the scores?

Edit mine.

Pretty much this is the crux of the whole discussion.

Lee

Aaron Blumer's picture

Yes, I think it is. We are a very results-oriented people and it's easy to get caught up in "this won't work" or "this will work" and forget that we should have started out with "what have we been commanded to do?" 

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