When news broke a little over a week ago that the Episcopal Church of the United States had been suspended from the Anglican Communion over its official affirmation of same-sex marriage, it signaled a huge step in a debate that has raged for more than a decade. The Anglican Primates (senior bishops of the 38 Anglican provinces) voted to censure the Episcopal Church for three years—denying its ability to represent Anglicans on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, restricting it from participating in Anglican committees and decision-making, and demoting it to “observer” status—with the hope that the Episcopal Church will repent and return to fellowship with the Communion.
While many conservative Anglicans called for broader sanctions or for the Episcopal Church to voluntarily withdraw from the Communion, the decision signifies a deep line in the sand over doctrine, and the Anglican Church should be applauded for reaffirming their commitment to Scripture’s teaching on marriage as between one man and one woman for life.
Certainly, as a Baptist, I disagree with Anglicans on a number of matters related to doctrine and polity. Additionally, I probably would have pushed for stronger discipline and a shorter timeframe than the senior bishops agreed upon. But, there are some principles that can be gleaned from the disciplinary actions of the Primates with respect to the practice of church discipline within a local body of believers.
In recent years, the practice of biblical church discipline has seen somewhat of a renaissance, especially among Baptists. After decades of avoiding the practice, many evangelical churches have seen the need for the grace-based, restoration-focused discipline outlined in Scripture (most specifically found in Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13) in order to re-establish regenerate church membership.
The following six principles seen in the Anglican Church’s suspension of the Episcopal Church follow the New Testament guidelines for church discipline:
1. Standing on doctrinal and moral principles. It would have been easy for the Primates to simply ignore the Episcopal Church’s theological drift “for the sake of unity.” Instead, they recognized the serious departure from Scripture and believed that there are truths worth separating over, no matter how difficult that break-up may be. Paul rebukes the church in 1 Corinthians 5 for tolerating open sin. Unrepentant sin must not be acquiesced to or swept under the rug. If there is serious doctrinal error or moral sin in the church, leaders and members must address the issue head on.
2. Loving call for repentance. Along with standing for truth, there is a sincere and loving call to repentance. The Anglican bishops are right to call for the Episcopal Church to renounce their position and return to the clear teaching of Scripture in order for fellowship to be restored. Similarly, when sin is exposed in a local church, brothers and sisters in Christ should lovingly call the offender to repent of the sin in order to have fellowship restored. Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 outline multiple levels of confrontation in order to provide multiple opportunities for repentance.
3. Desire for unity. As Paul instructs in Ephesians 4:3, we must be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” within the church. The Anglican bishops showed that a “unity at all costs” mindset is untenable. In fact, true unity is only strengthened through their actions. In their statement, they said, “Over the past week the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ.” So, too, when autonomous churches carefully walk through the biblical practice of church discipline, they must always keep unity in view. A haphazard, graceless approach to discipline could result in a valid excommunication from fellowship for the unrepentant, but it can also result in fractured unity within the church.
4. Clear timeframe and consequences. The Anglican Primates were specific in giving a three-year suspension as well as a clear explanation of what would happen if the Episcopal Church did not repent of its error—excommunication. In local churches, a clear timeframe must be given within which an individual or individuals must repent or else they will be removed from membership of the church. In some churches, this “watch care” period can last from 3-6 months up to a year, in which time members are asked to pray for the offender(s) and lovingly encourage them to repent. For example, the case could be presented to the church at a quarterly business meeting and a vote of restoration or excommunication—depending on whether repentance has taken place—occurs at the next quarterly meeting.
5. Action to suspend leadership. Just as the Episcopal Church has been restricted from representing Anglicans and participating in decision-making while this interim period plays out, so too should a church immediately remove someone from areas of leadership while the discipline process takes place. This protects the church and serves as a visible reminder of the relational distance between the church and the offender.
6. Goal of restoration. - As receivers of grace, our goal in church discipline should always be grace-fueled restoration. Regardless of how unimaginable it might be for the Episcopal Church to reverse its stand on same-sex marriage, I fully believe that if they repent, the Anglican Communion will graciously welcome them back into fellowship. Likewise, in the local church, discipline should always have forgiveness and restoration as its aim. It’s no surprise that Jesus follows up his instructions on discipline in Matthew 18 with a teaching on the extent of our forgiveness (77 times) and the parable of unforgiving servant. Forgiving and restoring a repentant brother or sister in Christ is a magnificent picture of the gospel.
As can be seen in the actions of the Anglican Primates and the clear teaching of Scripture, discipline is sometimes necessary, but the process should not be entered into lightly. Maintaining our unity in Christ, we must lovingly call for repentance and graciously restore those who repent. At the same time, we must lovingly discipline the unrepentant and break fellowship for their sake and the sake of the gospel.