Church discipline is a crucial means of grace given by our Lord for our good, yes, even for our perseverance in godliness. Church discipline, biblically conceived and properly understood, is principally positive, for its design is to preserve us in the pathway of holiness lest we perish. In other words, church discipline entails the perpetual interfacing of believers who exhort, admonish, and encourage one another in the way of the Lord and who pray for one another and who graciously restore one another in the event that one lapses. Only for refusal to repent of sinful behavior is one to be excommunicated from the body of believers.
Church discipline, however, is all too frequently viewed in an altogether contrary way. Many pastors, who prove not to be truly pastoral at all, exploit church discipline as a legitimate threat to hold over a congregation as a way to manipulate and to control the people without any disagreement with him, however small and legitimate disagreement may be.
Consequently, many evangelical churches are far more cultic than evangelicals are willing to admit. The origination of cults is not principally from errant doctrine but from errant behavior by charismatic leaders whose personal insecurities lead them, when their authority seems challenged even slightly (and usually legitimately), to resort to desperate measures to maintain their grip upon their followers' affections, if not blind allegiance and devotion.
"Banned From Church" is an amazing story that reminds me of cultic situations that I have witnessed in evangelical churches. Lamentably, there are many insecure pastors who cannot endure having anyone disagree with their exalted opinions, as though to disagree with them is to disagree with God.
Many local churches have become cultic under charismatic, cultic pastors, whose principle interest is to feed themselves. I have witnessed this and know of several evangelical churches that have endured astonishing grief under pastors who are of the kind that Ezekiel portrays. And most of the churches that I have in mind have been "Reformed Baptist" churches. When pastors, whether privately or publicly, invite sheep to depart the fold, are they true shepherds?
Consider the personal conflict between Pastor Jason Burrick and Mrs. Karolyn Caskey.
Pastor Burrick's call for law enforcement officers to remove Mrs. Caskey from the church is sufficient evidence that the man committed a tragic mistake. That law enforcement officers actually responded to his call and acted on his request reveals that they also committed a tragic blunder. Church discipline is not the work of law enforcement officers. Church discipline is not the work of the pastor, either. It is the work of the whole body.
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."
Half an hour later, 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey, a church member for nearly 50 years who had taught Sunday school and regularly donated 10% of her pension, was led out by a state trooper and a county sheriff's officer. One held her purse and Bible. The other put her in handcuffs.
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. . . .
Since Mrs. Caskey's second arrest last July, the turmoil at Allen Baptist has fizzled into an awkward stalemate. Allen Baptist is an independent congregation, unaffiliated with a church hierarchy that might review the ouster. Supporters have urged Mrs. Caskey to sue to have her membership restored, but she says the matter should be settled in the church. Mr. Burrick no longer calls the police when Mrs. Caskey shows up for Sunday services.
Nothing in the WSJ story gives any indication that Pastor Burrick carried out disciplinary action toward Mrs. Caskey in anything close to the biblically authorized pattern. Instead, all the indications are that he executed his own will over the woman so that the whole matter descended immediately to a battle of wills, his against hers.
Rarely have I seen church discipline carried out properly. Unfortunately, most have followed the same pattern detectable in the battle of wills that Pastor Burrick incited by his personal actions against Mrs. Caskey. Pastors, who are too fragile and too delicate and too insecure to receive any form of disagreement from among the flock, are ubiquitously present. I have witnessed this phenomenon numerous times.
Only rarely have I witnessed an act of church discipline that led to excommunication that actually followed the biblically authorized form and pattern and was not incited by a pastor's animus springing from personal insecurity toward a member who asked "the wrong question." Those legitimate cases entailed actual, demonstrable, documentable cases of recalcitrant refusal to repent for obvious sinful behavior.
Far more frequently, however, the church discipline cases that I have witnessed entailed dismissal of godly Christians whose disagreements with the pastor incited his personal insecurities, triggering his hostility and revengeful and retaliatory campaign to purge the church of anyone who dared disagree with him. When all is said and done, in such cases, to anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, it becomes plainly evident that the one who should have received church censure and discipline is the one who led the charge to expel the alleged troublemaker who was no troublemaker at all.
Church discipline is for the eternal welfare of each one of us, as James 5:19-20 makes clear. Likewise, anyone who will take up the role and responsibilities of pastoral leadership had better understand that one's salvation is bound up with how one carries out that role, as Paul makes clear to his younger ministerial associate, Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:15-16. We who receive spiritual leadership roles receive to ourselves a responsibility that is awesome and awful, for our eternal salvation is bound up with how we conduct ourselves in this role, as the apostle Paul expressed it, "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers."
Frank Turk takes a very different view, here.