For readers with no association with the SG the main point of interest is that this covenant was written after the Norman Hancock ruling and thus explicitly comes into compliance with the law in a way that many Southern Baptist churches have not done yet. It also presents an opportunity to teach how one should read through one of these agreements in some detail and read between the lines.
Appendix C which is referred to several times in the document, the "Statement on Church Discipline"
As members of Covenant Life Church we take seriously our responsibility to “restore” members who fail to allow God to discipline them personally for their sins. This means that beginning with private confrontation and, if necessary, leading to public rebuke, we seek to help one another overcome any refusal to repent of those words and actions that the Bible clearly defines as sin. This includes not only sinful words and behavior, but also refusal to turn from heretical doctrine.Two points worth mentioning:
Jesus outlined a process for addressing another believer’s sin in Matthew 18:15-17.5 As a church we agree that this is the way for us to approach someone who refuses to appropriate God’s grace for change. (Appendix C)
- The church does punish heresy but as indicated below they don't have mechanisms for a heresy trial. Many of the members on SGUncensored complained of the repressive atmosphere regarding teachings and the origin of the problem is here.
- Everyone uses the "Matthew 18 process" this is standard and is covered in depth on my walk throughs section.
When the church begins to formally discipline a member, the church’s pastors inquire with the individual member in question to confirm fact and to appeal for change. If change is not forthcoming, the pastors will inform the church of the member and his sin, urging members to contact the erring member and appeal for repentance. During this time, the member under discipline may not participate in the Lord’s Supper or attend meetings for the purpose of fellowship. Instead, his participation with members should revolve around his need for change. If, after a reasonable period of appeal, no repentance if forthcoming, the pastors will inform the church again, this time announcing that they must revoke membership and that the church must now treat the unrepentant person as they treat unbelievers: in other words, when they interact with this person they should not have “fellowship” as the Bible defines it, but they should appeal for the former member to put his faith in Jesus’ work on the cross for him and turn from his sin.The Matthew 18 process is quite vague as it names 5 steps yet there is a tradition of a 4 step process:
- Individual confrontation
- Confrontation by 2 or 3 others
- Notification of the church
- Suspension of the Lord's supper
- Step 1 = an individual Christian, usually a 1st party to the events
- Step 2 = a small group of Christians, that is neutral 3rd parties
- Step 3,4 = Church leadership
- Step 5 = The church session which empowers the leadership
- Step 1 = An individual makes an accusation (like a complaint to the police)
- Step 2 = The accusation has grounds and is of the sort the church address (D.A files)
- Step 3 = The accusation has been confirmed by evidence (person is found guilty)
- Step 4, 5 = Punishment and then increasing punishment (think probation and then jail after a probation violation).
Now there does appear to be some sort of a clause here where the leadership meets to "confirm fact" however:
- What if they don't receive confirmation but they have strong evidence?
- What if they receive partial confirmation?
- What if they receive confirmation but there is disagreement on interpretation of fact?
- What is there is disagreement on law?
- What is there are complex extenuating circumstances and thus one party sees the acts as situational?
In the membership agreement the membership specifically agrees to uphold this process, in particular they waive a right to review cases before engaging in corporate punishment:
I will watch out for church members and admonish anyone whose practice of sin requires it. If one of our number requires corporate discipline, I will support the efforts and direction of the church, as led by its pastors, to call that member to repent of his sins. I agree with the church’s doctrine and practice of church discipline. (Appendix A: Membership Agreement)Now as mentioned above they are in compliance with the law:
At times a member may seek to withdraw from the church to avoid church discipline and its consequences. Just as a good shepherd will go after a sheep that has wandered from the flock (Matt. 18:12-14; Ezek. 34:4,8,16), so shall the pastors and members of this church seek to restore a wandering member to the Lord through biblical discipline. Therefore, discipline may be instituted or continued either before or after a member seeks to withdraw from membership if the Board of Governing Pastors determines that such discipline may serve to guard and preserve the honor of God, protect the purity of the church, or restore the wandering member to the Lord. While the church cannot force a withdrawing member to remain in this congregation, the church has the right and the responsibility to encourage restoration, to bring the disciplinary process to an orderly conclusion, and to make a final determination as to the person’s membership status at the time withdrawal is sought or acknowledged. In doing so, the Board of Governing Pastors, at its discretion, may temporarily suspend further disciplinary proceedings, dismiss any or all charges pending against the accused, or proceed with discipline and pronounce an appropriate censure.After having blasted them for the above I should mention that this passage is fully compliant with the law, and I applaud SG for that (as I did above). It acknowledges that church membership is a voluntary association which can terminated at will by the member. The church most certainly does have the right to determine status of an exiting member (i.e. they can excommunicate a member who wishes to leave under discipline) but they cannot continue a disciplinary process against their consent to remain a member. If you are an SG member attempting to leave (How to leave a church) addresses your issues, if you want to examine your options (including information on how to circumvent and undermine a disciplinary process, how to survive discipline)
The final section was the point of inquest:
If a member leaves the church while he is under the scrutiny of the disciplinary process or while a censure against him is still in effect, and if the Board of Governing Pastors learns that he is attending another church, the Board may inform that church that the person is currently under church discipline and may ask that church to encourage the accused to repent of his sin and to be restored to the Lord and to any people whom he has offended. Such communications enhance the possibility that a person may finally repent of his sin, and, at the same time, serve to warn the other church to be on guard against the harm that the accused might do to their members (see Matt. 18:12-14; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:6-14; 2 Tim. 1:15; 2:16-18; 4:9, 14-15; 3 John 9-10).Basically what this says is that SG respects the discipline of churches provided they would have acted similarly (that is they reserve appellate capacity) and at the same time expect other churches to uphold their excommunications. They also specifically commit to contacting other church to facilitate this. I'm not sure how to expand on my debating point here, SG frankly couldn't be more clear.
Once the pastors make a sin publicly known, they commit as well to inform the church of repentance and restoration to fellowship as appropriate to the situation and the good of the church.
Christians who attend Covenant Life Church and have been excluded from fellowship from another church will not be allowed to participate in fellowship in Covenant Life unless they repent of their sins and make confession and restitution with their former church or the pastors of Covenant Life are able to determine that the former church did not apply church discipline according to Scripture.
So in answer to, "As much as I admired and respected our SGM pastor, would I really want him (or, for that matter, any group of human authorities) to be able to dictate, for the rest of my life, the conditions of my church fellowship ANYWHERE?" that is precisely what this membership agreement asserts. Moreover this is not the only place they assert it, as I mentioned in the discussion on SGUncensored, one of if not the leader in the SBC for bring back pre civil war discipline is Mike Dever of 9Marks and Maheney wrote on the back cover that, "This is the best book I have read on this topic of critical importance.” Dever is also a founder of the "four friends" along with people like McArthur who have been preaching and practicing this sort of discipline for decades.
I find it curious that the SG membership didn't understand this position. Hopefully this point gets addressed in the discussion. And I will welcome SG leadership to comment on the above, in particular the complete lack of due process which neither Dever nor McArthur supports. There is no better way to undermine Church discipline then to create excommunications which the membership does not support but is required to uphold. History is replete with examples of the damage of invalid excommunications(see our QE series for examples). For a person looking to leave the church, a disagreement with these clauses in the membership agreement strike me as a very defensible reason for your letter of disaffiliation.
See also a later article on methodology of abuse.