When Churches Force Forgiveness and Discipline

“Hello, Frank. What’s up?”

“I’m very sorry I hurt you. Will you forgive me?”

“Sure, but …”

“Ah-ah-ah … you know what the pastor always says: there are no ‘buts’ in forgiveness.”

“I’m still hurt, though.”

“Yes, well, you’ll just have to get over it now that I’ve asked your forgiveness.”

“Get over it? How am I supposed to ‘just get over it’?!”

“You need to let go and let God. That’s what I did.”

“I don’t think I can.”

***

“Yes, Pastor Smith, what’s up?”

“I’m very troubled to hear you refuse to forgive Frank.”

“I’m not refusing to forgive him. He hurt me real bad and I’m just not able to let it go yet since … .”

“You need to learn true forgiveness. He’s sincere in his sorrow to have caused you pain. Remember that Jesus forgave you even when you didn’t deserve it.”

“I know that. But …”

“Now, now, you know there are no ‘buts’ in forgiveness.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that recently.”

“Good, then all is forgiven?”

“Forgiven yes, but there’s still …”

“You’re being unreasonably willful and stiff-necked about this. I have other calls to make, but we’ll talk more about this soon.”

***

[Door opening]

“Hello?”

“Thanks for coming to the Elder Board meeting. We’re hoping to work out this little problem with you and Frank.”

“Me too.”

“Now tell us about not forgiving him.”

“He has my forgiveness …”

“Wonderful!”

“As I was saying, he has my forgiveness …”

“Don’t tell me you’re inserting the word ‘but’ in there. What have I told you about that?”

“I heard you. See the thing is that I need more than an apology.”

“There’s nothing more required in Scripture, though, and you don’t want to add to God’s word now, do you?”

“I’m not adding to God’s word. I’m just asking for help.”

“Yes, we all need God’s help.”

“I don’t want God’s help!”

[Collective gasp]

“That’s not what I meant.”

“You better explain what you did mean, then, before the Board takes action.”

“Action is just what I want. Frank hurt me bad and I need action.”

“What makes your hurt so special?”

“It happened at the church picnic.”

“We know.”

“Everyone in church saw it happen too.”

“Are you asking for a public apology? That’s sounds somewhat vindictive.”

“I don’t need him to apologize. I need him to pay …”

“Now you truly do sound vindictive. We’ll pray for you now.”

“No, please. Don’t pray for me!”

“I’ve never in all my years had a member of my congregation reject an offer of pastoral prayer.”

“I’ll take the prayer, but can you please just listen to my side of things for a minute?”

“You are being very demanding.”

“It was at the church picnic during the softball game. Frank got mad when I struck him out to end the game. He was his team’s best hope for sending the game into extra innings, but striking out lost them the game.”

“Yes, he appeared quite angry. But he calmed down by the time the picnic was over.”

“He didn’t calm down soon enough. He came running at me with his bat.”

“We know Frank doesn’t mean it. He just gets angry too easily. We all have faults, even you.”

“He hit me with the bat!”

“Yes, well …”

“And broke my leg! The doctor says I’ll be on these crutches for six weeks until the cast comes off, and then physical therapy for at least another six weeks.”

“What do you expect us to do about it?”

“Frank needs to pay …”

“Don’t start getting vindictive again.”

“I just want some help with my medical bills for crying out loud!”

“You need to adopt a more respectful tone. After all, we are the ones God has put in authority in this church.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to raise my voice.”

“We’ll have to consider the best way to respond to your apology. Now, we have much urgent business on the agenda so I’m afraid we can’t spend any more time on you tonight.”

***

[Sound of envelope tearing open and paper unfolding]

“Dear ____,

We regret to inform you that you are now under church discipline regarding your repeated refusal to forgive a repentant fellow member of the church. You are barred from partaking in communion and your voting privileges at church business meetings is suspended until further notice. You are also forbidden to speak to anyone about these matters except the Senior Pastor and the Chair of the Elder Board. Failure to submit to these conditions will result in further discipline. The Board has also voted not to allow you to resign your membership in this church while you are under discipline.

Prayerfully yours,
Your Pastors and Elders

***

Would anyone really begrudge a person some help with medical bills for breaking their leg? Unlikely. But people who are hurt are told they need to forgive the other person and move on. Well, you can’t move on from a broken leg at the drop of a hat. It takes time to heal and the medical bills need to be paid. There are other types of injuries that can’t be seen from the outside, but are just as real as a leg in a cast and take a lot longer to heal than a broken bone. The church needs to come alongside these people with real solutions to the real problems they are dealing with. Sadly, sometimes the person just ends up under discipline for trying to ask for the help they so desperately need.

