Evangelical Questions: Church Discipline
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Church Discipline. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Our scripture this week comes from Matthew 18:6:
But who so shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned.
I love Jesus’ powerful word here for people who harm others, especially the vulnerable, especially children. But today we’re going to broaden the scope just a bit and consider all the ways in which church discipline might be necessary. Specifically, I want to look at how this is handled in our church compared to how it gets handled in Evangelical circles. And I will say from the start that I know our Latter-day Saint church has not always gotten this right. And if you’re listening and you are involved in a situation where discipline didn’t happen in a way that you had hoped for, I want you to know that I see you and I know very well that this does not always go down perfectly, and I’m not going to pretend like it does. And at the same time, I want to talk about how the imperfect system we have is different than what Evangelicals do, and why it is that way.
So, if you’ve heard my name before watching any of these videos it is probably because I’ve talked a lot about sexual abuse cases in our church and Evangelical churches. And if you’ve watched the video on my conversion story you know that part of my lived experience is abuse in an Evangelical church and the aftermath of how they dealt with it. I’m aware that I’ve had a very particular experience, in a very particular time and place, and that influences how I think about these things. I think it’s okay to tell you my bias going in.
We’ll start with what church discipline looks like for Evangelicals. The answer, as with all things Evangelical is: It depends. If you remember back a few episodes we talked about how “Evangelical” is not a denomination. There is no central authority. There is no membership for churches. If a church wishes to be seen as Evangelical they may call themselves such – there is no one to police that term. It’s different in our church – if a new church wanted to call themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in exactly the same way as we do, there would be pushback on that. But anyone can open a church in your town and call it something like Journey Church or Crosspoint or some such thing. So it’s almost impossible to fully answer the question of how Evangelicals handle church discipline as there are hundreds of different answers to that question. But we’ll look at some trends.
As you know, Evangelicals are Protestants and at the beginning of the protestant Reformation church discipline was considered part of the mark of the true church. The Catholic church at the time had gone off the rails, and the church leaders offered no discipline or correction. So the 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.” But it’s been a long time since that has been true. Christianity Today, which is The news magazine for Evangelicals says, “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 ex-communications.”
Lifeway Research is the research arm of the Southern Baptist Church and while not all Southern Baptists would consider themselves Evangelicals, many would and Lifeway is a good place to look for research. In 2018 they surveyed 1,000 Evangelical pastors across the US and found that almost 60% of them said that their church has never disciplined anyone for any reason. So, how do Evangelicals practice church discipline? Mostly they don’t. I don’t think this is them being lazy or not caring about standards, it’s them playing out their value that each individual hears from God alone and they are each their own prophet. We’ve talked in past episodes about how they really value an attitude of, “You can’t tell me what to do” or “I’m independent and don’t need rules or authority,” and this is one way you can see that attitude play out.
However, sometimes we do see them practice church discipline. The 40% who said that they do have some version of church discipline have not used it in the past 3 years. And there is a slight difference here between big churches and small churches. The smaller Evangelical churches, which grow fewer every year, are far more likely to have at least some version of discipline available to them. The larger churches and they are increasing every year, make it pretty easy for people to hide. If there are 5,000 people who attend your church on a Sunday morning it’s pretty easy to remain a stranger for a long time – and the folks who do that would have no one noticing anything in their life that might require discipline even if a process was in place.
And here is where we see a big difference – in a Latter-day Saint church anyone can ask for a meeting with the Bishop, and even if youd don’t have specific need to ask for one, you are invited at least once a year for a tithing meeting, and every couple of years for a recommend meeting. It just doesn’t work that way in the larger Evangelical churches, which most of them are. Once a church gets over about 500 members on a Sunday access to pastoral leadership starts to diminish. Around the 500 member level members are frequently no longer even allowed to request a meeting with their pastor, though he probably knows the names of many of the families and could recognize many people on sight. But once a church is over 1,000 people that is no longer true for obvious reasons. Some Evangelicals attend a church for a decade and never even meet the pastor.
There is an article from a group called The Gospel Coalition written about a decade ago (so they used the term Mormon) that compared Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints that says, “But compared to the Mormon experience, evangelical churches are a carnival ride of short services, low accountability, and rare church discipline. If you’re a faithful Mormon, you’re not living a 95 percent secular life like so many evangelicals.” So we’re starting to see how some of these differences play out.
