Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Book Write-Up: 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline

Jeremy M. Kimble.  40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline.  Kregel Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Jeremy M. Kimble has a Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and teaches theology at Cedarville College.

As the title indicates, this book is about church membership and discipline.  According to Kimble, the New Testament presumes that the church consists of regenerate people who know one another and care about each other’s spiritual lives.  A person becomes a member of a church through baptism and partakes of the Lord’s supper.  If a member of the church sins and is unrepentant about that sin, Kimble argues on the basis of Matthew 18:15-18 and other biblical passages, church members have a responsibility to confront the sinning member in a loving manner.  If the sinning member does not repent, then excommunication can result.

People have questions about this scenario.  Is a member required to confront every single sin that a fellow member commits?  If that is the case, would not a person be confronting and confronted all of the time, since everybody sins?  When Jesus says that the excommunicated member is to be treated by the church as a heathen and a tax collector (Matthew 18:17), what does that mean exactly?  Does it mean that church members should shun the excommunicated member?  But did not Jesus reach out to tax collectors?  When Jesus says that the church’s decisions are bound in heaven (Matthew 18:18), does that mean that God binds Godself to follow the church’s fallible judgments?  And does excommunication imply the loss of salvation of the excommunicated person, or (since Kimble seems to follow the Reformed tradition) that the unrepentant member may not have been a genuine Christian at the outset?

Here are some thoughts:

A.  The book is repetitive, but it is eloquent and thoughtful.  An asset to this book is that it discusses Christian approaches to church discipline throughout church history, from the church fathers to the twenty-first century.

B. The author could have been clearer about baptism.  The book, as it stands, can give one the impression that baptism initiates a person into a local congregation.  But what if a baptized Christian moves to another area and wants to join another church?  Does she need to be baptized again?  Kimble probably would not go that far, but he could have been clearer about this.

C.  Kimble recommends an article about legal issues surrounding church discipline.  I read the article that he recommended, as well as other articles.  Essentially, church discipline can bring legal charges such as invasion of privacy and defamation, since the church is being told about the sin of the unrepentant church member.  The article Kimble recommends seems to imply that a signed consent form should obviate that problem.  Some sites said, however, that a signed consent form means nothing, once a person leaves the church.  I am not a lawyer, so I do not know which interpretation is more consistent with the law.  I am just saying that one may want to read more than the article that Kimble recommends.

D.  Kimble tries to be specific in his answers, and, in some cases, he is helpful.  On page 231, for example, he provides Scriptural references about how members can address various struggles that other members face.  The book would have been helpful had it been more specific, however.  Case studies would have made this book better.  Case studies not only would have elucidated what sins require church discipline and what church discipline looks like (questions that Kimble addressed, but not with enough precision), but they could also show how to avoid abuses that have come with church discipline.  And the horror stories are many!  They could also address some of the thorny social questions that accompany church discipline.  On page 218, for instance, Kimble says that “there are situations where lack of relationship or the right circumstances make it unproductive to approach a brother about sin,” but he did not elaborate or offer suggestions about what to do about this.  In the chapter about how to interact with the excommunicated member, Kimble advised church members to exhort the excommunicated member to repent if they see him or her at the grocery store or the gas station.  Really?  Are those appropriate places to give someone a mini-sermon?

E.  In one chapter, Kimble discusses the procedure for allowing a repentant excommunicated member back into the church.  Kimble suggests interviewing the member’s “friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and other church members” to determine if the member has truly repented (page 240).  That sounded a little too FBI-ish to me.

F.  Related to (E.), it seemed to me in reading this book that church discipline is a push for outward conformity.  You put people out of the church, and, somehow, that is supposed to change people’s hearts.  Kimble denies that church discipline is about outward conformity, and one can make a case that church discipline is designed to change a person’s attitude.  It can serve as a wake-up call that a sinful action is serious.  It can be a warning that God will judge unrepentant sin (as Kimble argues).  And being exposed to Satan and the world through excommunication can destroy the flesh of the excommunicated member, a la I Corinthians 5:5 (and Kimble interprets the destruction of the flesh as the undermining of the sinful nature, which Paul often calls the flesh).  Another consideration that Kimble raises is that true believers have the Holy Spirit, which influences them to hate sin and to love righteousness.  Church discipline still strikes me as pressuring a person to conform outwardly by twisting his or her arm (not literally), rather than producing a genuine conviction of sin and love of righteousness.  In my opinion, this is not necessarily wrong, for a church should be able to set moral standards and boundaries for members as well as maintain internal order.

G.  In Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, Jesus affirms that what the disciples (Peter in 16:19) bind and loose on earth will be bound and loose in heaven.  Kimble refers to scholar Daniel Wallace’s argument that we see proleptic perfects in these verses: “will have been bound” and “will have been loosed.”  Kimble concludes on page 152 that Jesus “is not stating that the church has the power to determine what will later be decided in heaven,” but rather that “as the church functions on the authority of Scripture, what it determines will have already been determined in heaven.”  That sounds reasonable: it is certainly better than saying that God will honor an unfair, politically-motivated excommunication and send the excommunicated person to hell!  I am not entirely convinced by the grammatical argument, though.  I did a BibleWorks search of Septuagint and New Testament passages in which a verb in the future tense is followed by a perfect passive participle, and the passages did not seem to concern something preceding something else, or something already being the case.  I am open to correction, though.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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