Is a church anti-gay for practicing church discipline?

101716_0505_Whathappens1.jpgWatermark Community Church is an evangelical congregation in Dallas, Texas. It has been in the news this past week after a former member wrote a Facebook post announcing the one year anniversary of his excommunication from the church. The Dallas Morning News picked up the Facebook post and published it under the title “Watermark church dismissed me for being gay.”

As you can imagine, no little bit of controversy ensued. A columnist at the paper excoriated the church in an opinion piece titled “Watermark megachurch banned a gay man that it didn’t deserve to have as a member.” Just today, the pastor of Watermark contributed a column to the News titled “Watermark church’s ‘loving correction’ helps members deal with sin.”

Full disclosure, Pastor Todd Wagner used to be my pastor. He is a faithful man of God and a consistent expositor of scripture. He and his elders are on the side of the angels in this, but you wouldn’t know it from the mischaracterizations in The Dallas Morning News.

Rather than try to summarize all of this public correspondence, I will simply direct you to the links above. From what I’ve read, there are several lessons that all churches and pastors would do well to take note of.

1. The letter from this former member and the opinion column are designed not to engage the church’s beliefs but to shame the church for its beliefs. There is no mention of the fact that the Christian church has always taught that sexual activity is to be enjoyed only within the covenant of marriage. Christians have always believed that sex outside of marriage is immoral and incompatible with following Christ. Those who say that sexual immorality can be combined with Christianity are innovating in a way that contradicts the clear teaching of scripture and the entire 2,000 year consensus of the Christian church. In short, they are contradicting the faith, not upholding it. To miss that and to treat Watermark as if they are an outlier is dishonest. Watermark is simply believing and doing what faithful churches have always believed and done.

2. Churches that have no membership have no way of distinguishing God’s people from the world. And that kind of ambiguity is not going to be viable going forward. Churches need to know who their members are, and members need to know what the requirements are for fellowship in that church. Watermark apparently has a church covenant that members agree to before joining the church, and so the possibility for discipline is clear up front. Every church needs to lay its cards on the table like this so that when difficult situations like this arise, there is no ambiguity about how the church responds in faithfulness to Christ.

3. Church discipline has sadly fallen out of practice in many evangelical churches in North America. Yet discipline is commanded in scripture (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5:1-13) and is absolutely vital for the life, health, and witness of a church. Where discipline is absent, so is one of the primary marks of the church. And so is the church’s ability to distinguish itself from the world. Churches must have consistent bible-based procedures for caring for wayward members. Watermark has that, and they are acting in complete integrity in calling this person to repentance and in excommunicating him after he refused to repent.

4. The requirement of repentance is not just for gay people. It’s for everyone (Acts 17:30). Repentance for a gay person does not mean that they cease to experience same-sex attraction. Some do experience a change in attractions, and some do not. In either case, however, repentance means the same thing that it means for everyone else in the church. Whenever we desire or do something that God forbids, we must turn away from both the desire and the deed and trust in Christ for forgiveness and renewal. We are all sinners and have to go outside of ourselves if we want to experience salvation. That is not just a requirement for gay people, but for everyone. Repentance is not a one-time thing for the Christian. It is a way of life, and it is that way for all of us.

I am grateful for the faithful gospel ministry of Todd Wagner and Watermark Community Church. Their commitment to biblical church discipline is an expression of biblical faithfulness that more churches would do well to emulate. They have given us an example of what it means to pursue a wayward brother and to take every measure to win him back to the faith. So we can pray for this young man, and we can pray for Watermark. They are going to need it in the days ahead.

8 Responses to Is a church anti-gay for practicing church discipline?

  1. James Bradshaw October 17, 2016 at 10:36 pm #

    As a gay man, I don’t get the outrage. Churches are private groups that are united based on a shared set of beliefs. If you don’t agree with the group on fundamental issues (or issues that church believes are essential), find another church.

    So long as the church is consistent in its treatment of its members, I don’t see the problem.

    • buddyglass October 18, 2016 at 12:12 am #

      Yeah, that strikes me as the real issue here. The guy seemed to claim in his Facebook post that church discipline is being unevenly applied and homosexuality is being singled out as a “special” sin. The response from the church says that’s not true. They can’t both be right.

  2. Curt Day October 18, 2016 at 7:11 am #

    I see no problem with what the Watermark Church did. But I understand why that church may not get a fair hearing in the media. Remember that many of us religiously conservative Christians have not only wanted the Church to discipline those who would not repent from acting on homosexual inclinations, we tried, and some continue to do so, to get society to discipline and punish those from the LGBT community as well. Note the change in scope on both those who would enact the punishment as well as those who would receive it. That increase in scope has become closely associated with Conservative Christianity so that legitimate Church disciplinary actions on members over homosexuality are now guilty of wrongdoing by association.

  3. Michael Klim October 18, 2016 at 7:19 am #

    It’s like people are standing next to the churches, looking for something to attack. Their ideas about the church are already formed. They already see the church in a negative light, now they are looking for a way to justify their hate.

  4. Ken Abbott October 18, 2016 at 11:46 am #

    This is hardly the first instance of individuals in the press corps demonstrating their ignorance of the meaning and purpose of church discipline. The very concept flies in the face of American individualistic autonomy anyway and plays to the worst stereotypes non-Christians have of the practice of pastoral authority.

  5. Gus Nelson October 18, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

    Should we, as Christians, spend more time trying to explain why we do what we do? Is part of the problem that those who have little or no experience in church life simply don’t know what they’re seeing and, therefore, process it the only way they can through the only lens they know? The lady who wrote the column seemed to acknowledge the church had some right to handle membership how it saw fit. However, she treated it not as a matter of profound spiritual importance, but as simply a club of sorts, kicking out a member who is a “nice guy.” Little wonder she would be so profoundly disturbed. How can we provide the appropriate context to such people to help them understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it? Or am I hoping for pie in the sky by and by as Ravi Zacharias might say?

    • Ken Abbott October 19, 2016 at 8:46 am #

      It would make for an interesting conversation, distinguishing between that all-American virtue “niceness” and biblical conceptions of godliness, righteousness, and sanctification. I wonder how many non-Christians grasp what “holy” really means? And then getting them to wrap their arms around the fear of God–well, that would probably require divine intervention. But such were some of us…

      • Gus Nelson October 19, 2016 at 8:47 pm #

        Ken: I think you’ve hit on part of the problem – we seem to equate “nice” with never saying anything that makes anyone feel uncomfortable. Too many in the church have bought into this as well (and not just recently – it’s been going on for a long time). Perhaps part of the problem is too many in the church are also saying “yeah, he was a nice guy so why are they disciplining him?”

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