Practice of church discipline can be rewarding
KANSAS CITY—Vic Borden, who may be the only Missouri Baptist pastor to have written his doctoral thesis on church discipline, does not exactly embrace his area of expertise.
“Not only do I not have an affinity for it, I would just as soon run from it!” said the pastor of Red Bridge Baptist Church, who also is a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Board.
Church discipline is easy like soldiering in Iraq is easy, like pastoring in Nome, Alaska, is easy, and like golfing in the Sudan is easy. Truth be told, church discipline is the hardest thing in Borden’s ministry.
“The most difficult issue in church life is the walking through of a church discipline situation,” he said. “There’s almost always collateral damage. People take up offenses. Family members are embarrassed. Friends are traumatized. By its very nature, there’s a trust issue that is stretched sometimes to the max.”
And the one whose sin is being addressed often does not change.
“Most of the time it heads down the path of continued rebellion and being stiff-necked,” Borden said.
So why in the world would Borden practice it? As a Spirit-filled believer, in a church body that is practicing it right alongside him, he does it for the glory of God alone, as opposed to the emotions of man alone.
“It’s analogous to the parent who has a deep heart of compassion and care, sees the big picture, and has a long-range plan for his or her child,” Borden said. “You know it is unhealthy for the child to be unruly, so you set parameters and you deal with the situation when those are broken. A parental heart and a pastoral heart are very parallel.”
Church discipline is hard but rewarding (see related story, p.2). It is a demanding pathway to holiness that is seldom traveled inside the MBC. Red Bridge Baptist is one of the few churches that practice what was once known as the third mark of the church by the reformers, with the others being the right administration of the ordinances and the preaching of the Word.
Jim Elliff, pastor, Christ Fellowship, North Kansas City, notes that in the 1800s, failure to attend church was considered a disciplinary matter. Members of the church had no right to withhold their life, gifts and fellowship from the other believers. That standard now has been lowered to where the church of the 2000s sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other, according to R. Albert Mohler, president, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.
Borden, 50, has been at Red Bridge Baptist since 1986, serving first as associate pastor before taking over as senior pastor in 1993. In 2000 he completed his doctorate at Luther Rice Seminary, Lithonia, Ga., becoming the first student in the history of the seminary to focus his Ph.D. work on church discipline. The product of his scholarship is A Practical Workshop on Church Discipline, which generated “minimal” interest when it was first marketed in 1999.
“Now I think that has changed some,” he said. “In the last decade, with a greater understanding of the need for church health—and open, unrepentant, willful sin among the congregation, by its very nature, diminishes health—I think that has helped.”
Borden admits that he is blessed to be at a place that practiced church discipline long before he came on staff. He has 12 deacons acting as the disciplining agents in that “they are really the ones who do the hard work up to the point of excommunication.” The Red Bridge bylaws stipulate that the pastor is not to be the one to lead out in this area for the congregation of 384 members, with approximately 300 present in worship on any given Sunday.
“There needs to be an official policy, and we have it in our bylaws, where the deacons actually are the ones who officially launch church discipline,” Borden said. “That way the pastor is not polarized. He’s protected.”
Most of the methodology for church discipline is pretty well spelled out in Scripture, with one major exception.
“We are given in Scripture the ‘what’ of discipline (sins are addressed), we’re given the ‘why’ of discipline (to restore that person, and also so that others may fear), we’re given the ‘how’ of discipline (personal confrontation, in the presence of witnesses, confirming the report, telling the congregation), but we’re not given the ‘when,’” Borden said. “We’re not given timing on how soon after the initial confrontation does a committee, if you will, of two or three go and deal with the person. How soon after that is the congregation told? How much time do you allow? You feel your way through a little bit along the way, with a great measure of sober, grave prayer, discussion and consultation among leaders.”
When two high-profile members of the church are involved in immorality, as was the case at Red Bridge, the wheels of church discipline ought to begin turning.
“People became aware that something was going on, and for the sake of health, it was hit head-on,” Borden said. “People were confronted, the church was notified, and in this case, one repented and one didn’t. One was restored, and to this day, has a vital ministry some 15-20 years later, and the other was ex-communicated, because of stiff-necked rebellion.”
In another instance, Red Bridge heard about a husband who was cheating on his wife. The way to handle this biblically is for a group of two or three to verify the report so that the husband can be given an opportunity to repent. If he does repent, the case is closed, but if he does not repent, then two or three men must confront the sinning church member.
“We’ve had this happen in recent months with a long-time church member, a very high-profile person, who just decided he was done with his wife of 20 years,” Borden said. “Ultimately that came before the congregation and after a measure of time—gut-wrenching anguish and prayer and crying out to the Lord, calling this person to repent—the answer was, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do.’ And so, with tears, in a church business meeting, we removed his membership and (now) count him as an unbeliever. That is the way it works.”
Borden noted that the church ought to be the agent of restoration, not the pastor. The role of lay leadership is to be taken very seriously.
“I’ve been called on the carpet,” he said. “I’ve repented publicly about wrong attitudes and actions. This is not the pastor doing discipline. This is the church calling one another to account.”
Borden is at a point in his ministry where other pastors are reaching out to him for help. He said the landscape in Missouri Baptist life appears to be clouded with uncertainty in this area as pastors seek to improve the health of their congregations.
“They just simply are not sure that they know, and they don’t want to blow it,” Borden said. “It’s like when I bought a house recently. It looked structurally sound, but I had a good friend of mine who is a structural engineer come and really analyze the foundation, the joists, the attic and all of that because I didn’t know if I didn’t know. You try to get someone who has a wealth of experience compared to you to help you on something that’s of such a grave nature.
“When you’re talking about something that’s as large of a magnitude as the disposition of a person’s life in a family, and then how it will affect the whole church, you don’t want to make a mistake. I think it is uncertainty of knowing the path to follow.”
Borden offers a Sunday morning/Sunday evening workshop on church discipline “for congregations who feel like they need better instruction in the understanding of how to do it.” After generations of neglect, American churches must be taught how to do this. Most have no idea where to begin.
“You simply preach and teach and write on this subject,” Borden said. “You get material into the hands of your people that has to do with holiness, the mortification of sin in the life of the believer, and the value and the need for health in the church. So there’s a major effort to equip that needs to be made.
“In the midst of that, sin will present itself. You’ll catch wind of somebody who’s involved in this, and after awhile your people will start becoming doctors of healing themselves by confronting one another, approaching one another with what’s going on in their lives, and hopefully rooting it out.”
A comprehensive statement on church discipline is available at http://www.christfellowshipkc.org/believe_position_discipline.asp. Along with that, Borden emphasized the need for a church to take a stand in a systematic, clear way in its bylaws.
“That keeps someone from being capricious, and it also helps you with liability,” he said. “We’ve been threatened to be sued at least a couple of times on this issue, and in fact churches are sued, so if you have it in your bylaws on the front end that you do, as a church, believe in and practice church discipline, then that helps protect you.”
At Red Bridge Baptist Church, a south Kansas City flock located only 4¼ miles up the road from the Kansas State Line, church health is the norm, with church discipline clearly being the tool of choice in the hands of “doctors of healing” commonly known as church members.
“We are exemplary only because we do it,” Borden said. “That alone causes us to stand out a little bit.”