Here is a story. The leaders of a church have a personal agenda against someone and want to quiet him, exact revenge or what have you. They not only come at him within their church, they continue by following him outside of that church to any other church he seeks refuge at and any place he works, making a wreck of his life in the process. That is the sort of thing that only happened in the past, in dusty tales of witch-hunts in Salem or the Inquisition in Spain, right? Wrong: it is happening today, perhaps at a seemingly normal church near you.
Within the Church there is a certain group of people who are lamenting the fading influence of church discipline. As it is supposed to be, church discipline is merely an unpleasant sounding term for a process focused on encouraging and strengthening people. Yes, that includes a proper rebuke when people act immorally and yet want to participate in the church for the status or as some sort of ersatz payment for weekday misdeeds.
But not everyone is satisfied with church discipline stopping at this juncture. Groups such as Ken Sande’s Peacemaker Ministries – a group whose materials are becoming increasingly in vogue in Evangelical circles – have sought to encourage a greater level of accountability for those attending a church.
Why? In an article for Christianity Today a few years ago, Sande, a lawyer by training, told a story of a “respected businessman” who swindled people in the church he attended. The congregants sought help from the pastor, but the church’s desire to censure the man was cut short when his attorney called and “successfully intimidated” the church from proceeding. In a second church where the same scenario played out, however, those attending had given what is known as “informed consent,” waiving their rights to litigate over the church’s censures and discipline. As such, this church was able to insure the sinful man had to submit, albeit “resentfully,” to the “loving admonishment of his elders.” Of course, the story ends well, with everyone confessing their misdeeds and forgiving each other.
A happy ending is such a beautiful thing! Is it not wonderful that a church can strongly encourage its members to act morally? Yes, but not if the cost includes granting unchecked power to church leaders, power that could potentially do great harm instead of great good.
The danger of informed consent is highlighted by the story I began with. It provides legal cover to the leadership of a church, but lacks any concern for protecting the rights of those in the church. While sinful members of a congregation are anecdotally discussed in copious detail to assist in garnering support for the Peacemaking program, discussions of sinful leadership misusing the program are conspicuously missing. What happens when the pastor or leaders of a church are themselves unethical or, at the least, misguided?
Presented with stories about unscrupulous people set right by the policies of “the Peacemaking Church” and a handful of apt Bible passages, congregations are told that they really are not consenting to anything other than the Bible itself (and, maybe, a little commonsense). Everything sounds so good and noble, most people will likely consent without really understanding all they have signed onto. Moreover, once brought into a church, informed consent offers only one option to those who wish not to consent: leave.
Faced with losing their church, those who might otherwise resist come under enormous pressure to “go with the flow.” The cost, after all, is greater than mere organizational membership. If your friends and acquaintances bought into the glowing “Peacemaking” anecdotes and presentations, they will be given the impression that dissenters are troublemakers who reject the Bible and commonsense.
Let’s be clear: to reject the Peacemaking Church has nothing to do with rejecting the Church.
Once a person enters into informed consent under this “biblical” system, the person not only is unable to seek protection through the courts if the leadership decides to publicly air whatever “concerns” they feel ought to be broadcast about a person, the victim is also unable to resign from the church until the leadership wishes to allow him or her to leave and the leadership is also free to spread word of the person’s alleged sins to other churches the accused may seek refuge at.
The person on the wrong side of this process faces “prosecution” in a system with little room for fair appeals or due process. This troubling situation necessitates trying to prove innocence under an almost certain assumption of guilt: after all, most people will by default favor the testimony of respectable leaders of the community – the pastor and his supportive leadership.
Of course, when the informed consent concept is presented within a church, it is not presented in such blunt terms. Instead, members hear about the importance of “relational commitments,” an emphasis on “Biblical conflict resolution” and so on – euphemisms that may send a chill down the spine of anyone who has been hurt by the program, but which otherwise sound so good and noble that it seems almost unbiblical to argue against them. Newspeak is not limited to the realm of governments.
Like so many programs before it, “Peacemaking” has become a hot commodity, the sort of thing churches that want to be trendy participate in. Alarmingly, however, unlike former hit programs that permeated “church pop culture” and intended to give one a better sense of God’s plan or a more balanced financial position, long after this one’s glimmer fades, the broad powers it encourages churches to give their leadership remain.
That significant power allotted to the leaders of the church may be given with the goal of making it easier to do what is right, but it is neither biblical nor wise to grant. The totalitarian state can be efficient, but it is a brutal and unjust efficiency. Tyranny has often gained power by presenting what sounded like commonsense, reasonable reforms aimed at accomplishing the good, yet in reality does so only at too great of cost, if at all.
The reason we have constitutional rights has little to do with efficiency and everything to do with justice. The lessons acknowledged in documents such as the Bill of Rights apply throughout life, even church life. The Bible itself is keenly aware of abuses of power. What else can be said, for example, of the powerful leaders who conspired to kill Jesus and hush the Apostles? Given its familiarity with humanity’s general inclinations towards sin, making a case that the Bible encourages granting unilateral power is very difficult.
Whether Peacemaker Ministries itself intends its ideas to enable abuse of power is not even a necessary part of the question. I prefer to think they do not, though they are, at best, naïve to believe that giving such broad, one-sided power to a small leadership body is advisable.
Unclear initial intentions aside, the dangers of the informed consent are clear because grants of massive and unchecked powers generate a predictable result. As this popular program spreads to more and more churches, announced in wonderful, common sense terms, another bit of common sense is worth remembering.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. Have a story about Peacemaker Ministries' program or other similar programs? Tim would like to hear your story; write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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