Thursday, April 9, 2009

Carl Trueman on church discipline in the iPod age

This brings me to my final reflection. I applaud David's call for the reinstatement of church discipline as a central part of the church's testimony. As the Westminster Standards argue, discipline fulfils a manifold and vital purpose in the church: reclaiming sinners; deterring others; purging out the leaven; vindicating the honor of Christ and the holy profession of the gospel; and preventing the wrath of God (WCF 30.3). As such, it is clearly vital to healthy church life. The question for me, however, is this: what does this look like in an era of motor cars, multiple denominations, and a culture of radical individualism that is politically more alive and well in the middle class Republican ethos of conservative Protestant churches than in their equivalents in the inner city?

When Hester Prynne has the infamous scarlet letter in the novel of that title, discipline is an awesome and terrifying thing because she is trapped in a relatively tight-knit community with no anonymity and no way of escape. Discipline is enforceable because of the social conditions which apply. Today, any church that tries to discipline someone has to face the fact that, unless that person is immediately moved to repent, the likelihood is that, next Sunday, he will simply jump in his car and keep driving until he finds a church that will accept him. Then, during the week, nobody will care because we live in a world where there is significant privacy and anonymity. None of this is to say that I regard motor cars or privacy as wrong; it is simply that we need to realize these things have profound implications for the possibility of church discipline.

Further, once again confessional, traditional theology is, in and of itself, no answer. Indeed, my observation of conservative churches would lead me to believe that they can often be worse offenders. The "Here I stand!" principle of Luther at Worms is taken by many conservative Christians to mean that their conscience is sovereign and that there is no need to acknowledge the authority of the church in any practical way at all. Allied to the strong currents of individualism within American culture, this can make conservatives among some of the most egregious offenders when it comes to church discipline, accountability to the church, etc. The problem of discipline is not something monopolized by the anonymous, casual mega-churches or by the eclectic and loosey-goosey theologians of the emergent churches. It is a function of modern society, with its cheap gas, its anonymity, its multiple denominations, its radical individualism, and its consumerist aesthetic; and the confessional Protestant world is just as capable of being a part of the problem as anything else. Indeed, it might be worse. There is nobody less likely to meet with the elders, in my experience, than the hardline confessionalist whose monopolistic possession of the truth, combined with an oh-so-sensitive conscience and a Luther complex, places him above the reach of ordinary church courts.

Carl Trueman, Courageous Protestantism? Some Reflections on David Wells's Analysis of the Contemporary Church: A Review Article


Wesley Holden said...

Great post. "The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church." R. Albert Mohler (The Recovery of the Third Mark)

Stephen Ley said...

Wes, thanks for pointing me to Mohler's terrific article. Here's the link in case anyone is interested: