A couple of weeks ago someone forwarded to me a post from Desiring God that hit me like a punch in the stomach.
In an article called “Kicked Out of Church: How God Brought Me Home” (link), author Scarlett Clay begins her story right after her church had excommunicated her, showing the indignation of her friends at such an injustice, and her own appreciation of their indignation.
But that’s only the first paragraph, and the reason for the excommunication hasn’t yet been divulged. (It’s clear, though, that she expresses contempt for herself about it, so that attitude, along with the title of the post, gives us a hint as to where this is going.)
Though her story unfolds in a somewhat non-chronological order, ultimately we see that
- Her child was diagnosed with a rare and deadly disease through which, over the course of several years, he suffered and died.
- During this time she stopped praying, for five years. She referred to this time as her rebellion.
- While her son was in hospice and dying, “not one single person from our church came to see our son . . . . Not even the pastor.” (Even as I type those words I feel my heart beating faster, and I feel sick to my stomach.)
- She separated from her husband and stopped going to church for a year and a half.
- She was excommunicated by her Reformed Baptist Church (for quitting church? for separating from her husband?). It’s important to note that in Reformed Baptist circles, excommunication is not simply a dropping of a name from the church roll, as it is in many churches. It’s a formal process by which a church member is publicly declared to be apart from God and no longer a part of that body. Church members may variously be told to confront them with their sin or to shun them. (The 9marks.org website is a go-to place for many in conservative Reformed evangelicalism on how church discipline is to proceed.)
- She told her friends she had been excommunicated, they responded with indignation, and she felt justified in her self-pity.
- Over the course of time she saw the hollowness of a culture that looked to itself for answers rather than to God and His Word.
- She began to admire and respect how the church that had excommunicated her had acted consistently with their convictions, remaining “steadfast to the biblical standard” (of what, she does not say), staying “faithful to God” by excommunicating her.
- She prayed her first prayer in five years, asking God to forgive her and receiving His forgiveness. She began to participate in a new church, was reconciled with her husband, and began to study apologetics.
As I read the article and approached the end, I began to fear that the author was going to return to the church that had excommunicated her (the lack of care of which the Desiring God representative I spoke with called “deplorable”), so it was a big relief to me when she didn’t.
But she did have more to say about them.
In excommunicating a grieving member who had quit attending regular meetings, the pastor and elders, she said, were “holy” and “did the right thing.” She called it “loving,” “faithful,” and a reflection of God’s holiness.
But as I read, I had a very different view of it. With only the information in the blog post available to me, I saw this harsh treatment as if someone who hung at the fringes of the body of Christ had been forcibly shoved into isolation.
Then I thought about it in contrast to what could have been.
I don’t experientially know the grief of losing a child, but I’ve been told it’s some of the deepest, darkest grief there is. In my mind’s eye, what could have been in a case of a church member losing a child—even if that church member has dropped out of church, and especially if she has dropped out of church—would be for church members to take turns coming simply to sit with the grieving member in her grief, even if they don’t know what to say (sometimes words aren’t even wanted anyway).
Allowing her to express her anger at God without telling her she’s in rebellion against Him, but understanding that anger is a natural part of grief.
Being there for her when she wants to weep and when she wants to stay silent, when she wants to yell and when she ends up just ugly crying that gives her a splitting headache.
Being there for her when she says she doesn’t even want to darken the door of their church. Loving her through that, because she is still a child of God. She’s just in the black hole of grief.
How much more a representation of Jesus Christ, the God of the Universe, would that have been. . . .
So now I look at the final paragraph of her article. And in place of “church discipline” I substitute “care and compassion.” This is what could have been.
Looking back, [my church’s care and compassion] had reflected God’s holiness, and it was the beauty of his holiness [reflected in their care and compassion] that drew me back. True love, shown through unwavering faithfulness to his word, proved irresistible, gleaming like a bright jewel in the fog. I encourage church leaders to practice [care and compassion] in love. There will always be people like me who desperately need it.
Is God’s holiness really reflected in the excommunication of a grieving member who has not been visited? No, God’s holiness is reflected far more in His holy love, His holy compassion, and His holy mercy.
Why is this so important? Because in certain segments of conservative evangelicalism, church discipline seems to have gone berserk. Instead of being reserved for the serious and public sins such as that described in First Corinthians 5, it’s no longer uncommon for Christians to be excommunicated for failing to keep their “vow of attendance,” or even for “rebellion” against whatever the elders decide they ought to do (even turning a blind eye to the sins of those elders, or living with abuse).
This kind of high-handed demand of slavish obedience is never what God intended toward those whom He told to “shepherd the flock . . . not domineering . . . but being examples.”
I know of many accounts of wrongful church excommunications, some of them personally from people with whom I’ve spent hundreds of hours. But there are also scores of credible accounts available at various websites. The people I know will someday be ready to tell their stories, but until then, you can read about horrendous mishandlings of church discipline and excommunication in many places. For example, here and here and here and here and here and here and here. Or you could view a whole slew of examples here.
The stories bear an air of eerie similarity. The people without influence, often abuse victims, are excommunicated, while people with influence—even if they are abusers or abuse enablers—remain ensconced in the church or in a new church because they are friends with the pastor or they are wealthy donors or they did something else to ingratiate themselves with church leaders. The abused, on the other hand, or the people without influence, were punished, often for simply trying to get the elders to listen to truth and refusing to live any longer with lies.
This is what I was thinking about when I read this Desiring God article: church discipline gone haywire. Church discipline that punishes the very ones who need help and protects the very ones who should be disciplined.
I felt heartsick when I read that Desiring God article to see that a church responded to a grieving member who had quit attending their formal meetings by excommunicating her.
I felt heartsick that someone at Desiring God thought this message about the “holiness” of what appears to be heartless excommunication was an appropriate message to deliver to Christians.
I felt heartsick to see Christians sharing it on social media with other Christians, affirming that this was an example of church discipline well done.
What has happened to the conservative evangelical church?
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about his longing for change in America, he spoke not only to the people who were being oppressed. He spoke to all Americans. The entire society needed to change.
In like manner, many voices have been speaking within the conservative evangelical church realm, some for many years, not only to those who have been abused and treated harshly and unjustly by the church, but to the church at large.
