Yes, autonomous local churches really can cooperate in church discipline. No, they typically don’t. But, yes, they should!
The first step my own church takes to cooperate with other churches in discipline is to ask everyone joining the church, have you ever been disciplined from a local church? If the person answers “yes,” more questions will follow, and possibly the pastors will reach out to the former church.
Read Greg Wills’ book Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900, and you will discover that, once upon a time, it was harder for excommunicated individuals to float from church to church because pastors asked those kinds of questions. Yes, it is rarer today. But what if more and more church leaders—like you?—began doing that again? How might that affect the evangelical landscape? My guess is that it would deal a hard blow to nominal Christianity and that our witness to outsiders would improve.
If you are a Baptist or believer in a free-church polity generally, say it out loud with me: cooperate.
Here are three illustrations from my own church’s experience of cooperating with other churches in discipline:
1) In a membership interview, a woman admitted that she had been excommunicated from a church in another part of the country for non-attendance. She had stopped showing up, and the church faithfully excommunicated her (see Heb. 10:25). When pressed, she admitted that she had never reconciled with her past church, but that she wanted to. The elder conducting the interview therefore called her former pastor and asked about the situation. The former pastor said that, in light of the fact that she now lived in another part of the country, her repentance would be shown in joining our church. His congregation then formally and publicly expressed its forgiveness toward her, and she joined our church.
2) Another woman joining our church admitted to having been excommunicated from her church (again, in another part of the country) for rebelling against her parents and the pastors. Our pastors, no doubt, took such a charge very seriously and wanted to respect and honor that church’s action. Therefore, they researched the incident carefully through phone conversations with her former pastors and family members. In the final analysis, however, our pastors decided that her former church had been mistaken in its decision to excommunicate her, and they decided to recommend her membership to the congregation.
3) A man was excommunicated from our congregation for a public sin. He then attempted to join another church in our metropolitan area. Somehow (I don’t know how) the new church caught wind of his excommunication. Since their pastors are friends with our pastors, they immediately called us, asked for our counsel, and told us they would delay on any membership decision, seeing that the man had unfinished business with us.
As a small “c” congregationalist, I believe that churches are autonomous, meaning that they rule themselves under God’s Word and King Jesus. But no church should be entirely independent. Indeed, we should be inter-dependent, even in matters that go to the heart of a church’s authority such as membership and discipline.
That means (i) another church’s decision in a matter of discipline and membership never formally binds your church, but (ii) you should give other churches the benefit of the doubt, assuming they have acted wisely until you have concrete reasons for thinking otherwise. Also, I hardly think churches should conduct manhunts for excommunicated members, following them everywhere they go and putting in phone calls to the pastors of any church building they walk into. But you should do what you can, with prudence, to aid other churches whenever they ask you about members who once belonged to you.
Finally, there is no reason why Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican and other churches might not informally cooperate in such matters. Every church has a gospel-interest in seeing the others succeed in gospel health and faithfulness.
Jonathan Leeman, a members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, is the editorial director for 9Marks and is the author of Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus.