Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sharper Iron on voting for excommunication

A few weeks back Sharper Iron, an IFB blog, posted an article entitled Should Congregations Vote to Discipline? The details on the case are left very vague but the procedural problems were not.  A highly respected member of the church, seen as an elder / leader was accused of a offense and under went the first 2 phases of Matthew 18, an individual confrontation and then 2-3 others confirming it.  The case was brought before the pastor who found the evidence sufficient and the matter was brought before the congregation.  They did not believe the evidence to be sufficient to warrant excommunication and voted to retain the leader.  The pastor seeing this as a lack of trust decided to leave his position and found a church plant.   Ted Bigelow wrote the article above criticizing the congregation for the apparent reason of engaging in a broader debate.

Normally I'd answer Pastor Bigelow at the blog he wrote the post on but Sharper Iron is a closed blog.  I always like to notify people when I mention them here to give them a chance to respond.  I won't be able to notify Sharper Iron, so if anyone reading this is a member please post in my name a notification in the interests of fairness.  I'll try and notify Pastor Bigelow right after authoring this.

For Pastor Bigelow the structure of discipline is:
Step 1: Individual confrontation
Step 2: 2-3 others confront and determine if the evidence is true and certain, i.e. an inquest
Step 3: The 2-3 others go to church leadership to have their inquest confirmed
Step 4: Leadership informs the congregation to carry out discipline.

What he is arguing against is:
Step 4': The congregation votes on the excommunication via. evaluation of the evidence.

And he is absolutely correct that if the inquest is sufficient then this is a valid process.  But this structure where the inquest occurs in Step 2, rather than Step 2 is evidence gathering and evidence evaluation occurs in Step 3 puts tremendous stain on the 2 or 3 others.  Naive laity, often chosen for their closeness to the principles, without leadership oversight are being asked to conduct a full gathering of evidence.   That's a lot to ask.  And that's why typically Step 2 plays the role of an indictment and Step 3 is a full on trial, where evidence is gathered in both phases.

And in this case, the structural problems that Pastor Bigelow was arguing for became evident.  The pastor of the church in question found the Step 2 evidence convincing even thought he accused was still pleading not guilty and when he advanced it to Step 4 the holes in analysis of evidence became evident.  That is evidentially the congregation found the process wanting.  It appears from the article that the congregation determined that the Step 3 verification of the evidence collected in Step 2 did not meet their standards and they thus rightly refused to carry out sentence.  The pastor in this case was being rebuked for dereliction in his duty, during his Step 3 confirmation.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that rebuke, it sounds deserved.  He probably should have asked the congregation for permission to return to a more formal Step 3 process rather than resign in a huff.

Pastor Bigelow focus in the article is arguing that evidence evaluation should not be occurring during Step 4, because the information is so detailed.  And he is absolutely correct, the congregation should not be confronted with detailed conflicting evidence that they have to evaluate.  Rather what they should be doing is evaluating the findings and process that occurred in Step 3.  In other words, evaluating the trial.

And what it appears the trial consisted of was Pastor heard from the witnesses, decided the accused was lying and moved on.  There is obviously not enough detail to evaluate the information provided in this anecdote, but what I see from the anecdote is the 4 step process working exactly as intended; in this case Step 4 preventing an abuse that occurred in Step 3.   Which from the description provided sounds very much like the congregation doing their duty.

Pastor Bigelow's response,  the rest of the article, is an apology for a policy that the 2 or 3 others can simply never be questioned because that is questioning their judgement, "But a careful reading of Matthew 18:17 shows that the church is not called to a higher authority—that is, to judge the person’s guilt or innocence. Instead, the Lord calls the church to submit to the prior judgment of the two or three witnesses since they have “established the evidence...The Lord Himself placed the determinative authority of church discipline in the judgment of the two or three. He tasks them, and not the church, with the responsibility to prove unrepentant sin in Matthew 18:16.”  

The entire congregation is duty bound to fall in line excommunicate the accused based on a process they found wanting.  Given this is a fundamentalist board, this involves secondary separation so the effect of the excommunication is not just cast out the member, but to cast anyone who dares associate with the member since such a person isn't recognizing their non Christian status.    And that's assuming the congregation doesn't practice tertiary separation, i.e. separating from someone who refuses to separate from someone associated with the accused).

Given the extent of that penalty the evidence and process requirements should be simply staggering.  The idea that 2 or 3 semi-random people should be empowered to conduct the investigation with essentially no meaningful oversight is beyond irresponsible.  Matthew 18 outlines a 4 step process because the church carries the sentence and thus the church is going to be collectively held responsible for this judgement.  They are the ones in weeks, years and possibly decades to come that will need to defend these finding, defend this evidence, defend this process.    The Catholic church, centuries later is still called upon to defends its actions with respect to Galileo and Luther.  A strong case for a discipline process where the entire congregation is not involved in the details can be made.  But it is the duty of the church collectively to evaluate actions that can permanently damage the church, and excommunication is one of those actions.  I did two case studies for people who would like examples of less famous cases than Luther or Galileo (Anne Le FertGresham Machen);   but the last 60 years of Fundamentalism I think work as an excellent as well.  

I think there is a genuine lack of understand of the importance of excommunication.  Once an excommunication happens the church is going to be asking others to join them in "calling for repentance" from an accused person who is going to deny the facts of the case; which means far from having to defend the facts to the congregation the church is quite likely going to have to defend the facts to world.  He's being cast out of the congregation and being publicly identified as non-Christian by the Church.  The church has to vote because the church is passing judgement.

I wrote a post a few years back on rules for due process.  I think they make it clear how much leadership needs to be involved in an excommunication and how much "dotting the i's and crossing the t's is required".  The bible establishes a standard that no evidence can be considered without multiple witnesses.  It does not establish a standard that 2 to 3 people can bind the church and force it take action. Thankfully though the comment section at Sharper Iron mainly agrees that Pastor Bigelow's process is dangerous and unbiblical.

Now the reason I say there is confusion is when Pastor Bigelow then compounds the entire thing, arguing that anyone who expresses any disagreement with the 2 or 3 is themselves guilty of serious sin, "Sadly, men’s ways can get involved in these matters and really make a mess of things. For example, congregational voting in the case of an unrepentant member could create a serious breach of faith with Christ. What if a church decides to discipline out an impenitent member by vote, but some in the church vote not to remove him? Those who vote not to remove the unrepentant member have sinned against the Lord by establishing their own verdict of innocence that opposes what the Lord already ratified."  

This seems to confuse excommunication with anathematization.  Excommunication is to declare someone no longer publicly part of the church.  Anathematization is to definitely declare that the person is damned.  Protestants generally do not believe churches are capable of anathematizing someone which is why lines like "what the Lord already ratified" seems to indicate Pastor Bigelow believes his church is in fact anathematizing and not simply excommunicating.   If he does comment here I think this is potentially the most interesting topic though it wasn't raised on Sharper Iron at all.  I suspect because the people on Sharper Iron are protestants and so simply reading excommunication even when Pastor Bigelow uses language consistent with anathematization.  (Here is a  more detailed post on the distinction).

As far as I know Pastor Bigelow is not a national figure, he just happened to be posting an article to a heavily read website.  So as much as possible I'd like to keep this away from the specifics of Grace Church of Hartford, unless he or an elder from Grace bring this up in the comments section.  

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