Church Discipline And The Means of Grace
May 16, 2012
From Carl Trueman:
Apparently, a church in Oregon is suing a former member and her daughter for defamation on a blog. Apart from the difficulty of mounting a successful suit for defamation under the US's admirably lax defamation laws (where not only factual error but deliberate malice must be proved), the whole idea of suing a former member on this kind of thing is most unbiblical and arguably strengthens the woman's case that this is not a church which behaves like a church should.
Going to law is a tricky issue for the church. It is quite possible that a church might need to serve a restraining order on someone who posed a serious physical threat to a congregation, but suing for defamation seems to collide with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 and, indeed, with the entire thrust of a significant strand of New Testament teaching -- that the church should expect to be slandered, libeled and generally trashed in this world and to accept the same in a spirit of humility and joy. The only real response to such slander should be 'Did they spell my name correctly?'
It also speaks eloquently of a failure to understand the nature of biblical discipline, presumably as a result of failing to understand the biblical nature of the church and the means of grace. The church is marked by two things: the word and the sacraments. These are the means of grace. When someone is unrepentantly committed to a pathway of extreme sin, the church's weapons are those whereby that person is excluded from the means of grace. That is all the church can do. By refusing this woman the word and the Lord's Supper, the church has done all she can.
While we are on the subject of church discipline, it seems that this is, as noted above, historically connected to the means of grace. So what happens to church discipline when the means of grace start to be expanded beyond word and sacrament? When we include art, or music or even sports? I have no sympathy whatsoever with such an expansion; but, given the emphasis on these emerging in certain quarters and, indeed, the arrival of arts and sports pastors on the scene, I wonder if those who do in practice seem to see these things as means of grace have really thought through the practical consequences for church discipline. Perhaps we have to stop people looking at pictures (unless it is something by Thomas Kinkade?), listening to anything but 70s disco music, and playing anything but American football? Answers on a postcard.