When I say “our church culture must change,” I say it not only for the spiritual health of those who are oppressed, of whom there are many. But I say it for the spiritual health of those who have come to believe that what appears to be callous disregard and lack of care is a fitting substitute for compassion.
The conservative evangelical church of Jesus Christ is in desperate need of true compassion. Stand in the shoes of the one who has lost a child, the one who has been treated cruelly, to seek to understand what it’s like. Then run to help them, as our Lord has admonished us so many times.
Let us love one another, brothers, for love is of God, and whoever loves is born of God and knows God.
Almost 30 years ago John Piper wrote an article in which he quoted Romans 13:10, I Corinthians 13:13, Galatians 5:6, John 13:35, and I Corinthians 13:1-2 and said, “Love and compassion are the summation of all practical Christian living.” He was admonishing Christians to apply this truth in their interaction with those who don’t know Christ, but how much more important is it within the body! After all, in the book of Acts, people were drawn into the Kingdom of God when they observed the care and compassion Christians showed for each other.
“Behold, how they love one another.”
Is this how outsiders who learned of Scarlett Clay’s excommunication would see it? Clearly not, since she described their reaction at the beginning of her article. How many of them turned away from church more than ever because of what was done to her?
Desiring God, it is vital that you stand firmly for compassion, not only for people on the outside of the church, but for the desperate and needy within the very walls of the church. It is crucial to the life and health of the church that you decry a lack of care in the body of Christ that your very own representative called “deplorable.”
It is essential that you call out to churches to distinguish Biblical church discipline—such as in the case of egregious First Corinthians 5 type sins—from situations in which someone is grieving, desperate, and broken, the cases that call for practical help, for love and compassion, “the summation of all practical Christian living.”
Many of the most well-respected leaders of conservative evangelicalism have been turning their backs on the cries of the needy for years, and even exacerbating their pain. Will they continue in this?
And what will the rest of us do?
Note: In preparing this post I corresponded with the author of the Desiring God article, who told me that the pastor and associate pastor of the excommunicating church had both apologized for failing in ministry to her family. I also corresponded with a representative of Desiring God who told me the lack of care shown by this church was “deplorable.” I’m trying to find and correspond with the church that excommunicated Scarlett Clay, and if I’m able to learn pertinent information from that correspondence, I’ll update this article accordingly.
Excellent article. God’s holiness is not served by telling hurting people they are no longer saved, in rebellion and then kicking them out for hurting.
People in churches that abuse “discipline” may well be guilty themselves of the grievous sins worthy of discipline, especially the sins of idolatry and slander. They make an idol of their church and its rules, and they slander those who have been abused or deeply hurt. See 1 Corinthians 5:11, “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister[c] but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”
Thank you for taking the time to so painstakingly outline the truth with regard to Desiring God’s experience. It is a painful but insightful exposé.
The church’s failure to emotionally and spiritually support Desiring God is a appalling – spiritual malpractice. (But God bless the woman’s friends who stood by her! People like them seem to be a rarity these days.)
What is even more disturbing is how common these and similar excommunication practices are within contemporary churches, whereby they shame and shun the hurting. I am surprised that the woman who was so grievously rejected ever found her way back to church.
There are other church victims – often abuse victims, as you noted – who want to go to church but are given the cold shoulder because they separated from or divorced their abusers. In many Christian circles, even if we are not excommunicated, we are treated like third-class Christians.
It is sad – but not altogether surprising – to discover that the Pharisees are alive and well, and they hold incredible sway in our local churches.
No, as far as I could see, this woman had no Christian friends who stood by her. The friends who were appalled at her excommunication appeared to be the non-Christian friends she was with after leaving the church. Yes, the conservative evangelical church has lost its way when it comes to church discipline, apparently largely due to the influence of 9Marks and other related organizations (since there are many parachurch organizations that promote each other). And yes, it’s a grievous thing to see how very lacking so many churches are in compassion for those who have been abused and oppressed.
I can be like that sometimes. Self-righteous and insensitive to people that need compassion and consideration. I know what I’m doing wrong. I don’t understand the gospel as I well I should. When someone reminds me that I don’t understand the gospel then I begin to see how I cruel I can be sometimes. Meditation on the gospel convicts me of sin and then my heart begins to soften again. I barely understand the gospel and the more I meditate on it the more I change for the better. From what I can see both Scarlett and the people at her church needed someone to tell them about the gospel. Scarlett’s story reminds a lot of the book of Job. Scarlett is Job and the people at church were Job’s friends. My prayers are with all of them. I pray that the wisdom, comfort, strength and joy of the gospel of the Lord be given to all of us. Always keep the gospel front and center. It is God’s power.
Louis, while I agree that the power of God is displayed in the gospel, I would challenge Christians to go beyond it, to the power of the Resurrection (Ephesians 1:19-23), the power that is available through a *Person,* the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It’s not just knowing the gospel that transforms a person from cruel to kind. It’s the indwelling life of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I wrote a blog post about that years ago, here: https://heresthejoy.com/2010/08/should-my-life-be-centered-around-the-gospel/
Great article, and disturbing. I was at a church service once where an unwed, pregnant teen-age girl confessed her “sin” before the church–the father was not there. She was embraced, loved, treated with kindness, etc., but it left a particularly sick feeling in my gut to this day. Also, even though I wasn’t involved with it, I felt ashamed that day, just for being there, hearing that, and seeing a young, pregnant, alone girl endure such a public revealing of something that should have been handled in private, and with kindness and tenderhearted care. She felt she was doing the “right thing” in confessing pre-marital sex–but the church was doing the wrong thing in making her do it before a room full of adults, friends, fellow teens, etc., many of whom doubtlessly were familiar themselves with the very same sin!
That poor girl. Some of us confess and are forgiven in secret; she just got caught and was publicly humiliated for it. Jesus reminds all of us of this truth, having said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Thank you Rebecca for covering such a painful subject: excommunications and shunnings. This abusive practice is spreading across our churches with lightening speed, and much destruction.
I knew something was “off the rails” about my ex-church (located in Silicon Valley, California) when the senior pastor told hundreds of church members to stay after the Sunday church service for a closed door meeting. This godly, middle-aged woman who worked in finance, who volunteered with the mentally ill in group homes and the elderly in convalescent homes, was maligned before all of us because she dared to leave for another church. The senior pastor said she wasn’t “submissive” to her husband and “obeying” him. A woman I considered a friend and a dear sister in Christ we were suddenly supposed to treat terribly.
