To this very day, the phrase, ‘church discipline’ summons painful memories and stifling shame for me. I can’t even imagine what it must evoke in those who actually endured it.
The last six months that my family were members of the Baptist Taliban there was an acute awareness that The Preacher would act on his threat of ‘discipline’ at the slightest provocation. The tension was constant and unrelenting. It is nearly impossible to tip-toe on a tightrope so long without tripping or falling sooner or later. Better sooner. Spend enough time doing that and even the prospects of a humiliating punishment sounds more tolerable.
In March of 2000 on a Friday night, it happened. The Preacher was told by his oldest son that several teens and young adults had danced at the bridal shower held in the home of a family who did not attend the church. He told his dad that he, his girlfriend, her two sisters (one of which was the bride to be) and the groom to be, left early because it ‘bothered them so much’. Surely, their 10:30 pm curfew had nothing to do with it. Of course, his son failed to mention that he and his girlfriend had been crossing the line just a little bit themselves on his father’s rigid no-touch rule as was revealed later. Nevertheless, the Preacher was informed and as usual, he over-reacted.
At first The Preacher threatened church discipline but quickly backed down from that since there is no explicit Biblical mandate prohibiting dancing and he is nothing if he isn’t ‘exact’ in regards to his interpretation of the Bible. Instead, he strongly implied the ‘offenders’ should apologize before the whole church. On the following Sunday night, immediately following the preaching service, the solemn, perplexed ‘move-busters’ dutifully cooperated, one by one standing of their own accord and in no particular order and made their sincere apologies before the church.
Once that was over, The Preacher informed this ‘dance troupe’ before the church that they would be relieved of any leadership positions they held which included teaching Sunday school, Children’s church, working on bus routes, participating in special music and so on. At some point he also imposed the ‘no talk’ rule over every aspect of the ‘dancing scandal’.
But a funny thing happened on the morning after. For reasons that I strongly suspect had to do with restoring his previously unblemished son to his pinnacle of purity, The Preacher began his own, private investigation of certain ‘details’ and conducted his own private inquisition of each of the fallen. He claimed it was just to verify all the facts. Word spread quickly and the forbidden talk erupted as a result. There was much concern among those involved as to why he was doing this, since all was supposed to have been forgiven after the apologies.
This was actually only one of several ‘scandalous’ activities that had been taking place (only the second of the two he knew about at this point) and it was connected to a previous, more serious incident involving two other of The Preacher’s sons. There were some much younger kids who snuck out of their homes, met (one was not even old enough to drive, but drove the family car to meet up with the others) and drove themselves to a New Year’s Eve party. In fact, this wasn’t the first time this group snuck out and played while they were supposed to be in bed. There was some drinking and rock music (considered an evil in and of itself) at this party.
After a couple of weeks of interrogating the suspects as they passionately pled their innocence, one, then two and finally a third--13 to 14 year old boys who also were assisted in sneaking out of The Preacher’s house where they were all spending the night and went to the same party, came forward and confessed. But not only did they reveal their presence, but of the other, older three who were vowing never to confess.
Busted and broken, the partiers finally surrendered and were dealt with swiftly and severely by their own parents. However, since those kids had made it public knowledge to the rest of the youth group by claiming it was a ‘rumor’ The Preacher said his son would have to apologize before the youth group. It never happened.
By the time the second group of offenders committed their ‘dastardly deeds’, The Preacher was fresh out of patience and ready to ‘lop off heads’. The whole story is long and sordid, but in the short, he decided in a week’s time that he would ‘discipline’ them by having them shunned for different periods of time depending on the severity of their respective crimes.
There were some young adults of the dancing group who came forward and revealed to my husband (the youth director) all that was going on. They reasoned that if The Preacher was going to ‘discipline’ only them, he might as well know it all. After discussing this with Paul and because of his urging, they arranged to meet with The Preacher on the night of the apology just before the service and before he began his private inquisition.
They were there to tell him of forbidden actions that some of the younger ones had been engaging in that was a good deal more serious than ‘dancing’. While waiting in the front office just before going into the ‘inner sanctum’ of The Preacher’s office, one made a statement to relieve the obvious fear and anxiety of the others. In essence this statement was, “Don’t worry, guys, if he’s going to discipline us, he’ll have to discipline his son (the one who The Preacher had previously said would have to apologize for sneaking out and partying).
