My thoughts this week have converged on the issue of church discipline. First I had an e-mail conversation about discipline as the third mark of the church. Next the latest Christianity Today came with church discipline as its theme. Then my daily reading for today just happened to be I Corinthians 5, the Pauline locus classicus for church discipline.
As a Wesleyan with both Anabaptist and Catholic influences, I have every reason to emphasize church discipline and have done so for many years. I count myself among those who believe in three marks of the church: word, sacrament, and discipline (roughly corresponding to the prophetic, priestly, and royal offices of the church). The question of the marks of the church was brought to the fore by the Reformation. Without a unified church, the reformers needed a criterion by which to identify the true church. Luther had seven so-called marks, many of which could be combined into larger categories. The preaching of the pure word of God and the right administration of the sacraments were quickly received as the two basic marks. The addition of discipline as a distinct mark comes first from Bucer in Strausborg, but it was quickly dropped by the magisterial reformers (cf. Calvin's Institutes Iv.1.10) in reaction to its perceived over-emphasis in the radical reformation. It was picked back up by the Puritans in their conflict with the Church of England. It was through the Puritans that discipline was passed on to Wesley and the Methodists. The Wesleyan Church mentions it as a mark of the church in its Discipline. Just the distinctive name "Discipline" (as opposed to "Book of Order" or "Canon Law") used in a number of Wesleyan/Methodist/Holiness denominations points to this emphasis.
Enough of the history lesson. The question on my mind is whether church discipline is really possible anymore. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the man who was getting kicked out of the church did not have the option of walking down the street to the next Christian community. There was not the smorgasbord of Christian options now on offer. The same went for the Reformers, who contrary to popular belief were certainly not setting up "Protestant" churches down the street from "Catholic" churches. It was whole duchies and cantons that were reforming, and the formerly catholic parish church became a protestant church, leaving just one church per parish and not the multiplicity we see today, especially in the states. Even as the denominational splitting began centuries later, people were quite troubled over which christian community was the true church. It wasn't always a matter of taste or even needs. For many, eternity was on the line. So church discipline held serious weight for those who took their church membership seriously.
But these days are gone. Nowadays excommunication merely means switching to the church down the road (or to none at all). So the threat of excommunication is rendered empty. Thus all forms of church discipline, which must necessarily have the possibility of excommunication backing them up as their gold standard, have lost their bite. And although I have no desire to reinstate Christendom, I doubt whether the church's mission can be sustained without some kind of formative discipline. Yet it seems like an impossibility.
Now I would love to call for church leaders to reinstill in their people a sense of the cruciality of united christian community. I have done this and I will do this again. But that is for a different setting. Here I simply want to ask whether church discipline has any hope at all. Is it gone for good? Is that a good thing? If not, does it have any chance of return? If so, where is it to be found? Is it found only in visible church unity? Is it found in an increased sectarianism? Is it found through spiritual renewal? Is it found only in missional communities in hostile contexts? Is it a problem with our culture that we have to fix first? Is it merely taking new forms that I am missing?