Should a Church Discipline Members Over Politics?

The controversy centered in a small Baptist church in North Carolina may well be a sign of things to come. A congregational meeting on May 10 led to the resignation of Pastor Chan Chandler of East Waynesville Baptist Church and the departure of an estimated 40 church members with the pastor. “For me to remain now would only cause more hurt for me and my family,” he told The Associated Press. The localized firestorm became a focus of national media attention after various media reports indicated that Pastor Chandler had expelled several members of the church because they had voted for Democratic candidates, or against President George W. Bush, or for John Kerry–or however the press chose to characterize the issue. As expected, there is more to this story than meets the eye. This is almost always the case in congregational controversies, especially in small churches. By last night’s meeting, the disgruntled members who had been expelled had consulted an attorney, and the embattled pastor found himself staring down network news cameras and a frenzied press. To be honest, my first response was sheer frustration that this issue had been framed so awkwardly. I did my best to withhold a quick judgment, even as my inclination was to grant this young pastor the benefit of the doubt.

We may never know the precise circumstances of this messy congregational affair, but significant issues have been raised–issues that demand a closer look regardless of the Waynesville situation. At first glance, most of us would argue that the practice of expelling church members for voting for candidates affiliated with the Democratic Party is, at the very least, an exercise in poor judgment and a dangerous conflation of church discipline and secular politics. None of us wants to see churches identified as “Republican Baptists” and “Democratic Baptists.” Such partisan identifications violate the autonomy of the church as the Body of Christ. We do not check voter registration cards in the church membership process, and deacons do not accompany members into the voting booth in order to ensure political orthodoxy.

And yet, blithe reassurances that this issue is ridiculously superficial simply will not do. Such reassurances may have made more sense decades ago, when George C. Wallace (then running for president as an independent) was crisscrossing the country declaring, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.” On fiscal and economic matters, along with issues of trade policy and many aspects of foreign policy and national defense, the two parties are both essentially centrist. Contemporary debates may obscure the reality, but the economic policies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan were very similar, as were the domestic policies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. The real issues of division are moral and cultural–and have everything to do with issues of life and death, authority and autonomy, marriage and sexuality. There the divide is wide and growing.

Conservative evangelicals, awakened to political responsibility by a sense of crisis, have in recent years voted for Republican candidates in overwhelming numbers. Liberal Protestantism has been just as solidly identified with the Democratic Party and its candidates. There are no political innocents here. Evangelicals undoubtedly run the risk of identifying the Republican Party as the source of national virtue and the salvation of a culture in crisis. At the same time, the Republican Party has taken stands, made commitments, and demonstrated leadership in defense of what animates millions of Evangelicals in the political process. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has taken stands (through formal platform statements and political actions) that formally put it in opposition to those same commitments. Though a few brave Democratic candidates buck the trend of their own party, the Party itself maintains these commitments. Abortion has been the most significant issue of division for decades. Now, marriage and sexuality rise to similar levels of concern.

During the 2004 presidential election, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church debated whether Catholic candidates who support abortion rights and same-sex marriage should be denied Communion. There was no corresponding debate among Evangelicals. The virtual disappearance of church discipline among Evangelicals–a symptom of a larger loss of biblical ecclesiology–left many Christians simply scratching their heads. Now, the controversy in Waynesville, North Carolina emerges as a flashpoint of confusion. What should we think of this?

In the first place, we should quickly assert the autonomy of the Church as the Body of Christ. Though missiologically located within the secular world, the Church knows only one Sovereign–the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, the church is located within a political context–a context it cannot deny. For most of U.S. history, this has not been an issue of difficulty for the church. This is no longer the case. At first blush, the actions of the East Waynesville Baptist Church appear to be out of bounds. A political judgment of this apparently partisan nature does not seem to be justified by the political context–at least not yet.

Honesty compels me to state that I could foresee a political context in which such a decision, made in extremis, could well be both justifiable and necessary. The church has faced this before. In the context of Nazi Germany, it was an unavoidable issue. Writing to Christians in France, Karl Barth lamented the sin of the German Christians who allowed the Nazi Party to assume power (through democratic elections, we should be reminded). Looking back to the political passivity of the German church, Barth reflected: “At the time and in Germany it implied a retreat of Christianity from responsibility in ecclesiastical and political spheres to the inner sphere of a religious attitude which, in order to maintain itself, no longer concerned itself with, or at least was not willing to fight and suffer for, the right form of the Church, let alone that of the State.”

The right form of the church requires a common commitment to certain shared convictions. These commitments are irreducibly theological, but come with inevitable political consequences. Until recently, our domestic political debates have failed to reach a point of crisis with regard to these consequences, but crisis cannot be rejected as a possibility. In such cases, the church must maintain its witness and convictional commitments. A church should exercise discipline against a member who, while claiming to be a Christian, would vote for Adolf Hitler–or David Duke.

We must hasten to make clear that our political context is not that of Germany in the 1930s. The Democratic Party cannot fairly be compared with National Socialism, Maoism, or analogous evils. Furthermore, there is room for hope that the Democratic Party can be reformed. A decision in extremis assumes that the situation is beyond all hope of remedy. Still, the issues of abortion and marriage lie at the heart of what it means to respect and defend human life, and Christians are certain to face even more excruciating political decisions in days ahead.

Christians can place no final hope in any political party, nor can we evade our political responsibility. We must assume that a political party can always be trusted to do what it understands to be in its own best interest–and this applies to both major American parties. The church must do what Christ would call us to do, and Christians must encourage each other to faithfulness in every sphere of life–including the political. The situation in Waynesville will soon calm down and slip from the nation’s attention. Most will assume that this was a clumsy overreaction to a political circumstance and a well-intended attempt to recover church discipline. These may be safe assumptions for now. But for how long?