It was so confusing.
Then it was done to a doctor who is a senior citizen, married for about 50 years. He gave of his time and money to the church. He was accused of “false teaching” despite the fact he never taught at the church or even hosted a Bible study.
And finally it was my turn to be excommunicated and shunned, on some trumped up charge.
I saw, during these years, scores of people leave. When I interviewed them later, they said that they were concerned by how unhealthy the church was and how authoritarian it was. They had no outside accountability.
These stories are so tragic. And they wreak such damage to the souls of Christians who just wanted to follow the Lord. Yes, those Ezekiel 34 shepherds will surely answer for their actions one day.
I am troubled that Scarlett, the author of the article linked above, thought it was ok for her church to discipline and excommunicate her at dark time in her life: her child was dying from a rare illness and she was bereft.
Maybe people used to being in authoritarian environments don’t see other solutions.
I think one of the other solutions would have been for a small group of people to gather and pray for Scarlett, her husband, and child…and whatever was going on in their lives. To expect nothing of them. Not even church attendance. Maybe have a few people show up to comfort them, like the Jewish practice of “sitting Shiva” and meeting with the grieving without saying a word.
To call her loss, and anger with God, “rebellion” as she calls herself (because her church did) seems a bit strong. Doesn’t God who made us understand us? That when we’re lost, confused, hurt, and inconsolable and we don’t know how to pray…that He will intercede for us?
I think God showed up in those 5-years and He understood that she wasn’t capable of showing up. It would take time for her to heal. God understood that. If her church hadn’t excommunicated, she would have healed and come around.
And what does being heavy-handed and excommunicating people teach others who witness it? In my view, it teaches people to lie. That it’s not safe to be real in a church community. You have to pretend. You can’t ask for help. You have to instantly get better from [name your problem]. This isn’t how life works. We’re supposed to love one another.
I will not go to a church that practices excommunications for these kinds of things. I remember one man that I hadn’t seen at a church in years. I prayed for him every day. Years later, he showed up at a church we both attended. I smiled, hugged him and said, “I’ve prayed every day for you for years since you left. I am glad to see you and I hope you’re ok.” He was shocked anyone had prayed for him. And for years.
I don’t know Scarlett, so I tried to speak very cautiously about her situation without reading more into it than she said, but I was deeply grieved by her story. Maybe there was rebellion in there somewhere, but from what I read, I didn’t see any. And yes, I agree that the kind of fear this sort of threat of excommunication holds over people’s heads will create a church environment in which people will feel like they need to wear plastic smiles so they can fit in.
Well. I have been sexually abused by a pastor and deacons as a child. At 19 I went to ywam and on our outreach, was accused of absurd charges. Myself and an 18 yr old new Christian a man of about 26 yes old who had been suffering greatly with mental illness were all charged with being rebellious.
Our sin? Praying. Praying for people for their wellbeing. The 26 yr old would raise his hand to God when he prayed.
They took all three of us in a room put us individually in the middle of the room and we were told we had demons. They prayed for hours to get rid of them.
They told us to renounce the spirit .
When the young man prayed for forgiveness they slapped his arms down.
They traumatized all of us for hours. I wasn’t falling into their weirdness and confessing for praying for people. This made them so angry.
I got kicked out of ywam.
The 26 year old left bruised, beaten mentally to an already fragile mind.
The 18 yr old was allowed to stay but was crushed.
When I got back to the ywam base I went to leadership.Told them everything and was still sent home.
Two years later, I confronted the group leader in charge of our dts. He was shocked I was still in a very confused, damaged state, and admitted he should not have sent the leadership in charge of our group. But he didn’t want to go.
He knew our leadership was ill prepared, and not equipped to lead.
He had me sent home to save YWAMS face. He had me sent home to save his reputation. He lied to the other groups who went elsewhere, and told them I was rebellious.
He asked me what I need him to do. I said write an apology letter to each ywam member telling the truth. He did. But I never sent it out. I felt God would deal with them later, and I didn’t need vindication.
A few years later we moved and I ended up going to church with members of my ywam group who married. It was awful to live under the stigma of being rebellious. I told them what really happened. They were shocked. They told me the leader had said I was the cause. And I was kicked out.
We became good friends. I met soon after with the leadership who was at our outreach which was a couple of years later.
They had zero memory of what they did to us.
Nothing. It was as if it didn’t happen.
I quoted back to her everything she said to me. About how I was going to be a terrible wife and mother, how evil I was, etc. I WAS ENGAGED at the time. She said I would get divorced because I was rebellious.
I told her she was reading a book on deliverance, and how she used that book against us. Again no memory.
I know I infuriated her.at the time because I was not going to renounce the Holy Spirit and praying for people who were sad, and hopeless. And praying for their salvation.
I got an apology.
The whole thing traumatized me to the core. I was already bashed and brutalized by church. My friend the 18 yr old was more resilient. Confused, but she went to school, graduated from Yale in religious studies and became an espisopalian priest.
The 26 yr old, I don’t know what became of him.
My take on pastoral care?
In my experience for the last 30 yrs ? Very few pastors or leaders care for the sheep. They care about themselves, their reputations, money, ability, and they don’t love God. I know. Because the love of God is not in them.
The Bible says we will know if they are of him by their fruits.
Selfish ambition. Lusts for power. Arrogance. Anger. Sexual immorality. Hatred.
Vendors 28 yrs later my friend went to a ywam reunion, my leader’s wife was at her table. My friend who knows me since high school, came to my defence at that table. The woman was complaining about my emotional state at ywam, how I cried all the time. How I was needy. How I was always asking for prayer.
She shot her down immediately, and rebuked her for even 28 yrs later for still being callous and cold. Then she explained who sexually abused me.
This woman has remained in Ywam with her husband all these years, knew all of what happened. Knew her husband was responsible and still pointed the fingers at me mockingly.
You will know them by their fruits.
I know she is no Christian. The love of God is not in her.
People just don’t care. They don’t let the power of the Holy Spirit convicts them and bring them to repentance. It’s outward appearances that count.
God can and does change an honest heart. He does the work in us to change us from image to image glory to glory so we can be like him.
