Shuck and Jive

Monday, July 23, 2007

Judgement and Discipline

Bob Campbell has been a guest blogger for a couple of weeks now. We are both Presbyterian ministers and have been discussing theological issues and what not.

It is "Conversations with Bob" and you can check to the right for the entire conversation. Please join in!


Thank you for your kind words at the beginning of your post and your thoughtful response. Let me start with the controversial stuff for once.

Yep, I sure did write what you quoted from my blog. Besides my wife and one other person I think you are the only person who’s read it! Of course I invite all those who watch and comment on this conversation to zip over and comment on my blog! Why let John have all the fun and notoriety?

I do think the context has some bearing on the issue. I said:

I know what I am about to say will cause an outcry, but as I read the Bible, the text says that God does not bless such behavior. Besides the passages that talk specifically about homosexual sexual behavior, there is a heterosexual theme in the Bible, from the first chapters of Genesis through the final chapters of Revelation. God creates man and woman for each other. Prophets and apostles and poets write about the relationship between God and Israel and God and the Church in analogy to marriage between one man and one woman. The Bible even has a rather racy book about heterosexual love in it! Nowhere is there any blessing of homosexual sexual relationships.

Some might think that I should have included this in the section under sin. I include it in the category of serious error because, if a leader in the Church tells someone that their sin is not sin, that leader endangers the eternal life of that person. We have to remember that Paul does say that several categories of people, “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9b-10, NRSV) If the translators of the NRSV have translated this passage correctly, (and frankly I think they mistranslated “male prostitutes: it should read the soft man, referring to the one who is penetrated in a homosexual sexual act) then several categories of people are in danger of not inheriting the kingdom of God. (And yes, I wish we were talking about the greedy! Why do we Americans worry so much about sex and not about our consumerist addictions?) The pastor who preaches or teaches or counsels that one can ignore a strong warning against certain sinful behavior in Scripture commits a serious error.

I put the context in not to go down the road to talking about homosexual orientation and sexual behavior. I think you and I have a lot to talk about before we talk about that. I wanted to note my concern. I understand that you will not agree with my interpretation of Scripture or with my application. You may not even agree that my concern has merit. My concern is that pastors might counsel or advise people in such a way that the people they counsel or advise might not inherit the Kingdom of God. Please note that I am just as concerned about the adulterer, the greedy, the idolater, the robber and everyone else in Paul’s list. And yes, I know that heterosexual sexual sin is much more common than homosexual sexual sin. After all, there are a lot more of us.

Having said all of that, I think the chance of someone being disciplined in any manner in the PCUSA for saying that homosexual sexual behavior between two people who have made a life commitment to each other is right between slim and none.

If we put aside the question of whether two people of the same sex having sex with each other is sinful or not there are still several theological and ecclesiastical issues in what we both have brought up.

There is the question of the Bible: its authority and how we interpret and apply it today. I’m going to save that one for a later post.

There is the question we have been talking about off and on: the question of life after death. Since I believe that there is life after death either in the Kingdom of God or separation from God, I think what we do as the Church here on earth is very important. The Church has Good News for the world. Part of that good news is about life in this world, how Jesus, through the Holy Spirit can release us from the power of sin. To use the traditional terms, the good news for this life is about justification and sanctification. Jesus releases us from the power of Satan, takes the judgment that we deserve upon himself, reconciles us with the Father, to use just three of the images used in the New Testament to talk about justification. Personally I don’t think one image is more important than another. I think the subject is too big to talk about with one image so we have to use them all.

Then there is sanctification, a lost art, for the most part, in the American Church. Bonhoeffer talks about cheap grace. Cheap grace offers forgiveness with no change. Jesus’ first sayings in the Synoptic Gospels are calls to repentance, which includes sorrow for past sin, seeking forgiveness and seeking, through the power of the Holy Spirit to change the way we live. We have found a great deal we agree on when it comes to the need for sanctification in relation to social ethics. I suspect we would also find a great deal of agreement concerning personal ethics. Sanctification should include the strong attempt to stop gossiping. It should include careful use of God’s earth, careful choice of words when angry and a whole lot of other changes in behaviors. Part of the task of the Church is to disciple all of the members of the Church so that we will grow in our holy behavior. And we have to do this with great humility. The best context I can think of to work on sanctification is in a small group where there is trust and confidentiality so that each person in the group can talk about their sins, know that the rest of the group will prayer for each member, and then ask how each member is doing at changing their behavior. All are equal in such a group because all are sinners.

Part of the good news is, and the original context is very important as you have pointed out, that no matter what the oppressors may do to us in this world, God’s Kingdom will ultimately win out, and all those who died holding on to their faith, particularly those who were tortured and killed for refusing to worship Caesar and insisting that Jesus was Lord, will have life in the Kingdom coming. The early Church depended on that promise and we need to depend on that promise today.

The Reformation Confessions in the Book of Confessions talk about the Keys of the Kingdom. The writers meant that the Church in general and pastors in particular have the awesome responsibility of opening the doors of the Kingdom to those around them. Pastors are to so preach, teach, advise and live so that they hold open the doors of the Kingdom to those around them and invite them in. Church members are to so live and speak so that others can see and hear the Kingdom in the things that they do and say. But if a pastor preaches a false gospel, say that the pastor says if you just live a good life everything will be fine, the pastor closes the door of the Kingdom. If a pastor says that getting drunk every night is no big deal, the pastor, according to Paul, closes the door of the Kingdom.

Thus while being Church should be fun it is also a very big task, one that we cannot do without the Holy Spirit working through us and sometimes working in spite of us.

On to discipline.

I think we can agree that the Church has the right and responsibility to set the qualifications for membership and officers. It says so right in the Book of Order. (For those of you watching this conversation that don’t have a Book of Order you can download a copy at It has been rated in trials as being significantly more effective in causing sleep than Ambien!) We will probably disagree about what those qualifications are. The bar for membership, according to the questions we ask new members, is deceptively low. We ask, “Who is your Lord and Savior?” And, “Do you trust him? Do you intend to be his disciple?” This, I believe, is the beginning of discipline, or maybe we should call it discipling. Welcoming people into the Church as members and having some standards for membership begins discipling.

So if someone came to my congregation’s Session and said they wanted to join the church but didn’t believe in God we would welcome them to participate in all the activities of the congregation and love them but we wouldn’t receive them as a member. Membership is reserved for those who will affirm that Jesus is Lord and Savior.

This doesn’t mean that the person who doesn’t believe in God should not also be welcomed, loved and encouraged to participate in almost all the activities of the Church. After all, what exactly will that person who doesn’t believe in God be prevented from doing in a Presbyterian congregation? She/he won’t be allowed to vote in a congregational meeting. Just think she/he won’t even have to attend congregational meetings! He/she won’t be able to serve as an officer. Frankly I find a lot of members diving out of the way when the nominating committee calls! Who actually wants to go to session meetings every month for 3 years? Sometimes I think the desire to hold office should be a reason for disqualification! (I particularly think that about those who run for president and congress! Wouldn’t that change the nature of American politics!)

Notice I said the bar for membership is deceptively low. Saying, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and I trust him,” if properly understood, is a monumental thing to say. To say that means I must take up my cross and follow Jesus wherever he may lead, and that includes a lot of the things we’ve talked about and agreed about in our posts. Discipling means working hard to be the people that Jesus wants us to be and working hard to help each other at this task because we can’t do it alone.

This all sounds really serious and it is. It doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t want me to have fun. Church, while serious, should also be joyful and fun. I think Jesus had a great sense of humor. His parables show his sense of humor. His choice of disciples showed his sense of humor! I mean, Jesus chose a man with a serious case of foot in mouth disease, (Peter) as one of his closest disciples. Some of the things Jesus said or is purported to have said to his enemies are a scream!

In any case, discipling each other means knowing what God wants us to do and what God wants us to stop doing and helping each other in the task.

Discipline at presbytery. We do discipline when we receive someone into the presbytery or don’t receive them. That’s why we ask about their lives and listen to their statements of faith. Is this person ready to serve as a pastor? Making that decision is a very important responsibility. So, have I voted against ordaining someone or receiving someone into a presbytery? Yes. I think about 3 times in 28 years. I did vote to have a friend of mine dropped from the roll of candidates because he wasn’t willing to ordain married women. (This was back in 1980.) Please don’t ask me for an explanation of why he believed single women could be ordained but not married women! The one case that I remember in which I voted against someone for reception into membership in a presbytery was when the person clearly did not believe that Jesus was divine. Human they could agree with, divine, no. Each of us at a presbytery meeting get to decide what we think is essential. The doctrines of the trinity and the full divinity and humanity of Christ are among my essentials. The presbytery voted to receive the person anyway. I was the only one who voted against.

The joy of being Presbyterian is that we make such decisions as a group. No one will be received into a presbytery or refused reception on my say so. We believe a group is more likely to perceive the will of God than an individual. I think that’s wonderful! I’m not in charge! The other joy of being a Presbyterian is the announcement in at least one of the Confessions that “Synods and Councils do err!” So while a presbytery may make a decision we all have to live with the humility that we may have misunderstood the will of God. Don’t ya love it? We don’t trust any one person with too much power and still we admit as a group we make mistakes.

The other place I see a need for discipline about theological matters is found right in the questions we answer when ordained or installed. The first one reads:

Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

If someone answers the question, “I don’t,” I suspect the ordination would stop right there. And if someone out and out claims they don’t believe this anymore, I believe that person should step down from office or that there is cause to remove that person from office. But I don’t hear either of us saying we don’t believe this statement. Instead we are trying to explain what we meant when we said “I do” at our installations. That is the down and dirty work of theology, not the short statement but the explanation of what the statement means.

And this is why John and I talk.

Grace and Peace



  1. On discipline, all kinds of bells and whistles went off in my head when John said: "I resist therefore, and I think on the whole, the church resists, using extraordinary discipline in regards to theological matters. I think that is why some in the church are so frustrated. Why aren't we disciplining these ministers? Why don't we have a list of essential tenets? I think a healthier approach, rather than use the church courts, is to converse. Why do we think the way we do? What are these symbols of faith and what do they mean to us? What is important? What do we share in common (and it is usually a lot), and how can we move forward in collegial relationship?"

    THIS is the single most important distinctive between the PC(USA) and the small conservative denoms like the OPC. Over on Beliefnet, there is a curmudgeonly (I use the term lovingly) OPC pastor who spends a great deal of time lambasting the PC(USA) for its lack of theological purity, in particular its lack of a defined list of essentials that officers must swear to believe in and our reluctance to regularly discipline officers on theological matters. The consensus is essentially, "if you hate the PC(USA) so much, don't leave your own church".

    J. Gresham Machen left the Northern church because Machen was expelled from his Presbytery for requiring ordination candidates to subscribe to his list of Fundamentals (not official church doctrine). Machen and friends formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This was in the 20s, and the Southern church had a similar experience in the 1970s when the PCA broke off.

    The Westminster Confession (Ch. XXII) states boldly that "God alone is Lord of the conscience" and goes on to warn of the doctrines of men, and that "the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also."

    IMO, the determination to leave some things open in the PC(USA) is a useful distinctive and something we should proudly cling to. There are a LOT of people in the church who don't realize how integral to our identity this freedom of conscience is, and that's where we get a lot of the current friction. Unlike the fundamentalists, we as a church DON'T tell the membership what they have to believe beyond the very basic (such as "Jesus is Lord and Savior").

    Yes, the PC(USA) acknowledges the need for discipline within the church, but it recognizes the need to proceed carefully and avoid using it as a political weapon (which is unfortunately where we've been getting in the last few years). In the broadest terms, we reserve it for (like John says) unethical or illegal behavior by church officers, or (as Bob says) to determine the qualifications of someone that we put into officership in the first place.

    Incidentally, Bob, I can sort of understand the (twisted) logic of the guy who thought married women shouldn't be ordained. In fact, the argument could be made that Paul speaks more fervently in support of this stance than he does against two persons of the same gender in a committed, monogamous, lifelong relationship. Paul disliked women even more than the gays. ;-)

  2. I think that when we turn to the book of discipline we have already failed at Christianity. It is a capitulation. It is saying I can't forgive 70 times 7. It is saying I can't reproach my brother in secret, or handle my grievance in the assembly. The Book of Discipline itself says it is a last resort and that is because by the point it is being brought to bear there has already been a rift in the communion. It is a coarse tool, unsuited to accomplishing reconciliation. We should eschew it almost always.

  3. flycandler, thanks for your response. One quick correction. Machen was not kicked out of the PUCSA for trying to force candidates to agree to the fundamentals. In fact he left Princeton Seminary in 1929 and helped form Westminster Seminary.

    He was kicked out of the PCUSA in the mid 1930's for forming a separate mission agency from the denomination. He believed that the denominational agency was too liberal. His word not mine.

    Isn't it interesting that the denomination decided not to decide what were the essentials of the faith in the 20's but did decide that one had to conform to the beaurocracy in the 30's?

  4. "Isn't it interesting that the denomination decided not to decide what were the essentials of the faith in the 20's but did decide that one had to conform to the beaurocracy [sic] in the 30's?"

    I'm not quite sure what your point is here. Machen certainly felt that he was disciplined over the Fundamentals issue, even if the proximate cause involved the missions.

    To answer your question directly, no, it really isn't that interesting. If a "bureaucracy" (i.e., the church) chose like any other organization to discipline an employee who was engaging in pretty blatant insubordination, what is surprising about that?