Thanks to an email from a friend, I just discovered that I am part of an ongoing controversy in ways that I knew nothing about. I’m tempted just to say “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be part of” — except I kind of asked for it, so I guess I can’t complain. Anyway:
First of all, as I say in my Twitter bio and on my home page and in a blog post I link to from that home page, I don’t read Twitter any more. I use it just for linking to things I’ve posted or read. So if you write something in response to me and post that on Twitter, or reply to me on Twitter, I will not see it. I just now read a bunch of replies because of the tweet by Andrew Wilson my friend pointed me to, but otherwise I would never have been aware of responses. And I’m not changing my practice in this matter. Twitter is the worst possible platform for having discussions about anything of substance, and I am trying to emancipate myself from it altogether, though my publishers don’t like the idea of my deleting my account. (Of course, I don’t expect everyone to read my Twitter bio etc. before replying to me, but it’s a good general rule not to assume that other people use Twitter the same way you do.)
Anyway, my post was not written in reaction to anything other than the things I had read when I first responded to Andrew Wilson last week. I’ve just continued to mull over the same questions.
Now: it appears that Andrew and several others believe that I am — or Helmut Thielicke is, or both of us are — denying the possibility of church discipline. I cannot even imagine what tortured chain of illogic might lead people to think that You shouldn’t say that other people who claim to be Christians aren’t Christians at all is equivalent to You may not practice church discipline. There is simply no line that leads from the one to the other. In Catholic practice, for instance, even the most severe form of discipline, excommunication, does not in itself lead to damnation: In the Purgatorio Dante dramatizes the extended period of waiting that those who have been excommunicated must undergo before beginning their purgation, but they will eventually begin it because they are saved. Of course, excommunicated people can indeed be damned, but that’s neither the result nor the intention of excommunication in any church that I know of. To think that you can determine someone’s salvation or damnation by their inclusion in or exclusion from a given church community would be the very highest level of hubris. But surely — surely — it goes without saying that churches must have order, conditions for membership, discipline for wrongdoing, etc.
So anyone who thinks that I have denied the validity of church discipline is simply not reading what I wrote. And even in the brief excerpts from Thielicke that I quote he says, “Of course we should ‘distinguish between spirits.’ Of course we must call what is godly godly and what is satanic satanic. The Lord Christ himself did this.” This is I suppose an inevitable consequence of living in interesting times: people react rather than read; they get spooked by potential implications rather than taking the time to attend to what is actually said. I would just, as politely as possible, ask everyone to read the lines that I’ve actually written rather than try to read between them.
Three more brief comments and then I have to get back to my day job.
- If you want me to read something you’ve written, you’re gonna have to send me an email, because otherwise I’m not going to see it (unless your site happens to be in my RSS feed, as Andrew Wilson’s is).
- I think it’s vital to look at the profound and necessary instruction in church discipline given throughout the NT epistles within the context of the straightforward teaching of the Lord Jesus. It would be unfortunate indeed if the two bodies of teaching were seen to be in conflict with each other, or if one were designated as ruling the other.
- Several people responding to me talk about what “we” do to discipline those who go astray or teach wrongly. What do you mean “we,” kemosabe? It’s worth noting that most of the people responding to me are pastors or teachers of the church, whereas I am neither: I am a person in the pew and no more (and within the Anglican tradition of church polity, which means that my role is confined to safeguarding the material, as opposed to the spiritual, health of the parish). Which is perhaps why they tend to speak from the position of power and want to justify the legitimate exercise of that power, while I tend instinctively to sympathize with those against whom the power is wielded. That doesn’t in any way mean that they’re wrong and I’m right; I note it only to suggest that that difference may help to explain and situate some of the disagreement.