Shepherds or Shamers? The Rise of Church Discipline in America

Photo via branislavpudar /

Photo via branislavpudar /

While there are no reliable figures, some church followers think the number of congregations using “church discipline” is growing among conservative congregations. As more cases come to light, they raise questions about the biblical basis and legal implications of such practices. Are these church shepherds just doing their best to care for their flocks, or are they crossing a line by shaming and shunning their so-called sinners?

A Journey Toward Radical Welcome

Photo via Vibe Images /

Photo via Vibe Images /

I had the sense, as a child, that God’s goodness and mercy would only follow me all of the days of my life if I was “good” and Christian. And I had the sense that good and Christian was a narrow way.

This meant two things. First, only “good” people, loving and kind people, people who had not erred or strayed or made mistakes or broken the law or never “back-slid” were the sheep worthy of grace and mercy. Second, only Christian people were in the fold. Not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs — no, the steadfastly loving God had only space for those of us who accepted Jesus and our Lord and Savior AND who had lived sinless lives.

My child-like sense of “good” shifted when I was a teen serving as an elder in the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Being up close and personal with my pastor, the late Rev. Oliver Brown, III and the adults around the table were first- hand lessons of the wide-open space of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

These good people — ordained people — were flawed and funny. They fussed and fought. They forgave each other, as God forgave them. My idea of good stretched and breathed and exhaled judgment and inhaled, experientially, that only God is good, that God in Jesus Christ shows this goodness in a particular way, and that all of God’s people are flawed and loved.

As a young adult before seminary, living life in the world, working, loving, breaking up, making up, having growing pains about identity and purpose and vocation, my spiritual muscles strengthened around the concept of the good shepherd who would love me enough to come and get me if I wandered.

Jesus is the ideal shepherd, the model shepherd, the best kind of shepherd; the one who makes the promises of God available to all of God’s people by laying down his life for the sheep.

I had not yet made the leap but most certainly have now to John 10:16.

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

This loving Shepherd has a huge and diverse flock. 

How to Love Like a Mother

Patrick Foto/

We need something like a mother's love in our churches. Patrick Foto/

In my Santa BarbaraCalifornia neighborhood, which we sometimes call “Leave it to Beaver Land” for its seeming serenity and peace, a new practice has become evident: Children no longer walk alone to our neighborhood elementary school. Every morning, a parade of mothers and fathers accompany their children the short distance to school, dogs in tow and cellphones in hand. It looks like the practice of safety, but it’s also the practice of fear. You just never know. It could happen anywhere. It could happen here.

These parents know about something we call “school incidents.” They know the statistics about the number of American children that are shot, stabbed, and killed in our schools each year. Like the rest of us, they know about the big ones, from Columbine to Newtown to Chicago to Pittsburgh, and they know there are so many more stories that never make it to CNN.

The soundtrack for the story of childhood in America reverberates with gunfire and the sobs of stunned classmates and grieving parents. It’s the soundtrack of fear.

Fear is our newest neighbor, even in sunny “Leave it to Beaver Land.”

Social Media and the Shepherd

M. Pellinni & VLADGRIN/

M. Pellinni & VLADGRIN/

This year, some have given up Facebook for Lent. Others joined the “National Day of Unplugging” on March 7-8, putting away their phones, tablets, and laptops for a 24-hour digital Sabbath designed to slow people down in an increasingly hectic world.

According to the National Day of Unplugging website, people unplugged in order to dance, sleep, write, play, reflect, relax, reset, tune in, chill out, stay sane, and be more connected.

But wait a second — be more connected? That seems odd, since the promise of social media is that it will strengthen connections. Facebook links us instantly to hundreds of friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. Twitter enables us to follow people and collect followers of our own. LinkedIn links us to colleagues through an enormous professional network.

Social media seems to be all about connections. But its links have serious limitations.

Did Someone Say "Class Warfare"?

When President Barack Obama laid out his deficit plan Monday, he wasn't just trying to sell a policy. When he pressed for tax hikes on the rich and announced, "This is not class warfare," he was trying to exorcise a demon that has bedeviled the Democratic Party for decades and in the process deprive the Republicans of one of their trustiest weapons. The reaction from the right was swift and sure: "Class warfare!"

A Sermon on My Alcohol Addiction, the Tyranny of the Will, and Romans 7

Crossphoto © 2004 Phil Whitehouse | more info (via: Wylio)Even I can't help admitting that there is a bunch of stuff in the Bible that's hard to relate to. A lot has changed in the last 2,000 to 4,000 years, and I have no form of reference for shepherds and agrarian life, and I don't know what it's like to have a king or a Caesar, and I don't know a single fisherman, much less a centurion, and I guess I can't speak for all of you but personally I've never felt I might need to sacrifice a goat for my sins. That's the thing about our sacred text being so dang old -- it can sometimes be difficult to relate to. Things have changed a bit over the millennia.

But one thing has not changed even a little bit is the human condition. Parts of the Bible can feel hard to relate to until you get to a thing like this reading from Romans 7, in which Paul says, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."

Finally. Something I can relate to. This I know about. I too do not understand my own actions. I too can't manage to consistently do what I know is right. Paul's simple description of the human condition is perhaps a most elegantly put definition of what we now call addiction.

It's no secret that I am a recovering alcoholic. By the grace of God I have been clean and sober for more than 19 years. But, boy, do I remember that feeling of powerlessness that comes from not being able to control your drinking. I'd wake up each morning and have a little talk with myself: "OK Nadia, get it together. Today is going to be different. You just need a little will power." Then, inevitably, later that day I'd say, "Well, just one drink would be OK," or, "I'll only drink wine and not vodka," or, "I'll drink a glass of water between drinks so that I won't get drunk." And sometimes it worked, but mostly it didn't. In the end, my will was just never "strong enough" Like Paul, I did the thing I hated. But that's addiction for you. It's ugly. Yet on some level I feel like we recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have it easy. I mean, our addictions are so obvious. The emotional, spiritual, and physical wreckage caused by alcoholism and drug addiction has a certain conspicuousness to it.