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.

10 responses »

  1. Don says:

    While I’m in complete agreement with the absolute responsibility of a church to apply loving discipline to an openly sinning member, I have to say that I can’t agree with a guiding document of a church whose leadership would pursue that member even after they’ve left. And I see nothing in the passages referenced by your church constitution that even comes close to supporting or explaining such a practice. I would not at all be comfortable with this procedure.

  2. Derlin says:

    I suppose that the story is in the news because it is rare. I can’t recall any church I have ever attended as having followed through with church discipline to this level. Fortunately I’ve found that two individuals reconciling is common. I have no idea why she is concerned about her children finding out either. It’s not like they are very young; they are young adults now.

    I wonder when is appropriate for sin shared in confidence should rightly be presented to church leadership. In this case, it seems like the woman was not informed that others would be brought into the situation, and I have a problem with that lack of disclosure. The Matthew 18 passage talks about when a trespass has been made against me. If two people in the church are engaging in extramarital sex, I consider that sin, but does it qualify as sin against me? I can certainly call sin sin and hope the person repents, but does the passage apply here? If I am in church leadership, does that make it qualify as a sin against the church?

    I believe it is the church responsibility to not reset the process until a resolution is found, so that if a person leaves for a time and attempts to rejoin fellowship without repentance the process resumes where left off. I would also support the church elevating the situation to “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” level when the person leaves, since that person is essentially doing that to the church.

    But, when a person leaves one church and finds another to avoid discipline, if the first church “warns” the second, it seems to me that the first church is performing a judgment call that the second church believes the same things it does. If the move is outside the church’s convention, then this judgment call may be erroneous.

    I think it is also especially important for any church which pursues church discipline to be consistent in all sins, and not silently tolerate some while punishing others. At the same time, sins involving other people are likely the easiest to discover.

  3. Byron says:

    To Derlin in this comment, and Don in the next:

    A church should have clearly-written guidelines that dictate which types of sins warrant discipline, and under what circumstances. At Red Oak, we’ve put those things down in writing, and I address them in our membership class. And so when you talk about “sin addressed in confidence”, any church member ought to know what the “ground rules” are. I’m not sure you’re right to jump to the conclusion that she was ignorant, frankly, though she may have been, but her word isn’t worth much IMHO, given her clear misunderstandings of the nature of Christian commitment and church membership (read her own comments).

    Further, a sin involving two people living together is a sin against God and against the corporate testimony of the church (which is how it’s a “sin against me”).

    As to warning another church, I understand your concern, but it seems clear to me that the first church has the responsibility to make the second church aware of the situation, but that’s where the first church’s responsibility ends. I can’t, as a pastor, answer for what another church might choose to do with that information, but my responsibility, I believe, is to ask, “were I the pastor of that church, would I want to know that a person was attending my church while under discipline from another?” Looked at that way, it’s an easy call. Now…some pastors might not care, but that’s on the other pastor, frankly.

    Finally, “consistency” ought to mean, not treating adultery and envy as equal sins, say, but rather consistently being willing to take a disciplinary stance against all sins that clearly harm the corporate testimony of the church and of Christ. if a person admits to struggling against teh sin of envy, he should be counseled, prayed for; those are forms of “church discipline”, if you think about it, and appropriate to the situation. A person living in a relationship such as Ms. Hancock is, blatantly and unrepentantly, must be dealt with in a different, and more severe, manner. Further, the issue is really repentance; no sin that is repented of ought to end in “excommunication”, and Ms. Hancock’s would not were she willing to repent and bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance (thereby showing herself to be a child of God, something she is certainly not doing currently).

  4. Byron says:

    Now to Don:

    I don’t even see it as a hard call, amigo; here’s why. First, let’s define the options: we believe that the responsibility of a church to its members, in this case, carries on beyond formal membership; it would seem that the other option is that a church sense no responsibility for a sinning member other than praying for that individual. Which is more consistent with Scripture, and its teaching on church discipline? It seems clear to me that the former is the case.

