Could I offer a simple plea to those of us who write online—whether on blogs or on Twitter or on Facebook?

There is an exception for every rule, but please be exceedingly slow to write about or evaluate situations of church discipline from a distance. Virtually all instances of church discipline that I know of have layers of complexity, pain, history, sin, personalities, and just plain old messiness. And there are two sides to every story.

Let’s remember that the truth of this proverb:

The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
(Prov. 18:17)

Discipline done wrongly can be harmful and hurtful. But criticizing the discipline from a distance, without an awareness of all the facts, can damage the reputation of the church of Christ and her leaders.

In addition, let’s remember that those who call most loudly and consistently for repentance among some pastors—often with legitimate criticism—are sometimes the least to model repentance when they themselves may be engaged in gossip or slander.

My dilemma in giving specific examples here is that it would do precisely what I’m trying to avoid—discussing local church discipline situations publicly. But I recently saw a post that models wise repentance after a critical post, and think it’s worth quoting as a model. I’ve deleted specific names of the individual and the church in question:

While being discreet to protect the identities of those involved, and avoiding many of the gory details, my friend laid out enough evidence to satisfy me that the initial accounts given by [the individual] and those promoting his story are at best incomplete, and most likely deliberately misleading. Large parts are left out, including the majority of action taken by the church to reconcile him. Also, [the individual's] case involves a confluence of several situations that it appears [the church] has properly and thoroughly dealt with. Because the details involve the sin of others that are not publicly known, the church has decided the best course of action is to remain silent to protect those people’s reputation and privacy. They did not divulge the identities of the people involved, or the specific details of each situation to me, but they gave me a rough overview of the pieces missing in various accounts of the incident now in circulation. In light of these facts it is only right that I publicly retract my former comments directed at [the church].

Only the gospel can produce that kind of humility.

While I hope that we would have less discussion of specific cases of church discipline, I also hope we would have more discussion about the biblical teaching on this important process. Toward that end, I suspect that Jonathan Leeman’s short book, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (due out in April from Crossway), will become the go-to book for many churches. As Craig Blomberg writes, “Far too few biblically grounded, pastorally sensitive books on church discipline remain in print today. I know of none that is as exegetically accurate, practically relevant, and filled with real-life case studies of how churches should deal with a wide variety of common situations.” J.D. Greear says it’s “an outstanding, one-of-a-kind theological work. . . . I believe this will be the definitive work on church discipline, and our elders plan to use this work as our guide.” So if you have questions on what “church discipline” is and how to put it into practice, this may be a resource to consider.

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25 thoughts on “Church Discipline and Social Media”

  1. Dave Moored says:

    Hi Justin,

    Do you know to what degree Leeman addresses the issue of church discipline for non sexual sins such as gossip, gluttony, pride, etc. I have seen church discipline done well, but it is always for sexual sin. Is that the only type of sin worthy of discipline?

    Dave

    1. Peter says:

      I would agree with this statement completely.

    2. laura grace says:

      I would be interested in hearing about this too, although I have seen church discipline done well with regard to many “categories” of sin. I think many non-lifestyle-related sins, for lack of a better term, often are “disciplined” in the context of normal Christian community. In other words, if I’m gossiping, I hope my sisters will call me on it immediately and that I’ll repent immediately. That’s step one of church discipline, you know?

      1. Wayne Wilson says:

        I agree. The matters that come to the congregation tend to be matters of infidelity because there is most often a personal commitment to these types of sins (involving commitment to a new partner, etc). Most sins brothers and sisters will gladly repent of before it gets to the final stage of public discipline. But if you’re leaving your wife for your secretary…you either repent and stop it, or you go forward in immorality and face discipline.

    3. Jonathan Leeman says:

      Dave,
      Thanks for the good question. Here’s a short except from the book which hopefully answers your question:

      “Formal church discipline should occur with sins that are outward, serious, and unrepentant. First, a sin must have an outward manifestation. Churches should not throw the red flag of ejection every time they suspect greed or pride in someone’s heart. It must be something that can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears.

      “Second, a sin must be serious. A church and its leaders should not pursue every sin to the utmost. There needs to be some place in a church’s life for love to “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Thankfully, God does not perceptibly discipline us every time we sin.

      “Finally, a sin must be unrepented of. The person involved has been confronted with God’s commands in Scripture, but he or she refuses to let go of the sin. From all appearances, the person prizes the sin more than Jesus.