A title, a position mean nothing to me. Love melts the most rebellious heart. Love binds up a wounded heart. Love changes a hard stubborn heart into a malleable clay.
It’s not hard to see those who are his.
The church needs to be reminded, taught, and demonstrated to, that anything less than this is not truth.
Anyone pastor or deacon who does not go after the lost sheep, and draw them in to safety like a shepherd would is not a Shepherd but a wolf.
Pastors don’t teach on this. They don’t remind the people who to look for. They don’t teach them how to discern.
That’s my story.
Thank you for telling your story–it sounds like it was traumatizing. I hope you’ve found safe and compassionate people and have been experiencing the healing grace of our loving Lord Jesus.
Eeeeeeeek all those spelling errors from auto correct. I am fine now. But do not go to church. I still don’t trust Christians. I trust other people more than Christians. I don’t sound fine, but there are many reasons why I won’t go to church. Ywam is not on that list, though.
I do think people need to know what to looks for in a pastor. They need to be taught to learn how to discern. People need to know what good fruit is.
If the church in general was not taught to blindly follow I think pastors who want to rape and pillage the sheep might grow scarce.
Ah yes, but there’s the rub. It’s the pastors who teach Christians to blindly follow, the very ones who want to rape and pillage. And even ones who are truly good people usually don’t actively work to teach people that they should NOT blindly follow. Power feels too good, I suppose.
And yet we all have the same Bible, and we can all read it. We all have the same Holy Spirit. We can learn how to discern a wolf from a shepherd.
So sorry to hear you don’t trust any Christians. That one hurts, but sadly, I can understand it. I know there are many trustworthy Christians, but quite a few of them aren’t in any church either.
This issue is troubling. I couldn’t help but think about how Hebrews 10:25 is often quoted when someone “quits going to church,” for whatever reason. But the last part of the verse is overlooked, how we are to ENCOURAGE one another as we meet together.
“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25 ESV
Many churches now take ‘attendance’ of members and attenders, who are called for being ‘no shows’ (illness, family event, etc.). My ex-church did this. It was insufferable and controlling.
I can meet with other Christians anywhere and encourage, and it doesn’t have to be in a church.
Except, I think when you’re meeting with other Christians, it IS a church. 🙂 And if church members noticed a fellow member’s absence in order to help them in some way, then that would be completely different from the controlling tactic you’re describing here.
You are so right! Meeting with another Christian “IS a church”!
The other tactics, indeed, are legalistic and controlling, like taking attendance. I have received calls from current church members at my ex-church, who aren’t supposed to talk to me, who are upset with how controlling the pastors/elders are about these points, including when church members have been away visiting family, on vacations, etc.
Instead of criticizing my former church’s pastors/elders, I ask the callers, “So tell me how you were treated at other churches you’ve gone to. Were you ever treated this way?” The callers always tell me, “NO! My former churches NEVER did this!”
Me: “So which one makes you feel better. How your former churches treated you or how this church treats you?” In that way, I help them figure out a healthy answer.
Yes, and not just feeling better, but drawing closer to God. the controlling churches often drive a wedge between the church member and God.
This is such a good analysis. The perspective of this DG post is so skewed. She mentions the “undeniable failure of a church body to minister to a hurting family.” But then she says “they had acted consistently. They stayed true to their biblical convictions” and they “stayed faithful to the one that mattered most.”
So how can they stay true to their biblical convictions, while at the same time fail to minister to a hurting family? It only makes sense if discipline is more important than love. Does Scarlett Clay really believe Jesus values discipline more than love? I don’t see that in Jesus. At all.
I could see their “acting consistently” and “staying true to their . . . convictions” because their convictions appeared to be about following the outward-conformity rules. It seemed pretty clear that their convictions had nothing to do with actually showing love and compassion. This is what was so terribly sickening to me, what felt like a punch in the stomach.
From what I could understand from her post, Scarlett Clay believed that the excommunication of a hurting church member was the way that church showed love. For her sake I want to be careful how I speak about it, but it was very troubling.
And Sarah, thank you for mentioning that about God’s holy love and holy mercy when we talked together the other day. You see I wasted no time incorporating that thought into a blog post!
And beautifully put! There is something really twisted about the emphasis on “holy wrath” and “holy righteousness” to the exclusion of any acknowledgment of holy love, forgiveness, and mercy.
I left this comment on Claire Roise’s facebook share:
This happens. I think that abusers sometimes avoid discipline because they are not committed to truth. They are happy to say whatever words they need to say to avoid consequences. The victims eventually get fed up with the gross injustice of their church authorities honoring holy words that are completely at odds with the wicked oppressions they experience at home.
The same churches that excommunicate seem to be the ones that put a high value on spoken repentance. They are uniquely susceptible to the willingness of the abuser to say what they want to hear.
It was very frustrating to me that the state of Idaho was willing to prosecute a crime while the church hadn’t exercised it’s authority of excommunication in the case that showed Claire Roise and I the problems with how abuse is handled in
churches. Additional salt in the wound in these churches is that if the victim is trying to stay and be submissive they are often faced with waiting on church elders to decide whether or when they can divorce. Or even waiting for answers to other minor questions. Prompt, thorough, and competent answers tend to be scarce, while control is automatic, enforced, and pervasive.
Yes, you nailed it Peter–there definitely appears to be a correlation between excommunication of the oppressed and almost meaningless words-and-tears repentance.
I know which situation in Idaho you’re referring to, but would you like to tell more about it here?
That’s a tricky one. It’s not all my story to tell. I can say that I used to be close friends with Jamin Wight who is one of two high-profile predator abusers who were in the Christ Church community in Moscow, Idaho. That’s enough info to get most people all the search results they could ever want 😉
One more thing, in case your audience isn’t familiar; Douglas Wilson is the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow and one of the founders of the Classical Christian Schooling movement.
Amen, Rebecca! We have eternity to love one another, but only a few years to let unbelievers see that Love.
Bravo! I agree wholeheartedly that “callous disregard and lack of care” are the very root of the problem. It is callous disregard for God’s moral law (disobedience) and lack of love. This is unbelief (one of the most enlightening truths I ever learned is that belief=love=obedience).