    First, the concept of “church membership”, as we practice it today, is “extra-biblical”, a point I make at the beginning of our membership class. It’s not unbiblical, of course; it’s consistent both with the teaching of Scripture on the body of Christ, and with our modern-day situation. In the early church, if you lived in Ephesus, you were a member of “the church at Ephesus”; as I remind people at Red Oak, nearly every one drives past at least one other church building to get to ours. Formal membership is, in our day and age, a necessity if we are to be faithful to the clear commands of Scripture, but it is not spelled out clearly in Scripture as such, nor are the “rules” for membership spelled out. Professing faith in Christ ought to be, of course, a minimum, but no church worth a dime stops there in its membership requirements (I’ll illustrate: suppose a person professes faith in Christ and applies for membership, but says, in a membership interview–which itself is extra-biblical, but a necessity, IHMO–that he disagrees with the direction the church is going, doesn’t support the pastor or elder leadership, and intends to be an activist to change the entire emphasis of the church. You take him into membership? Not if you have any sense.).

    The point is that formal church membership is extra-biblical–and yet you’ve made it, Don, a key point in your argument, suggesting that once Ms. Hancock has resigned her membership, there’s no case for further formal involvement by the church. I say that formal membership such as we have it today, being extra-biblical, isn’t a significant criterion.

    And it’s a particularly puny reason for a church not to act in a disciplinary way against such an individual when I can marshal two clear Biblical reasons for continuing a case of discipline even in the case of resignation from membership. The first reason is that the primary purpose of church discipline (other than the glory of God, of course) is restoration. Question: why would a church not be concerned to restore an individual simply because that person has resigned his membership? Again remember: this person understands and agrees to this as a condition of membership in the first place. But if a church is concerned about the spiritual life of a person, why would that church wash its hands (except for prayer) of that person’s wellbeing simply because he/she would decide to take the easy way out in a clear attempt to avoid accountability (which is exactly what Ms. Hancock did)?

    The second reason why a church ought to continue a discipline case “beyond membership” is the note of warning that doing so sends to the rest of the membership regarding the lives that the other members lead. This is surely another reason for church discipline, that other members might be sobered to their responsibility to live holy lives. This is particularly critical in a large church, where the element of “anonymity” is bigger, where a given church member might not hear about such a situation. If a person can simply resign her membership, and there are no remaining consequences, then that church member who doesn’t know her is not reminded, as public discipline would remind him, of his responsibility to live holy. I think that this is a big issue as well, and another reason a church ought not to allow its members to take the easy way out, but to face up to the full consequences of his actions.

  5. Don says:

    Then I have a question for you? Have you and the leadership at Red Oak consulted with an attorney when crafting your church’s guiding documents? If not, I strongly recommend that you do. This practice of pursuing a congregant to discipline them after they have left your fellowship strikes me as borderline harassment. If you’re not careful it could become a potentially sticky situation legally.

    From a biblical perspective my objections have little to with the “extra-biblical” practice of formal church membership and more to do with the issue of fellowship. The basis for discipline of any kind is fellowship, a point that you and I have debated in the past. I have every right to discipline my own children, but no right whatsoever when it comes to my next door neighbor’s kids, unless they expressly place them in my care. Likewise when believers unite themselves with a local church body they are submitting themselves to its leadership and ultimately its discipline. Once a believer separates himself from the fellowship of that body they are no longer subjecting themselves to its leadership nor its discipline. Now the church leadership can bellow and blow all it wants, but ultimately it has no biblical authority to discipline anyone outside its fellowship.

  6. Byron says:

    The answer to your first question is no; we have not consulted an attorney. The reason that I’m not worried about it is that everyone who joins does so knowing that this is a part of our relational commitments, that resigning membership in the midst of a church discipline case does not preclude following through. If you knowingly “sign up” under that scenario, no court is going to rightfully let you off that hook–and we do make it abundantly clear that that is the case.