      “More or less, all three of these factors should be present before a church moves toward excommunication.”

      I hope this is helpful. Blessings.

  2. Henry says:

    Justin,

    Here’s the problem with your post. It perpetuates the idea that if we only knew all the facts we would agree with the CHURCH. The other side is that if we knew all the facts we might agree with the person victimized by un-Biblical church discipline. I witnessed first hand how a church hypocritically and wickedly tried to destroy a godly minister under the guise of “church discipline.” A mob mentality developed and a good man was unjustly attacked and smeared. The real problem: He was teaching them truths they were not comfortable with hearing. This man was upright and they intentionally tried to ruin him, because he would not compromise his convictions. After going through this nightmare and seeing many people scarred for life (including my pastor), I came to the strong conviction that not only should individual members be held accountable but churches should too. Some people have the idea that whatever a church does will be right. I’m afraid this is what the 9 Marks book is likely to imply. I saw firsthand just how wrong this assumption can be. Due to this bitter experience I never want to be part of a “democratic,” or “congregational” church again. Instead I joined a conservative Presbyterian church where the ministers are protected from abusive and immature church members by the presbytery. It’s not perfect but it’s an improvement on the 9 Marks wannabe I used to be part of.

    1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      Henry makes a superb observation. A comment I heartily concur with.

      Sometimes unruly sheep will maul a minister. And sometimes we have situations where shepherds abuse the sheep, or even other ministry leaders.

      It’s really hard to discern. What’s worse, factions develop in taking sides and a church splits.

      Satan is very “good” at using church discipline situations to his advantage.

  3. 3rd Century Prof says:

    JT,

    I fully support biblical church discipline and am glad to see a new book on the topic. That being said, I think your timing and introduction to this post in light of the Mars Hill situation is inappropriate.

    1. Josh says:

      Isn’t that situation – and the fallout – what makes this post appropriate?

      1. J.c. says:

        No it isn’t, given that J.T. who writes:

        Could I offer a simple plea to those of us who write online—whether on blogs or on Twitter or on Facebook?

        There is an exception for every rule, but please be exceedingly slow to write about or evaluate situations of church discipline from a distance. Virtually all instances of church discipline that I know of have layers of complexity, pain, history, sin, personalities, and just plain old messiness. And there are two sides to every story.

        Let’s remember that the truth of this proverb:

        The one who states his case first seems right,
        until the other comes and examines him.
        (Prov. 18:17)

        Didn’t take his own advice in the Mars Hill situation, and is now giving others a standard that he himself didn’t adhere to. It would be different if he had included himself in this post as an example, but alas, he didn’t.

    2. Gary says:

      Spot on 3rd Century Prof. As the days of the Mega church roll on, we are seeing the model of the authoritarian, often dictatorial church “leader” expand. Thanks to the internet, people are now telling their stories of abuse at the hands of these so called pastors. Sadly, there will always be those who blame the victims. Protect the brand name at all costs, sadly has become the mantra.

  4. Marsisme says:

    Spurious attacks on either pastors or sheep do not have their origin in God. I have witnessed mean-spirited attacks on pastors with little regard for truth or substance.

    On the other hand, the Shepherding Movement of the 70’s and 80’s was a great example of authoritative abuse of the sheep by some in authority. A heirarchical cadre of leaders protected themselves from legitimate criticism and, sometimes, false teaching.

    In the end, the truth needs to be brought to light – to protect the name of Jesus.

    That being said, I think the position of pastor is the hardest job in the world.

  5. Candy says:

    I think church discipline should be a slow and deliberate process in most cases. There should be time to appeal for repentence and reconciliation. If time has been taken by elders, friends, family to plead for repentence and it doesn’t work, church discipline should should be utilized. I have seen a step by step process at my church, and repentent hearts as a result many times. I appreciate the care the elders and pastors take with each case, and the time it takes to get to that final point of discipline. I appreciate the accountability. I have been in churches that did not have membership, and saw how pastors did not deal with sin or even take the time to talk to a person with chronic issues of sin.

  6. Perhaps the deletion of names and churches is valuable in that if people want to know who you are talking about, it’s not _immediately_ obvious – but you should be aware that it is obvious to anyone who takes the first sentence of your quote and sticks it into Google. Unfortunately, when everything written on line is indexed for search, if you want to “quote” some text without revealing the source, you basically have to rewrite it. :-|

  7. Steve D says:

    The growth of non-denominational mega churches has presented a problem. Those churches and pastors have no external accountability. Most churches and pastors do well since they encourage healthy dialogue on scripture, doctrine, and orthopraxy. Unfortunately, some churches expect full agreement with church leadership, in some cases making it a matter of church discipline.