All the callous disregard and lack of care that permeates society fills me with such anxiety (terror, really) and I know that is somewhat illogical because I know that we are living under a curse and anxiously awaiting Jesus’ return. But I think much of my terror is due to the fact that I just can’t find any relief from these attitudes anywhere in my community. I seek my true family at church, but I have been most profoundly betrayed by the leadership of churches. Those who purport to uphold the law, flagrantly disregard it.
I long for the fellowship of fellow believers, but even if I think there might be some actual ones in these churches, the fact that they don’t see or object to the disobedience of their leaders is alienating to the point of making true fellowship impossible.
I am extremely thankful for the good works of you and other believers such as those at A Cry for Justice, they are sources of merciful relief from among humanity. Only in the truth, is there mercy. Come, Lord Jesus!
His, I can’t even tell you how profoundly sorry I am for the betrayal you’ve experienced. I agree that belief and love and obedience are related even though I would say they’re not exactly the same. For example, if a person proves to be trustworthy, then you can believe him; love and trustworthiness will engender a desire for obedience, etc. The Christians who aren’t resisting or even seeing the disobedience of their church leaders is a problem I addressed in another post, here: https://heresthejoy.com/2017/05/the-other-kind-of-hypocrisy/
My only concern re your own opinion would be that there is always the other side of the story. So, whilst this person was contrite and appreciative of God’s discipline, you also say that you know of many cases where church discipline has been misused.
Not knowing the details of those cases myself, I might here make the same error that I’m suggesting you might be making: that of making a judgement about discipline based solely on the testimony of the one disciplined. But it’s entirely possible that a person who’s been disciplined may not have the correct view of things. When they disagree with the discipline it doesn’t mean that the wrong call was made by the church.
In this case, had Scarlet not reacted well to the discipline and been healed by it, in all probability you would have condemned it. Yet we can’t judge discipline only on its results, because not everyone responds to it in the way they should.
No doubt there are mistakes made by pastors and elders in this matter from time to time. But I think we need to guard against presumtuousness by not making judgements about the decisions of those who are tasked to protect the flock when we don’t have all the facts.
There are a variety of authoritarian groups that are pushing ‘church discipline’. They are claiming that they have recovered the ‘True Gospel’. They have simply re-released the 1970’s Heavy Shepherding Movement whose Florida founders repented for its abuses and un-biblicalness.
These men lack love and maturity. They have done much damage, all while proclaiming that Jesus ratifies their abusive conduct. They bear no resemblance to the Good Shepherd.
Be that as it may, I still think that each case must be taken on its own merits. It is dangerous and presumptuous (that is if one accepts that a church is a true church) to make assumptions about specific cases unles you have all the facts at hand.
Please know that I’m not saying I believe everyone claiming to be a Christian really is one, or every church really is approved of by God. OR that miscarriages of justice don’t occur.
My argument is simple: Ecclesiastes 12:13 says that Solomon made his statement after hearing ALL things. We should take a similar approach.
We will have to agree to disagree, Robert. To call these abusive, authoritarian, heavy-handed churches ‘true churches’ is giving them far too much credit, that they simply don’t deserve. I was excommunicated from an abusive church on trumped up charges, like the doctor before me, and the woman in finance before him. I don’t know need ‘hear all things’ from people who are committed to dishonesty and seem to have no humble relationship with Jesus Christ.
Velour, I’m not sure we are disagreeing. I believe that there are more churches that are not really blessed by God than most people are willing to admit. If there are genuine Christians among the congregants of such churches, they would do well to move to a congregation that displays the fruits of God’s spirit.
The problem is that marriage is sacred. It’s not a problem, of course, and I don’t mean it like that. Some marriage mates leave their spouse because the spouse has been unfaithful, violently abusive or wilfully neglectful. Each spouse must answer to God for the decisions they make, as must we all in all areas of our lives. God is compassionate and will not make us go through things that we genuinely cannot bear. But separating from a partner is definitely not something that should ever be taken lightly because marriage IS sacred.
The reason I urged caution is because I know of cases where a partner has exaggerated ‘abuses’ to seek a way out of a unhappy marriage. An unhappy marriage is not of itself a good reason to separate, in the same way that a parent doesnt cast of his young children because they make him unhappy.
And these cases I refer to do not include charges of physical violence or sexual abuse. It’s difficult to ‘exaggerate’ violence or a abuse without there being at least some truth in the accusation.
So with these things in mind, knowing that people sin in all sorts of ways. Some are abusive partners, some plot to get out of marriages they wish they hadn’t got into.
Regarding excommunication for non attendance and other ‘non-serious’ sins, this would most definitely be wrong. But here again I have personally witnessed Christians committing serious sins, refusing help from their pastors, getting ex-communicated and then publically claiming (different) reasons for their excommunication which put their pastors in a bad light. These ones sounded very convincing and, were it not for the fact that I actually knew they were lying, I might have been inclined to believe their stories.
for these reasons, it is often best to follow the advice at 1 Thes 4:11 which, in part, urges us to “mind our own business” and not meddle in matters that don’t involve us. This too is not an attack at you. The oppressed need someone to look out for them. The primary responsibility for that care lies with the shepherds, and they will have to stand in front of the judgment seat of God if they hurt his flock.
Thanks for your response, Robert. I agree that faithful Christians should move on from bad churches.
If your point is that church membership is on par with marriage, that is incorrect. In fact, it’s a false teaching that is being quickly spread. “Oh we’re the only ‘true’ church and it is a betrayal to leave.’ Nonsense. The appellate courts in the U.S. have also ruled that belonging to a religious group is voluntary and that people can leave whenever they wish. The pastors/elders making claims across the U.S. that people can’t leave if they are “under discipline”, don’t have the “pastors/elders’ blessing”, etc. are in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the state constitutions permitting religious freedom. They have perpetuated legally incorrect advice, and obviously never sat down with with constitutional and litigation attorney to properly advise them. Churches, pastors, and elders are endangered of being sued for this dangerous advice, and so are the pastors who tout it.
It is cowardly, in my opinion, to say that I’m not going to get ‘involved’ and mind my own business, and perpetuate wrong-doing by pastors/elders who harm God’s flock.
No, my discussion about marriage was not a metaphor for church membership.
