Friday, March 7, 2008

Interview with Xenos on membership and discipline policies

Since I have to be critical of churches all the time I’m delighted to be able to give a positive review of a church’s disciplinary processes. Xenos Christian Fellowship is located in Columbus Ohio near Ohio State. It was founded from an underground Christian newspaper and has exploded today into a congregation of around 5000 with 800 members that have received formal training and around 60 “home churches”. Home church leaders have had over 200 hours of classroom instruction, that is a level of training that would put them on par with most junior ministers in many denominations. This combination of a central organization with full minstrel training for “smaller churches” is the sort of behavior one usually sees in a denomination and not an individual church. So in effect Xenos is structured as a cross between a large church and a mini denomination, which is what originally led me to take an interest.

In addition to mixing the problems of a church and a denomination there are several other things that make Xenos a fascinating case study. The organization is almost entirely lay, and it is a point of pride how little a church of this size and accomplishment burns in terms of budget. Probably because the church is able to run so efficiently, they are able to afford having a young membership (young people can’t tithe very much) of first generation Christians. They mix a successful middle school and high school youth group with a successful college outreach. 75% of the church are people with no previous church background at all (a church of converts) and 15% transfers, and I would assume (though they don’t indicate) that the remaining 10% are children of current members. This is quite different from the 80-95%, transfer / children of current members commonly found in most evangelical churches. Xenos also practices church discipline frequently and effectively. They make it a core part of their leadership instruction (see links are below)

Finally, Xenos does not have a notion of formal membership, in the sense of a membership card or church covenant. Most church groups (as well as the law) differentiate quite heavily between attendance and membership. In fact leaders in the return to church discipline such as Mark Dever argue that a return to “biblical membership” is required for discipline. A great deal of the interview below will concern itself with the mechanics of how discipline is carried out without this clarity of formal membership.
It should be mentioned this membership informality includes no substantial differentiation between the baptized and the unbaptised, nor any sort of adult profession. This is genuinely unique for Xenos. And as my regular readers unique things generally are worrying signs. But again I’m hard pressed to see any intent to create an injustice in this system. It seems to be a reasonable attempt to address the community they are called to serve and I was unable to find any large gapping holes created.
I’m going to contact Mark Dever after this is posted and hopefully we can see a response. It appears we may have a counter case to his hypothesis.

Xenos provides information on their disciple:
Leadership and Authority discusses the scope of discipline at Xenos.

So to summarize the many ways Xenos is a truly interesting case study. In terms of discipline being effective they suffer from many of the worst possible problems:
• They don’t have a well defined membership in particular it is not a covenant church
• Their membership is young
• Their membership often did not grow up in conservative Christian homes
• Their membership does not have long term strong ties to Xenos
• They aren’t a member of a denomination
• They have no business ties linking their membership to the church

On the other hand they also have many of the problems of a denomination further compounded by the fact that:
• Home church leaders are inexperienced by pastoral standards and are often disciplining for the first time.
• The relationships with the home church are very close and personal.
• The home churches are informal and thus lack the sorts of institutional supports a denomination can often depend on

To investigate Xenos, I contacted a member of their staff Jessica Lowery to ask questions regarding the details of Xenos’ procedures on discipline. Dennis McCallum lead pastor and one of the founders of Xenos stepped forward and answered the questions. This discussion on discipline will be rather unique in that Pastor McCallum was being asked questions appropriate to a denominational leader (like cross restoration policy) as well general church level policies on discipline. Throughout the interview Pastor McCallum presented well thought out considered and rather humane answers to some of the most difficult question I could throw at him.

The original material is quite disorganized since there was multiple back and forth rounds. I have freely reorganized the order of questions and answers however I have quoted the answers exactly. Further, I have vetted these answers and corresponding questions by Pastor McCallum prior to publishing on the blog, to make sure these accurately reflect his views and even the phraseology he prefers. These statements should be seen as written responses to an “on the record” interview.

Statements of explanation will be in black, McCallum’s answers in blue and questions in green.


You possibly killed a bunch of my questions, with the comment about "75% of our membership". It was my understanding that Xenos doesn't actually have a notion of membership; a person who regularly attends a home church is as much a member as they are ever going to be , is this correct? I'm going to assume in the below that this is the case (that is people are not "members"), but if there has been a change (or I am misunderstanding) then adjust responses according . I'll drop my disciplining a non member type questions till the next round however.

Yes. But we still call them members in the sense that they are members of the body of Christ, and have membered themselves with us. It's true that we do not have "membership". but we were interested in our composition after reading a Barna book, so we sent out surveys to home group leaders asking about the people who regularly attend their groups. that's how we got the composition information.

In terms of membership the question was how Xenos would handle borderline cases as it does not have a clear line between a member and a non-member. Below is a discussion of the basic policies. The discussion assumes you have read the links above, or are familiar with discipline. The focus, as mentioned above is on discipline in a non membership context. It consists of a series of closely related cases where I am attempting to draw fine distinctions by changing the parameters slightly. These sorts of questions are very difficult for church leadership since they are designed to lay on grey boundary between black and white. They are specific to the church, what is grey for one is not grey for another. They expose the underlying philosophy quite well and any contradictions in the policy. I think it’s worth commenting that Pastor McCallum and Xenos did an excellent job on these.

I'm not following. Do they at any point ask to be members or declare themselves to be members of Xenos? What can a member do that a non member cannot do? How does one become a member rather than just a regular attender...? Most churches would argue that a non member can't actually be excommunicated. I hope a hypothetical is OK, to sort of separate this out. I'm assuming unrepentant cocaine use is seen as an excommunicatable offensive (if not just change the underlying sin). Here are a bunch of situations all relatively similar. Can these people be excommunicated, excluded, would they be... (just trying to address the jurisdictional issues here so assume calls to repentance are fruitless if given):

First, we don’t use the term excommunication. It’s not biblical, but a Catholic concept having to do with not being allowed to take mass. We refer to removing people from fellowship, which seems to be the focus in the New Testament. But yes. Any professed believer who is attending and won’t leave off coke could be removed.

Alice has attended a small church 5 times and admits she regularly uses cocaine. She refuses to stop. Everyone considers her still visiting.

That would probably also be the case with us.

Beth only attends central meeting but others who attend know she regularly uses cocaine. She refuses to stop.

We usually don’t bother visitors at CT. Home church would be a different matter, but still it would take a longer period and more persuasion before formal discipline would come into play.

Cathy has attended a small church for 2 years, but claims she is not saved. Cathy has had an adult baptism. She regularly uses cocaine and has refused to stop.

This would probably be a case for intense counseling, but could eventually lead to more forceful confrontation.

Doris has attended a small church for 2 years has not had an adult baptism and claims she is not saved. She regularly...

Wouldn’t make any difference

Eleanor claims to be saved, has attended a small church for 2 years and has had an adult baptism but claims her membership is with her hometown church and she is just a affiliate member of your church. She regularly...

Not good enough. She would be given an ultimatum.

Francis claims to be saved, has attended a small church for 2 years and has not had an adult baptism but claims her membership is with her hometown church and she is just a affiliate member of your church. She regularly...


Evidence and standards for conviction

What is the standard of proof in terms of discipline? That is how much doubt can there be about the actual sin, before a person can be disciplined?

Most discipline cases involve someone who admits the sin. We would not feel comfortable disciplining someone if we doubted his or her guilt at all. Usually there are multiple incidents involved over a period of time. In some cases, someone else has ratted the person out. The fact that the person actually did the sin must be established, and I think it always is. I can’t think of a case where the person didn’t admit to the facts.

Let me clarify this a bit. Generally there are 3 types of disputes regarding guilt. Disputes of fact (which you addressed), disputes of law (is something a sin or not) and disputes of application (does this particular fact qualify under this particular law). Its interesting that you haven't had disputes of fact do you know why?

We have had disputes, but these would need to be resolved before any discipline meeting would occur. If the facts haven’t been established by admission or multiple witnesses, we would not move to formal discipline.

This one comes off sounding more like a criticism then a question. I apologize in advance for being unable to phrase it better. The standard for conviction seems rather low (simple majority, vote at the same meeting as the presentation of charges and evidence, informed that central leadership agrees with the discipline, non neutral venue, right of the leader to exclude members -- vote stacking, minority required to follow the majority, etc...), I think I could probably convict any attendee of Xenos of the Kennedy assassination with that trial procedure. Why has Xenos chosen such a low burden? Is the goal simply to block the most egregious abuses and otherwise give the home church leaders discretion, or is there some other reason?

Again, the question at the meeting is not whether the sin has occurred or whether the person did it. These are already admitted. The question is what is going to be the best response—counseling within the church, or exclusion. Majority is a standard established in 2 Cor. 2 as sufficient for making this decision.

