UPDATE: In light of comments that recently appeared on Pat Kyle’s blog, it appears there is more to Andrew’s story than meets the eye. Oh well. Good thing I gave the disclaimer that we were only getting one side of the story from the accounts of Andrew’s story that were in circulation when this first went up.
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: The church in question has released two leaders in the wake of the media attention brought on by Andrew’s story. According to their statement, the leaders had a pattern of overstepping their authority and were released because of matters unrelated to Andrew’s story.
Today we are going to hear Andrew’s story.
Andrew’s story has been all over the Christian blogosphere the past couple of days. It is a heartbreaking, tragic tale of church discipline gone monumentally awry at a nationally known church. A more descriptive version of Andrew’s story is presented in two installments at the blog of Matthew Paul Turner: Part 1, and Part 2. (I will not mention the name or location of the church in question. You know this church. You know where it is. You know who the pastor is. Bashing this church and/or its pastor is something of a sport in some parts of the Christian blogosphere, and I do not want to get into that here. If you need to know, read the Matthew Paul Turner posts.)
This story will grab a hold of your heart and not let go. At least, that is the effect it has had on me. Partly because it leads me to wonder: Could this happen at my church? Could this happen to me? Partly because it leads me to consider my own relational failings and the adverse effect they have had on people I loved very much. But most of all, because my heart breaks for this poor soul who has suffered so much at the hands of the Church.
Here is the basic outline of Andrew’s story: A young man leaves home and travels to the big city in hopes of finding himself. Upon the recommendation of an older sibling, he visits a well-known megachurch. Despite some initial misgivings, he loves it there. He becomes a member, joins a community group, and gets actively involved in volunteering at the church. He meets the daughter of one of the elders. They date, and in due season they become engaged.
But one night Andrew hangs out with another woman. They behave inappropriately (they don’t have sex). Andrew is conscience-stricken and calls it off immediately. He confesses to his fiancee (she is heartbroken and breaks off the engagement–that’s a no-brainer) and a close friend in his community group, then later to his community group leader. He is instructed to leave the group and join a new group. Then comes a grueling series of meetings with the new community group leader, the old community group leader, and several other church leaders. Many other relational failings come to light, including the fact that Andrew and his now ex-fiancee were sexually intimate throughout their relationship.
After about a month of meetings, Andrew is informed that he is under church discipline. He receives a “church discipline contract” enumerating the background issues (read: sins) and a step-by-step plan of discipline (read: penance) that he must successfully complete in order to be restored to the church’s good graces. The expectation is that he will sign and return this document.
After a few days of reflection, Andrew decides to not sign and to leave the church. The leaders make it clear that he will not be leaving as a member in good standing but as a member under discipline, and that this will have serious adverse consequences for him. They then proceed to post a letter to the church’s internal social media site that Andrew is leaving under discipline and that church members are to treat him “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). The letter describes Andrew’s sin and the church discipline process up to his departure, and gives detailed instructions as to what sort of social interactions with Andrew are permissible and what are not, along with practical examples.
Now then, let us note that we are getting only one side of the story here. That is a very important caveat. But if Andrew’s story is even partially true, then in my opinion the leadership of this church will have much to answer for on Judgment Day.
A word about Andrew’s motives in coming forward with this story: Don’t question them. Who doesn’t do things from at least partially impure motives? We don’t know Andrew’s motives, and it is not given us to know them. God will deal with him in regards to his motives, if it is appropriate for Him to do so.
This church deserves some props for at least attempting to do church discipline. Church discipline is almost–if not completely–nonexistent in many parts of evangelicalism. But it is wrong to attempt to correct an error by making the opposite error. It is wrong to attempt to compensate for a lack of church discipline in the broader evangelical landscape by doing church discipline in your own church in a way that goes completely and totally off the rails.
As described by Andrew, the process that occurred here would have been perfectly at home in medieval Catholicism.
For those of you who are not up on all things Catholic: If a believer who sins wants to confess his sin and receive absolution, the sacrament of Penance was the venue for that. (That’s what it was called in medieval times. Today it is called Reconciliation, or more casually, Confession.) The believer would confess his sins to a priest. The priest would assign a penance to satisfy the temporal punishment for the sins you confessed (tricky bit of theology here–Catholics believe that the punishment of going to hell is taken care of by Christ and the Cross, but there is temporal, that is, earthly, punishment that accrues with sins that do not rise to the mortal level. Your penance takes care of this temporal punishment), and give absolution. In medieval times, you had to give a complete listing of every sin you could possibly think of. If you left any sin unconfessed, it was believed that your absolution would have no effect and you would still be in your sins. Also, priests in that time were known to assign exorbitantly onerous penances. These days, penances are much more doable and realistic in light of the sins confessed. Also it is acceptable in many places to list some sins and say “and any others that I can’t remember now” at the end.
Still, the emphasis here is wrong-headed. It places the focus squarely upon the sinner and what the sinner must do to demonstrate genuine repentance, rather than upon Christ and the cross.
Now, some of the provisions of Andrew’s “plan of discipline” are wise and sensible things for any man in Andrew’s situation to be doing. Meeting regularly with a close and trusted friend for purposes of accountability and care is an excellent idea. Not dating at all for a limited season is a good idea–the human heart needs time to heal from something like this. At my church, the pastor says that if you have been divorced you need to refrain from dating for at least one year–you need at least that long to heal.
But here we come to the crux of the matter. Here are the next three provisions:
Andrew will write out in detail his sexual and emotional attachment history with women and share it with XXX.Andrew will write out in detail the chronology of events and sexual/emotional sin with K and share it with XXX and Pastor X.Andrew will write out a list of all people he has sinned against during this timeframe, either by sexual/emotional sin, lying or deceiving, share it with XXX and develop a plan to confess sin and ask for forgiveness.
These things might be good to do later on down the road, but only in VERY controlled circumstances–namely under the care of a licensed, trained counselor who is bound by the strictures of his/her profession to keep this information confidential.
For a church to require this of a confessing sinner seeking forgiveness and restoration to full fellowship, and to offer no guarantee that the information shared would be kept confidential, is monumentally inappropriate, invasive, borderline voyeuristic, and–dare I say it–creepy.
At no point in this process did anyone offer Andrew a word of forgiveness or point him toward Christ and the cross. Instead it was all about Andrew. All about what he had done and what he had to do to show that he was genuinely walking in repentance. “But where sin abounded, grace much more abounded” (Romans 5:20) did not happen here. Instead, where sin abounded, discussion of sin much more abounded, in ever-increasing circles, until the entire church knew about it.
Look, I know that church discipline is virtually nonexistent in much of evangelicalism these days. But you don’t make up for that by going completely and totally off the rails in your own church. There has got to be a better way of doing church discipline. For Andrew’s sake, and for the sake of all the other Andrews out there.
Here is another post from Matthew Paul Turner that speaks to the broader issue of abusive spiritual environments and abusive systems of church discipline.
Here is a post from Chaplain Mike at internetmonk.com in which he recounts Andrew’s story and suggests that the historical practice of confession and absolution, specifically as practiced within the Lutheran tradition, is a much better way of doing church discipline.
Here is another post from Chaplain Mike, in which he suggests that greater relational wisdom from Andrew and from his community group friends might have mitigated this thing and prevented it from rising to the level of a church discipline issue. On the whole, relational wisdom is profoundly lacking in many Christian communities, and this leads to all sorts of problems.
Here is an insightful piece from the blog of Wenatchee the Hatchet, a former member of the church in question who sheds light on practices of church discipline and pastoral accountability that have long been of concern, and offers his opinion that the Andrew situation is a storm that has been brewing for several years now.