5 ways to navigate church conflict. The dreaded "d" word.
Our response to the "d" word always surprises me greatly. You see, the "d" word is central to our faith. It's at the core of our personal Christian journey, the aspiration that should guide us to the character of Christ in every aspect of life. He calls us to be his disciples, and this calling is realized as we incorporate his disciplines into our lives every moment of every day. Even more, he calls and assembles us into communities of faith where we can experience the joys and blessings of life, and encourage each other in the disciplines of living for him. Yet, we usually huff up a good bit when someone says the words, "church discipline". Who are we to judge others? What business is it of ours to practice such fundamental religion among humans who share a sinful nature? Go ahead, throw the first stone!
That was the argument thrown at me on an occasion when I approached someone about alcohol consumption in public. He was coach of one of our children's basketball teams and visible in the church. Harriet and I encountered he and some other friends one evening at a local restaurant. Beer cans covered their table, and he had his hand wrapped around a cold one at the time. We greeted them cordially and moved on out of the restaurant. Later that week I asked him if we could talk. That's when I mentioned seeing him at the restaurant and spoke to him about such a public display. It was very low-key. Instantly he became defensive and said what he did in his personal time was none of my business. I responded, "No, it is my business. One day you walked down the aisle of this church and became a member of this body. You made it my business right then. And, every other member of the church as well". He blew up, yelled at me, and his family left the church. We're just not attuned to the "d" word. It's offensive to a lot of believers because we don't understand what church membership means. It's a un-learning curve that must be reversed.
You can't read the Bible without encountering some understanding of corporate accountability. In the Old Testament the families, tribes, clans, and then nation had mechanisms to guide and protect the sanctity of their bond. Even under Old Testament law, which the legalists stretched beyond the limits intended, there was a loving, caring foundation to their system. In the New Testament love in the body of believers was their clearest identification with Christ, and the purist motivation for expressions of correction or spiritual guidance. Because I love my children I disciplined them when they played in the street. In like manner God disciplines those he loves (see Hebrew 12:6). Just the same, our love for one another should move us to speak the truth in love, to rebuke, chastise, counsel, advise, pray for, embrace, instruct, accept, forgive, and even exclude those who violate the covenant we share. There is no retribution, anger, judgment, malice, or other destructive attitudes underneath genuine discipline. Love moves us to concern and action for those entrusted to our spiritual care.
Our antipathy regarding discipline is linked to our apathy about church membership. There's been a general lowering of the bar regarding the meaning of church membership over the past few decades, perhaps since World War II. Church watchers have long talked about the socialization of the church, the club atmosphere that seems to prevail in church life today. That even has limited application. Even country clubs have rules and people who break them are excluded from membership. Suddenly, the contemporary church is a no-holds barred community where anything goes.
So, church discipline begins with the basic understanding that (1) we are his, (2) he lives in us, (3) we are therefore his church, (4) it is his body, (5) it is a gathering of regenerate, new creation believers. This church is gathered in the context of a common faith, expressed in a confession of faith and covenant that binds us together. Church discipline, then, is the mutual concern church members share for one another for the sake of Christ and the covenant that unites them.
Pause here. In 2012 our church overwhelmingly voted to include a more definitive ideal of church discipline in the constitution and by-laws of the church, and to require the annual signing of the church covenant as a term of church membership. It was a nearly unanimous affirmative action, was implemented six months later, and members were give that first year to sign the church covenant. The first Sunday in May is now designated Covenant Sunday. Many families left the church because they refused to sign the covenant annually. Some reacted so negatively that you would have thought we asked them all to submit to circumcision. It was an indication of our aversion to accountability and the baseline of church discipline.
I am deeply indebted to the scholarship of John S. Hammett, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for the excellent survey of Baptist church life and the importance of church membership in our history and today. His book, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology was instrumental in the adjustments we made in our governing documents to emphasize church membership, covenants in the life of Baptist churches, and church discipline as expression of our love for and accountability to one another.
Every day I'm approached by church leaders and members dealing with church conflict at one level or another. It is more wide-spread than we'd like to admit and usually involves control issues, the stuff of church leadership. If Baptists would become familiar with our history and then incorporate the biblical ideals of church discipline into the administration of the church, much of the conflict would be averted before it actually began. You see, just as there are justified cases of over-looking an offense, there are many more that require definitive action. Leaders must know what to implement, how to employ biblical means of resolving conflict, and when to exercise discipline within the body to maintain the doctrinal and missiological integrity of his church.
It's the "d" word, discipline. And we should respect it.