Monday, October 17, 2016
Disciplining Church Discipline
Last week, here in Dallas, a fellow named Jason Thomas posted on Facebook that his membership at a local church had been suspended because he is gay.
And, to fully exploit the politically-charged nature of this private situation, our largest newspaper here re-posted his story on its website, entitled "Watermark Church Dismissed Me for Being Gay", provoking just the type of furious feedback editors at the Dallas Morning News expected.
After all, Thomas' post was not news; Watermark had ended his church membership a year ago. Nevertheless, it sounds so salacious!
Yesterday, Todd Wagner, senior pastor at Watermark Community Church, was given space on the News' website to post his official response to Thomas' claims, which has further provided the News with lots more visitor click-throughs, as readers on both sides of the issue debate it online.
Meaning, predictably, that the only winner here so far has been... the Dallas Morning News.
Watermark is a multi-thousand-member non-denominational megachurch occupying a bold campus located on a prominent stretch of one of the busiest freeways in all of Texas. It's what's called a contemporary church, after the casual nature of its corporate worship services. It's also called a seeker-sensitive church, after its strategy of making its "optics" extraordinarily palpable to people looking for a non-churchy religious experience. Very hip, very trendy, very post-modern.
Except when it comes to theology and doctrine. I'm told Watermark's theology and doctrine are about as conservative as you'll find in north Dallas, the city's wealthiest and most politically conservative area.
According to both Thomas' admission, and the letter from Watermark he posted to Facebook, his struggle with same-sex attraction had been ongoing throughout his church membership. Apparently, a sort of impasse had been finalized when Watermark's leadership felt they could no longer detect a genuine desire from Thomas to diligently abandon his same-sex attraction, which the Bible calls sinful. So church officials felt justified in de-membershipping Thomas from their rolls.
It's part of a dicey process called "church discipline", and like Pastor Wagner admitted, it's a frequently misunderstood part of church membership, partly because it's so rarely deployed. At least, publicly.
Through my many years of church attendance, I've heard of several cases where church discipline was quietly, privately enacted upon church members for a variety of sins, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or adultery. Most of those cases were resolved amicably, with the church member in question being able to move through the process of repentance and restoration, and back into the church community.
However, a couple of times, church discipline has exploded into full public view, such as the time a prominent doctor, who was also a church leader, began a sexual relationship with our church organist (yeah, back when it wasn't odd for churches to have organists). When the illicit couple refused counseling and returning to their respective distraught spouses, our church's leadership announced to the congregation one Sunday morning that both members - the doctor and the organist - had been "dis-fellowshipped" from our church.
Another time, at a different church, our senior pastor announced from the pulpit one Sunday morning that a prominent church leader had been removed from his position and told to stay away from the church until he repented for his unabashed racism.
Now, of course, to our watching world, in which political correctness carries considerable clout, a lot of non-believers would heartily agree with banishing a bigot from a church's membership roll. But homosexuality?
A big part of this problem, at least in terms of the public's perception of cases like Watermark's, is our evangelical community's reliance on words like "repentance". "Discipline" is itself a hard word for many modern Americans to swallow, since being held accountable for one's actions seems like a hopelessly archaic notion, even without the religious connotations. But repenting of one's behavior? Doesn't it sound so dehumanizing?
According to Merriam-Webster, repentance is "regret for sin or wrongdoing" with "the implication of a resolve to change". In other words, we don't just feel sorry for getting caught, or for offending somebody. Repentance involves our acknowledgement that what we did was wrong. And it involves our willingness and, indeed, our desire to correct that wrong with a God-honoring pattern of behavior.
Repentance used to be a fairly common concept, at least when social values were more widely shared, and authority was more respected (and respectable) than today. Now, there's a notion that shame, upon which repentance heavily relies, is harmful to the psyche, so we try to avoid it. Unless, of course, the action or mentality to be shamed fits within the sphere of liberal political correctness. Such as PETA, for example, trying to shame women for wearing fur coats.
