Evidently, there’s a new trend underway in some churches. But it’s one that seems, at best, to be a strange way to make church more appealing: to fill the pews by emptying them.
First, you have to imagine being arrested
On a quiet Sunday morning in June, as worshippers settled into the pews at Allen Baptist Church in southwestern Michigan, Pastor Jason Burrick grabbed his cellphone and dialed 911. When a dispatcher answered, the preacher said a former congregant was in the sanctuary. “And we need to, um, have her out A.S.A.P.”
Half an hour later, 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey, a church member for nearly 50 years who had taught Sunday school and regularly donated 10% of her pension, was led out by a state trooper and a county sheriff’s officer. One held her purse and Bible. The other put her in handcuffs.
The charge was trespassing. She’d been expelled by the minister of the church for questioning his authority, which he considered spreading “a spirit of cancer and discord.” Well, it sounds like cancer and discord is spreading, but not from the source this minister (and some others) think it is.
Her story reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.
The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
A few things come to mind. First, an old tradition that’s fallen out of practice may have fallen out of practice for a reason. That’s why I always say that tradition for the sake of tradition isn’t necessarily a good thing. After all, if you always do something just because you’ve always done it, that could indicate that you just haven’t gotten any smarter.
Time, after all, change. During times when people were less mobile, and their range of social options pretty much ended at the city limits, shunning probably did have the effect of discouraging behaviors that the majority disapproved of, or at least driving them underground. But now, the ability to find other likeminded people is to much greater, that people who are “shunned” might just decide they’re better off somewhere else.
Next, it’s likely that this practice is only going to reinforce some negative views of churchgoers.
A new survey of U.S. adults who don’t go to church, even on holidays, finds 72% say “God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists.” But just as many (72%) also say the church is “full of hypocrites.”
Indeed, 44% agree with the statement “Christians get on my nerves.”
The whole thing remind me of story I read over a year ago, about a Sunday School teacher who was fired for being a woman.
The First Baptist Church dismissed Mary Lambert on Aug. 9 with a letter explaining that the church had adopted an interpretation that prohibits women from teaching men. She had taught there for 54 years.
The letter quoted the first epistle to Timothy: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”
The Rev. Timothy LaBouf, who also serves on the Watertown City Council, issued a statement saying his stance against women teaching men in Sunday school would not affect his decisions as a city leader in Watertown, where all five members of the council are men but the city manager who runs the city’s day-to-day operations is a woman.
It reminded me of that story because so much of what’s described in the Wall Street Journal article sounds less like it has to do with “sin” than it does with power and authority—and in particular silencing or ostracizing those who question authority. After all, That’s what got 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey “shunned.”
…A devout Christian and grandmother of three, Mrs. Caskey moves with a halting gait, due to two artificial knees and a double hip replacement. Friends and family describe her as a generous woman who helped pay the electricity bill for Allen Baptist, in Allen, Mich., when funds were low, gave the church $1,200 after she sold her van, and even cut the church’s lawn on occasion. She has requested an engraved image of the church on her tombstone.
…The conflict had been brewing for months. Shortly after the church hired Mr. Burrick in 2005 to help revive the congregation, which had dwindled to 12 members, Mrs. Caskey asked him to appoint a board of deacons to help govern the church, a tradition outlined in the church’s charter. Mr. Burrick said the congregation was too small to warrant deacons. Mrs. Caskey pressed the issue at the church’s quarterly business meetings and began complaining that Mr. Burrick was not following the church’s bylaws. “She’s one of the nicest, kindest people I know,” says friend and neighbor Robert Johnston, 69, a retired cabinet maker. “But she won’t be pushed around.”
In April 2006, Mrs. Caskey received a stern letter from Mr. Burrick. “This church will not tolerate this spirit of cancer and discord that you would like to spread,” it said. Mrs. Caskey, along with Mr. and Mrs. Church, continued to insist that the pastor follow the church’s constitution. In August, she received a letter from Mr. Burrick that said her failure to repent had led to her removal. It also said he would not write her a transfer letter enabling her to join another church, a requirement in many Baptist congregations, until she had “made things right here at Allen Baptist.”
She went to Florida for the winter, and when she returned to Michigan last June, she drove the two miles to Allen Baptist as usual. A church member asked her to leave, saying she was not welcome, but Mrs. Caskey told him she had come to worship and asked if they could speak after the service. Twenty minutes into the service, a sheriff’s officer was at her side, and an hour later, she was in jail.
I suppose Mrs. Caskey forgot that bit about women remaining silent. She probably also forgot the less explicit point about absolute and unquestioning acceptance of authority, and about submission to authority being not second to submission to God, but the same as submission to God. Refusing to do so, then, is tantamount to refusing to submit to God or even questioning God. Caskey’s minister implies as much in his statements.
Mr. Burrick repeatedly declined to comment on Mrs. Caskey’s case, calling it a “private ecclesiastical matter.” He did say that while the church does not “blacklist” anyone, a strict reading of the Bible requires pastors to punish disobedient members. “A lot of times, flocks aren’t willing to submit or be obedient to God,” he said in an interview before a Sunday evening service. “If somebody is not willing to be helped, they forfeit their membership.”
It’s as old as the divine right of kings, that those in authority derive their authority—their right to rule—directly from God. Thus they aren’t accountable to anyone else or any other authority. Certainly not meddlesome old “church ladies” waving copies of bylaws, claiming that God’s anointed and appointed have to abide by a piece of paper bearing words that were probably written less than 100 years ago.
It seems downright primitive and out of place in today’s world. It seems downright incompatible with the cemocratic spirit that apparently even some churches embrace to some degree. But what can you expect when you take the words of a first or second century writer (since some scholars doubt that Paul actually wrote the first epistle to Timothy) and attempt to apply them to modern life in a literal sense?
For that matter, what can you expect in a country where the president—along with a significant number of Americans—believes God made him president, and that he answers to a higher authority, and not “just a piece of paper.”
It may be a sin to question authority—at least according to some people—and one that requires shunning of the “sinner.” But the idea that one derives authority from God can cloak a number of sins for a while. Including shunning accountability.