Book Review: Walking Together: A Congregational Reflection on Biblical Church Discipline, by Wyman Richardson
Wyman Lewis Richardson’s Walking Together provides a concise and careful introduction to the topic of church discipline. Richardson seems to have read almost everything written on discipline in the last thirty years, which, based on his footnotes and bibliography, is more than I realized.
A SOLID INTRODUCTORY WORK
Like most introductory books, Richardson does not say anything strikingly new that readers of other books on church discipline have not already encountered. But he does a good job of summarizing the basic points, and mining the literature for the wise counsel that others have given.
Richardson is a pastor, and presumably has some firsthand experience with church discipline, but interestingly he removes himself entirely from the text. All his illustrations come from others. This is not a critique, per se. I assume it’s deliberate. But it does give the book a different feel than, say, Mark Lauterbach’s treatment of the subject, which seems to have as many personal illustrations as it has pages.
That’s not to say that Richardson doesn’t bring pastoral wisdom to bear. For instance, he offers ten items for what should characterize the “one or two others” that we bring to confront someone who is in sin (76). Also, he recognizes how crucial it is for a church to address its practices of membership before it marches forward into the realm of discipline. Someone who hadn’t “been there, done that” may miss this essential point.
Typical for a book on discipline, Richardson spends a decent amount of time providing an apologetic for the subject, which makes sense in light of our culture’s love affair with tolerance and horror of anything remotely exclusivistic. Especially helpful is his attempt to help the reader understand the idea of godly love, which does call for acts of warning and judgment.
WEAKNESSES? NOT MANY
Weaknesses? If I wanted to be picayune, I could say that that the book sometimes feels a bit workman-like and impersonal because the author is so removed from the text. But maybe such a comment reveals more about me as a Gen-X American than it does about the book. I trust some readers will appreciate this aspect of the book.
More substantively, Richardson contends that “a church should never (a) hear about a matter of church discipline, (b) discuss the matter, and (c) vote to remove a person from the fellowship all in one meeting” (p. 91). If he changed the word “never” to “seldom,” I believe he would be more in line with the gist of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 5.
Aside from this one sentence, I couldn’t find anything I disagreed with in the book, nor anything that I would want to improve upon. Richardson is sensitive, pastoral, and careful throughout. This is important because church discipline is one place where everything in a church’s life collides: theory and practice collide here, and our doctrines of God, sin, judgment, redemption, and eschatology all collide here, as he observes (17-18). Explaining discipline well requires keen pastoral and theological sensitivities. Richardson has both.
The final test I always ask for books on discipline is, can a pastor use it for training his fellow church leaders, assuming that not all church leaders are not pastorally and theologically sensible? Richardson’s Walking Together gets an easy “yes.” In fact, I’d say it’s one of the better ones.