Saturday, July 23, 2005

A New/Old Kind of Church Discipline

The Protestant reformers named three "marks by which the true church is known": the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline to correct faults. Today, church discipline is feared as the mark of a false church, bringing to mind images of witch trials, scarlet letters, public humiliations, and damning excommunications. Does discipline itself need correction and redemption in order to be readmitted into the body of Christ?

This excerpt from Christianity Today caught my attention this morning. Among my evangelical friends I know that the idea of church discipline and accountability is an important issue. The last line of the excerpt asks the question- "Does discipline itself need correction and redemption in order to be readmitted into the body of Christ?

It seems to me that church discipline tends to be reduced to "beliefs" about how church is church- which adheres to a more modern or rationalistic way of looking at discipline.

If mainline protestants who want to remain faithful to the reformational spirit and don't want to lose one of our hallmarks- church discipline- then how do we view it in a postmodern, or transition from modernity, context?

I think we have to go back to the orthodox church- before the great schism and see how they viewd church discipline. Orthodox Chrisitanity held practice/mysticism and belief/rationalism in balance with one another. In fact both were connected, a part of one another. This ideas of both right belief and practice is missing in the church today. Part of the fault of modernity has not been it's technological breakthroughs, it's dedication to science and enlightenment thought. The fault is it's failure to prepare us for Postmodernity.

Going back to Orthodoxy means that we embrace rationalism along with the ancient practices of the church. So we ask ourselves what are life enriching practices that have sustained the church and might continue to sustain the church in the coming days?

Dorothy Bass in her book, Practicing Our Faith gives us historic practices put in a modern context that might help shape Christian communities:
1. Honoring the Body
2. Hospitality
3. Household Economics
4. Saying Yes and Saying No
5. Keeping Sabbath
6. Testimony
7. Discernment
8. Shaping Communities
9. Forgiveness
10. Healing
11. Dying Well
12. Singing Our Lives

I think a shift in the way we view church discipline- a shift that goes back to the premodern church in order to inform the postmodern church- might just help us get past the doctrinal conflict that we can't seem to move passed. I don't know that these specific practices are all THE practices for a new way of viewing church discipline but it's a start. I wonder what our Annual Conferences would look like if there was an emphasis on practicing prayer together and committing to our churches practicing our faith in such a new way?


Zoomdaddy said...

it might have prevented the road the UMC has been traveling on, and it's a good lesson to evangelical denoms who often unwittingly travel the same road. btw--i would add corporate prayer to that list.

St.Phransus said...

Yes, i'd probably even say corprate and private prayer are not only practices central to faith, but a means of grace that wesley was centered in. thanks for the insight.


Monk-in-Training said...

For me the most immediate consequence of Church discipline is the penance I am assigned in Confession.

Not always pleasant, but has always made me grow.

St.Phransus said...

Confession- not an easy "practice" for anyone. But it has its place in the life of any community- especially that of the Christian community. Thanks for your thoughts.


Josh Frank said...


I am a first-time commenter on your blog and a fairly new reader. I am enjoying and resonating with much of what you write about and I'm glad to have found your blog.

I recently started reading a book I exiled to my bookshelf when it was "required" reading for a colloquim at my first college: Covenant Discipleship. This book was written as a resource for re-establishing the Methodist class meeting as a fostering of accountable Christian Disciples. What is striking me here is the presence within our own tradition of something that feels very in tune with an "ancient-future" way of doing things: a General Rule made up of acts of mercy and acts of piety. Each category is then broken down into the public (or corporate) and the private: acts of compassion and justice, and acts of devotion and worship.

It seems there is plenty of room within this structure to re-discover some of the time-tested (and forgotten) practices of our faith. Have you had any experience with Covenant Discipleship groups? I'd love to strike up a more personal conversation about what you do in ministry. My church has tabbed me to help with either or both of our fledgling youth and college/young adult ministries. I've done it before, but I don't think the "old" model we grew up with is where I'm being led. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts with us!

St.Phransus said...

Hey Josh,
thanks for the kind words. I'm really familiar with the Covenant Disciple series of books by David Lowes Watson. I have the priveledge of having Steven Manskar- the person who took David Lowes Watson's position at the General Board of Discipleship. He has authored the book Accountable Discipleship. In fact he's one of my youth dads. Pretty cool stuff.

But yes, I led a youth covenant discipleship group last year which lasted for about 3 months. It went pretty well.

I do think that the idea of a church rooted in practices is exactly what Wesley was imagining in the methodist societies and what the early methodist movement was all about.

Wesley knew that practices are what shape a people and that practices are something that all people can engage in and grow in God's grace- despite doctrinal beliefs, and faith maturity.

I look forward to future conversations.