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LifeWay Research: Churches ‘rarely talk about’ how to respond to member misconduct

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NASHVILLE (BP) — More than half of Protestant senior pastors surveyed by LifeWay Research say they don’t know of a case where someone has been disciplined in their church.

LifeWay Research, the evangelical research of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches, conducted the survey Aug. 30 – Sept. 18 of last year and released the results on April 5.

“It’s one of the topics that churches rarely talk about,” says Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

Two Bible passages in particular deal with the question of church discipline and how to respond to misconduct by church members.

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his followers to go to offenders in private and ask them to mend their ways. The passage says if that fails, to bring one or two witnesses and, if that fails, then bring the matter to the whole church for discipline. The hope is that wrongdoers will repent and be restored.

A similar passage in 1 Corinthians tells readers not to associate with someone who claims to be a Christian but “is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler.”

McConnell says in general, church discipline would apply when offenders refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing, persist in it, or are no longer qualified for leadership.

According to the phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors, 16% of pastors say their church has disciplined a member in the last year. That includes three percent in the last month, five percent in the last six months, and eight percent in the last year.

Fifty-five percent say no member has been disciplined during their time as pastor or before their tenure. Twenty-one percent say a member was disciplined three or more years ago. Five percent say there was a case of discipline in the last two years.

Pentecostal (29%), Holiness (23%), and Baptist pastors (19%) are most likely to say a church member was disciplined in the past year. Methodist (four percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (nine percent) pastors are less likely.

Overall, 49% of evangelical pastors and 67% of mainline church pastors say they don’t know of a case where someone was disciplined at their church.

LifeWay Research also asked pastors about the process of discipline in their churches. They said the responsibility lies with the pastor (eight percent), church elders (14%), trustees or board members (four percent), or church deacons (one percent). Fifty-one percent said two or more groups must agree.

Eighteen percent said there is no formal discipline process.

Pastors of churches of 100 or more attenders are more likely to say elders alone handle discipline (17%) than churches with 99 or fewer attenders (11%). African American pastors (21%) are more likely than white pastors (six percent) to say the pastor alone is responsible for church discipline.

Mainline pastors (24%) are more likely than evangelical pastors (15%) to say their church has no formal discipline policy.

McConnell noted some churches may have informal discipline processes, and some church members may leave rather than going through church discipline.

Where there is formal discipline, a group of church leaders often must agree for formal discipline to take place. The process is rarely arbitrary.

“There’s some red tape involved for churches,” he said. “It is not easy to be kicked out of a church.”

For more information on the study, visit LifeWayResearch.com.

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