There is a line across which discipline becomes abuse. This is true when it comes to the raising of children. Tragic stories of child abuse are all too common, ranging from horrific beatings to incestuous atrocities. On the other hand, I was spanked as a child, and I certainly didn't need any less of it. Never was it abusive.
Discipline is not just for children. In giving us the blueprints for Jesus' church, the New Testament introduces us to church discipline: The discipline of church members by the church membership. As with parental discipline, there is a line across which church discipline becomes abuse.
Enter the case of Libby Ashby. She took a job starring in a television commercial advertising a treatment for erectile disfunction. Such commercials are usually low-brow, and this one is no different, although I find some of those whistling Enzyte commercials to be more explicitly immoral. That fact notwithstanding, even Ms. Ashby stated, "I don't think the ad is honourable. It offends a lot of people."
In an interview with an Australian journalist, Ms. Ashby revealed that her home church has disfellowshipped her because of her participation in the ad. She did not reveal the identity of her congregation, and I have not been able to locate on the Internet any account of any journalist investigating the matter further. What follows is based solely upon Ms. Ashby's account, which is the only information that is available.
The actions of this Australian congregation, in my analysis, cross the line from biblical church discipline to abuse. Although other factors can make the difference between discipline and abuse, the most common difference between the two—whether we are speaking of parental discipline or church discipline—is that discipline works on the behalf (although without the consent) of the receiver of discipline, but abuse works to gratify the desires or needs of the abuser. Abuse is selfish.
Biblical church discipline tries to achieve repentance and restoration, not the elimination of a "problem."
From 10,000 miles away, I wouldn't normally second-guess a local congregation as to whether Ashby is repentant, but she doesn't come across as somebody who is stubbornly unrepentant. About the commercial, Ashby said, "It was against my better judgement to it. I don't like to offend people." Her motivation for taking the job was financial: "My VISA was calling out for mercy." She is a single parent. Ashby further said, "The bible speaks very openly about sex in an honourable way, but I don't think the ad is honourable. It offends a lot of people."
Does that sound like a rebellious, stubbornly unrepentant woman to you?
But even if, by some measure not apparent in her public interview, Ashby actually is unrepentant, it doesn't appear that her repentance is the condition for her restoration to church membership. Ashby said, "[My church has] said I would not be reinstated until the ad comes off the air." Until the ad comes off the air? What if she is already repentant and the ad is still running. If she is presently unrepentant, what if she is still unrepentant when the ad stops running? Is the timing of this advertising campaign within Libby Ashby's control at all? I seriously doubt it.
The focus of the church is on the ad campaign because the ad campaign embarrasses them. This is not an action of biblical church discipline; it is an exercise in public relations at the expense of a member of the Body of Christ. This is abuse.
Biblical church discipline addresses violations of God's commandments, not congregational emotions.
When a church disfellowships people as a knee-jerk reaction to congregational embarrassment or outrage, the congregation is not practicing biblical church discipline. Don't get me wrong—violations of God's commandments often also involve extremes of congregational emotion. I'm not saying that a congregation should never exercise church discipline when it is emotional. I'm merely saying that a congregation should sometimes exercise church discipline when it is not amped up with negative emotions.
I don't like the ad. I wouldn't want my wife or my daughter to have participated in the ad. Was Ms. Ashby's participation in the ad a sin? Here's what it wasn't. It didn't show or even insinuate that she was with anyone other than her husband. It didn't show or even insinuate that she and the man in the commercial had recently completed or were incipiently preparing for sexual intercourse. She was modestly clothed, as was the man in the commercial (as far as camera point-of-view was concerned...and he was probably wearing Bermuda shorts under that terrycloth robe). Nobody cussed. I've seen far more skin in the commercials for the World Series while I've typed this post.
The plot of the commercial did amount to a crude joke. And it was a crude joke watched by an awful lot of people. But it isn't sinful for a married couple to use a drug to help with erectile disfunction. Serve as a pastor long enough, and you'll encounter people for whom this problem is real. I'm not comfortable saying that Ashby has not sinned in some way by making this commercial, for the Bible does encourage us to behave in a wholesome and dignified manner. My point is not to exonerate Ashby, but simply to highlight a fact: The embarrassing nature of the ad is more readily apparent than is the sinful nature of the ad.
In the case of biblical church discipline, the first task is to determine that the offending Christian has indeed committed a sin. The second task is to make certain that the offending Christian understands precisely how she has committed a sin. Nothing about Ashby's interview remotely suggests that she knows what she's done wrong other than generally to embarrass her church.
Wouldn't it be nice if, when Libby Ashby did something that turned out to be an embarrassment for her, she had some people around her who, seeing her realization that she has made a mistake, would love her and help her through her season of notoriety?
Biblical church discipline is congregational, not enforced by a single person or a small group.
We don't know any details about the process used to disfellowship Ms. Ashby. For all we know, the entire congregation voted to sanction her. it is the kind of situation that might prompt a congregation to do just that.
But I've known of other situations, even right here in the DFW Metroplex, in which pastors have summarily excluded members from the congregation, not by congregational vote, but by oligarchical fiat. The grounds for dismissal are sometimes not any alleged sin other than having disagreed with the pastor on some decision that was important to him. When the pastor can kick a member out of the congregation just for disagreeing with him, that's not church discipline, that's abuse.
Biblical church discipline is self-sacrificing. It means that a congregation subjects themselves to an ordeal that often would be much less trouble if left alone. Biblical church discipline often causes embarrassment—brings into the open an embarrassing situation that otherwise would have remained quiet—rather than covering it up. The congregation voluntarily endures the ordeal of biblical church discipline because unrepentant sin is dangerous to the unrepentant Christian. The congregation sacrifices their tranquility for the sake of the errant member's spiritual vitality.
Church abuse is, on the other hand, selfishness masquerading as church discipline. It resembles less the Gospel of Matthew than the Government of Machiavelli. It may aim to eliminate embarrassments, but it actually is an embarrassment, a disfigurement of the Body of Christ. The Chief Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. The undershepherds, and the healthy portion of the flock as well, ought to do likewise.