I would say that the Bible’s principles have often touched on the idea of not interfering with other people’s affairs. That was highlighted in the scripture I mentioned. Let’s imagine that someone was disciplined in a church that you consider is a good one, with a good pastor. Let’s say the pastor is approached by someone undergoing marriage problems. The pastor will try to help the couple to apply godly principles in their marriage in an effort to repair the rift. It is not the business of the congregation in general to interfere or take sides, it could very well be that God is working through that one, and the person who meddles runs the risk of standing against God . Marriage is sacred, and if a marriage CAN be repaired, then it should be. The only situation in scripture that specifically allows an innocent partner to divorce is sexual immorality. Matthew 19:9. If the actions of a partner do not include sexual immorality but are intolerable nevertheless, then it is up to the affected mate to make their own mind up about whether to separate, but they would not be free to remarry.
Now, clearly if a partner has suffered abuse and has made the difficult decision to separate then of course the pastor should be compassionate.
On the subject of interfering: Obviously, if a person seeks your help then you cannot be said to be interfering. So in cases where a person has a legitimate cause for complaint then of course it’s natural that they would reach out for help and natural that others would want to give it. But the person giving help should be careful to make sure that the help is firmly based on bible principles, not on personal feelings. James 5:14 should move you to direct them to the ‘older men’ of the congregation., or to a congregation whose pastor you trust.
I don’t believe such a course is cowardly, I believe it is scriptural.
Do you mind if I ask how old you are? Are you attending a NeoCalvinist church?
I don’t mind: I’m in my 40s and no. 🙂
Thanks, Robert. I just part company with you on how you see church. I’ve seen those destructive practices in their full glory destroy the Body of Christ and the reputations of godly men and women.
Ok, well I’m sorry about that. It was good to exchange views. Take care
I agree that based only what happens in the life of the person who was excommunicated we can’t determine if church discipline has been done according to the way God would have it done–I agree wholeheartedly. Right actions must be taken no matter what the results.
But I’m also very familiar with the charge that there’s the other side of the story and “we don’t have all the facts,” which I addressed in part here: http://bjugrace.com/you-need-to-wait-for-all-the-facts/
I don’t know Scarlett’s case other than what she described in her blog post and in her correspondence with me, so I won’t speak to that in particular. But I’m intimately familiar with the situations of at least two friends of mine who were excommunicated from their conservative evangelical churches when they escaped abusers. I have mountains of facts that guide me in drawing the conclusions that in these two cases the wrongdoing went far beyond “mistakes” to the kind of “shepherding” that’s described in Ezekiel 34. That’s not presumption–that’s a conclusion born of spending scores or hundreds of hours listening and interacting, reading documents and listening to and watching recordings.
There are other cases that I’ve linked to in this article that other people have spent just as much time with. I believe their accounts speak for themselves.
Yes, certainly pastors can make mistakes. But when they refuse to show compassion and care, when they refuse to listen to those who are being abused, when they refuse to acknowledge evidence of abuse, then these are not honest mistakes. These are cases of abuse enabling, which is a kind of abuse in itself. This must surely be a stench in the nostrils of God.
Thanks for your reply. That’s good then, and I hope you didn’t take my comment as a judgement against you. In the cases you mention I suppose you are fulfilling the criteria I suggested should be filled. That is to know the facts.
Just as it would be a shame to have a Christian suffer because of inappropriate disciple, it would also be a shame to vilify a pastor, for example, for correctly taking a very difficult decision to discipline a member of Christ’s flock.
So all,I was doing was urging caution.
Well, I’m sure both pastors in the two stories I know about intimately would think of me as vilifying them, as would many of their congregants. It depends on what information one is willing to listen to and believe, and how one views the Word of God and the Savior.
There are cases of excommunication that are clearly Biblical–for example, when a wife leaves her husband and children to go live with another man and refuses to repent. (And same for a husband.) However, when a wife takes her children and leaves her husband to go to a women’s shelter, and is excommunicated for not returning when the elders demand it, that also seems like a very clear case of religious abuse.
The Apostle Paul handed a man over to Satan (excommunicated him) for sleeping with his father’s wife: a sin even the pagans did not tolerate. Rebecca is referring to women and children who have FLED abuse, not perpetrated it. It makes no sense that these victims would be excommunicated. I think this example will help keep excommunication in perspective.
I don’t mean to throw a fly into the honey, here, but have followed this discussion–as a pastor who is very interested in the health of his church, issues of destructive behavior that hurts the church members is very, very important to me.
There are few points that have had a big effect on my thinking and practices in our church that I would mention.
1. “Excommunication” is defined as “the action of officially excluding someone from participation in the sacraments and services of the Christian Church.” The word has only been routinely used by churches for the past six or so centuries–and is derived from the Latin form. I do not believe it is found in the bible, although practices that appear to be “excommunication” certain do, such as in 1 Cor 5, Matt 18, etc. But there’s a nasty side to excommunication, in its historic sense: it deprives a person of community, of receiving the Lord’s Supper, baptism, etc., the very sacraments whose power we say is life-changing and spiritually transformative. Even deeper, those very sacraments, esp. communion, are actually viewed by more than a few faith traditions within Christians as in themselves conferring the grace of God to the believer. In other words, the physical act of taking communion was the only way to receive the grace of God. So, for a church leader to deny communion is (in those traditions) for him/her to deny grace, something that is really God’s job–alone. That’s ominous, and most pastors I know shudder to think a human would ever undertake excommunication with that denial in mind.
2. This reformation-based word, excommunication, arises from an era in church history when there were the great State Churches of Europe and the east (Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian (to a degree), Orthodox, etc.), and so when someone was excommunicated they were cast out of the only physical church they could possibility belong to, anyway. And, their excommunication was enforceable by the state government itself. (Think of Calvin’s Geneva, where a man was executed under Calvin’s reign and partnership with local government, for “heresy.”) Today, we simply cannot physically remove anyone from our churches. Part of receiving the benefits of 501c status is the expectation that we don’t do those kinds of things to our fellow tax-paying citizens, who (presumably) have helped to fund churches through their tax contributions. At the end of the day, we simply can nicely ask them to leave–and they really don’t have to. We could call the police, I guess, but we’d end up looking silly, and I don’t think I like the idea of our police enforcing church discipline!
3. Finally, this old school “excommunication” model simply isn’t practiced often, consistently, or with the effects promised by its proponents. I wonder if sticking to the old tried and true, formulaic approach isn’t simply evidence of leaders’ lack of creativity, or real understanding of the persistence and corrosive nature of sin in their churches.
