It usually happens behind closed doors. Or not at all.
Rarely does the public see or hear about a church chiding a member of its flock.
But that’s what happened at Ridgedale Church of Christ, which last month asked a family to choose between its support of a gay relative and its membership in the church. The family left their church home of some 60 years over the confrontation and told their story, making headlines from coast to coast.
The story tapped into our nation’s tensions between faith and family, cultural tolerance and religious values. It was heartbreaking and enraging all at the same time, on both sides of the issue, for very different reasons.
But this was more than just another battle in the great culture wars. The situation provided a rare look at how churches discipline, rebuke and seek to correct the perceived wrongs of their members.
This wasn’t just a church promoting its brand of morality, but enforcing it.
The Bible details how to confront others over their transgressions. And while the practice may be less prevalent today, many churches still employ it.
“It’s never really gone away. You just only occasionally get a glimpse like this into what’s going on,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University. “This is a rare window into churchly discipline of an old-time religion sort of way.”
Beyond that, what Ridgedale showed was church members standing up against religious authority in a public fashion. Such stories just don’t find their way to the evening news, the morning paper or national blogs the way the Ridgedale incident did.
“I just find that to be an interesting turning point,” Hudnut-Beumler said. “It’s a Rosa Parks moment.”
Church accountability is as varied as the hundreds of congregations that fill our city. But most agree that churches have eased up on their efforts to monitor and discipline members in recent decades. In today’s world the church isn’t always the focal point of a community. Members may switch congregations at will, with little social consequence. And society places more value than ever on tolerance, diversity and equality.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College, said churches should get back in the habit of holding members accountable. Too many have gone soft, he said, as an overreaction to past abuses in which the church publicly humiliated and castigated members.
“I think we should be practicing church discipline more, but in the right way,” said Land, the onetime head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and religious liberty commission. “The purpose of church discipline is not to drive people away. It is to make them aware of their sin and the fact that their sin is damaging their relationship with God. It’s a hurdle put up in your way to keep you from going down the wrong path.”
While sermons sometimes broach homosexuality, it’s relatively uncommon for confrontations over the issue to occur.
Meanwhile, extramarital affairs and premarital sex are moral crises facing congregations across the country, he said.
“I suspect we might have fewer divorces in our churches if more people were confronted,” Land said.
Ridgedale Pastor Ken Willis said the family the church approached was asked to repent for their public show of support for a gay relative. Church leaders couldn’t ignore what they felt was a flouting of church values, he said, but the family is welcome back in the congregation.
“God’s mercy endures forever,” he said last week. “But not for those who are in rebellion against God.”
The idea of church authority confronting individuals seems to run contrary to societal beliefs about the importance of the individual and privacy, said Mark Flynn, pastor of the 4,400-member Christ United Methodist Church. That cultural shift makes it more difficult to approach members.
“Before we had this idea of privacy as a natural, God-given right, it was much easier for brothers and sisters in the church or the pastor to take that on,” Flynn said. “Now we have a whole culture that thinks privacy is a right.”
But that doesn’t mean accountability is dead. At his church, members share with one another in small groups, as is the case in many Protestant denominations. And these groups are more about spiritual growth, personal repentance, than enforcing behavior. Flynn said that’s a distinction worth noting, because some churches use discipline for other interests.
“For some, it’s about trying to decide if you measure up to be a part of our congregation. It’s more about judging,” he said. “But I think the majority of congregations want to approach you to help you, help carry your burden. That’s a very different approach.”
Most modern churches have moved beyond historical traditions of calling sinners to the altar for public repentance or shaming. Accountability happens more informally. Often, church members seek help or counsel from fellow members or church leaders. Those who are believed to be astray still will be approached time to time, usually in a gentle manner. But even these more intimate approaches to accountability have come under fire.
Mike Foster, who founded People of the Second Chance, a California-based Christian ministry, has written that the practice in many churches has become too focused on managing sin, addressing problems, reducing shame for churches and providing followers with lists of things not to do. Instead, he writes that accountability between church members should be focused on redemption, grace and second chances.
“If Christian accountability were a company, it would need a serious bailout,” he wrote.
Aside from counsel and confrontation, many churches still reserve the right to oust members for more serious offenses.
In the Catholic church, repentance is received through the sacrament of confession, which is required at least once a year. But bishops may elect excommunication, the separation of members from the community and the sacraments of the church.
Though it goes by other names, many denominations still have some formal ouster procedure. The Amish shun and Jehovah’s Witnesses disfellowship those who don’t meet church standards.
In Catholicism, the practice is reserved for those whose transgressions are viewed as not just sins, but as crimes against the church. Catholic politicians who support abortion rights or priests who doubt church doctrine could be excommunicated, said Fr. David Carter, vice chancellor for canonical affairs for the Diocese of Knoxville.
“It’s not a long list,” he said. “But they are things the church has determined that disrupt and damage the union of the church that have to be addressed.”
Though bishops have interpreted church law on the matter in different ways, Carter, a canon lawyer, said it’s usually reserved for offenses committed in public that bring scandal upon the faithful. Though it’s the church’s most severe sanction, he said excommunication isn’t meant as a final banishment or judgment. Rather, it’s aimed at reforming the ways of the transgressor.
“The penalty of excommunication is not meant to be a final thing,” Carter said. “It’s kind of like go into your room until you figure out what you’ve done wrong. We want you to know the gravity of what you have done by putting you outside the community of the church for awhile.”
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...