I have spent some time recently reflecting on the concept of whether a church should have a "vision" or "purpose" outside of itself. Parallel to that, I have been (once again) thinking about the many scandals in conservative churches, involving not only sexual wrongdoing but running over people and general ethical inadequacy. Today, these two lines of thought converged.
As Christians, we like to look at failure and call it sin, placing responsibility on the sinner and hope in Christ, as is consistent with the Gospel message. However, in doing so, we compartmentalize the failing, seperating the event from its sundry causes and influences. We are content to have judged the sinner without asking what influenced him to sin.
Ultimately, we are content with picking at the obvious flaw without throughly discipling the fallen Christian, and taking responsibility for our part. What did we as the church do or fail to do that fell short of the edification and encouragement needed to help that brother or sister remain close to the Lord?
So the plot is set for what I consider to be one of the main reasons sin is tolerated and covered up in the church today: churches who have committed to a corporate vision or purpose.
The refrain from pastors is all-to-common: "We can't engage in full church discipline because it would disrupt the work and/or split the church." So then members are never disciplined at all, except in potentially highly visible cases, in which everything is handled behind closed doors, and the offender is quietly asked to leave, if necessary.
I've always said that such pastors just don't trust the Lord. However, I see now an added dimension to the jettisoning of real church discipline: the ends justify the means.
If the end was the fellowship and purity of the local assembly, full church discipline would be no-brainer. As it stands in vision/purpose-oriented churches, the end is effectiveness of corporate ministry. An open admission of sin in the church presents challenges to corporate image and cohesion that pose unacceptable problems for the corporate purpose.
So such a church can, in the end, brush off the truth as gossip and hide behind the curtain of plausible deniability and/or parishioner confidentiality.
Whereas true church discipline might bring corporate purpose/vision to a halt, but it would purify the body.
I just received a comment on my blog last night containing several allegations against a church in Arkansas, whereby some people left the church after committing serious sin. The poster came back and deleted it, but the original comment remains in my email. I do not know if any of it is true. My point here is that it fits a pattern. I tried to find out some info on these allegations and the "official" story relates to "personal decisions" to move to another location. Like I said before, everything is hidden behind plausible deniability, but I have seen the same pattern before in other churches.
The church in question is a decent size church that, of course, is very program-oriented.
You may object that my conclusions are based on circumstantial evidence and personal conjection. I would reply that there is NO reason to avoid full church discipline unless you are trying to protect the organization. There is, on the other hand, EVERY reason to engage in full church discipline if your objective is the spiritual health of the body.
When you give the organization a corporate purpose it takes on a life of its own and becomes greater than any of its parts. Consequently, the parts only thrive within that organization to the extent that they advance the group objectives--become cogs in the machine. Those whose spiritual walk with the Lord are taking them in a different direction become isolated and leave. Those who live in sin are left to their sin unless their activities threaten organizational image/stability at which point the pastor passes judgement either to quietly demote from a leadership role or eject from membership. Nobody gets any real spiritual help.
This is the hard, evident, fall-through-the-cracks reality of a purpose-driven, vision-driven, and/or program-oriented church.
There is a softer yet even sadder reality that exists: outside of the machinery of corporate ministry there is no identity except that of a prospect. You become a bystander. You float in a sea of people. You punch in on Sunday morning to work in Sunday school class and punch in a few hours on Saturday to visit the members of that class. During these times you do experience a sort of fellowship and comaraderie in the ministry. Outside of that, though, you are on your own. The fellowship of the saints has become synonymous with the work of the ministry. You want more fellowship? Increase your involvement. You don't have friends? Get more involved.
Why does this happen? Usually the pastor gets discouraged by a lack of growth, or the static nature of his congregation. He may have been at the church for a while. He may be confusing a personal call to ministry with a call to get the church involved in a ministry. In America today, it is difficult to separate success from growth. Our entire capitalist system is built on expectations of continued growth. Much material on church administration assumes that growth=success.
There is also the concept that evangelism numbers matter (number saved, baptised, etc.) You wouldn't feel like you had to do more if you didn't think your numbers were too low. And yet we are told in Scripture that God gives the increase.
Pastors stop trusting God to lead their parishioners in individual ministry in their own sphere of influence, and decide that more could be done together. Here is the problem. You can't effectively disciple outside of a 1:1 relationship. To the extent that your group ministry fails in throughly discipling every single convert you are filling your congregation with tares and terminal babes in Christ after losing the shallow ground converts. The pulpit gets watered down as the pastor tries to group disciple. Lower Biblical understanding results in more wood, hay, stubble and less gold, silver, precious stones.
The local body becomes hollow as personal spiritual development takes a backseat to church growth.
I love how one blogger put it: your family has no purpose for its existance except to nurture those inside. The church family should likewise have no purpose except to nurture those inside. New members are added as God wills, through His Holy Spirit in the conduct and witness of individual believers.