Excommunication within the conservative evangelical church came back into regular practice in or around the 1990s, picking up steam with Mark Dever’s “Center for Church Reform,” later renamed 9Marks, for “The 9 Marks of a Healthy Church,” the primary two of which are church membership and excommunication, in order to keep the church pure. I believe the Bible is clear on teaching that those who sow Judaistic teachings, fornication, profanity, or other wickedness in a church are to be put out (you mentioned I Cor 5, and I would add Heb 12:15-16, and Paul mentions the Judaistic troublemakers throughout Galatians and other places), but what we’ve seen from these churches almost across the board is that the ones who are put out are the ones who need help–the oppressed, the troubled, the victimized, the grieving. The ones who cause the trouble are often ones in positions of authority, so of course they’re not going to put themselves out. So the “church” becomes a place of toxicity.
I realize this isn’t true of all church excommunications, but I’ve heard and read so very many excommunication stories in the last ten years or so that I think it’s safe to say it’s a huge problem.
Understood, and agreed, although I am not convinced that the response to all of the sins you’ve mentioned in your reply is to “put out” the subjects. I’m familiar with 9Marks, and have many friends in 9Marks churches. To be fair, speaking only of my contacts, they aren’t as immersed in the church discipline issue as others in their movement. But I do have a lot of contact with cult/abusive church survivors, and church discipline is almost always a key ingredient in their experiences, whether from a Reformed perspective or not. My point is not that the neo-Cals’ application of church discipline seems flawed (thought I think it is), but that their very understanding of its purpose and proper administration is hopelessly parroting the practices of a church era very different from our own, and even from that of the early church. Thank you for replying!
So how should serious sin be handled in the congregation when the sinner doesn’t display any signs of repentance?
Hi Robert, Are you referring to an actual experience you’ve had, are having, or speaking hypothetically? Also, what sin(s) would you consider to be “serious”?
In my experience, people who are privately, respectfully confronted regarding sinful behaviors (that threaten or harm their families, fellow church members, etc.) do not choose to remain in the church, and when it becomes clear to them that their harmful behavior is known, and will not be tolerated–they don’t really want to be in church anymore.
Besides that, if the said behaviors/sins, etc., are legal crimes, my policy is to report to the police immediately.
Hi Ken, I did reply but it seems to have disappeared into the ether. So. It sure if that was a problem my end or of the moderator hasn’t cleared it yet.
My experience over the past 60 years of Church life is the majority of the Churches I have attended except “two” do not even consider exercising Church discipline (training, restoration, love and compassion) which has a final limit of no restoration comes about – i.e., excommunication. Certainly anyone knows it is a sin for the elders and staff of congregations to NOT visit a person and work toward (if public sin is known of) a restoration process which brings about a healthy body of Christ functioning. But it just doesn’t happen unless it is some very gross outward sin which the Bible certainly expects such, but He also expects those other sins which people falsely allow as if they are just small items and issues, and they are NOT. It only took one rebellious sin “biting into a piece of fruit” to bring the curse and the fall of mankind! Sin is rotten, very much a plague as it is committed in the body. If all of the saints are not practicing repentance and faith in the Gospel every day about their own personal failings, things can become very damaging to a Church body over all. Keeping things under cover when known about is NOT an option for a healthy body of Christ at all. No better than Achan and his booty hidden in the camp of Israel. May God help us to LOVE others enough we do engage in bringing about such repentance and faith over outward known sins we observe in others and love them so much we tell them and then if they are not saved perhaps God will save them, or if they are saved, they will confess and return back to a right relationship with our Lord Jesus and the body of Christ. Let not proper Biblical discipline continue to be ignored but pray it will be restored for the spiritual health of all concerned. But most of all for the glory and honor of HIS name!
I seen a problem when a church would be policing for people who were not actually sexual predators to kick off the property of a church [ when they were not guilty at all or innocent ] , and this was even back in early 1995 !
And some will tell you if you have problems not to show up in church or ‘their church’ that you have issues and you are not allowed to come to visit their church . Not ever . That group was of one I started in many years ago [ i didn’t want to name it ] and even said they will keep me out of all their churches if i ever talk to them again or find reasons to kick me out by me being guilty of something they can find about me ( when I talked to them on the phone ). Assuming I am guilty by their idea . I still want to love God as saved by Jesus on my way to heaven .
But I hope i can seek and carry on with the Lord while elsewhere outside other places . I read a lot of good solid literature written by old authors like preachers even from before the 1700s and other biblical writers and Scripture I keep my head or heart into .
I’m so sorry to hear about that painful experience, Joe. I pray that you’ll keep following Jesus, even when it’s hard to find His true people.
I too was excommunicated from a PCA church for “contumacy”.
I got tired of the alienation I was receiving and decided to not attend until someone (JUST ONE!) would inquire as to where I was and why I am no longer attending. If just one would have called or visited I would have returned.
But, alas! Three years later I received a letter threatening excommunication unless I return or join another bible believing church. Nobody called or visited. No prior letters of inquires were made in the three years since leaving.
I thought the bible says that two people have to confront the “sinner” before such a process is made?
Needless to say, they excommunicated me. I didn’t find out until a couple years later as I decided to reject their (snail mail) letters of citations prior to my excommunication.
This is absolutely grievous and is NEVER the way our Lord Jesus intended His church to operate. It’s a travesty.
Yes. James 2:9.
“…Punished, often for simply trying to get the elders to listen to truth and refusing to live any longer with lies.” Yes. And the “punishment” does not always take the form of excommunication. In fact, I think most often, it is more the silence and pretending the abused one no longer exists while the abuser still goes to church, and the abused one is allowed to disappear and no one cares. Or if they do, it’s not shown in calls, visits, texts, or acknowledging you at the grocery store. I’ve never seen so many people I’ve known for years and considered friends cut down the dog food aisle or do a U turn and disappear like they forgot something on their list. Even after I wave hello or put a smile their way. I get it. I’m supposed to pretend THEY don’t exist now so I don’t make THEM uncomfortable? (How dare I pretend we used to be friends! The gall!)
