On a quiet Sunday morning in June, as worshippers settled into the pews at Allen Baptist Church in southwestern Michigan, Pastor Jason Burrick grabbed his cellphone and dialed 911. When a dispatcher answered, the preacher said a former congregant was in the sanctuary. "And we need to, um, have her out A.S.A.P."
The charge was trespassing, but Mrs. Caskey's real offense, in her pastor's view, was spiritual. Several months earlier, when she had questioned his authority, he'd charged her with spreading "a spirit of cancer and discord" and expelled her from the congregation. "I've been shunned," she says.
Her story reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.
The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
First of all, there's this passage in the Bible that says, "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." I hold this to be far more important than countervailing verses saying we need to kick people out of Church for "sinning". The pews would be empty if we did that.
Second, there are a variety of ways to deal with "discipline" in the Church - including using the example of Jesus' sacrifice as the beginning for forming an ethic of Christian discipline (OK, so Karl Barth still lingers in the back of my mind; you can't escape the verbose Basel churchman!). Further, to this specific point here, it seems that what Mrs. McCaskey did hardly meets the threshold necessary for even some kind of minimal "discipline". So she didn't like the way the guy did some things! Good Lord, church politics are awful - heinous even - but this kind of thing is almost beyond the pale.
Back to my first point, though, which I think is far more important, we just seem befuddled about sin. It isn't stuff we do, or at least not primarily stuff we do. It is who we are, how we are, a disposition of enmity towards God. It is the human condition sine qua non (with apologies to Hannah Arendt). For this minister to do this only shows he doesn't understand what sin is, or what the message of the Gospel is. Bound up with judgment - discipline, if you will - and prior to it, is always the grace of God that goes before us, before we even know of such a thing (OK, so now I'm combining Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Wesley via Albert Outler - too much education is not necessarily a good thing . . .). The word of grace is a judgment upon us; the word of judgment is precisely an expression of the inexpressible love of God for us. If there was no judgment, how would we now how far God's love extends for us, to us? Limiting "discipline" to this kind of thing is unBiblical in the worst way - it distorts what is on the page, taking it out of any kind of underlying theological (and Christological) context, to suit the needs of the present moment.