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Discipline in the Mainline - Is it Possible or Even Wise?

By Kevin DeYoung


Evangelicals have a lot to learn about church discipline from us in the Protestant Mainline.

I say that as an evangelical pastor in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). The RCA is the oldest Protestant denomination with a continuous ministry in the United States, dating back to 1628 and the Dutch settlement at New Amsterdam. The RCA is also part of the Protestant mainline. We have an official Formula of Agreement with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and the United Church of Christ. We are the most evangelical of the four groups, but that's not saying much.

Ecclesiastical discipline should be a rich part of church life in the mainline. We have some of the best polity and well-thought out procedures. The RCA's Book of Church Order (BCO), for instance, has a beautiful definition of church discipline and an entire section for judicial proceedings, complete with lawyerly footnotes. There's even a whole volume commentary on the BCO. So we have the structure in place.

Plus, many mainline denominations have confessional standards. We claim to believe certain things and should be able to hold each other to these commitments. In the RCA, we subscribe to the Belgic Confession which says that church discipline is one of the marks of a true church.

Yet discipline is scarce in the mainline.

In the RCA a local elder board must contact the Classis (think Presbytery) before it can proceed with excommunication. When I first contacted the Classis executive committee with such a request a few years ago the response was along the lines of "Wow, I don't think anyone has ever asked us that before." Perhaps their memories were fuzzy, or perhaps local congregations don't know to ask permission from the regional body. But, in either case, it seems that discipline has not been carried out very frequently, if at all. Discipline is possible, on a congregational and on a denomination-wide level. I've witnessed it with my own eyes. But it is rare and difficult.

And that's what evangelicals, whether in the mainline or not, should consider. Consider what happens when you churches lack the courage, humility, and love to discipline.


You're Outnumbered

Discipline is difficult for several reasons. First, accountability is hard on a denominational level because you're outnumbered. Ask any conservative in a mainline denomination and he'll tell you that the conservatives have the bigger churches, but the liberals are better represented on boards and committees. This makes holding the line on ethical and theological issues extremely difficult. The majority in the pews may be with you, but the denominational machinery is against you.

Likewise, it is almost impossible to hold someone accountable in another part of your denomination. In the RCA, ministers are only amenable to their own Classis. This means that I am powerless to raise disciplinary proceedings against someone else in one of the other 44 Classes.

In 2005 I was one of dozens of ministers who pressed charges against one of our seminary presidents for performing a "wedding" ceremony for his lesbian daughter (in Jonathan Edwards' church of all places). Three of the charges were upheld and the president was suspended as a minister of Word and Sacrament. But this was only possible because he was technically a "General Synod Professor of Theology" (a fourth office in the RCA) and thus amenable to the entire denomination.

"Who Are You to Say?"

Second, discipline is difficult because too many people refuse to say the Bible says something. Ironically, one of the charges against the seminary president that was declared invalid was the one that he had violated Scripture. He made a biblical case for homosexuality and therefore thought he was being biblical. Who were we to say he wasn't?

The same thing happens with our doctrinal standards. Ministers only have to affirm that our confessions are "faithful and historic witnesses." Sadly, this means that some can "affirm" our doctrinal standards because they give historic testimony to what Christians have believed.

With both Scripture and our Standards there is a postmodern fuzziness that eschews clear definition. As I've been told by denominational leaders before, "We can't be too exact. All we have are truths with a lower case ‘t'. The only Truth with a capital ‘T' we know is Jesus."

It's Tough to Hold the Line When It Keeps Getting Pushed Back

Third, as the line of deviant behavior and doctrine has been pushed back farther and farther, discipline has gotten harder and harder. Every mainline denomination is wrestling with the issue of homosexuality. Evangelicals are trying to hold the line, but they may have already given up too much. Almost no one is ever disciplined for divorce, or divisiveness, or any number of doctrinal truths the denomination believes on paper. It's good that evangelicals are waking up on this issue, but they may have overslept for too long.

Denominations almost always drift liberal because it's always easier to let things go than to maintain boundaries. After decades of neglecting the doctrinal and ethical fences, it will be almost impossible for conservatives to now hold the line on homosexuality. Discipline is rare because so much has already been overlooked and there are few offenses left to discipline.

Evangelicals, whether you're in the mainline or not, are you paying attention?


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September/October 2009
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