***

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31 Responses to When Churches Force Forgiveness and Discipline

  1. Terri says:

    It’s the “The Board has also voted not to allow you to resign your membership in this church while you are under discipline” that gets me. What a power trip. They don’t control that, so they’re trying to just impose it by verbal fiat, by the naked declaration of unbiblical authority.

    Wounds don’t work that way.

    • Tim says:

      I’ve read more than one church disciplinary letter that purports to asset such authority. Sheesh.

      • That is why you need to read the fine print of any church covenant you may sign.

        • Terri says:

          Yeah, I have a major issue with church “covenants” if this is their purpose. And let’s be honest, even if I signed such a covenant, I still get to choose where I go to church and where I have membership. It really is my choice, covenant or no. This is a big overreach and one reason I don’t go to churches that have such “agreements.”

  2. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    This is good, Tim. In a way I’m thinking, “Come on, that would never happen” … but yes, it DOES reflect the way we so often think of forgiveness. It becomes this super-spiritualized checklist that the hurt person must fulfill so everything can be nice again and we can move on — rather than the hurt person being offered, as you say, help to find real solutions to real problems.

  3. I know I am now a local church pastor in the Chicago suburbs, but I was trained as a hospital chaplain (with two CPE units and one year-long half-time position of chaplain internship under my belt, as well as seven years on the floors of a busy urban hospital). This scenario violates SO many principles of pastoral care and chaplaincy that I cannot even express my shock and horror. It’s no wonder that so many people run away from the church screaming, and swear never to darken a church’s doors again. (Unless to attend a recovery meeting in a church basement, perhaps…)
    @chaplaineliza

    • Tim says:

      You’ve probably heard even more reports like this than I have. I wrote it in the context of a broken limb for hyperbole but it happens more often when the wounds are invisible.

    • Anu Riley says:

      Boy, I want to thank you for your kind words. All I want is to be a “normal, everyday” Christian who goes to church without issue and without fear. But I am on the verge of quitting for good, and I never, ever wanted to head down that road. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ, but I “hate” the church (as an institution and how they’ve lied. NOT the body of Christ, who are precious).

      If it could be understood that no real and sincere believer wants to have a hard, embittered heart towards anyone. I would not wish it on anyone, least of all myself. Putting more strain on us to forgive and pretend like nothing happened, however, is just adding to our already heavily burdened hearts!

  4. Nowhere does the Bible say to “forgive and forget”. How can a parent whose child was killed by a drunk driver forget? How can a woman who has been raped forget? Is she now required to go around her rapist and pretend nothing happened? So, what is forgiveness? It is not condoning the offensive act. If it were, God would never forgive us. It is letting God do the punishing if such is the case. It is wishing the offender well, wishing a better and changed life for the offender. It is letting go, handing the situation over to God, and trying to put the hurt in the back of the mind and trying to resume life as it had been before the best one can.

    • Tim says:

      Those are helpful distinctions. Thanks, Katheryn.

    • Anu Riley says:

      IMO, I don’t think there’s any such thing as putting the hurt in the back of the mind, trying to resume life as it had been before. This is just my own thought, based on my own personal experiences. Depending on the situation, you have to find a “new normal” that is probably distinct from the life you had before. Trying to go back to the way things were is usually not possible after suffering trauma or a very hurtful situation.

      I do slightly agree with putting the hurt in the back of the mind, because if it was constantly at the forefront, I’m not sure if anyone could get out of bed, much less try to live life! And in trying to live life, there are things around you that will immediately bring that pain to the forefront: a reminder, a memory trigger of some kind. You have to try to put it in a place where it doesn’t constantly dominate you, but you don’t completely ignore it, either.

      As for the offender—again, depending on the situation—is best to ask for the Lord’s perfect justice, because even the courts of man are flawed (no offense, Tim!). Many offenders are unrepentant and permanently hardened of heart, and aren’t interested in God’s forgiveness. In that case, don’t wish them a better and changed life. They will face God’s wrath in the end, and no amount of wishing them well will change that. I know that sounds harsh, but I’ve sadly seen it.

    • kertsen says:

      The reason we cannot forget is because we are not just rational beings but have a large emotional side to our natures. The often quoted passage is ‘ forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us ‘.

  5. Mike says:

    Great article Tim. When I have occasionally advised church on discipline situations, I remind them the courts do not want to get involved in the workings inside a church. But they will if two conditions are not met:
    1. All events must follow the bylaws of the church exactly. Even a small variance from the church’s bylaws on discipline will open up the church to lawsuit (see the writings of Richard Hammar on this one).
    2. All parties must be treated with respect and fairly. It is that last word which is coming up in court case after court case.

