John Howard Yoder on the Church Discipline Process

Over the years at we have had our fair share of conflict at The Well. I cannot say that we have always handled this conflict perfectly. At the same time I would like to think that we are getting better at it. It is probably safe to say that when churches do conflict and confrontation they are not at their best.

In his book Body Politics, John Howard Yoder talks about community discipline. He details four important points as we do “community discipline.” (His points in bold, my thoughts are after them):

“The initiative is personal, not a clergy function. The one who is to address the offender is the person who knows about the offense, not the clergy person.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have someone come to me as the pastor and say “so and so offended me” or “so and so did this wrong” or “so and so sinned” then they followed that up with some kind of expectation that I would do something about it.  Now, I’m all for being part of the conversation, but it is not my responsibility as the pastor a church to manage all the relationships and all the sin in my church. It is these kind of expectations that burn pastors out because it is impossible to have this be the pastors job. We pastors need to get better at refusing to take responsibility for other peoples lives and teach them to take responsibility for their own. As my friend Bob Hyatt says, “We are not responsible for the people in our congregation, but we are responsible to them.”

“The intention is restorative, not punitive.”

Sure, we say this all the time. I am sure we mean it. But we don’t live it. We still want to punish the offending party. It’s our moral obligation after all! We think: “If we don’t punish them, how will they know they were wrong?” Trust me. They know. They don’t need to be punished, they need to be loved. If they don’t know, they need to be loved all the more. You punishing them isn’t going to convince them they are wrong. It will probably just make them cynical and bitter. This is classic law and grace stuff. The law does not restore. Grace does. Stop trying to punish people and restore them with an abundance of love and grace.

“There is no distinction between major offenses and minor ones: Any offense is forgivable, but none is trivial.”

This is hard. Classic church move: deal with the really big sin and let the small insignificant sin slide. Why do we do this? I think it relates to the next point. The big sin makes us look bad and the small sins generally don’t. So we let the small sins slide and deal with the big sins so we aren’t embarrassed. Oh and also, we need to help people take seriously the thought that any sin is forgivable. This is hard when the sin is big, but it’s still true.

The intention is not to protect the church’s reputation or to teach onlookers the seriousness of sin, but only to serve the offender’s own well-being by restoring her or him to the community.

Yoder has two important points here:

First, using people as an example of the seriousness of sin turns them into objects instead of people. Last time I checked, that’s not necessarily helpful in the restoration to community process. So, stop it.

Second, perhaps the biggest problems come about when leadership begins to try and manage the reputation of the church rather than the restoration of the individual. I get it, we don’t want to be embarrassed by the actions of a member so we do whatever they can to make sure we are not.  We usually do this by distancing ourselves from the person. We kick them out, remove them from community, or immediately remove them from leadership roles (I understand sometimes this is required but we have to admit that we often do it more to protect our image than it is to keep the community safe from something). It’s this image management stuff is the thing that hurts people the most. Just listen to the story of someone who has been hurt by the church, far too often it is from the church managing their image rather than caring for them as a person. When the reputation of our organization is more important than the health and wholeness of your members, you are walking into a scary place. Frankly, sometimes its the job of the leadership to take some shots so that a person has the opportunity to be restored. That’s part of leadership. If you do not like it, quit. (Btw, I am preaching to myself here and I can say all this because I’ve been the offender of this far too often. As DC Talk sang, Some People Gotta Learn the Hard Way – Yes, i just linked to a DC Talk song while quoting John Howard Yoder, I’m just trying to be culturally relevant, dog!)

One final note, if you are a church leader and you try and live out these simple four points, its going to make your life harder – in the short term. But, your community will be so much more of a place of grace than a place of law and punishment.

We’ve got to stop living in fear and allow ourselves to take the risk of being a people of grace.

  • http://twitter.com/lenflack Len Flack

    Church discipline is one of those topics that has been on my mind lately, so I found this post very helpful. I find you echoing much of what I’ve experienced in my own attempts at shepherding folks through sometimes-messy situations.

    As you mention, in any action the church takes, the goal is not to be punitive, yet there can be tension. Your quote is helpful: “The law does not restore. Grace does. Stop trying to punish people and restore them with an abundance of love and grace.”

  • http://revnormal.com/ Rev. Normal

    Man, we have just come through a brutal season of “church discipline.” The problem we discovered as that even with protecting reputation and making examples taken off the table, there can be huge barriers to having any kind of direct conversation with someone moving away from the church.