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Church Discipline In A Social Media World?

sit-in-corner1I’ll get back to my series, “I Don’t Want To Be That Guy Who’s Pegged As Anti-Church, But…” in a day or two.

Be patient with my detour, but there’s been a bit of a buzz in the realm of social media regarding church discipline.  I’ve been dwelling on it much.  For the most part, I’ve experienced church discipline in local church gatherings.  In other words, corrective measures have been applied to “members” of individual churches.  The leadership within specific gatherings will discipline a member for a verity of reasons.  Generally speaking, if one becomes a member of a church, he or she willingly submits to the leadership and their corrective authority.  Of course this branches off into a myriad of other considerations, but I want to focus on a single aspect.  That being the veritable obliteration of the local church in social media.

In a world of high visibility, particularly within social media circles, the lines between local gatherings and local “authority” are blurred.  Authors, bloggers, and even pastors are throwing their works out into the realm of the public and universal church.  We are asked to “like” pages on Facebook, “follow” people on twitter, and even “join” others circles on Google+.  The tribes formed in social media are vastly concentric.  Our memberships become multitudinous.  I’ve seen some say that church discipline should not happen openly in social media formats.  I have to wonder about the truth of that sentiment.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul the Apostle writes;

“I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship.”

There are two things happening here besides the egregious sin of this particular form of sexual immorality.  First, Paul is addressing what would appear to be a local fellowship, and secondly exposing this man and the situation to all churches everywhere during that time, and in fact all churches throughout  history everywhere.  Everyone knows about this guy!  This letter was the form of social media for that time, and remains one unto this day.  It was a critical time in the history of the Christian church, for the church’s membership had spread and relatively short documents were produced and distributed amongst all the churches.  

I’d propose that because of the immense connectivity of cross-fellowships, the overabundance of invitations to partake in other’s works, and the intensely public nature of social media, that we need to reconsider how church discipline is done within this context.  If leaders, authors, pastors, missionaries, or even social media gurus invite you to become part of their online fellowship, or seek to become part of yours, then they and you are willingly resigning yourselves to open and public discipline.  ”For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Galatians 6:3

Paul also says,

“Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything.”  2 Corinthians 2:5-11

The classic church discipline passages such as Matthew 18:15-20, James 5:19,20, and 1 Timothy 5:19-21 are, by the very nature of the church’s participation in social media, expanded, adjusted, and encompassing a broader audience.  Again, let me posit that if the church or any of its members crosses over into other’s fellowships by invitation or willing participation, then all parties are open to each other’s discipline.  A few questions:

1.  Would you agree that if church fellowships participate in each others online social activities that they submit to each other’s open and public discipline?

2.  Can we really say in this age that church discipline should not happen within social media formats?

3.  What suggestions would you make for the practice of church discipline online?

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    1. Jim Wright April 30, 2013 at 11:07 am #

      Thanks. As one standing in the midst of the storm, I fully agree – without intending to drag you into it.

      Those who have rejected church discipline by refusing to address the concerns of their own church, which go to their ministry credentials that they then continue to promote in public, should be subject to a public warning.

      The idea promoted by some that we must substitute their own personal assessment of the situation in lieu of that local church’s proper action is, well, ludicrous and totally contrary to the very idea of ekklesia that they otherwise promote.

      The further idea that we must impose our own sensibilities by requiring more than the local church did to investigate and warn others, based on multiple witnesses under the procedure commanded in 1 Tim. 5:19-21, also is a gross violation of proper Biblical standards. Yet some persist in negating that church’s action absent a criminal complaint or demanding to independently interview the victims. Some also seek to impose some de-facto “statute of limitations”.

      The local ekklesia has proper jurisdiction, not someone’s extraneous standards based on personal sensibilities imposed after the fact. And it is proper to reference and heed a church’s “warning to all” – publicly and at least to the extent the person has rejected its discipline and continues to promote themselves and their “ministry” in public.

      • Marshall April 30, 2013 at 11:27 am #

        “The local ekklesia has proper jurisdiction,”

        they do, Jim, if they continue to holding integrity with/in the One body of Christ; holding firmly to the Head..
        divergent sects; unstable and double minds, even when these group themselves for a time, succeed only to denying the authority of Christ in themselves.

        • Jim Wright April 30, 2013 at 11:58 am #

          Certainly no local church has carte blanche. Their jurisdiction and authority are in the context of functioning properly and according Biblical standards. But when properly acting, it is wrong to then negate their determinations and warnings by applying extraneous standards.

      • Bart Breen May 29, 2013 at 9:43 am #

        Miguel, in answer to your questions:

        An online presence without direct personal contact and relationship is not an adequate basis for discipline, because the nature of the internet and social media is that people with ulterior motives can post warnings. If there are no names but one, and no disclosure of people appealed to as “leaders” then it simply becomes a means of slander and confusion.

        Yes we can say that Social Media lacks controls and that people can and have used it to defame people even going to the point of trying to support another person through the use of an indirect blog post that then provides a platform for another to continue that action. Is it honest to address an issue in this manner without putting your own name and reputation to the charges?

        In terms of online church discipline I would suggest the following:

        1. Distribution should be limited to those who are involved and not used as a rationalization for a vendetta or general libel or slander.

        2. Organizations, formal or informal claiming to pass information on, should reveal their names and not try to hide behind artificial corporate structures.

        3. Organizations or people who use unethical means to try to present themselves as voices of influence (such as buying FB likes and using SEO Black Hat techniques) should be ignored and revealed for what they are.

        4. Other Church Leaders and Blog Writers should demonstrate integrity and be willing to place truth and ethics over friendship and address issues when they are known in this area.

        Those are my thoughts and thank you for asking.

        Bart Breen

    2. Marshall April 30, 2013 at 11:21 am #

      There is surely a relatively small amount of correction that occurs within electronic communications.
      Yes, we may be reading/watching various attempts at discipline via social media. Are these the real thing? No, not genuinely, in part because social media is unable to reflect real/whole people (it’s just not able to do this); secondly, because social media is largely a public forum of men and women and children without Christ as their life. “Church discipline” will have little relevant meaning or course to a lost audience.

      Genuine disciplines (for the purpose of restoration) continue to be universally recognized by the ekklesia/church [not a widely published fact]. Rarely, there have also been quiet attempts by sectarian groups to recognize the actions of other sects and denominations. Sadly, these have most often been undertaken into some measure of self-preservation; “just protecting ourselves from the bad guy.”

      the ekklesia in Moscow is not as much aware of a man coming into discipline in Mexico City UNLESS that person ranges (travels into; communicates with) nearby Moscow. So, content in letters is being exchanged initially within known circumference — though not always, as sometimes the Holy Spirit directs into a wider or more narrow scope. The local expression of ekklesia, acting in the authority of Christ, is enabled to request whatever distribution seems needful to them as to maximize their/our appeal in heaven and earth for the restoration of any stumbling, “lost sheep”.

    3. David Barratt April 30, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Hey Miguel,

      I saw your blog today, a friend sent it to me, rather intersting post. I’m a web developer so I thought I’d share this article with you:
      http://ia.net/blog/sweep-the-sleaze

      Thanks!

    4. David Woods April 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

      I think church discipline is about the body of Christ as a whole helping the rest of the body of Christ as a whole along their Christian walk. I think social media should be used as a unifying tool among the body of Christ, and not just a different way of getting more congregants under one plenary authoritarian or board thereof.

      Done this way, church discipline can happen wherever relationships are happening–whether that be online or in a weekly meeting in a building, or just within members of a family. We have to let God choose who to speak through, because only He knows who best to get the point across.

      However, used as a control mechanism to bring the many under the authority of the few, it is just as wrong as it is in the traditional setting. God left it open to the body so that corruption would not take place among the board, and their every decision being based on what is in the best interest of the organization, or the few.

      Absolute power corrupts absolutely within the human race, and knowing that, I believe social media can be used as a unifier of the faith as long as it is used for that purpose. The subject of discipline within the body is a subject of relationships. I really don’t see how the vehicle FOR the relationships has anything to do with it.

    5. Carlos April 30, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

      Thanks for bringing this up Miguel and sharing your thoughts. I admire and respect a man like yourself who has the courage in Christ to bring up things that some may object to.

      I am not sure that church discipline can really work under a scenario online where there is little cohesiveness as a Body as there tends to be in a local church.

      For example…let’s say that I came in here and started slandering somebody and clearly so such that there could be no question of my bad attitude and unwillingness to act righteously. You, as the owner of this blog, could warn me and attempt a correction and barring an adequate and repentant response on my part, in the spirit of Matthew 18 you could ban me from your blog.

      But…the aim of church discipline would be undermined by the fact that I am on a bunch of blogs, commenting and otherwise enjoying some measure of online fellowship. I also have direct email contact with still other Christians. And I also have local contact with Christians mostly in the church I am in.

      So if I was in sin…and unrepentent, I would just keep on slandering elsewhere.

      It is a completely different scenario and effective as a matter of discipline (I have seen this effectiveness up close and it does work) when church discipline is applied in a close knit group of Christians who are involved together in a local church.

      I guess I am just saying that I am not at all certain that church discipline is really workable in the online environment Miguel. I have a hard time seeing how it could be.

      People can hide and disappear and go hither and thither all over the place online and there is little that any of us can do to discipline an offending church member. They can even come around under a totally different name.

      Carlos

    6. Eli May 1, 2013 at 12:31 am #

      It really depends on the relational context as I see it… otherwise we go to another extreme where anyone we have had some form of online contact with even just reading their blogs or books is fair game.
      I think discipline is very different to warning or providing a critical review. Discipline implies some sort of authority over that person or people in the fellowship which is what Paul was doing.
      When someone has the kind of relational investment that Paul had, the context is different than say an online guru who decides to try discipline another leader they have very little contact with.. or telling people in their fellowship what to do.
      This is like when the UN gets together and makes a resolution against say Israel.. and the US veto’s or ignores it because it has no authority as far as they’re concerned. If you have no actual authority then the discipline is at worst slander, at best warning and toothless meddling.

      I have no problem if someone is convinced of trouble in another camp and wants to warn others… heck pretty much every christian group is considered to be abusive and/or apostate to another group. What is kinda pathetic is when someone who has no actual authority starts demanding answers and trial by social media public jury.
      An exception would be when there are criminal offences involved and in the case of abuse actual victims… not hearsay.

      Honestly though some people like an audience so they will be quick to go to social media when they feel they aren’t getting the response they want.
      Piece of advice… if you feel the need to be involved in discipline of someone in another church… get peers with vested interest involved and if you cant take it to the culprit, at least take it to other people of influence in the group. Now if you are just trying to write off the whole group altogether, just realize there is probably another group of people who would do the same to your group given the chance.

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