    As to your second question, the first thing I’d say is that referring to church leadership “bellow(ing) and blow(ing)” is a pretty crude way of describing a loving attempt to call a person to accountability. Maybe you’ve been around bellowers and blowers in leadership, but I’ve dealt with discipline cases, and those words don’t belong in the discussion from my experience. Submitting to the church’s leadership, as you say, entails submitting to the church’s discipline, and in our case, that submission includes following through with discipline. I believe that’s quite biblical; you may not.

    Finally, you really didn’t answer either of my two reasons for following through, the spiritual wellbeing of the individual and the warning that it sends to the church body. Remembering that discipline is all about restoration, and not about church leadership bellowing, how do you answer those concerns?

  7. Don says:

    As usual, Byron, you have zeroed in on a single superficial phrase and chosen to argue against that rather than address the main point. My main point is fellowship. I do agree in concept to loving discipline that addresses “the spiritual wellbeing of the individual and the warning that it sends to the church body.” And I agree with discipline that is all about restoration. No problems here. Where we differ is on its implementation. My issue is that discipline, particularly if it’s loving, must be by definition within the parameters of fellowship. Without that fellowship the church has no basis for discipline. Discipline without fellowship is neither loving nor productive.

    On a personal note, I would strongly recommend you seek out a good attorney that specializes in church by-laws. While I’m sure you believe you’ve covered all your bases, trust me when I tell you that there are legal ramifications that you may not have considered. Having recently gone through the process with our own church, I can tell you from experience it’s money well spent.

  8. Byron says:

    Well, if I zeroed in on it, it was because the phrase painted a picture that was well beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, so much so that the reader might get the impression that church discipline was ABOUT church leadership throwing its weight around.

    We’ll agree to disagree, I suppose, on whether it’s loving or not to allow a person to escape the accountability of church discipline by removing himself from the formal membership of the church; I hear your words about “fellowship”, but don’t find them helpful in this situation, because a person who has committed a public sin and been unrepentant–but refused to resign his membership, as happened in a previous church–has already “broken fellowship” by his sin, irrespective of formal membership. Such sin of itself breaks fellowship, and necessitates attempts at restoring fellowship, first between the individual and God, and then between the individual and the body of Christ. That’s the essence of discipline: restoration of fellowship between an erring brother and God, and between an erring brother and the body.

    I do not consider it loving for a church to allow such a person to escape accountability by resigning membership, and I would consider it productive to continue the discipline, even if the person never repented, if only because of the “warning” effect.

  9. Don says:

    Yes, of course unrepentant sin breaks relational fellowship and you are quite right that it necessitates attempts at restoration. But I’m speaking of the fellowship of identification, being fellow partakers or partners in the same body. Is there a biblical mandate for local church discipline of those who have chosen to live outside the church’s umbrella of authority? There are no examples of this practice ever occurring in scripture. Clearly there is no biblical precedent. The difficulty lies in the fact that there cannot be authority without submission. Authority is rendered null without someone who is willing to submit to it. So while I applaud your desire to hold a sinning brother accountable, I fear there is a danger in the church overreaching its rightful bounds.

    • Byron says:

      I think that your last post hits at the difference between us on this issue. I would maintain that, as we have constructed church membership, a person remains under the church’s authority until the church has finished the course of discipline, because in our system, membership entails such submission–we spell it out clearly as an element of membership itself. I’m not terribly worried about “biblical precedent”, because I think that the gist of a church’s responsibility outlined in Scripture ought to entail this, and we know that Scripture gives us basic principles for guiding our church life, but there’s no way Scripture could contain every variable of the way people behave. IMHO, to follow through as we would is simply an attempt to be faithful, but I recognize that not everyone will agree.

      At any rate, it’s a good discussion, and regardless of who is correct on this particular issue, we can agree that most churches fail miserably in this critical area, and is one of the causes, I believe, of the anemia of the American church.

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