Church Discipline Stirs Controversy
Dr. Craig considers a case of church discipline in which a man was removed from membership. The local media cried foul! Was the church wrong?
Church Discipline Stirs Controversy
KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, if you are a church that exercises what is known as church discipline you just might make headlines, and you might make the press. Dallas Morning News picked up this story of a young man who underwent church discipline from a local church. It went viral, a Facebook page was set up with thousands and thousands of responses (it was eventually taken down). It is a church that you are familiar with because they've invited you to speak – Watermark Church in Dallas. They emphasize apologetics and philosophy. They are a great church. When I saw this letter from this young man I thought, Boy, they must have really written him a scathing letter denouncing his sin and disfellowshipped him. We will read a portion of the letter in just a moment and see if that is the case. This is what he said and this is what the Dallas Morning News reported.
Dear Watermark Community Church,
Today I celebrate a very interesting anniversary with you. It was exactly one year ago when you told me that I was no longer worthy to serve, be in a community group, and be a member of your church.
I spent years in your church battling against my homosexuality. I believed with all my heart that God would change me; I prayed for change almost daily. But when I wasn't able to change, you turned your back on me.
You say our "sin" is not unique, but you treat us in a unique manner; this is unacceptable behavior. We are actual people that have actual feelings.
Here we are a year later and you are still doing to others what you did to me. You are tarnishing the name of God to Christians and non-Christians alike; you should be ashamed of yourselves! Do not forget, Jesus was a angry with people just like you who said certain groups of people were not worthy to be followers of Him.
Thank you for removing yourself from my life! I am who God made me to be. I cannot change my sexual orientation and nor would I want to. I now have internal peace and happiness unlike ever before.
Any comments on that before we get to the letter that started all this – the letter of church discipline?
DR. CRAIG: One thing that strikes me was that he seemed to think that what the church was demanding of him was to change his sexual orientation. He says, I cannot do it. I wasn't able to change, and you turned your back on me. I think that Jason is wrong in thinking that what God calls a person to do is to change his sexual orientation. This is probably beyond your control. If you have a homosexual orientation then you are probably going to have great difficulty in changing that. It may not be possible. But that isn't a condition of being a member of a church or being in fellowship with God. What God calls upon someone like Jason to do is to live a life of purity and chastity before God. He is asking Jason to do what he would ask any other single person to do, and that is to abstain from sexual activity as well as mental activity that would be like fantasizing or pornography or watching videos of a certain sort. The idea of changing one's sexual orientation I think is really a red herring. The question is one of behavior not of orientation.
KEVIN HARRIS: You don't become a Christian and become a heterosexual.
DR. CRAIG: No, I think the experience of people who have become Christians and are of homosexual orientation is that that is very, very difficult to change. It may be unlikely to change. But we are not victims of our genes in the sense that we are like animals. We can control our sexual impulses and desires. A person who is unmarried and single is called upon by God to live a life that is chaste and pure both in body and in thought. That person's desires for sexual activity are just as strong and real as Jason's are, and God in both cases calls upon people to live lives that are chaste.
KEVIN HARRIS: Whether heterosexual or homosexual.
DR. CRAIG: In that sense Jason is wrong to say, You treat us [by which I think he means homosexuals] in a unique manner. That is not really true. The Bible proscribes any sort of sexual activity outside of marriage, and your sexual orientation is irrelevant. Whatever your orientation may be, outside of marriage one is to live a life of chastity and purity in both thought and body.
KEVIN HARRIS: The letter that he received from the elders of Watermark Church – let me at least read a portion of it here. I'll ask our listeners to judge for themselves if they think this is terse, unfair, unloving, and so on.
This is a difficult letter to write, as I am sure that it will be a difficult one to hear and receive. We genuinely care for you, love you, and want nothing more for you than to live an abundant life that is found in Jesus Christ alone.
However, in our attempt to shepherd you, we have recognised a destructive pattern that prohibits us in caring for you and playing the role you desire for us to have in your life (1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28). Specifically, your desire to actively participate in a same-sex relationship with another man, and your unwillingness to heed biblical counsel from your church to turn from that relationship, has made it exceedingly difficult to shepherd you during this time.
As we noted during our time together last Tuesday (9/29/15), and through the years, we have gently & repeatedly brought these patterns to your attention and, at times, you have heeded this counsel and repented. But now, this is no longer the case. So, in obedience to Matthew 18:15-18 and 1 Corinthians 5:11, we are left with no other option but to remove you from our body and treat you as we would anyone who is living out of fellowship with God…and we lovingly, but firmly, call you back to repentance. This means that you are no longer a member of our body at Watermark. We are praying that repentance comes quickly and that you do not continue choosing a path of destruction and one that leads you away from the authority and care of the church.