    I know you were being sardonic in this article, and I don’t want to be “that guy” that gets serious. But in this scenario, Frank could take them to court. I wish more people would so we could begin to root out destructive and heavy-handed leadership behaviors.

    • Tim says:

      Franks the one wielding the bat, but I get what you say. I almost included a line from the unnamed injured person about not wanting to resort to a lawsuit unless absolutely necessary.

  6. WMcRae says:

    “Will you forgive me?”
    “Have you repented, as seen in your actions of taking full responsibility for your attack, acknowledging the emotional, physical and spiritual impacts on your victim in full measure, grieved for that and made restitution to the full measure of the injuries you inflicted?”
    “What? Why?!”
    “Because repentance is required for forgiveness and reconciliation.”

    • Tim says:

      And happily it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance. It’s a blessing.

    • ADMcRae says:

      Well said! Forgiveness is expected, but an explanation of true repentance is seldom offered in personal contact situations like this story.

      On a personal note to a fellow McRae,
      “Sgurr uaran”

  7. This hits so close to home, it’s not funny!

    “Why can’t you just forgive and move on!?”

    “Umm… because there’s been bullying and abuse happening within the leadership of this church and those who have raised legitimate concerns have been removed from leadership and silenced. Because this church is not a safe place to be. Because people will just keep being damaged unless and until this is dealt with. Because that worries me.”

    “Oh, you’re just bitter and unforgiving. I can’t talk to you anymore until you can be more respectful.”

  8. Pastor Bob says:

    There a volumes that can be written about this! There is a way that seem right, but it not flexible. There was a church that had a similar mess, and when the church refused to accept the request, the member sued. The church did have insurance, and part of the settlement was a favorable letter of transfer.
    We as believers are not to use the courts, but as the believers leave the word further behind in our walk (increasing the hardness of heart, and laziness!) — Sadly we need the courts for some of this.

  9. Purple Kitti says:

    i used to go to a gathering at a local church that focussed on forgiveness, overcoming what was inflicted against you, and takng responsibility for your own actions if you had done anythibg to cause or continue the conflict and one of the things our lead lady for our group emphasized was that you do NOT give an instant forgiveness and that timing is important. When you are hurt you need to deal with that first, and if forgiveness will help you heal (and it should) do it, but dont rely on it to be the end of your problems or difficulties. She told us how she herself travelled out of state to forgive someone for something right after she got saved thinkng she absolutely should as a christian and it ended in disaster. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it.

  10. Just reflecting further on this whole subject. i realize much could be said about forgiveness. (And, quite a bit has already been said here ni the comments.) I have some experience with this. Being familiar with people in recovery from alcohol and addiction for some time, I recognize the incredible healing powers that are part and parcel of the 12 Steps.

    Alcoholics and addicts in recovery finally realize the hell they have put themselves through – also the hell they have put their loved ones (and surrounding others) through. For years. This insidious affliction often takes years to deal with, after hitting bottom. Recovery is a life-long process. All of which is to say, Steps 8 and 9 are further down the line in the 12 Steps. (I won’t go into them here, for space’s sake; read them, if not familiar with them.) The process of going through the 12 Steps, if taken seriously, can take many months. (Even years, in some cases.) Steps 8 and 9 are called “sponsor steps” and are highly recommended to be embarked upon with the advice and support of a recovery sponsor and/or recovery friends. These steps involve making “direct amends to persons we had harmed.” (Which is a very similar process to asking forgiveness, in a Christian context.)

    Tim, I believe any elder board/church authority that treats its church members in such a way as you describe in this fictional scenario could learn A LOT from many wise long-term recovery sponsors who have walked many sponsees through Steps 8 and 9. Just sayin’.
    @chaplaineliza, Elizabeth Jones, M.Div., CADC

  11. Kevin says:

    I have witnessed church discipline done well and I have witnessed it done poorly. One involved unrepentant adultery, one involved embezzlement and a third involved pastoral financial impropriety. In all three cases, there was no repentance but only remorse after the sin was discovered. In the first two cases, the un-repentant sinners were removed from their roles at the church and they chose to leave the church rather than participate in the reconciliation process. In the latter case, the pastoral staff and elders circled the wagons to protect the pastor’s image and the church’s image. Those who exposed the financial impropriety were told they must be silent and if they were not, they would be placed under church discipline. This same church has never exercised church discipline in the history of the church even in cases of blatant and open sin. Church discipline done correctly can restore the sinner (if they repent and want restoration), Church discipline can also be a manipulative weapon to control the flock and hide the sins of the church leaders.

  12. dapeha says:

    Wow! this made my blood boil! There are churches like this? If that was me, I’d be consulting a lawyer and that particular church and leadership be damned!

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