A few days ago news began to spread about a controversy at The Village Church (TVC) in Dallas, TX. Matt Chandler is pastor for TVC and is a gracious gift from God to not only his church members, but to all who follow his online sermons and read his books. I am saddened by this distraction to the tremendous gospel work being accomplished through Christ at TVC and hope the Elders, church members, and all parties involved will find healing grace. Matt has apologized for the mishandling of this and other cases of church discipline at TVC. As Christians, we are called to accept the apology at face value, regardless of whether or not it stemmed from a media outcry or public criticism. God uses all sorts of things to move his people to repentance.
Writing about another church’s struggles is not typically a wise choice. The most obvious reason is because outsiders can never really know what has been said behind closed doors. The leadership at TVC, under the authority of Jesus Christ, are now called to determine the specific areas where they have sinned and make necessary changes to both their own outlook toward church members and the covenant membership they enforce. What they need from other Christians is prayer, not brow beating or unsolicited advice from internet bloggers.
And yet I find it strange that more evangelical leaders are not responding to this important issue. Again, stone casting at TVC would bring only harm, but other churches and their leadership, including me and my church, need to learn from these events. To that end, here are three ways I am thinking through TVC and church discipline.
1. If This, Then That.
I own an Amazon Echo – that little black cylindrical tube that responds to the name “Alexa” and answers all sorts of questions. I was thrilled to recently connect software called “IFTTT” to my Echo, which stands for “If This, Then That.” It works like this: If I give a specific command to Alexa, such as “put ‘buy pencils’ on my to do list,” Alexa will automatically add that item to my productivity software called ToDoIst. It is robotic. If I add an item to my Echo to do list, it automatically adds it to my other software. No questions. No discussion. It just happens. If this, then that.
Church discipline cannot, and must not, be an “if this, then that” discipline. From my outside eyes, it appears this is what partially happened at TVC. Karen Hinkley acted in a way that seemed to the Elders of TVC to be a break in her covenant obligations (If This) which prompted a robotic response (Then That) of church discipline without wrestling with the subtleties of the individual and the situation. The Elders for TVC have acknowledged this by saying, “we realize that there are clear and specific instances where we have let our membership practices blind us to the person in front of us, in turn leading us to respond in a way that doesn’t reflect our desire to be loving and caring to our members.”
I’m especially concerned for younger pastors. Among the Reformed camp, church discipline has become one the hottest topics in church life, and rightfully so. Dr. Albert Mohler has said, ” The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church.” Historian Greg Wills has written a powerful reminder of how Baptist churches in the antebellum period would not have considered herself a church if discipline were not an active part of the ministry. Recently, books like this and this have been published and read by virtually every seminary student training for pastoral ministry. The influential ministry of Mark Dever and his “9 Marks Of A Healthy Church” lists church discipline at number seven. This heavy emphasis on discipline, although necessary and good, has the potential to lead younger and inexperienced pastors into a rush to judgment before assessing the specific person and situation in front of them.
2. Babies and Bathwater.
For those who have been writing and commenting on the situation at TVC, a consistent refrain has been one of disgust and contempt for the very idea of a covenant membership that holds church members accountable for their actions. Pointing to the failure of church discipline to respond in love and compassion to a church member at TVC, there are calls to forgo the process all together. The idea is that only Christ has authority over his children, so the local church is wildly stepping out of their bounds by expecting church members to submit to discipline by their leadership.
Well, Christ most certainly is the final authority over our lives, but we cannot overlook the responsibility Jesus has given his church, a responsibility that includes acting in the authority of Christ on behalf of his name. In Matthew 18, one of the clearer examples of practicing discipline, Jesus instructs the disciples to “tell it to the church” if more private means of communication to the offender have not proven successful. What Jesus says next is staggering: “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The church has been given a charge by Christ to be a people who are walking in a manner worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10) and he has also given the church authority to act when the name of Christ is being polluted by sin. To ignore that authority and responsibility is not love. It is sin.
3. Learning To Avoid Extremes.
As a pastor of a wonderful church in central Kentucky, I want to lead my staff, leaders, and congregation to find the right balance between accountability and grace. On the one hand, we must push back against a robotic system of discipline that overlooks the specific human element of every situation. On the other hand, we must push back against a church membership who has no understanding of covenant, who views church membership as simply a list of benefits, and who assumes the freedom to act however they wish without any expectation of discipline.
I have found this balance to be most challenging in the language of a church covenant. Once you begin the process of putting on paper the procedures for using discipline, which is an important and necessary assignment, it inevitably becomes more and more nuanced, eventually becoming the “If This, Then That” scenario we have said we need to avoid.
4. Positional and Progressive.
The church basks in the splendor and righteousness of Christ because of our union with him. And although we are “hidden with Christ in God”, we are not yet physically with him. Thus, we are called every day to set our minds on the things that are above because we are still progressively maturing and becoming more like Christ. Positionally speaking, we are as righteous as we ever will be. Progressively speaking, there is work to do. It’s messy work. But it’s beautiful work.
When we read about controversies such as the one at TVC, we are reminded of the deep, catastrophic nature of sin and of the deeper, scandalous nature of grace. We should not point our fingers in disgust at a sister church, but point our hearts to Christ who has once and for all defeated the very “weight and sin that so easily besets us.” The story of TVC is our story – hearts saved by grace that are prone to wander.
Oh indeed – oh to grace how great a debtor.
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