Media in Panic!
Good grief. You'd think no church had ever had to discipline a member before.
Well, probably for many reporters and readers — and, possibly the woman in question — this might as well be true.
The story: last Monday, the News4Jax website reported that one Rebecca Hancock was complaining that the church she'd attended was in the process of disciplining her for an ongoing, unrepented sexual relationship with her boyfriend.
The church is Grace Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida. (Phil Johnson spoke there last September, and their site links to Pyromaniacs.) The elders of the church sent Hancock a letter appealing to her in Christian love to repent of her sin, and be restored to fellowship with God and the church. The letter lays out the Biblical teaching about sexuality and holiness, and about church discipline. It relates that she has been confronted in the past, and has rejected attempts by the elders to speak with her.
Accordingly, the elders inform Hancock that, unless she repents and deals with her sin as God calls her to do, the church will obey Jesus' command in Matthew 18:17, telling the church of her sin.
Hancock laments (to the reporter) that "my sins will be told to the church, publicly, with my children sitting in the church and my friends." To yet another reporter, Hancock said
"I am concerned about my children sitting in church with their mother being crucified by the church that they trust,” she said. “I am very concerned about how it would affect them."Hancock's children are 18 and 20 years old.
Unwilling to repent or speak to the elders of the church she had joined, Hancock left the church, and told it to stop trying to contact her. She felt that this would end the process; she was mistaken.
And now she's complaining to the media about the church's invasion of her privacy.
The Biblical backstory: anyone who has a standard New Testament has this passage:
15 "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (Matthew 18)This is the Gospel of Matthew. It's been around awhile. It isn't hard to get a copy. It isn't apocryphal; it is textually well-verified; it isn't in a special, secret, "insiders-only" edition of the Bible. To have a Bible is to have this passage, as well as other passages where church discipline is actually enjoined and/or done (i.e. Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5; 6; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14; etc.). It is rendered in perfectly clear English.
Further, to claim to be a Christian is (at bare minimum!) to believe that Christ is Lord, that His words are binding and authoritative. By definition as a Christian, you set yourself to study and learn and practice those words (John 8:31-32; cf. Matthew 28:18-20). You should already know this teaching, if you've been a Christian for any length of time. If you haven't, and someone shows it to you, your allegiance to Christ binds you to accept it.
In disciplining an unrepentant church member according to Jesus' words, a Christian church is doing just one thing: it is being a Christian church, as defined by Jesus.
Which, apparently, is a shocking event to Ms. Hancock — and the media.
The reporters and the experts: in spite of its (faux) reputation as a right-wing shill organization, the Fox News piece is actually the worse of the two I cite. The reporter speaks of "church orders," and of an "ultimatum" (twice) from the church elders. Hancock is spared such colorful language; her letter of resignation is described as sent "in hopes of solving the dispute" — not as an attempt to elude consequences for her refusal to practice the faith she professed.
Both reporters go to "experts." The Channel 4 article refers to unnamed "[p]astors with whom Channel 4 spoke," who said discipline is not abnormal, but that it is unusual to pursue a member after she's departed.
The FOX reporter speaks to Dr. Darrell Bock of Dallas Seminary. Bock has a reputation of being a conservative NT scholar, employed by a conservative seminary (Dallas), working in the worlds of academia and literature. What would Bock contribute to a real-life, tense situation involving an actual church, actually trying to practice the book Dr. Bock has made a career teaching about?
Professor Bock is reported as faulting Grace for insufficient private interaction. (NOTE: Bock makes this criticism publicly; how many private attempts he first made to interact with the Grace elders is not reported.) Bock also piles on the church for pursuing Hancock after she severed her relationship with the church.
(Bock comments on the story in this meta; readers can determine if his comments alter the impression created in the story.)
Also, note: the elders' letter is presented by FOX under the file-name Church_Extortion.pdf.
Reflections: I wonder... well, I wonder a lot of things. Evidently, I (though not a Trained Journalist) wonder more things than these two professional reporters. Here are just a few of the things I wonder:
- Ms. Hancock is so worried about how hearing of her sin in church will affect her (adult) children... that she goes to the media with it? So, instead of a small local congregation knowing about her sin, now (potentially) the whole world knows about her sin. That makes sense? Neither reporter thought to ask her about that?
- In fact, we're to believe that Ms. Hancock thinks it would have less of a negative impact on her children to have the whole world know (A) of her sin, and (B) of her unwillingness to take responsibility for it. That made sense to the reporters? No question-marks? None?
- Does Hancock say that church discipline was never mentioned in her membership class? Is that possible? Did the reporters try to contact other members?
- Has Hancock ever read Matthew 18? What does she think it means? To whom does she think it applies, if not to her?
- The reporters are so busy amassing condemnation of the church for pursuing her after she left — did anyone think to ask whether the church constitution and/or bylaws deal with such a situation? Many church-constitutions expressly deal with members under discipline who try to escape the process by resigning before completion. Does Grace's? Were the reporters unable to get a constitution or bylaws? Did Ms. Hancock not have a copy? Was no member willing to share a copy?
- And if the reporters did not wonder this, why did not Dr. Bock wonder it (— assuming the reporting is complete and accurate)? Bock has been training men to be pastors for years. Is he unaware of churches with explicit provisions about such attempts to dodge discipline? How is it that I, a relative nobody, can know about such provisions, while Dr. Bock (to be charitable) was unable to impress that possibility on the reporter? (Or did he try, and she refused to listen?)
- I think it would be interesting to ask Dr. Bock's students how they feel knowing that if they do something Biblically-defensible that the world doesn't like in a few years, Dr. Bock stands ready to join forces with (or, at least, be used by) the world in faulting and criticizing them, while they are under fire?
My other thought is personal. I have lived well within in the blast-zone of what happens when churches refuse to obey what Scripture says about discipline. I have seen the misery, chaos, confusion, conflict, and heartache that come from irresponsible pastors refusing to perform this miserably difficult, but absolutely necessary ministry for their sheep.
Conclusion: Ms. Hancock says, "I am a Christian, and that will never change. My relationship with Jesus has to do with me and Jesus, and he knows my heart."
No one disputes Jesus' knowledge of Ms. Hancock's heart — nor of anyone else's heart.
The issue in dispute: who knows Jesus' heart, apart from His self-revelation in Scripture? That self-revelation includes these directions regarding church discipline. Must that revelation necessarily have an actual impact on the lives of those professing faith in Him, and churches who profess to serve Him?
Grace Community Church evidently thinks so.
And so do I.