Dear Ms. Alter,
This week via e-mail, I received a link to your WSJ feature from Jan 18, 2008 entitled "Banned from Church". I am sure by now you have received a veritable onslaught of reactionary mail/e-mail calling you a variety of names, and for that I am sorry. Those people undeniably represent the church of Jesus Christ -- albeit in a frankly-sad way. I am sure you can recognize that those sort of screeds aren't worth reading. They don't represent themselves very well, and they don't represent the Gospel very well.
I have read your article twice now, and it was a disappointment to me for two reasons. The first is that it simply assumes that a church has no right or responsibility to audit in some way what it stands for. I think of the problem this way: the WSJ has a right and a responsibility to maintain some kind of journalistic raison d'être, and in that it has the right to seek out those who will contribute to that purpose as well as release from employment those who do not -- either because they are unable or unwilling to do what is necessary to maintain the organization. I use WSJ as an example because, I hope you will agree, it is not merely a "business" but an institution which seeks to do more than just make a buck.
In the same way, as a second set of examples, I think it is entirely reasonable that the NAACP, the NY Yankees, the GOP, and any university affirm their right each to select those who will be members of their organizations and choose to separate themselves from those who frankly do not share their respective institutional visions.
It is a simple fact: any institution exists for express purposes, and for any institution to advance those purposes it must be open and honest that those who do not share those goals ought not to belong to that group. Some are not qualified to pursue those goals, and other are simply not willing. Any institution which fails to recognize this is simply going to cease to exist.
In that way -- which is a wholly practical matter -- it seems right to me that churches ought to exercise some kind of process which recognizes that they do not exist as a body which stands for nothing, and which gives them a clear process for working that out in real life.
It turns out that the Bible recognizes this in its charges to local churches. The topic is addressed in the Gospel of Matthew, the book of Acts, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and the letters to Timothy and Titus, among other places. And this fact leads me to my second disappointment with your article: you failed to distinguish between the practice described by the Bible (and by most reputable pastors) and the practices (as you lined them out) of "spending time in the stocks" and "shunning".
I have no idea what your relationship to the Christian faith is -- and in that, I invite you to establish a clear relationship to it, and to its author and finisher, Jesus: know for certain that he is both Lord and Christ. But that said, it seems a little bit like those who would hurl e-mails at you with threats or insults to imply that all church discipline is of the same calibre as "shunning" or "blacklisting", or that the practice somehow has a disreputable history.
For example, one matter of church discipline is that members attend church services regularly -- that they maintain a clear connection with the local body. But the -purpose- of such a thing is not to drive someone off: the purpose it to remind them that their profession of faith in Jesus Christ is not merely lip-service. The passage in Matthew 18 which speaks to this -specifically- says that the goal of bringing up wrong-doing is -not- to cast out one's brother or sister, but to "gain your brother" -- to win him back.
Think of it: if we were talking about a local softball team which was removing its Shortstop from its roster for failing to come to games, it seems like a no-brainer. No one would question such a thing.
But to be as serious as possible, this process doesn't always win people back. The example you focussed on -- Mrs. Caskey at Allen Baptist in Michigan -- is sort of notorious in the blogosphere, and I think it is a very clear example of how this process can go bad on all sides. But even the statistics you cited on how church discipline usually works out indicate that this sort of thing is not common, and churches which actually implement -discipline- rather than lynching or shunning or some other disreputable practice actually benefit from it.
Is it possible that some churches will abuse this process? Yes, certainly -- while we confess to be people of God, we are still people and not God. That can't paralyze an institution into inaction, and it cannot cause a church in particular to forgo its charter to make disciples anymore than one mistake in hiring or firing at WSJ would stop them from going to press the next day.
Let me close by recommending a few books to you:
Handbook of Church Discipline
By Jay Adams
Corrective Love: The Power of Communion Discipline
By Thomas C. Oden
Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches
By Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing & Malcolm B. Yarnell III
I realize that often in journalism, one doesn't get all the time one needs to become an expert on a subject before one has to go to press. However, especially in the context of the WSJ, its high level of integrity, and its inherently-conservative perspective on our culture, getting the basics of "church" right ought to be a higher priority that zinging a misunderstood practice.
My thanks for your time. I hope this note finds you in good health and spirits.
Grace and Peace to you.
note: thanks to Alex in Canada for correcting my french illiteracy. :-)