Back to the Evangelical churches who do practice some form of church discipline. Some of them like the Evangelical Free Church actually do have a formal process for discipline, but it only applies to the clergy. Others have an informal process where a church leader will use a kind of persuasion/exclusion approach where they will try to persuade a person that what they’ve done is wrong (for example, an unmarried couple living together) but if that person disagrees or isn’t moved by the persuasion the only thing that happens is a “light exclusion” where they are now allowed to do any teaching in the church – meaning maybe they will be asked to step down from teaching the 6th grade Sunday School for example.
There is a really well-documented example of how all of this plays out and you can hear it in a podcast put out by the Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. It’s called “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” It’s 10 or so episodes long and it’s essentially a cautionary tale of how church discipline goes wrong. The podcast features a church called Mars Hill that was at one time the hottest thing in Seattle. My family and I were members of that church in the early days. My son, who is now a full-grown adult, was a toddler in the nursery when we were there. And Mars Hill was the place to be. It was the fastest-growing church in America and primarily made up of young Seattle hipsters in the early 2000’s. But what happened was the pastor who founded the church really went off the rails in a number of ways that require too much detail to go into here, but suffice it to say that the board of the church came to a decision that the pastor needed to be put under discipline for some of his actions. The church was drawing 15,000 people a week in multiple locations, in 4 states. And when the board wanted to discipline the pastor he initially agreed to submit to it, and then backed out. He decided he would rather quit his role as a pastor than be disciplined by the church. He resigned and moved his family to Arizona 8 years ago. And to this day, the Christian community in Seattle is impacted by this man’s refusal to face accountability for his actions. But, in the Evangelical world, all you have to do is move to a new church or a new city and you get a fresh start. So this pastor moved to Arizona where he formed a new church and is predicted to essentially repeat the process since apparently, he didn’t learn from the last time.
In a Latter-day Saint congregation, this could never happen. If a bishop or stake president went off the rails he can’t just move to a new city and become bishop again. At least not based on policy. Have the policies of the church been poorly enforced at times? Of course. But having some policies around stopping someone who refuses accountability is better than having no policies at all because the end result is there is never an expectation that behavior gets addressed. What this case illustrates is that Evangelicals have decentralized leadership and that Latter-day Saints have centralized leadership. If you don’t like your Evangelical leader or pastor, you just change churches. If a leader is trying to hold you accountable for your behavior, and you don’t like it, you change churches. That is harder to do in the Latter-day Saint world.
I will tell you this next story with a little bit of trepidation. It involves people I care about, so I will disguise some of the details. You’ve probably never heard someone say before, “I have a testimony of church discipline councils”, so here ya go…
I had to take the Evangelical church where I grew up to court to hold them accountable for some things. I didn’t want to and tried for a very long time to find another way. But when the church refused to police itself, I employed the help of the secular courts to enforce some consequences for them. I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it’s over. It was very hard on me. The church said things in court papers like, “Any damage Jennifer took on due to this is her own fault.” I had to fight them, tooth and nail, to take accountability for their actions.
Contrast this to the experience of a friend. He was abused by a family member who is a long-time member of our church. My friend hadn’t spoken about this to anyone, but in his 30’s he decided to speak to his family about what had happened and found out that he was not the only victim. The cousins of that family banded together, believed the victims, and wanted to help make things right. The legal statute of limitations had long run out so they had no criminal or legal options, which was heartbreaking and frustrating to them. Their next move was to go to the bishop of the abuser. Within a very short amount of time, the man’s stake held a disciplinary council and he was disfellowshiped. If he would ever like to rejoin the church he would need approval from the First Presidency.
When I contrast that experience against my own – where the Evangelical church couldn’t admit what had happened and certainly wasn’t going to disfellowship anyone over it – I understood why church discipline matters in a way I never had before. The church’s actions took the feelings and experiences of the victims into consideration. I relayed the events to a friend who told me about an experience where the details are very different, but the experience of the victim was also prioritized. I know it doesn’t always happen this way in our church. I’ve heard many of your stories in recent years and I acknowledge them and how painful they are. But it does give me great comfort to know that our church at least strives to get this right, and frequently does. I will never meet the men who sat on the disciplinary council of my friend’s abuser. They live in a different state and I don’t even know their names, but their actions of discipline against an abuser knit something back together in my heart, even though it wasn’t my case.
I hope this conversation helps you see and understand some of the differences. Join us next week as we take up a new topic.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.