Reforming Discipline

Part of 12 of in
By Promise Li
Mar 25, 2020 | 8 min read
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Growing up in evangelical churches in Hong Kong and in Los Angeles, I witnessed crisis after crisis of church authority and accountability. When I first became politically radicalized, I remained skeptical of Protestant church structures from a new angle.

Then came the #MeToo movement. I learned that we must be intentional about holding people accountable in order to uplift survivors’ voices and combat forms of organizational culture that privilege the accuser. In other words, multiple experiences led me to recognize that promoting restorative justice in our communities requires particular understandings of discipline. Applying this knowledge to my own faith practice makes me question: Can the traditions of church structure and discipline that we inherited in various Protestant faiths be reformed and reimagined?

Imagining a system that can hold abusers and offenders accountable means reforming church discipline, not turning away from it. Forgiveness and accountability are fundamentally ecclesiological problems. The key, however, is neither simply in a deracialized Protestant history of ecclesiology nor an understanding Asian American culture that is abstracted from what is valued by lived practitioners of the faith. Church practice and process are shaped by the lived experiences and identities of the congregants.

That said, how can we work with the concept of “discipline” when it has functioned as a central tool of oppression in Christian history, from reformers burning heretics to the contemporary churches’ persecution of LGBTQ+ members? But looking back, we recall that the foundations of Protestantism first rested on calls of reform against flawed and oppressive ecclesiology — from Martin Luther’s critique of the Catholic Church’s charging of indulgences, to Elizabethan Puritans promoting a more democratic presbyterial system against the Anglican church structure. Doctrine is inseparable from the structural conditions through which one can practice their faith and be in communion with their faith community. This ethos of reform may provide us with a guide to what it means to reimagine an anti-oppressive conception of Christian justice.

• • •

Just like the diversity of Protestant communities today, from evangelicals and mainline Protestants to non-trinitarians, the question of how a church should be organized provoked an impressive array of differing answers from the early reformers. Most notably, John Calvin’s four-fold ministry of pastors, deacons, teachers, and elders, which formed the skeleton of the presbyterial system, proved influential. The separation of these roles was intended to combat any consolidation of central authority other than Christ, and allowed more experienced elders to tend to their congregants in more meaningful ways. This separation of labor also introduced a theologically rigorous system of keeping one another accountable in one’s work and everyday life.

Of course, many Reformation ideas also tend toward extremities and intolerance. The wrong interpretation of the substance of the Eucharist in the wrong city may land you on a torture rack, or worse. But on the other hand, questions of social justice and class privilege were importantly foregrounded in discussions of church discipline and structure. For German Reformed theologian Martin Bucer, who significantly impacted the theologies of English-speaking reformers in the sixteenth century, worship and piety to God relates exactly to the just and proper administration of the church. In his magnum opus “De Regno Christi”, he defines the kingdom of Christ on earth as the “administration and care of the eternal life of God’s elect, by which this very lord and king of heaven by his doctrine and discipline, administrated by suitable ministers chosen for this very purpose”. He offers very practical terms of what he means by this: congregants who do not take care of the well-being of others are “worse than an infidel”, people should tithe communally and according to their need, the rich and privileged who provide only out of philanthropy should be made to pay double, and so on. More importantly, members of the congregation should never be “in need, but rather ... enough will be available to each in order to live well and happily”.

While our vision of justice has become much more nuanced and inclusive since the Reformation, Bucer’s paradigm for church discipline identifies the practical maintenance of emotional health and material well-being among the community as one of the highest forms of worship. In other words, the church should be keenly committed to not only combating but also preempting forms of oppression as a central aspect of theological practice. The church should ensure that people should never have to struggle for their basic needs, have their gender identity challenged, have their existence continually erased by hateful rhetoric, or be affected by physical or emotional abuse, among other things.

The structures of discipline are the cornerstone of the Protestant tradition. Progressive Christians’ fight for liberation must grapple with this uncomfortable history, for the bloody history of Protestant conceptions of discipline, as many have found, forms the backbone of many of modern society’s techniques of oppression. Max Weber has famously linked the Puritan ethic of “self-discipline” to the basic ethos of capitalism. LGBTQ+ folks have been persecuted and cast out of the church in the name of discipline and theological rigor. At the same time, we must remember that some of the most powerful and progressive reforms of the church in recent years are calls for discipline and accountability. Baptist and Catholic women, most significantly, have led the campaign to expose and keep accountable the swaths of ministers who have sexually abused them. Forgiveness without discipline for these men would not be justice for these women. Therefore, how can we advocate for a system of justice that does not reinforce existing frameworks of oppression?

• • •

Another long-neglected voice in the Reformed tradition, Sebastian Castellio, not only anticipated contemporary discourses on religious toleration, but also rethought what Christian discipline is for. A former colleague and supporter of Calvin, Castellio broke with the Genevan reformer over the burning of Michael Servetus and wrote a series of anonymous treatises promoting tolerance for heretics. As a committed reformer, Castellio did not delink discipline from godly church practice, but he reminds us that discipline should be reserved for what he sees as the fundamentals of the Christian faith. In a line-by-line refutation of Calvin’s self-defense of the execution of Servetus, Castellio answers Calvin’s challenge of “by what marks will the true church be discerned?” by limiting discipline to the faith’s clearest principles, namely, faith, love, and piety. On the other hand, “obscure questions about the Trinity, predestination, election, and the rest on account of which men are regarded as heretics [are dubious]. Many of the saints knew nothing about them.”

We can adopt this principle to the social sins of the contemporary church. By oppressing marginalized identities of different backgrounds — LGBTQ+ people, working class families, people of color — the evangelical church has had free rein to act like Calvin, weaponizing the nonessential and obscure doctrines of Scripture to suppress marginal ideas and lived experiences.

The church should be held accountable for its betrayal of Christian love and justice. And as Asian American Christians, we must identify a restorative and just model of reform that can draw from and reform the two mutually nonexclusive terms in that identity formation. A defining marker of Protestant identity since the Reformation is the reformation of how church should be done and how believers can be held accountable to their church community. The earliest Reformed congregants were most controversial not for their spiritual practices nor even their theology (after all, early church fathers like Augustine have already long promoted predestination), but for their reimagination of how a congregation should work, and how piety can be cultivated through ecclesiastical discipline.

In other words, one thing to learn from the Protestant tradition is that the reformation of the church should always be a reformation of church discipline. Contemporary reformers remain vigilant about holding the church accountable for its neglect of fundamental Christian values, as manifest in churches that promote conversion therapy, support or condone political positions and candidates who directly oppress the poor and the needy, or turn a blind eye to injustice around us in the guise of “not wanting to be political”. But the complementary question also remains: how can we discipline the church’s social sins while aiming toward the church’s restoration? I adapt Bucer and Castellio’s paradigms — long-forgotten alternatives and contemporaries to Calvin — to advocate for a restorative kind of discipline for the church. The most stringent measures of discipline should be reserved for those who violate the Scriptural dictums that relate to “the plain incontrovertible and unshakable truth”, as Castellio says. As Jewish philosopher Spinoza would similarly proclaim almost a century later, “Scripture does not contain lofty speculations, or philosophical matters, but only the simplest things, which anyone can perceive”: love your neighbor as yourself. The church has failed the world in these “simplest things”; nonetheless, all measures of discipline should ultimately aim at the care and proper administration of the church.

• • •

And how can the church learn from traditions indigenous to cultural identities and rework them in ways that can reform the oppressive aspects of each, and vice versa? The Episcopal Church’s efforts in recent years at not only racial reconciliation, but also reparations, are a paradigm for restorative discipline and also the difficulties of this process. As the Diocese of New York defines it, “reparations is the process to remember, repair, restore, reconcile, and make amends for wrongs that can never be singularly reducible to monetary terms. The process of reparations is a historical reckoning involving acknowledgement that an offense against humanity was committed and that the victims have not received justice”. In 2006, the church’s General Convention passed a statement to apologize for its participation in the global slave trade. Earlier this summer, Bishop Eugene Sutton was the only religious leader invited to testify in support of Reparations Bill H.R. 40 to the House of Representatives.

But Janet Kawamoto from the Diocese of Los Angeles reports that there has been a gap between the 2006 resolutions and actual work being done by local dioceses to hold institutions accountable for benefiting from the slave trade and to promote racial equity. In his testimony, Bishop Sutton included appendices that detail concrete ways in which the church can take up the call for reparations, like “invest[ing] in existing communities by bringing desperately needed services such as grocery stores that are affordable; urgent care centers; community centers for not only youth, but all ages; pharmacies; green spaces/community gardens”. Kawamoto notes that the active work of promoting racial justice on a material level like that have only been led by a minority of dioceses, even years after the 2006 commitments.

But the Episcopal Church’s complex bureaucratic apparatuses — resolutions, committees, conventions — is not necessarily a hindrance to organizing for change. From local “anti-racism committees” on a diocesan level to the national Committee on Social and Urban Affairs, these structures can indeed disincentivize and slow down grassroots pressure for change, while make organizing legible and allow for meaningful change and accountability. Anti-racism trainings and discussions have become more commonplace in the dioceses, though the frequency and structure of these apparatuses vary. After all, systematic abuses cannot be addressed without a positive reformation of the system. The process of reparations should remind us of the real work of forgiveness: it is not an abstract, purely emotive gesture, but work that serves to restore and ameliorate unjust relations of power. As Bishop Sutton reminds us in his speech, “There can be no love without justice, and there can be no justice without some form of repairing an injustice.” Repairing an injustice is not just a prayer group meeting or a feel-good worship service; it is making sure that the victim is properly redressed and doing our best to ensure that similar problems do not arise again through structure and law — the cornerstones of a church community. Justification by faith through grace is no excuse for neglecting the redemptive possibilities of ecclesiology.

• • •

Many of us treat worship music as the most elevated and artful form of worship. But in reality, the true art of worship remains in the variety of ways in which we can draw from our distinct lived and cultural experiences to promote care, justice, and love through the “boring” details of church life: administration, structure, and discipline.

In this sense, we must take seriously the efforts of the reformers of our day: progressive Christians who have experienced various forms of trauma from the evangelical church and have stayed to reform the church, like holding these institutions accountable for racial and gender oppression. These efforts take imagination, experimentation, and braving through uncertain grounds. But these are not mutually exclusive with the tough truth that to reform the church means holding our own oppressors accountable, and that certain individuals and organizations that claim to be part of our community should be subject to discipline, albeit a restorative kind, for Christian justice to prevail.

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Promise Li

Promise Li is a Ph.D. student in English at Princeton University, studying religion, politics, and poetics in early modern England. He is a founding member and organizer of Lausan 流傘 Collective, dedicated to amplifying anti-capitalist struggles in Hong Kong from the diaspora and building transnational solidarity efforts. He has also been active in Asian American and left-wing social movements in the U.S., from organizing with low-income tenants against gentrification and displacement in Los Angeles Chinatown and for sanctuary policies and immigrant rights to helping to build socialist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and Solidarity (U.S.).

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