Church Discipline in the News
By now you’ve no doubt heard of the case of Rebecca Hancock, the Florida woman whose determination to live in a sexually-immoral relationship has caused her Jacksonville church to exercise church discipline in her case. For some reason that honestly escapes me, this has become national news; not only did Fox News do a story on the case, but John Kasich, sitting in for Bill O’Reilly the other night, chose to bring on some lawyerette to give her (amusing) take on the whole situation. Given that this touches on some things close to my heart, I thought I’d give my take.
First, it is surely the prerogative—no, that’s not a strong enough word; the absolute responsibility—of a church to apply loving discipline to a church member such as Ms. Hancock who has decided to live in this way. A church unwilling to undertake such discipline in such an obvious case as this really forfeits the right to call itself a faithful New Testament church. Grace Community Church seems to be exercising its Scriptural responsibilities in quite a Christlike manner; here’s the letter (which FoxNews ridiculously calls an “extortion letter”, to its shame). Here’s Michael McKinley’s take, and here’s Greg Gilbert’s; both of them are dead-on.
Second, I find it interesting that she’d be willing to be interviewed for a Fox News story, admitting to her own sin, and then talk about the humiliation it would be for the church to publicly expose her sin with her own children sitting there in the church (the church has given her ‘til the first Sunday in January to repent, or her sins will be “made public”). Honestly, is there anybody in the church now who doesn’t know what she’s doing? Ms. Hancock, for her part, is clueless (see her quote that begins with, “I am a Christian”).
Third, the only real hitch in the giddyup, potentially, is the fact that Ms. Hancock resigned her membership in the church upon her discovery that the church was determined to take the Bible seriously and call her to account for her sin. The lawyerette who appeared with Kasich said, with Kasich nodding approval, that the fact that Ms. Hancock had resigned her membership would be cause for a lawsuit were the church to follow through on its determination to complete the discipline process. Actually, this is probably not an uncommon response to the discipline process; I’d imagine that a decent percentage of folks determined to avoid repentance attempt this step.
This is why, as we were writing our church’s guiding documents, we addressed this possibility in what we refer to as our “Relational Commitments”. In the section which deals with church discipline, anticipating just such a circumstance, we say,
“We realize that our natural human response to correction often is to hide or run away from accountability (Gen. 3:8-10). To avoid falling into this age-old trap and to strengthen our church’s ability to rescue us if we are caught in sin, we understand that leaving the church, when an active case of corrective discipline against us has been initiated, will not preclude the church from seeing the case through to completion. Although we are free to stop attending the church at any time, we agree that a withdrawal while discipline is pending will not be given effect until the church has fulfilled its God-given responsibilities to encourage our repentance and restoration, and to bring the disciplinary process to an orderly conclusion, as described in these Commitments (Matt. 18:12-14; Gal. 6:1; Heb. 13:17).
If an individual leaves the church while discipline is in effect or is being considered, and our leaders learn that he or she is attending another church, they may inform that church of the situation and ask its leaders to encourage the individual to repent and be reconciled to the Lord and to any people he or she has offended. This action is intended both to help the individual find freedom from his sin and to warn the other church about the harm that he or she might do to their members (see Matt. 18:12-14; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 3 John 1:9-10).”
Every member of Red Oak renews his/her commitment to membership each year; a signed, yearly commitment to live by the dictates of the Relational Commitments is a part of our process. I hope that Grace Community Church has just such a clause in its constitution as well; this would seem to protect the church as it fulfills its God-given responsibility.
By the way, in the event any of my readers should have interest in getting a copy of Red Oak’s Relational Commitments, I’ll be happy to send you a copy via email. They are based upon the work of PeaceMakers Ministries. Every church should have such documents in place.