    I would suggest that churches who demand absolute fealty to church leadership will find themselves being criticized outside of the church especially from those who are at a distance.

  8. I have to admit that while much of what has been said on church discipline in blogosphere in light of recent events has been interesting, thought-provoking, good discussion on an important topic, I couldn’t help but wonder if by reading it (and in some cases re-tweeting it) if I was supporting or engaging in gossip!?!

  9. Diane says:

    Thank you for bringing a much needed admonition to the blogosphere. Looking forward to the new book, which is also needed.

  10. Jenn Grover says:

    I find it ironic that you post about and plea for people to, “…be exceedingly slow to write about or evaluate situations of church discipline from a distance…” when you and your reformed counterparts were quick to defend SGM’s CJ Mahaney and continue to defend him though he and the entire board were found guilty of “sinful coercion”, which in plain English, is blackmail.

    1. Gary says:

      Jenn, great point. Of course, you’ll get no response to it. Remember, defend those within your camp, regardless of what they’ve done.

  11. Jesse says:

    A question for Justin and/or Jonathan (thanks for hanging around for the comments):

    A question that’s come up in church discipline conversations I’ve had in the past year deals with recourse in light of unhealthy church discipline processes. You recognize they’re messy, and that there’s a need for more clear teaching on the whole process (hence the book). My hope would be that refraining from discussing specific instances won’t hinder the conversation about making the process better. The giving of correction is just as messy as the receiving of correction, so is there room to talk about big picture issues like identifying patterns of spiritual abuse?

    I’ll be looking forward to the book. Would you be able to volunteer if it addresses the differences between denominational structures and independent churches or loosely affiliated churches?

    It would also be to the benefit of the church at large for congregations and their leaders to demonstrate the humility you are asking individuals to display. Privacy can help wounds heal faster, but how can a family live full of secrets?

    1. Jonathan Leeman says:

      Jesse,
      Thanks for the questions. I don’t address difference of church polity. Perhaps I should have. And I don’t address the matter of spiritual abuse in this book. Again, perhaps I should have. I simultaneously wrote a companion book entitled Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. And that book includes a box entitled, “When You Should Not Submit.” In that box, I write,

      “abusive churches and Christian leaders characteristically
      • Make dogmatic prescriptions in places where Scripture is silent.
      • Rely on intelligence, humor, charm, guilt, emotions, or threats rather than on God’s Word and prayer (see Acts 6:4).
      • Play favorites.
      • Punish those who disagree.
      • Employ extreme forms of communication (tempers, silent treatment).”

      And the list goes on. But that gives you sample. Perhaps this should have been included in the book on discipline as well? Thanks again for your questions.

      1. Jesse says:

        Jonathan, thanks again for hanging around in the comments. I meant to say earlier that I enjoyed Reverberation. I think the IX marks titles are valuable introductions to topics, and I wouldn’t suggest changing them to include exhaustive treatment of an issue. I think that the emotion comes from not knowing what to do when faced with a situation when you should not submit. The polity issue jumps up because of the advantages to a network or denomination provides an avenue or advocate that cares about the outcome while being outside the situation. Where can that exist in an independent, elder ruled church?
        Please don’t change the books, but maybe if you had some OTHER platform for communicating, it would be an idea worth writing about…. I’m JUST saying that I get the ejournal and read it all. (funny joking sarcasm included)

  12. Drew says:

    Appropriate? Inappropriate? How about the providence of God? BTW I agree with Gervase who said “you should be aware that it is obvious to anyone who takes the first sentence of your quote and sticks it into Google”, what situation is being talked about. This and the SGM situation remind me of the phrase that was bandied about 4 years ago in the wake of the housing/mortgage/bank failure crisis. “Too big to fail”. Are Mars Hill and SGM “too big to fail”?

  13. DrewK says:

    PS to my comment above: it would be an interesting exercise to compare the church covenant of TGC blogger Jared Wilson’s church
    (Wilson’sbloghttp://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/gospeldrivenchurch/2012/02/02/leading-and-following-in-covenant/ger )
    with The Mars Hill covenant.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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