Degree of Punishment:

There are claims that Xenos practices shunning which is unusual among Baptists outside the Mennonite tradition. On the website there does not appear to be clear guidelines for shunning. What is the reason behind this?

We don’t agree that we practice shunning. Shunning is usually interpreted to mean the person is left within the group, but nobody will talk to or fellowship with them. It also implies complete cutting off of communication and interaction. If the person is put out of fellowship, Paul says believers should not “eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11ff) which we take to mean casual fellowship. We would not discourage meeting to talk, as advised in 2 Thess. 3, and remind people to “not treat him as an enemy, but to admonish him as a brother”

What is the extent of the disfellowshipping in practice?

Members are urged to not fellowship in a way that would bring comfort to the one under discipline, causing him/her to feel no reason to return to fellowship. This usually means not going out socially, etc. unless it is to discuss restoration. No rules about not doing business with the person. Also, families are usually considered an exception. We realize they will have social contact in the context of their family activities.

What if a member refuses to cut communication an excommunicated member?

Nothing we can do about that, but disapprove

Given that Ohio has case law is particularly hostile to shunning are there any additional legal protections you need to use when dealing with adults with their entire family and business associates in Xenos?

Breaking off casual fellowship is not an action taken by the church corporation, but by the individuals in a group as they feel led.

Discipline across churches

How much is each home church required to respect the decisions of the others. The website seems a bit back and forth on whether a person that is excluded from one home church are excluded from them all until such time as they are restored by the first. What if one of the home church leaders comes to believe another's discipline is genuinely in error? Can they cross restore even if the disciplining home church objects?

No, they cannot. They have to be resolved with the disciplining church. Only exception would be where discipline happened so long ago the original church is no longer intact.

Does Xenos respect the discipline of other churches? If so what churches qualify? (i.e. only Baptist, any protest, any Trinitarian Christian (Catholic excommunication), any Christian (LDS or JW churches), any discipline (a declaration of Cherum be upheld)).

In principle, yes, but only for evangelical Bible believing churches. Also their cause of discipline would have to be one we recognize as legitimate.

Does Xenos assume appellate jurisdiction (that is if the person argues they are wrongly excommunicated will Xenos investigate?)


Will Xenos cross restore on repentance (i.e. allow a person who is genuinely repentant and willing to accept Xenos oversight that is however the excommunicated member of another church whose discipline Xenos respects to join a small group, without their original church restoring them).

We would call on them to seek resolution with the disciplining church. If we felt the church was being unreasonable, we would restore them.


Can an excommunicated person be rebaptised at any point? That is if an excommunicated member believes they were not actually a Christian during the time of their excommunication can they request baptism or must they go through restoration? If they must go through restoration, do you recognize apostasy as separate from unrepentant sin or is apostasy just another sin?

They could be rebaptized if their testimony is that they were not a Christian at the time. Apostasy is just another sin.

Given that Xenos has a very young membership this one may not come up. How lasting are the effects of exclusion? For example, assume you discovered that a person who was a good quality member of a small church for 2 years had been disciplined 15 years earlier for a sin at the time (non reoccurring). Some church would excommunicate either on principle or for the deception. In others there would there be a general tendency towards restoration given that the underlying issue being so far in the past and that discipline in this case is likely to be harmful. Assuming you would go along with restoration what about things that might change within a decade. For example someone excluding as an undergraduate for persistent fornication that seeks to return during graduate school, now married to another woman.

We would respect someone's change in lifestyle as fruit in keeping with repentance; and show them grace.

Right to Appeal

One of the things I’m always writing about (example) is the importance of the appeals process for discipline. While its obvious there is quite a bit of oversight, I failed to note during the initial Q&A there was in fact an appeal. The correction is explained below.

There doesn't seem to be a genuine appeals process. Has this actually caused problems where people have continued to argue their innocence and church members (outside their home church) continue to believe it?

This doesn’t come up, because we would probably not exclude anyone who denied they have done wrong, unless there were eye-witnesses. The person does definitely have the right to appeal to the elders if they felt they were being falsely accused. We have never had a case like this. If they feel the discipline is wrong, they can ask for a grievance board to be convened. Current Ministry Teams at bottom. also mentioned in Leadership and Authority in the Church.

Have you had disciplinary schisms and if so what happened and how did you handle them?

If you mean schisms resulting from disagreement over discipline, yes. These have been small, and people usually either leave or get over it. We do not allow them to campaign in the church to overthrow what was decided.