Michael Ramsey, from The Anglican Spirit:

While holiness is both a fact and a potentiality, it is impossible to enforce the holiness of the church by rejecting people who do not conform to certain moral canons. That has been tried often in the history of the church, most notably by the early Puritans. When one says that the church is meant to be holy and therefore we will exclude those who are not holy, the inevitable happens. You can turn out the fornicators, the murderers, and those who apostasize in times of persecution; you can turn out sinners of every kind, but you cannot turn out the sin of pride. This sin, the most deadly of all, is always present but not always easily identifiable. So if you are going to purge the church of sinners, you will need to purge it of the sin of pride and turn everybody out. As Anglicans, we believe these attempts to purify the church by certain ethical criteria cause it to lose the reality of what it means to be dedicated to the holiness of God.

St. Paul, from his first letter to the church at Corinth:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons — not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

So Ramsey is simply wrong, isn’t he? For when he says “we believe these attempts to purify the church by certain ethical criteria cause it to lose the reality of what it means to be dedicated to the holiness of God,” he certainly seems to be flatly disagreeing with St. Paul. And surely this is not acceptable — even for Anglicans.

Whether we leave it at that will depend, I suspect, on whether we think Paul’s list of those who must be driven from among us (“sexually immoral or greedy … an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber”) is exhaustive or illustrative. If the former, then Ramsey is absolutely and totally wrong, full stop. For Paul does not say that we are to drive the prideful from among us — nor, for that matter, the violent, the habitually dishonest, and so on.

But if Paul’s list is illustrative, and his point is that ecclesial communities should shun what the old prayer book calls the “open and notorious evil liver,” then Ramsey is still wrong, I believe — but despite being wrong he calls us to reflect on something important: that is is very easy to be highly selective, and selective in a fundamentally unprincipled way, about which sinners we shun. For in an environment where declining church attendance makes pastors disinclined to shun anyone, the low-hanging fruit is to drive out from among you those (a) whose sins are really obvious and (b) who are already unpopular with your regular attenders, your most generous givers.

It’s easy enough to say that when pastors discipline big donors — which no doubt sends said donors headed straight for the door — their people will really respect them for it. Unfortunately that isn’t true. People will just think those pastors are stupid. And few pastors actually are that stupid.

I really feel for pastors in this situation. I don’t know what they can do that isn’t either disobedient, self-destructive, or inconsistent (inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst). The state of American Christianity today, with its inherent consumerism, means that any pastors who try to impose church discipline impartially will find themselves with an empty church or, more likely, find themselves out of a job. But, as Lyle Lovett once said in a rather different context, we have to try. What would we be if we didn’t try?

So the question is: What would a truly Christian, truly biblical, model of church discipline look like?