January 18, 2008
Church Discipline on the Rise
Or maybe just lawsuits.
The cover story of The Wall Street Journal's weekend section begins:
On a quiet Sunday morning in June, as worshippers settled into the pews at Allen Baptist Church in southwestern Michigan, Pastor Jason Burrick grabbed his cellphone and dialed 911. When a dispatcher answered, the preacher said a former congregant was in the sanctuary. "And we need to, um, have her out A.S.A.P."
The 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey was arrested and put in jail for returning to the church where she had recently been expelled for spreading "a spirit of cancer and discord" after questioning the pastor. Caskey had tithed regularly during her nearly 50-year membership at the church.
"It was very humiliating," says Mrs. Caskey, who worked for the state of Michigan for 25 years before retiring from the Department of Corrections in 1992. "The other prisoners were surprised to see a little old lady in her church clothes. One of them said, 'You robbed a church?' and I said, 'No, I just attended church.' "
The Journal reports that this "ancient practice" of church discipline is making a comeback. "The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption."
But I wonder if it isn't just an excuse for heavy-handed leadership. "Last week, the pastor of a 6,000-member megachurch in Nashville, Tenn., threatened to expel 74 members for gossiping and causing disharmony unless they repented. The congregants had sued the pastor for access to the church's financial records."
About 10 - 15 percent of churches discipline in this way, according to the article, but there's no proof to the claim that the practice is rising. It does seem, however, that lawsuits following church discipline may be increasing.