Do you believe in church discipline? What sorts of things should be controlled/disciplined by the church, which sorts of things aught not to be?

With the recent headlining stories of the leadership abuse of Carl Lentz at Hillsong, or James MacDonald at Harvest Bible Chapel or even rocking Ravi Zacharias Ministries (RZIM) it seems that a lot of people are having a hard time knowing how the whole system is supposed to work in a very broken structure.

Why are leaders protected and congregation members used and abused? Why are the shepherds not the protectors of the sheep instead of seeming to be the core problem?

This is not just a question for celebrity pastors and mega churches.

I think the question needs reframing, and hopefully my answer will lead to thinking through where the fault lies, because it’s not just the leadership that might need to be torn down entirely.

Let me start with the question of if I believe in church discipline: I believe in church discipline for leadership.

1 Timothy 5:20 “But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.”
James 3:1 “not many of you should be teachers, my brethren, knowing we who teach are held to a higher standard of judgment”.

There are not many books written on how to keep leadership in check or what a healthy church structure should look like. It seems those books get written instead for leaders to know how to discipline their congregations instead. There are articles written on how to resign from your church membership so that you can get out of an unhealthy church galore, for a good reason which points to the core problem going beyond bad leadership.

If a church has a system in place for keeping the congregation in check but not a way for congregation to have power to deal with an abusive or bad leader the church is just interested in controlling it’s members. A church becomes fertile grounds for abuse under those conditions because the structure of the church itself is problematic.

My church can vote out their leadership. I will never join a church again where leaders decide when leaders come and go and the congregation is powerless to deal with abusive leadership. I never want to be in a place where you have to hope it’s not just an ‘ole boys club, where the leaders all have each others backs anyway, and cover for each other. “If you tell on me for this I will tell on you for that. Let’s all keep our jobs and be quiet.”

In my current church we vote to keep our leaders in place if that is what we want, every year. If politicians need maximum terms and should not be dictators who can stay on indefinitely with absolute power than nor should church leaders who are humans like everyone else. Absolute power corrupts, absolutely.

There are too many control freak churches out there with manuals on church discipline for members (9Marks anyone?!) which is really a ploy for leaders to power trip and to be given control over people’s lives that they have no business having. Although 9Marks and a system of discipline popularized by the Acts29 network is no longer the hot topic it was at one time, this question still persists in the minds of church-goers. Even ones outside that Calvinist brand and even those who are not in a mega-church.

Leadership should be the influencers, and the entire set up of the church should be inclusive and representative of it’s members. And not merely the influencers of clothing style or brand like Carl above. If their lives are not the catalyst for change in their congregation and they need fear and control for that, including fear of discipline, or a hierarchy that keeps leaders protected from accountability, they are doing it wrong!

I can’t help feel red flags when leadership gets into the topic of church discipline. When did Jesus punish his disciples in scripture and when did that root word from discipline go from disciple to punish?! It seems to me Jesus led by example not by threat or coercion.

What if our modern churches today were built on corrupt power structures to begin with?

It led me to thinking about evangelicalism and the largest Protestant denomination today: the Southern Baptist Church.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, came into being in 1845 as the church of Southern slaveholders.

Now, 173 years later, Southern Baptist leaders are not just acknowledging their dark history; they are documenting it, as if by telling the story in wrenching detail, they may finally be freed of its taint.
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s flagship institution, this week released a 71-page report on the role that racism and support for slavery played in its origin and growth.

As Beth Moore who is an SBC member and speaker herself, has been calling out Trumpism (and perplexed at how the evangelical world has been taken in by such a fascistic leader) and rebuking his followers for making him into an idol, something was bothering me more than just Beth’s unaffirming stance or cruelty aimed at the LGBTQIA community in the name of God. It requires careful thought as to why a person picks one area and fights against one form of oppression while ignoring other areas or even contributing to the oppression of others in other areas. This needs to be looked at in another lens aside from “well, she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she was too liberal”.

My friend Kay Bruner put her finger on it:

She [Beth Moore] is the poster child for patriarchal bargain.

from Wikipedia: Patriarchal bargain is a term coined by Turkish author and researcher Deniz Kandiyoti in 1988 in the article “Bargaining with Patriarchy”. Patriarchal bargain is the blueprint for how women deal with concrete constraints of different types of patriarchal systems by accepting gender rules that are unfavorable to women in order to survive. These different types of patriarchal systems reveal the various ways that women use to conform to gender norms so they can gain some sort of benefit in return.[1]
She has benefited personally and enormously from sucking up to the white supremacist patriarchal church for her entire career. I’m glad she’s speaking up but. She knows that going full lgbtq affirming is the last straw.
I keep thinking about where the real problem is with the Beth Moore statements and I think it’s that she wants the system to revert to her normal where she’s comfortable and profiting from the whole thing as per her patriarchal bargain. She frames trump as the one bad apple and if you just get rid of him, then the church is fine. My opinion is that the whole thing is rotten and needs to end. Trump is a symptom of the evils of white male supremacy that the America evangelical church is founded on. These issues are not separate from the American evangelical church, they are the founding principles of it.

Jules Woodson, a victims advocate for church abuse knows better than anyone else how those systems were built to protect:

She points out that the SBC structure is the actual problem here:

There seemingly remains zero accountability for repentance or justice within the confines of the SBC’s structure, organizations, and committees, when it comes to clergy sexual abuse. #ChurchToo #SBCtoo #SBC20

And Jules of all people would know that. As the New York Times headline about her situation reads: “I Was Assaulted. He Was Applauded.”

“My abuser is back in the pulpit.” she tweeted as her former youth pastor was planning to start a new church.

Her story made headlines not only because of the sexual abuse by her former youth pastor Andy Savage when she was only 17 but the response and subsequent cover ups of her former church and their leadership revealed a much deeper problem in the evangelical world. His church at the time of the public disclosure made headlines when he was applauded by his congregation High Point church when telling about the abuse in a way that was completely tone deaf to all victims of abuse. The way it was announced to the church shifted the sympathy onto himself leading the congregation to applaud him as if he was being heroic.

These situations are far from exceptional. There are entire survivor communities out there dedicated to how these structures lead to abuse on a much wider scale then merely one fallen leader and their many victims. Often the leadership underneath them and the church structure itself uses and abuses it’s congregation even grooming them as they volunteer, sometimes burning themselves out in the process of their free labor.

As Jesus said about bad fruit in Matthew 7:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. … every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. ”

It’s interesting that after addressing the need to be aware of bad leadership (that is often disguised as good leadership), he addresses a bigger picture- the system. The tree itself needs examination and not just the individual fruit or one branch of it.