And, ironically, shame is the tactic Thomas is deploying in his "outing" of Watermark as, ostensibly, an unloving church.
Yet while Watermark may be displaying a puzzling lack of sophistication when it comes to their public relations response to Thomas - at least considering how sophisticated they are in marketing their church - it's highly likely that people supporting Thomas in this issue still understand what Watermark is saying, even if there's something of a theology language barrier. They just don't want to believe it, and accept it as truth.
Lots of people don't like being told they're wrong. The doctor and the organist were furious at church leaders back then, and even in the organist's obituary, when she passed away at a relatively young age a couple of years ago, the family portrayed her eventual marriage to the doctor as right and good.
It's all about love, don't you know. And happiness. Right?
And it's a fair question to ask what sins a church considers worthy of excommunication, if the perpetrator of those sins doesn't repent. Would a habitual speeder, for example, have their membership withdrawn? What about somebody who refuses to stop lying on their taxes? Does it have to be a public sin before a church takes such an action? According to Watermark, Thomas is pursuing a romantic relationship with another man, and at some point, most romantic relationships become public.
Was Watermark's action a surprise to Thomas, or merely unpleasant? When people join a church, have they been given a list of sins that the church considers membership-ending, if they're not repented of? The Bible doesn't provide any such official list, instead lumping every sin as equally heinous in God's eyes with the exception of one: The unpardonable sin, which is denying the testimony of the Holy Spirit regarding Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
Was Thomas aware of Watermark's convictions regarding sexual purity? Is sexual purity advocated from Watermark's pulpit on a regular basis? And if Watermark believes homosexual relationships are sinful, why would he want to continue associating with that church as a member? After all, church membership isn't forced in the United States. One willfully joins a church, and can willfully leave if one's personal beliefs diverge from the church's doctrines. And if a church provides resources, such as classes, counseling, and mentorship to help a member subscribe to the tenets of that church's faith, why accuse the church of hostility when a member refuses to participate in such efforts?
Why insist on being a member of any organization if you don't believe what the organization believes, and you don't want to live in accordance with that organization's worldview? Does a person join a book club because they prefer movies to reading?
What is it about Watermark with which Thomas desires to remain associated? Its hip prestige within Dallas' religious social circles? Big churches in ultra-vain Dallas do tend to function as glorified country clubs.
Not that Watermark isn't doing the right thing by refusing membership to anybody willfully and deliberately participating in any sexual sin, not just homosexuality. Yet the more our society comes to view adultery as permissible, the easier it's going to be for jilted church members to react like Thomas when they run into old standards of ethics, morality, and holiness.
So, should the passage of time be blamed for our society's ambivalence to basic religious standards? Is the concept of repentance so dated that people who don't want to practice it should be immune from the consequences? Might our society eventually force churches to stop registering members, to prevent the unrepentant from suffering the indignities of having that membership revoked? Will churches need to begin employing a more rigorous set of standards by which members will be evaluated? Legalism trips up many people of faith, and most evangelical churches try not to create lists of do's-and-don't's for their members, because genuine Christian faith is a relationship with Christ, not a set pattern of behavior.
There are numerous churches in Dallas that would gladly welcome Thomas onto their membership rolls. The city recently received a perfect score on a gay lifestyle index, so there's plenty of accommodation for Thomas to find. What is it about Watermark's affirmation that he so clearly desires?
Is it having somebody else deny what they believe about the Bible so you don't have to deny what you believe about the Bible? I'm right, and you're wrong? Is that it?
Well, if the Bible is wrong about homosexuality, how can you know if it's right about anything else? And if the Bible is as open to interpretation as Thomas wants it to be, why be a member of a church that says it isn't?
Update Tuesday, October 18, 2016: The Dallas Morning News has posted another op-ed by Jason Thomas that details his experience at Watermark.