Signs of thinning line between church discipline and anarchy in the PCUSA

Commentary by Carmen Fowler LaBerge

taraThe difference between a representative form of governance and anarchy is the mutual submission of a people to a set of rules that will govern their common life. For those who choose to be a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) those rules originate with God, are revealed in the Bible, are filtered through the Reformed theology as expressed in the confessions in the Book of Confessions, and laid down in a Form of Government, a Directory for Worship and Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order.  Departure from the theology expressed in the confessions or departure from the mutually agreed upon rules in the Book of Order puts an officer of the church out of alignment with the body known as the PCUSA. Realignment is achieved through the processes called discipline.

The rules of discipline are just as “constitutional” and just as binding as every other part of the denomination’s constitution. Officers in the church agree through their ordination vows to submit to the church’s discipline, and when they do not, we find ourselves on the precipice of anarchy.

I have written previously about the hundreds of PCUSA ministers who are intent on defying the denomination’s standards should the opportunity arise. While this commentary is related to those threats, the particular subject of this article is a story of discipline rightly applied and received but where the individual proclivity to redefine discipline is evidenced.

I find no reason to doubt the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe’s sincerity when she writes about what she learned from performing a same-sex marriage and the disciplinary process that followed.  I appreciate her candor and reading her personal reflection might help readers of The Layman to understand the depth of the division in the PCUSA in terms of the way the very words we use are being redefined.

McCabe chronicles her journey over the past year from performing a same-sex marriage for two women in D.C., to being elected vice moderator of the 220th General Assembly, to resigning that post within a few short days, then being brought up on charges by fellow Presbyterians which resulted in an ecclesiastical investigation and ultimate censure.

I will seek here to address the ideas espoused and not the person.  As I read the piece, I became aware of the very personal redefinition of “faith” and “discipline,” without a single reference to Scripture, Jesus, or the mutually agreed upon constitutional standards of those terms to which all PCUSA officers vow to submit.

McCabe defines faith as “a cultivated awareness of how the intricacies of creation are connected to one another.” Later she defines the discipline of church as the experience of being hemmed in which produces struggle and tension. She acknowledges that “is not a bad thing” and then says that “Church discipline comes out of a history of people stepping beyond their ordered church.”  One interpretation of that sentence is that Presbyterians have only seen fit to draw lines that hem people in when people in what McCabe sees as “great faithfulness and conviction” step beyond the bounds of decently ordered orthodox community.

Pausing here to read Psalm 119 is instructive.  The Psalmist reminds us of the nature, purpose, power and joy of learning, meditating on and conforming our lives to the governance of God’s laws. Yes, in obedient submission to His authority but also because God knows what is best for us individually and corporately as His people. The government of God is ultimately an expression of God’s love for He knows the pervasive nature of our depravity and the deep need we have to be closely shepherded, moment by moment, day by day.

Without His continual guidance we all, like sheep, wander away. The great hymn articulates thusly: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”  Our naturally wandering selves need to be tethered to the Lord’s leading like a fetter that binds us to Him and disciplines our otherwise unruly selves.  When that intensely personal process of the Lord’s governance of life is applied in the common life of a group of Christians we call it Christian accountability or church discipline.

Church discipline is the church’s exercise of authority given by Christ, both in the direction of guidance, control, and nurture of its members and in the direction of constructive criticism of offenders. The church’s disciplinary process exists not as a substitute for the secular judicial system, but to do what the secular judicial system cannot do.

What is discipline (and what it is not)

The personal redefinition of discipline articulated by McCabe is purely subjective.  Church discipline, instead, sets clear parameters within which all Individual interpretations must fit if they are to be allowed. There is freedom of conscience within set bounds.

According to the PCUSA constitution (D-1.0101) the purpose of discipline is:

  • to honor God by making clear the significance of membership in the body of Christ;
  • to preserve the purity of the church by nourishing the individual within the life of the believing community;
  • to achieve justice and compassion for all participants involved;
  • to correct or restrain wrongdoing in order to bring members to repentance and restoration;
  • to uphold the dignity of those who have been harmed by disciplinary offenses;
  • to restore the unity of the church by removing the causes of discord and division; and
  • to secure the just, speedy and economical determination of proceedings. In all respects, all participants are to be accorded procedural safeguards and due process, and it is the intention of these rules so to provide.

D-1.0102 continues, “The power that Jesus Christ has vested in His Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ.”

The goal of church discipline is sanctification, holiness and the presentation of faultless saints in the day of Christ. That is a high ideal! The goal is not to impugn nor malign those who live outside of God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures. The goal is not legalistic perfectionism.  Rather what drives the desire of those who want to see the law of God upheld by the people of God is a strong Biblical idealism for holiness. Again, this is not a Pharisaical keeping of rules for rules’ sake; this is a commitment to keep faith with God for Christ’s sake.

Disciplined faith and faithful discipline

Disciplined faith and faithful discipline require submission to the authority of God in the moment-by-moment exercise of following Christ as a fully devoted disciple and submission to the authority of God as expressed in the ordering of the common life of God’s people in the church.  Those lines of authority are more obvious in hierarchical churches like Roman Catholicism. For non-hierarchical expressions of the church like Presbyterianism, faithful discipline depends on the character and commitment to Godly governance by pastors and elders. When those in so-called leadership fail the test of disciplined faith in their own lives, the body has little hope of maintaining integrity in the exercise of faithful discipline in its common life.



Carmen Fowler LaBerge