This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Banned from Church: Abuse of Church Discipline

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.

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.

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.

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."

For another angle on the story look here. (HT: Joe)

Frank Turk takes a very different view, here.


Adam Omelianchuk said...

Thank you for this post. It has a lot to say that needs to be heard.

centuri0n said...

Prof Caneday:

I'm not sure you and I disagree that the situation at Allen Baptist was poorly handled and a result of bad will on both side of the pulpit. I said in my letter to WSJ that the Allen Baptist incident was certainly an incident that was handled poorly.

The problem with the WSJ article is that it painted "church discipline" as "shunning" and "blacklisting".

Here would be my questions regarding that view:

[1] Is church discipline a doctrine with a biblical foundation?

[2] If so, what purpose does the Bible tell us discipline ought to have in mind?

[3] Do the abuses, mistakes and errors of some disqualify the doctrine from practice today?

The question is not whether some people abuse this ecclesiastical doctrine: it is whether or not we ought to behave as if there is something at stake inside the body of Christ which is worth teaching to disciples and demonstrating to the world.

Thanks for your link. God bless you.

A. B. Caneday said...


I've read your letter to Alexandra Alter. I agree with all of the concerns that you express in your letter.

I agree that each of the three questions you pose in your comment (posted above) are entirely legitimate. I wholeheartedly agree with your final paragraph in your comment, also.

I wrote my blog entry because I was confident that plenty of others would challenge Alexandra Alter's article. Instead of challenge her article, which is worthy of challenge for both what it says and fails to say, I chose to comment upon what also seems quite obvious from her article, namely pastoral abuse of church discipline.

I grant that Alexandra may not have provided sufficient background information concerning some of the cases about which she wrote. However, she provides sufficient data concerning the main case to make it clear that Pastor Burrick behaved as a stubborn child and took up a personal battle of wills with a long-time member of the church rather than true church disciplinary action.

Yes, the WSJ article does paint church discipline as "shunning" and "blacklisting." Though, I acknowledge that my experience in the church is hardly the standard by which all things must be judged, I can honestly say that I have rarely observed church discipline practiced according to Scripture. More frequently, church discipline that I have observed has been abused, even amounting to "shunning" and "blacklisting."

I could write another blog entry, and may do it sometime, on the paucity of church discipline. For, as I have observed, I have seen numerous individuals in churches who should have come under church discipline. Failure to discipline members has resulted in a horrible scourge upon individuals, upon churches, and upon the church.

Thanks for writing your letter to Alexandra and for stopping by to read and to comment.