Sunday, 7 September 2014

The use and abuse of discipline in churches

Romans 13:8-10
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Matthew 18:15-20
‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Church discipline?
I realised, as I was putting this together, that I have consistently dodged a bullet in all my years of ordained ministry. Alison and I are normally on holiday at the beginning of September, so I have never preached on these words about church discipline before. So there is a sense of trepidation and crossed fingers about what follows...

How we read these words from Jesus will depend on whether we have read the rest of the chapter in which they fall and on whether our understanding of Christianity is one of radical hospitality or of excluding those we deem to be beyond the pale. Note the emphasis on the word 'we'. God may have other ideas. Let me give you an example of what I mean by that.

At another church that I used to belong to we became aware of a newcomer. He was a quiet man who kept himself to himself but was always pleasant yet with that sense of not being terribly sure that it was OK for him to be there. Gradually the vicar and I got to know him a little better and eventually he said to me, 'Paul, can I speak to you Would you come and visit me?'  So we made a date in our diaries and around I went. We did the usual small talk and then he told me quite simply that he wanted to be honest with me and tell me that he was gay and was that going to be a problem with him coming to church. I assured him that of course it wouldn't be, and my apologies if he had ever thought that might be an issue for us.  He explained that he had been a Christian for many years and used to belong to another church, but when he had spoken about his sexuality to the minister he was immediately made subject to church discipline. Ultimately he was told to repent or leave. Knowing that sexual orientation is not something that can be changed, he left, and for some time had nowhere to worship until he came to us.

The church that had thrown him out had a clear policy on what was acceptable, and they therefore felt that they could essentially excommunicate anyone who didn't stay within those boundaries. The question I would want to ask is, where is the grace in that? You see in reality this passage is not about exclusion but about love and grace.  This is not about giving us carte blanche to judge people as having behaviour unbefitting a Christian and therefore exclude them in a fit of self-righteousness. If we know any history at all we should be aware that many of our so-called Christian values are little more than cultural norms. Look at the people who have been excluded in the past, such as those whose marriages have failed, and who we include now and you'll see what I mean.

Instead, when we see the context of this chapter we realise it's to do with love, community, humility and grace. Chapter 18 begins with the disciples asking who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by putting a small child in front of them and telling them that this is how they should be if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And perhaps the key point in the verses that lead on from that narrative are about how we should not be putting stumbling blocks in the ways of others but examining our own lives very carefully.

And then after the story in this section we have the Jesus answering a question Peter has about how often he should keep forgiving someone by telling him that if it's forgiveness then he shouldn't be keeping score. Finally in chapter 18 we have the story of the slave who was forgiven an enormous debt but couldn't find it in his heart to forgive a small one of a fellow slave.

So the church is meant to be a place of care, of love and of hospitality, especially for those in need, with children being the example Jesus uses to illustrate this.With that as the backdrop, what then are we to make about these verses regarding church discipline?

Well firstly this is meant to be about restoration. If we believe we are the injured party then we should seek out the person who has hurt us and try to sort it out. Not in an accusing way, but simply so that a matter can be laid to rest. I can't tell you how grateful I have been for those who, when not sure if they agree with something I've said, have asked to talk it through with me. There is no space left here for us to just leave a wound to fester.  We are supposed to take it seriously when there are problems, and we are meant to seek out a way for there to be a reconciliation. 

 If the person who has wronged us won't listen we are to take a couple of witnesses. The reason for that is that we are a part of a community of believers. Something that happens to one of us happens to all of us.  We might also think in terms of the two witnesses being there to provide wise counsel. Most of us will be aware of situations when we have perceived a slight against us, only to discover it to have been a complete misunderstanding. And sometimes it takes a trusted and wise friend to say, 'Hold up. Before you go off on one, are you sure that's what so-and-so actually meant?' Even in our anger at how we are treated we are to be a part of the community so that wise members can guide us.

And finally, if two witnesses cannot resolve the problem, then maybe we need the help of the whole church. But all the way through this, what remains at the heart of the process is love. As St. Paul put it in the first reading, 'Love is the fulfilling of the law'.  All the way through this has been about loving someone. But what happens if that love isn't reciprocated? What if someone doesn't get it? What if someone is just simply using you, or us for their own ends?

