"Government" is getting to be a volatile word in many quarters. The recent conundrums in America, with showdowns on issues like gun control, immigration reform, terrorism, and economic policy have drawn fairly severe lines on the field, polarizing the discussion. Should government be more expansive? Should it be more limited? Strong? Weak? The queries go on.
What gets overlooked--especially on the Christian side of things--is the role of church government. Though it doesn't get the press like the machinations in Washington, D.C., the Christian church is an institution with outworkings of various functions. One part of the church's work is church discipline--indeed, the churches of the Protestant Reformation included this alongside the preaching of Scripture and the administration of the sacraments as the marks of the true church. So as not to obfuscate anything, the working definition for many of church discipline tends to be as follows: The leaders of a local church responding in Scriptural-based action to a grievous sin from which an individual (or group) refuses to repent and change attitude or behavior.
Got that? I know. It's not the kind of thing many churches have in their public relations brochures.
It is the issue of church government and church discipline that Robert J. Renaud and Lael D. Weinberger bring to the forefront in their book A Tale of Two Governments: Church Discipline, the Courts, and the Separation of Church and State (Dunrobin Publishing, 2012). The book tackles a number of matters: the history of the relationship between church and state, church autonomy and its limits, and the practical matters to protect the church to its free exercise.
The book has its genesis in a 2007 case of Westbrook v. Penley, in which a Texas pastor was used for violating his professional duties as a counselor. A female parishioner, who was having an affair, had no intention of reconciling her marriage. Pointing out that doing so was a sin against God and Scripture, the pastor Buddy Westbrook carefully went through the steps of discipline outlined in Matthew 18. The parishioner, upset over this turn of events, sued the church.
So the question for Renaud and Weinberger became: Can the state intervene in a matter of church discipline? What is the nature of the separation of church and state? How may churches practice discipline?
I will not attempt to summarize the book to answer those questions; I do want you to read it, after all. A brief overview of the book's strengths with other suggestions should suffice.
The authors, being students of history, do a commendable job of presenting the scope of this matter. After a chapter on the biblical theology of church-state relations, they give the grand sweep of attitudes of church and state from the days of St. Augustine, through the days of Luther and Calvin, on through the work of John Knox and the Scottish Reformation, to church-state relations in America. They shift to legal implications of church and state today, followed by practical understanding on church discipline itself and steps for the church to protect itself legally.
The authors do a fantastic job of leading the reader through history in a way that undoes a lot of myths about the Christian view of church-state relations. Especially strong are the sections laying out the beliefs and actions of Martin Luther and John Knox. The authors make a strong case for the notion of church and state being separate spheres of true authority (p. 14) over the lives of others.
Their proposal that each sphere provides a check on the other, so that neither becomes a power monster, is rather intriguing. Many can see how that is needed as a stiff-arm against the federal government, but the church (especially in the Middle Ages) has its own history of getting too big for its leadership britches.
One only has to take a glance at the bibliography to realize how well-researched A Tale of Two Governments is. The authors really did their homework and research. An additional aid for the reader comes in the form of review questions at the end of each chapter that reinforce the main ideas and encourage deeper reflection.
A Tale of Two Governments is extremely helpful for several strata of readers. Pastors, seminarians, and law students will reap great benefit from its pages. Although it is a scholarly work, it is written with a minimum of legal jargon, so even the garden-variety curious soul will find it an engaging and helpful read.
Renaud and Weinberger deserve much praise for resurrecting the issue of church discipline when this issue is at its nadir in the evangelical community. America--aside from becoming a more secular nation--is marked by a decline in the understanding of spiritual purity and personal holiness. Add to this the reality that people are highly consumeristic in their church selection ("Oh, I don't like the way this church does this...I'll just go across town to First Community Church."), then it's no wonder many people disdain the notion of the church and Scripture having authority over the way life is lived. Whether people take their words to heart or not, Renaud and Weinberger are at least offering a helpful dose of correction. The health of the church is at stake.
Two areas of suggestion for mild improvement: Although the historical overview of church-state understanding is extremely helpful, perhaps an even greater weight given to how it played out in American history would be more helpful. Also, one should not forget that it is easy to think of church discipline as a reactive exercise. It is true that is the case when dealing with abject, deep, unrepentant sin in the church. But understand this is not the entirety of church discipline. I would say ninety-nine percent of church discipline is proactive. My father once pastored a church in Maryland, and an elder at that church once remarked that whenever parishioners hear the preaching of Scripture, they are under discipline, because they are being encouraged to bring their lives under God's teaching, expectations, and grace.
Overall, A Tale of Two Governments is a volume worthy of one's time and effort. We should never stop learning from history. Christians should have a passion for having their lives shaped by God's will. A Tale of Two Governments empowers readers to walk both of those paths with vigor and clarity.