When soreheads charge that Jehovah's Witnessses are mean, they offer as proof that JW congregations tell their people what to do. As proof of that, they point out that congregations impose discipline upon members ranging from mild reproof to strong reproof to even expulsion for individuals who persistantly and purposefully deviate from core beliefs and practices. Doesn't that prove JWs are mean? Doesn't that prove they are a manmade organization of rules, not love? Doesn't that prove members are slaves to a governing body comprised of old men on a power trip?
No, it does not. The discipline now practiced by Jehovah's Witnesses was practiced in most Protestant denominations until less than 100 years ago - and was based on the same scriptures upon which we base ours. But when it became unpopular, they gave it up. As a result, the morals and lifestyle of today's evangelical church members are indistinguishable from that of the general population. That might be okay if the general population was a storehouse of virtue, but newspapers remind us daily that it's not. And scripture is clear that the Christian congregation is not supposed to be a mirror image of today's morally bankrupt society. It is supposed to be an oasis.
Such is the conclusion of Ronald Sider, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience - Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (2005) Mr. Sider is well respected within evangelical circles. He publishes PRISM magazine and serves as contributing editor to Christianity Today and Sojourners. He is professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy, as well as director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and some other accolades. He is not happy to reach his conclusion, and you cannot but admire the man for his frankness. One doesn't readily air one's dirty laundry in public, yet Sider does so out of moral outrage and shame for the evangelical community. He points to attitudes on sex, money, racsim, and personal self-fulfillment. Evangelicals live no differently than the rest of the world, he laments.
I vividly recall circuit overseers and their ilk pointing out that "50 years ago the difference between Jehovah's Witnesses and churchgoers in general was doctrinal, not moral." Time was when there was little difference between the two groups as regards conduct. Today the chasm is huge. Can internal discipline not be a factor?
"Church discipline used to be a significant, accepted part of most evangelical traditions, whether Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, or Anabaptist," Sider writes. ".....In the second half of the twentieth century, however, it has largely disappeared." He then quotes Haddon Robinson on the current church climate, a climate he calls consumerism:
"Too often now when people join a church, they do so as consumers. If they like the product, they stay. If they do not, they leave. They can no more imagine a church disciplining them than they could a store that sells goods disciplining them. It is not the place of the seller to discipline the consumer. In our churches we have a consumer mentality."
They do. And because the church promotes it, caters to it, does whatever it must to swell its ranks, its people cannot be told apart from general society. Of course, some can. I personally know ones who, like Mr Sider himself, take living by Bible standards seriously. But the evangelical label apparantly means nothing as regards lifestyle. It points to a people who can argue Trinity and hellfire till your ears fall off, but who otherwise live no differently than anyone else. The ones who actually apply Christianity are left unreinforced, in some ways even challenged, by their own church.
Doesn't it remind you of that endless list of negative qualities that people are said to have in the "last days?" Paul writes "But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God..."
As Paul winds down his list, he observes that such people, far from being atheist or agnostics, are "having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them." 2 Tim 3:1-5 (NIV)
What to make of Sider's book? I don't really know. A few upright evangelicals I know, such as in my own family (or are they just born-agains?) make me skeptical of the book's conclusions. Can it really be that all churches have sold out? But if I think of those evangelicals who picket our conventions, I believe every word. Such an unruly looking bunch you've never seen.
Only one other group comes to mind that has not forsaken church discipline: Mormons. Is it just coincidence that they, like Jehovah's Witnesses, carry a reputation for both honesty and family values and maintain a policy of internal discipline? Evangelicals, though, at least those on the web, deride both them and us as "cults," and rail against both for imposing rules of conduct on members. Yet discipline, even imperfectly applied (which is all you can expect of imperfect humans) has succeeded in preserving a people who can be identified by their conduct - a conduct which stands apart from the world at large.
God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Heb 12:7-11 (NIV)