Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Concluding thoughts on church discipline

The call to practice church discipline is a call to be counter-cultural. As Thomas Oden points out, ‘Whenever laity or clergy are disciplined, it seems to modern eyes, and especially to the secular press, like overbearing legalism, moral insensitivity, and exclusivism.’ Indeed, as has been noted, to practice church discipline will mark a church apart from much of contemporary Christianity. Given Leeman’s point that church membership and discipline are two sides of the same coin those who want to encourage the church to uphold its responsibility will promote the concept of commitment to the local fellowship. Those teaching about Christian discipleship will include the idea of becoming responsibly to the authority of the local congregation, even if noting that this authority is not ultimate or infallible.
Teaching on discipline should emphasis that there is a responsibility on the whole of the congregation to play their part. However a person does not need to enact the process of discipline for ever minor offence committed against them because ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8). Similarly people should be encouraged to give the benefit of the doubt, because love always hopes (1 Cor. 13:7). Nevertheless it should not be believed that failing to address someone about sin in their lives is a loving thing to do, church discipline is consistent with a desire for their restoration and their spiritual good. While, in the Methodist Church in Ireland, ‘ministers’ do not officially have their membership with the local congregation it seems artificial to think that they are not incorporated into the body of the local church. Therefore it seems inappropriate that the formal stages of discipline for those in this role, and for local preachers, should exclude the courts of the local church. This being said it is understood that there are pragmatic arguments for by-passing a local congregational court in the discipline of a minister. It would be expected that the views of the congregation would be given a good hearing in the further courts of the church.

The teaching of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul seems clear on exclusion. This exclusion seems to involve convivial discourse with the disciplined although they may still attend church gatherings to hear the preaching of the Word. Given that the Lord’s Supper is such a sign of oneness in fellowship it seems both inappropriate that those who have not made a profession of faith or those who have be excluded from fellowship should be allowed to partake. Any attempts to say that the Lord’s Table is open to all, irrespective of faith its absence and lifestyle choice, would therefore seem inappropriate.

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