A couple of weeks ago someone forwarded to me a post from Desiring God that hit me like a punch in the stomach.
In an article called “Kicked Out of Church: How God Brought Me Home” (link), author Scarlett Clay begins her story right after her church had excommunicated her, showing the indignation of her friends at such an injustice, and her own appreciation of their indignation.
But that’s only the first paragraph, and the reason for the excommunication hasn’t yet been divulged. (It’s clear, though, that she expresses contempt for herself about it, so that attitude, along with the title of the post, gives us a hint as to where this is going.)
Though her story unfolds in a somewhat non-chronological order, ultimately we see that
- Her child was diagnosed with a rare and deadly disease through which, over the course of several years, he suffered and died.
- During this time she stopped praying, for five years. She referred to this time as her rebellion.
- While her son was in hospice and dying, “not one single person from our church came to see our son . . . . Not even the pastor.” (Even as I type those words I feel my heart beating faster, and I feel sick to my stomach.)
- She separated from her husband and stopped going to church for a year and a half.
- She was excommunicated by her Reformed Baptist Church (for quitting church? for separating from her husband?). It’s important to note that in Reformed Baptist circles, excommunication is not simply a dropping of a name from the church roll, as it is in many churches. It’s a formal process by which a church member is publicly declared to be apart from God and no longer a part of that body. Church members may variously be told to confront them with their sin or to shun them. (The 9marks.org website is a go-to place for many in conservative Reformed evangelicalism on how church discipline is to proceed.)
- She told her friends she had been excommunicated, they responded with indignation, and she felt justified in her self-pity.
- Over the course of time she saw the hollowness of a culture that looked to itself for answers rather than to God and His Word.
- She began to admire and respect how the church that had excommunicated her had acted consistently with their convictions, remaining “steadfast to the biblical standard” (of what, she does not say), staying “faithful to God” by excommunicating her.
- She prayed her first prayer in five years, asking God to forgive her and receiving His forgiveness. She began to participate in a new church, was reconciled with her husband, and began to study apologetics.
As I read the article and approached the end, I began to fear that the author was going to return to the church that had excommunicated her (the lack of care of which the Desiring God representative I spoke with called “deplorable”), so it was a big relief to me when she didn’t.
But she did have more to say about them.
In excommunicating a grieving member who had quit attending regular meetings, the pastor and elders, she said, were “holy” and “did the right thing.” She called it “loving,” “faithful,” and a reflection of God’s holiness.
But as I read, I had a very different view of it. With only the information in the blog post available to me, I saw this harsh treatment as if someone who hung at the fringes of the body of Christ had been forcibly shoved into cold and darkness.
Then I thought about it in contrast to what could have been.
I don’t experientially know the grief of losing a child, but I’ve been told it’s some of the deepest, darkest grief there is. In my mind’s eye, what could have been in a case of a church member losing a child—even if that church member has dropped out of church, and especially if she has dropped out of church—would be for church members to take turns coming simply to sit with the grieving member in her grief, even if they don’t know what to say (sometimes words aren’t even wanted anyway).
Allowing her to express her anger at God without telling her she’s in rebellion against Him, but understanding that anger is a natural part of grief.
Being there for her when she wants to weep and when she wants to stay silent, when she wants to yell and when she ends up just ugly crying that gives her a splitting headache.
Being there for her when she says she doesn’t even want to darken the door of their church. Loving her through that, because she is still a child of God. She’s just in the black hole of grief.
How much more a representation of Jesus Christ, the God of the Universe, would that have been. . . .
So now I look at the final paragraph of her article. And in place of “church discipline” I substitute “care and compassion.” This is what could have been.
Looking back, [my church’s care and compassion] had reflected God’s holiness, and it was the beauty of his holiness [reflected in their care and compassion] that drew me back. True love, shown through unwavering faithfulness to his word, proved irresistible, gleaming like a bright jewel in the fog. I encourage church leaders to practice [care and compassion] in love. There will always be people like me who desperately need it.
Is God’s holiness really reflected in the excommunication of a grieving member who has not been visited? No, God’s holiness is reflected far more in His holy love, His holy compassion, and His holy mercy.
Why is this so important? Because in certain segments of conservative evangelicalism, church discipline seems to have gone berserk. Instead of being reserved for the serious and public sins such as that described in First Corinthians 5, it’s no longer uncommon for Christians to be excommunicated for failing to keep their “vow of attendance,” or even for “rebellion” against whatever the elders decide they ought to do (even turning a blind eye to the sins of those elders, or living with abuse).
This kind of high-handed demand of slavish obedience is never what God intended toward those whom He told to “shepherd the flock . . . not domineering . . . but being examples.”
I know of many accounts of wrongful church excommunications, some of them personally from people with whom I’ve spent hundreds of hours. But there are also scores of credible accounts available at various websites. The people I know will someday be ready to tell their stories, but until then, you can read about horrendous mishandlings of church discipline and excommunication in many places. For example, here and here and here and here and here and here and here. Or you could view a whole slew of examples here.
The stories bear an air of eerie similarity. The people without influence, often abuse victims, are excommunicated, while people with influence—even if they are abusers or abuse enablers—remain ensconced in the church or in a new church because they are friends with the pastor or they are wealthy donors or they did something else to ingratiate themselves with church leaders. The abused, on the other hand, or the people without influence, were punished, often for simply trying to get the elders to listen to truth and refusing to live any longer with lies.
This is what I was thinking about when I read this Desiring God article: church discipline gone haywire. Church discipline that punishes the very ones who need help and protects the very ones who should be disciplined.
I felt heartsick when I read that Desiring God article to see that a church responded to a grieving member who had quit attending their formal meetings by excommunicating her.
I felt heartsick that someone at Desiring God thought this message about the “holiness” of what appears to be heartless excommunication was an appropriate message to deliver to Christians.
I felt heartsick to see Christians sharing it on social media with other Christians, affirming that this was an example of church discipline well done.
What has happened to the conservative evangelical church?
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about his longing for change in America, he spoke not only to the people who were being oppressed. He spoke to all Americans. The entire society needed to change.
In like manner, many voices have been speaking within the conservative evangelical church realm, some for many years, not only to those who have been abused and treated harshly and unjustly by the church, but to the church at large.
When I say “our church culture must change,” I say it not only for the spiritual health of those who are oppressed, of whom there are many. But I say it for the spiritual health of those who have come to believe that what appears to be callous disregard and lack of care is a fitting substitute for compassion.
The conservative evangelical church of Jesus Christ is in desperate need of true compassion. Stand in the shoes of the one who has lost a child, the one who has been treated cruelly, to seek to understand what it’s like. Then run to help them, as our Lord has admonished us so many times.
Let us love one another, brothers, for love is of God, and whoever loves is born of God and knows God.
Almost 30 years ago John Piper wrote an article in which he quoted Romans 13:10, I Corinthians 13:13, Galatians 5:6, John 13:35, and I Corinthians 13:1-2 and said, “Love and compassion are the summation of all practical Christian living.” He was admonishing Christians to apply this truth in their interaction with those who don’t know Christ, but how much more important is it within the body! After all, in the book of Acts, people were drawn into the Kingdom of God when they observed the care and compassion Christians showed for each other.
“Behold, how they love one another.”
Is this how outsiders who learned of Scarlett Clay’s excommunication would see it? Clearly not, since she described their reaction at the beginning of her article. How many of them turned away from church more than ever because of what was done to her?
Desiring God, it is vital that you stand firmly for compassion, not only for people on the outside of the church, but for the desperate and needy within the very walls of the church. It is crucial to the life and health of the church that you decry a lack of care in the body of Christ that your representative called “deplorable.”
It is essential that you call out to churches to distinguish Biblical church discipline—such as in the case of egregious First Corinthians 5 type sins—from situations in which someone is grieving, desperate, and broken, the cases that call for practical help, for love and compassion, “the summation of all practical Christian living.”
Many of the most well-respected leaders of conservative evangelicalism have been turning their backs on the cries of the needy for years, and even exacerbating their pain. Will they continue in this?
And what will the rest of us do?
Note: In preparing this post I corresponded with the author of the Desiring God article, who told me that the pastor and associate pastor of the excommunicating church had both apologized for failing in ministry to her family. I also corresponded with a representative of Desiring God who told me the lack of care shown by this church was “deplorable.” I’m trying to find and correspond with the church that excommunicated Scarlett Clay, and if I’m able to learn pertinent information from that correspondence, I’ll update this article accordingly.
The rampant religious abuses in conservative evangelical churches, which are increased and exacerbated by threat and action of church discipline and excommunication, are addressed more fully on many websites. The double standard they invariably display is described in more detail here: “Four ways teaching Christians to embrace ‘I’m the worst sinner I know’ is harming the church.” Another pertinent article is “When Church Discipline is Sin” by Jason Harris, son of Joy Harris, a domestic abuse survivor, the first part of whose story is told here.