Either The Preacher came in and overheard this statement, or one of the five told him, I am not sure, but he found out, and it infuriated him--or, as he put it to the church later--”hurt him more than anything else”. This simple, honest statement of fact, he judged as the worst act of all. The one who made it he declared, “the worst offender of all”. In a strategic effort to further vilify the act, he labeled it “Making an accusation against an elder” from I Timothy 5:19 where it actually says, “Against and elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.” There actually were more than two or three witnesses, if you could even call what was said and “accusation”.
This is the act that provoked the week-long ‘witch hunt’ that ended with his administering “discipline”.
Immediately following the sermon on Sunday night, exactly one week after the apologies before the church, everyone who was not a member of the church was dismissed.
There were other members of the church who worked at the mission church in another town. They were summoned by him to attend the ‘discipline’ meeting also. Something about that just made it seem even more of a spectacle--kind of like recruiting more witnesses to a pinning ceremony of ‘scarlet letters’.
As The Preacher made his statements explaining the reason for the meeting and calling off the names of the guilty, the violations and the punishments, I can only describe what I felt at that time as utter despair, hopelessness and helpless to do anything about it. The Preacher’s efforts to create a climate of somberness akin to a capitol execution had certainly been effective for me. Two of my children were on the ‘chopping block‘ and the one he called “the worst”-- now proudly proclaiming--also mine!
My other child was there, incidentally, for a crime unrelated to the big dance. Her crime? Repeating to her own sibling something her boyfriend told her his parents said about that sibling! Spreading gossip, was the trumped-up charge! She was 17 years old, but expected to have the maturity and insight to resist telling the sibling of whom the statement was about, but instead to take it straight to us, her parents, or of course, The Preacher. The seasoned, middle-aged adults wouldn’t even have done that! Heck! The Preacher and his wife wouldn’t have either!! This had been a later revelation, but might as well throw it in with the rest, while he was at it. But she wasn’t the only one punished for that one...her boyfriend and his sister got theirs too.
So, here’s a brief summary of his punishments:
The one he labeled ‘the worst offender’ was forbidden to come to any church services or activities for three weeks as well as being shunned for that time and three additional weeks after being permitted to return to church. Also, this person (as well as the others) was ordered to listen to The Preacher’s sermons on tape and submit notes on them to him. He singled out this pronouncement for last. He also stated that the apologies made by this one were only ‘token apologies’ made as a result of ‘getting caught’. How he could know this without having observed this one at any time to see if the ‘fruits’ were evident. Even the fornication-seducing Jezebel spoken of in Revelation was given “space to repent”, Revelation 2: 20-21. Not that this one had anything to ‘repent’ of, except telling the ugly truth, that is...
The remaining offenders were given four weeks and two weeks of complete shunning both while at church and away, respectively according to the varied ‘degrees’ of offense and were also expected to submit sermon notes. Of course, they had already been relieved of all their responsibilities and leadership positions. But the last ‘twist of the knife’ came when I passed by the Children’s Church room a week or so later and discovered that his informant son and girlfriend were teaching in place of the ones being shunned. The Preacher later told us that “He was to be honored” for coming to him and telling about the dancing. I am confused about that. He had preached a sermon, maybe two weeks prior to the whole fiasco about very bad it was to tattle on someone else in the church while covering up your own sins. I am sure he’d come up with a perfectly justifiable and scriptural explanation.
At the end of all his pronouncements, he made a statement that turned out to be ironically.....prophetic. He said, “I did this on my own so that if I was wrong, God would judge me.” Sounds almost....heroic.
The rules for the shunning (always called ‘discipline’) by them were in writing and handed out the following Wednesday night to all members. It included the names of all under the ‘discipline‘ along with the length of their sentences adding to the humiliation.
The rules for their shunning included: no speaking or any other kind of communication with the offenders at church or anywhere else, no participation in any church sponsored activities except preaching services, congregational singing allowed, performing in special music before services not allowed, suspended from all responsibilities, no greetings or even eye contact or written messages via email, phone or conventional(spoken rule-not written down). Also included in the written handout were names of close family members that each offender was permitted to talk to (this he considered an act of ‘grace’). It specified instructions about sitting only next to parents (most were over 20 years of age), only allowed to get up to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, and once church was over-- go directly to their cars.
Note: these kids were not trouble-making repeat- offender ‘rebels’. They were the kids who had for several years prior been enthusiastically, passionately working in all the ministries of the church from singing and preaching all the way down to cleaning toilets. But during those same years were constantly subjected to tirades from the pulpit, excessive and ridiculous rules, limited opportunities, belittling, and condemning language both personally and collectively. They were understandably discouraged. Everybody was.....whether they realized it or not.
We eventually confronted him, but the damage was already done. That’s for another page....