I quit going to church over a year ago as I began finding out why my marriage was such hell–because I couldn’t stand living that lie in public and would get physically sick sitting next to him in church and sharing a hymnbook and having people thinking we were the perfect couple/perfect family. I talked to the pastors and they KNEW. He even talked to the pastors and admitted his guilt on all fronts. But–nothing. He still goes to church, has returned to blaming me for every problem, and I’m the one who quit going, therefore…. Yeah, enter church logic.
I get it that people don’t know what to say. That’s been me in the past, too. But a “I’ve missed you” or “How are you doing these days?” or even a smile and nod of recognition in passing from the people who I considered friends and who used to seek me out to say hello and talk and catch up on the kids. Instead, a cold, dead silence and turning away and a wall of invisibility as I fight against being shrunk into nothingness and disappearing once again. Which, ultimately, is what the abuser has always wanted and worked toward. And now the “family of god” (not going to capitalize the G and pretend God has anything to do with this) is doing the job for him. Congratulations, church, little “c”. By your silence you have spoken.
My heart is beating so hard right now just writing this. I’m sick physically and emotionally, and have fought hard against being sick spiritually from living a lie and living in fear for the past 30+ years. No more. I am no longer married to him because I just divorced him; therefore, he is the victim, no questions asked. (More church logic).
But on the flip side, I have found out who I can trust. Who my true friends are. And THAT is a gift I didn’t expect. As a litmus test of trust, it’s pretty darned effective. Still doesn’t take away the knife twist of pain and rejection of losing the ones I thought were true friends, but when I committed to God to walk in truth and no more lies– however pretty and hopeful those lies may be– that applies to ALL areas of my life. Not just my sad, destructive, used-to-be marriage. And that, dear ones, puts the formerly abused one in control in one area of her own life once again. Thank you for that unintended gift of Truth. Capital T.
You’ve left me nearly speechless, Kay. Thank you.
This hurts my heart but I love your response. Thank you, Rebecca. Posting on Give Her Wings.
Thank you, Megan.
I learned to fit in in almost any church situation. How?
Be a phony. Smile non stop, shake everybody’s hands vigorously even if you know they hate you, say, “Fine. Praise the LORD!” when someone asks how you are. And if your life experience differs from other women’s make up a fake life or keep your mouth shut during Bible study and get togethers.
Church isn’t about different people with different gifts anymore. It’s about cookie cutter Christians, Stepford wives, and rows of identical clones.
As a single, childless woman I know I’m better off than battered wives. But I feel like a failure as a Christian woman of 45 and have been occasionally told this by other Christian women or preachers. People repeatedly say nasty things about celibates and seem surprised at any pain I express, calling me “too sensitive” or crazy.
My sexual integrity, my Biblical knowledge, my walk with God, my services for the church don’t amount to a hill of beans since I never did the wife/mother thing. Why continue bothering them with my presence? If Christ hadn’t commanded it I would have left long ago! A lot of women like me have much to everyone’s relief. If they notice.
You can’t win by losing. *Sigh.*
What a powerful statement, Rachel. Thank you. And I grieve with you that this is the case in churches today.
I’ve just started looking into the subject of how to treat the excommunicated person, and am delighted this was the first response to my Google. Thank you so much.
I’m delighted to hear that too.
I once heard an elders wife say it was right and good that her husband disciplined her for talking back to him and forced her to sit in a chair all night long until she properly repented. Of course it was challenging with the 7 kids waiting for dinner. He was after all in her life to “perfect her”. I once heard myself say it was good I fell down on my face, and badly injured myself because I’d had a prideful thought. That is the God of those that honor abusers for good doctrine. I once heard a “sister wife” say, it was good that she learn to die to herself in accepting sister wives or she’d be a selfish bad person. The cult of man worship all has similar sound bytes.
These jarring statements prove how deep brainwashing goes, when an assault on human dignity is considered good, when abuse in the name of “being faithful to the word” is honored. I would suspect someone that praises those that abused her for their good Christianity is in a new church that enables abuse, exonerates spiritual abusers if they were passionate about being right about God or had “good doctrine”. John Piper has given get out of jail free cards to those whose “doctrine” is perfect, when Mark Driscoll was on a misogynist roll. Lots of get out of jail free cards to men but women, they need to forgive their excommunicating “good Christian” brothers. Such an incredible double standard.
Ah, graceovercomespain, how you have hit the nail on the head here. My heart hurts reading it. Thank you.
My heart breaks as I read these accounts. I can only imagine how our Lord grieves, too. But I know such grief toward hurting souls is contrasted against a profound depth of righteous anger toward those who endeavor to justify such cruelty in His name. So let us rise in defense of those so abused and speak life-giving truth that sets the spiritually oppressed free and openly identify the wolves parading about in sheep’s clothing.
I agree wholeheartedly, Cindy!
[…] Church leaders ought to have the understanding that this isn’t the way it works. There are those who are strong (able to help), and those who are weak (needing help). Jim Wilder in Joy Starts Here recognizes that the weak and strong need to be together, because that’s the way a healthy church functions, but they can’t all be building each other up at the same time. Some people are not ready to pursue others and care for them, because they are in a place of crisis. This author didn’t even allow for the desperate need in that place of crisis. This is what I wrote about in this blog post. […]
This hits home for me. I was excommunicated recently and everything I was concerned about was ignored by the elders. And even in my time of separation not a single elder or the pastor ever reached out to pray with me or encourage me. Instead blindly heaping on judgement and accusation without asking or verifying anything. Truly makes me sick to my stomach the way I was treated by my own church. The church is the only army that shoots their own when they are wounded.
I’m so sorry for what happened to you, Ethan. It is truly a tragedy.
2 cor 2:2 says Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. What these church leaders forget is after excommunication of the guy who slept with his mother in law. Apostle Paul then called them to reconcile with the member so he wouldn’t have too much sorrow. Or else he wouldn’t repent or maybe even kill himself from too much sorrow. How many church leaders nowadays actually reach back out to excommunicated members to show empathy, care, compassion, and love? Not many unfortunately
What ever happened to comforting one another as we are told to in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “ Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
God and Jesus responded to grief with comfort and Jesus said that He was sending the Holy Spirit to be with us. The Holy Spirit is also known as the Comforter. The world and the church would be a whole lot healthier if we all learned how to comfort one another rather than condemn and judge one another.