I grew up in The United Methodist Church, but I wasn’t confirmed until high school. It was about that time that I first encountered The Book of Discipline. I’m not sure what I thought it was at first, but based on the title, I’m sure I didn’t realize that it was a book of church law and doctrine. It sounded more to me like something that was written by James Dobson. I figured that a book called The Book of Discipline would be about discipline, and that was the last thing this teenager wanted to read. I’d already had enough discipline, thank you very much. I was at the age where I was tired of being told what to do. I certainly didn’t want to give the church that kind of authority over me!
As it turns out, I never outgrew not wanting to receive discipline. Most people don’t. We like making our own decisions, calling all the shots, and we don’t want anyone else pointing out the things we need to improve. The Bible even acknowledges that discipline isn’t a particularly pleasant experience: “No discipline is fun while it lasts, but it seems painful at the time. Later, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 CEB).
So it appears that biblical discipline isn’t mostly about being punished or kept in line. It’s about being trained. Not trained like a dog or a seal, but trained like an athlete. Of course the Merriam-Webster Dictionary doesn’t do an especially good job of advancing this understanding of discipline. The first definition it offers is “punishment.” The second is “instruction (obsolete).” Third we find a “field of study,” then “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character”. Farther down there’s “self control” and “a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity.” In a sense, church discipline is all of these things, just not in that order.
Discipline is both positive and negative in the sense that it can both shape us and correct us. And discipline includes both corporate and private accountability—private when we discipline ourselves and corporate when we receive correction and instruction from others. The word discipline shares English, French, and Latin roots with disciple. Both are related to the idea of being a student. Anyone who has ever taught children or youth really gets this connection. Effective education finds the right balance of instructing and correcting students. It also involves group learning and individual learning. And ideally there’s accountability for both teachers and students.
But therein lies the rub. School is mandatory, church isn’t.
When we’re kids, they make us go to school. And there are usually teachers and parents holding us accountable for both attending school and getting something out of it. Depending on our circumstances, our parents may even have a choice about where to send us to school, but we don’t usually get to decide for ourselves. As far as we’re concerned, there is no choice. As we get more mature, we learn to discipline and motivate ourselves, and with that come more choices (elective courses and extracurricular activities in high school, schools and majors in college). But we never lose the accountability. We know there are rewards when we stay the course and consequences when we don’t.
But how do we get that kind of system to work with an organization like the church, where membership is voluntary? And how do we administer discipline in a way that values both justice and mercy? How do we effectively hold each other accountable without showing favoritism, becoming authoritarian, or promoting exclusivity?
American culture in particular is accustomed to the principle of voting with our feet. Put simply, if we don’t like something, we can leave. Gone are the days when there’s only one church in town. Centuries ago, even decades ago, things were different, but nowadays unless someone is living in a remote area or in a country where Christianity is a minority religion, they can switch churches as often as they want. Most Americans probably have at least a half dozen churches within a few miles' drive; many have even more. And with so many choices, it’s a buyer’s market. To play on a financial services commercial, when churches compete, you win. (Or do you?)
Sometimes the things we need the most aren’t the things we seek out. For example, you won’t find many churches advertising that they’ll hold you accountable. That’s because people associate accountability with pressure, and pressure with stress. Who wants to be stressed out when they go to church? Schools can emphasize a rigorous curriculum, and we find that attractive (or at least students’ parents do). Coaches and personal trainers can have a reputation for being tough as long as they’re effective and get results. But churches usually avoid the subjects of discipline and accountability. You see, somewhere along the way we bought into the notion that faith is mostly a private matter. People seem to want the benefits of religion without the accountability, and we tend to accommodate that mindset rather than risk losing folks to the church across the street.
For a church, there’s a healthy tension between maintaining certain moral standards for its members and being as inclusive as possible. Groucho Marx famously said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” That’s a joke, but it illustrates a point. At the very least, people who choose to officially join a church should be willing to subscribe to a minimal amount of core beliefs established by the organization. That’s the point of membership—a level of commitment beyond just attending. But setting any kind of standard for membership means being willing to enforce that standard. That’s where discipline comes in. But discipline can be controversial, especially if a church is perceived to have crossed a line.
For example, Mars Hill Church, a prominent congregation in Seattle, experienced major backlash last year after a former member publicized the church’s disciplinary process. Pastor Mark Driscoll was accused by many of employing a cultlike leadership style. Mars Hill is a nondenominational church, so there isn’t a larger body that holds the local congregation accountable for how it disciplines members.
That’s not the case with The United Methodist Church. We give our pastors a certain amount of freedom and autonomy on matters of membership. (The Judicial Council affirmed this in 2005 with Decision 1032, which determined that a pastor has the authority to determine readiness for membership). But there are also district superintendents, bishops, and a last resort system of resolving conflicts known as a church trial. We even have an appeals process with jurisdictional committees and a Judicial Council, the “supreme court” of the denomination.
Many people probably don’t even realize that there is such a thing as a church trial. They happen occasionally in the UMC, which, like the United States government, consists of three branches—the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Church trials make some of us uncomfortable, but the truth is they are part of the package when you try to run a denomination like a republic. Without the executive and judicial branches, denominational legislation would have no teeth. Church trials aren’t an embarrassment, and they shouldn’t be a cause for fear. If anything, we should probably have a few more of them.
We’ve seen trials happen a few times over the years with clergy, but laypeople can be tried as well. And while most recent church trials have been sex related, it should be noted that both laypeople and clergy can be tried for other offenses too, including the dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of the denomination. But realistically, how many church members are going to stick around long enough to be dragged into ecclesiastical court? Probably not many, which is why you don’t usually see laypeople on trial in The United Methodist Church.
Even clergy trials are rare, but they do happen. Most recently, Rev. Amy DeLong of the Wisconsin Annual Conference was put on trial for being “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” and for officiating at a same-sex union. DeLong was acquitted on the first charge, but found guilty on the second. And for the first time in two decades, that specific conviction didn’t result in defrocking or suspension. Instead, the trial court (jury) sentenced DeLong to a detailed process of restoration. While this sentence was criticized by many for being too light, it serves to demonstrate how unpredictable jury trials can be, especially when the jury is made up of your peers. In The United Methodist Church, getting an all-clergy jury to convict a fellow clergyperson and assign them a harsh sentence is understandably difficult. A lay trial would probably present similar difficulties.
The word justice is used a lot in mainline church circles, but it’s one of those terms that means different things depending on who’s using it. My favorite definition for justice is doing the right thing. As a church and as individual Christians, we always want to do what’s right in God’s eyes. That means doing what’s best for both individuals and the entire group when possible. It’s a good thing for a group of Christians to set reasonable standards for those in the group as long as those standards are applied in a fair and consistent way. Moral and ethical rules, after all, are designed to protect everyone in the community. But in doing so, we must avoid the temptation of rigid legalism. There are cases where mercy triumphs over justice, but the only way to navigate those waters is through the help of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we risk falling into the opposite error of legalism: lawlessness that abandons not only discipline, but discipleship itself.