Many years ago I was in a youth group. We were multi-denominational with United Reform, Anglican, Baptist and Roman Catholics all mixed in, and the leadership drew from across the churches too. The provided us with wise counsel and did their best to adhere to Biblical principles.  So when a new person came along and tried to become a leader they treated him with grace and listened to him, until that point that it suddenly became clear that it wasn't leadership he was wishing to offer, but the attention of the younger women that he wished to attain. In very short order he was dismissed as the leaders exercised their duty of care for us.

Church discipline is extremely difficult to manage, and so for me it has come down to love and grace. From time to time I hear stories of how people might talk of someone in a position of responsibility in church who perhaps doesn't live up to their ideal of a good Christian. My response to that would be, 'Well maybe they're just simply less good at hiding their faults than you are!'

None of us deserve a position of responsibility, and I promise you this, anyone who thinks they do is not worthy of it. All of us minister to each other under grace. I'm not 'worthy' of being a priest. I'm not more holy than anyone else in the congregation. It is simply the calling that God has given me, but I stand in the pulpit or behind the altar because of the grace of God in the midst of my own mess.
But when someone has self-interest or maliciousness in their heart, rather than just plain old sin-in-need-of-grace, then we need to ask questions, and that I think is what Jesus is giving us space for.

If there has been a misunderstanding or misspoken word or careless deed, then a gentle approach will usually fix it. But if there is malicious intent, then even a whole church won't be able to put it right, and then the community needs to protect itself and I think that's what Jesus leads up to.

I read an interesting story about a minister who had a conman come to the church she led. So she pulled him to one side after a service and took him out for a drink. She told him that she knew exactly who he was and what his track record was, and so he was welcome to come and be a part of the church and to be a loving and loved member of the community. But if he tried to use people he would be in deep trouble.  He actually responded to her tough love and toed the line she told him not to cross. Love requires honesty.

However, it's not always going to be like that and so I now want to add a caveat to this. Jesus makes it clear that ultimately there are limits to how far we can go in seeking reconciliation. If someone will not accept responsibility for what they have done or are doing, then we may need to take a step back from them for our own sake.

Many years ago, when I was in training, I was linked with a group of people who were looking at the relationship between psychology and Christianity. They were based at the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge University and together produced a series of videos under the name of 'Beta' about how who we are affects what we believe.  One of the videos was about forgiveness and they made the point that the old saying 'Forgive and Forget' has potential to be psychologically damaging. God may well be able to do this, and indeed this is what divine forgiveness is actually like, but for the rest of us we need to consider how we might actually need to remember what has been done when someone has deliberately hurt us in order to protect ourselves from it happening again.

Sometimes, if we are wise, we can see that it is not always as simple as forgiving someone, because that person may well have it in their heart to hurt us again, and again, and again. And you or I may well, by the grace of God, be able to forgive that person, but we may well also have to walk away from them and have nothing more to do with them.  With sadness and a heavy heart I've occasionally had to do this for the sake of my own sanity, and I'm saying this because I want you to know that after having read this passage, I believe it is OK to do so. If you have a family member or a friend or acquaintance who just keeps hurting you, in whatever way it is, by all means try and forgive them, but for your own sake, allow yourselves to walk away if you can see no way to resolve it.  Ultimately we have to be responsible for our actions.

So with the grace and help of God we can forgive, and go on forgiving. But there are limits to our ongoing involvement with a destructive personality. And ultimately I think this may have echoes in how God treats us too.  Thankfully God forgives, and goes on forgiving us, and there is nothing we can do to hurt God. But we can grieve the Holy Spirit. So we need to look to ourselves because if we deliberately we hurt another, and go on hurting them, we should not be surprised if the voice of God goes quiet in our own hearts. Sometimes, as a last resort, a shock like that is the last tool God has available to bring us back to our senses.

But in the weave of everyday life, let us talk,let us love and let us forgive, because that is the higher path.