We recognise that these patterns are only symptoms of a heart that is either unwilling or unable to fully trust God in every area of your life, including your sexuality. We plead with you to run to the Lord and allow the Spirit of God to begin to transform your heart in a mighty way (Titus 3:3-7).
In order to help you through this time, we would like to make some tangible recommendations that we hope will serve as a catalyst for true repentance and heart-change in your life. They are:
1. Faithful attendance of Re:Generation targeting the above issue, while following counsel to not be in a dating relationship during that time.
2. Meet with a Watermark staff member who shares in the same struggle (same sex attraction) who has found freedom, healing, and victory through our Savior Jesus Christ (just let Brandon know when you’re ready to meet with him).
We affirm your many gifts, your heart of kindness, and we value the way God has uniquely formed you (Psalm 139:13-14). We all pray for your repentance and full restoration so that your gifts and passions can be fully unleashed for the Kingdom of God. We love you, Jason, and stand at the gate for you and eagerly await God’s restoration in your life (Luke 15:20).
The Elders of Watermark Community Church
Was that a terse, unloving letter?
DR. CRAIG: Oh, not at all. I think this is really a model of church discipline. Too few churches in our day take really seriously Jesus' admonitions to engage in church discipline – of members who are living lifestyles that are in conflict with Christian ethics. This is simply removing Jason from membership in the church. It doesn't mean he can't continue to attend the church if he wanted to, or participate in the church's activities. But it is saying that membership has certain preconditions, and that he had violated those conditions. Therefore they exercised this discipline in accordance with Jesus' commandments. I think that the way in which they did this was really a model of charity and yet firmness.
KEVIN HARRIS: After the Dallas Morning News article, Watermark Community Church's director of communications Caitlin Van Wagoner emailed the Dallas Morning News the following response:
Following the example of Jesus, Watermark loves and welcomes people of all backgrounds, economic statuses, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and struggles. Also following His example, we encourage people to turn away from sin and to follow Jesus.
Watermark makes a distinction between attending our church and being a formal member of our church. We don't remove someone's formal status as a member for struggling with sin -- whether that sin is pride, materialism or sexual sin. Every member of Watermark needs God's grace to stand firm in the midst of temptation and His forgiveness for the times we fall short.
An individual's formal relationship with us as a member is only changed when someone no longer desires to resist sin and refuses our help, care and encouragement. Even if someone's formal membership status is removed, they are always welcome to attend Watermark and be reminded of the grace and truth of our savior Jesus Christ.
There is the response. Really that response was not even necessary. If you read the initial letter it seems to me it was very loving and offered steps.
DR. CRAIG: I think the final response does make a couple of things clear. Namely, they were not prohibiting him from attending church but simply he couldn't be a member of the church any longer. Moreover, they emphasize that they don't remove people from the church membership roles simply because they are struggling with sin. They recognize that we all stumble and fail. Rather, what prompted his removal was, I think, deliberate rebellion and refusal to submit to the church's requirements and counsel. So in one sense it wasn't even the homosexual activity that prompted the removal. It was more in a sense the rebellion and refusal to follow the church's counsel and guidance.
KEVIN HARRIS: I have to say that I reached out to this young man. I sent him a note and said, “I really want to encourage you. I hope that you will heed this letter because I found it very loving, balanced, and offered practical steps for you, and not in any way something that you should have been offended by or condemned.” He wrote back a quick note, I'm praying that God will transform your heart into one of love which you obviously do not have.
Well, I couldn't have been more loving. This letter couldn't have been more loving. Bill, what does that say about what we mean by “love” these days?
DR. CRAIG: It seems that people think that loving someone means that you accept whatever they do and that you abandon any sort of objective standards of right and wrong. That is simply mistaken. We can love our children, for example, even while recognizing that sometimes they are disobedient and need to be punished because they have gone astray. I think that the matter of church discipline is one that may be unpopular but it is biblical, and I admire their courage for standing by the standards that they've set at Watermark for membership in the church.
I think the reason that people react so severely to this is because people no longer regard homosexual behavior as wrong. This is in the eyes of our culture today a legitimate expression of one's sexuality. They probably wouldn't regard premarital sexual relations as wrong either, and so would be shocked if the church were to discipline someone for engaging in premarital sex as our church once did in Illinois when we were in attendance there. There a heterosexual couple was disciplined by the elders of the church because they were engaged in sexual relations even though they weren't married. Fortunately they did repent and were reconciled to the church and restored to fellowship. But it takes guts to call sin for what it is and to maintain the standards that the church is called to maintain today even when it is culturally unpopular and politically incorrect.
http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2016/10/13/watermark-asks-homosexual-member-leave-church (accessed February 13, 2017).
 Total Running Time: 15:15 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)