A woman who had been attending West Sparta Church of Christ in Sparta, Tennessee, received a letter at the end of February from three of the church elders. She shared the photo of the church discipline letter on Facebook. And it has since gone viral.
Under the church’s letterhead and with the name of the recipient covered, here is the content of the letter:
For the last several weeks we have noted that you have stopped attending the assembly of the church. After attempts to discuss this situation with you, we fear that you are not longer convinced in the need to assemble with the church for which Christ died. We are very saddened by your decision.
This “failure to assemble” is not the only problem that you must address. We have been informed and understand that you have a living arrangement that is not Biblical and must be terminated immediately. This action alone reflects that you have not avoided “all appearance of evil” as the scriptures direct us. (I Thess. 5:22)
Please understand our obligation as shepherds. First, we must watch for your soul (Hebrews 13:17) and second, protect the congregation by withdrawing from every brother/sister that walks disorderly (II Thess. 3:6).
If these issues are not corrected and public repentance made by Sunday, February 21, 2021, we will withdraw fellowship.
Church Discipline in Scripture
Church discipline is a common practice in Scripture, but Jesus’ guidance is clear that such discipline is to be done in person–not by letter. “Church discipline is not man’s idea, but God’s. Whatever Jesus meant by ‘You shall not judge’ in Matthew 7, he didn’t mean to rule out loving correction between Christians, as he describes it in Matthew 18:15-20,” writes Jonathan Leeman in “10 Things You Should Know About Church Discipline.”
There are four reasons that merit church discipline, states Brad Hambrick. These are sin struggles, lack of cooperation with the planned change for correction, concern for salvation, and public harm to the reputation of Christ.
Church discipline is a generally accepted part of relationships within a Christian community—whether that is primarily within a small group setting or the larger church community itself. Churches and individuals have grappled with how to best apply this practice and how to respond when addressing sin with a fellow Christian. Practices can be broadly different from church to church or between denominations and tension often arises between holding others’ personal lives accountable while modeling the grace of Jesus. That tension has come to a head for a church in Tennessee this week.
Questionable Method for Church Discipline
In the letter, the church elders addressed the woman’s lack of attendance in recent weeks and her living with a man while unmarried. The letter has amassed many comments from people both in support of the church’s decision to send the letter and against.