FoxNews is reporting a church discipline story about Rebecca Hancock, a 49 year-old member of Grace Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida, who openly admits that she is having a sexual relationship with a man who is not her husband. She also acknowledges that she is fully aware that this relationship is forbidden by the standards established by her church for membership in accord with the teachings of Scripture. But now she is enraged that GCC is planning to make her sins public by exposing her infidelity to the entire congregation. This is a particularly offensive action to Hancock because her children remain active members of the church (20 year-old son, 18 year-old daughter). She believes this action will be the equivalent of “their mother being crucified by the church that they trust.”

Here’s what I find ironic about this story: Hancock has chosen to make her story even more public than Grace Community Church. She’s so upset that the church is going to tell every member about her sexual relationship with her boyfriend that she launches a preemptive strike by telling the world! We live in a culture where privacy and things that should be kept private are no longer sacred rights. The public sector – with the help of internet tools such as blogs, personal pages such as MySpace and Facebook, YouTube, and more – has become a stage for Americans to share every dirty little secret. So what is Ms. Hancock’s goal? She feels victimized (for her own personal, conscious sin) and she wants someone else to feel her pain (namely, Grace Community Church and its elders).

Church discipline, while public, isn’t  intended to be a city-wide (or global)event. It is a community event, and by community I mean the community of believers. But when the act of church discipline becomes this public, it threatens the integrity of the process. By sharing her story with FoxNews, Hancock has chosen to make her admitted sexual immorality a global event. The problem here for the Christian community is that this violates the spirit of church discipline because it turns the spotlight toward the community acting in love, as if the congregation has sinned, rather than on the unrepentant sinner. It makes the unrepentant sinner the victim, who in turn victimizes the community of faith which has been poisoned by the personal sin of this unrepentant believer (1Corinthains 5:1-13), by shifting the focus from the issue at hand.

There are other concerns with Ms. Hancock taking this issue public. Because the actions of this church have been made an issue in the secular realm, certainly a secular, humanistic response can’t be far behind. This would likely mean Ms. Hancock may be posturing for some possible civil litigation. More than that, it places an extreme burden upon this community of believers because now the spotlight is fixed firmly upon GCC and its elders. Will they respond in a way that makes much of Jesus Christ? Will they make the gospel look good and glorious? This, of course, will always be the goal, but because this event is now more public than it should have otherwise been, the temptation will be great to try to save face as a congregation. Will they capitulate to the opinions and demands of culture? Will they face increased temptations to fight to preserve their reputation in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect Kingdom values? If this happens then they become open to the charge of hypocrisy.

Without knowing all the facts about the case and how the elders of GCC have handled it, there to appear to be two serious errors:

1) GCC needs to be clear that they are pursuing discipline with Ms. Hancock, not only out of love that seeks her redemption and reconcilliation with Jesus, but also for the sake of the purity of the entire congregation. Unconfessed, unrepented sin works like leaven through the entire body. When we Christians tolerate “all things” as “lawful” (1Cor 6:12), we risk contaminating the body of Christ, which is God’s temple (1Cor 6:19). On the surface it appears that the primary concern by GCC is Rebecca Hancock’s soul. While this is a concern, it is not the only concern.

2) Did the church respond appropriately when Ms. Hancock severed ties with the church? This is a stickier proposition because we aren’t given clear guidelines in Scripture when the member says, “I’m finished with this fellowship.” Individual members, within the congregational model, don’t hold the “rights” to their membership. A member can’t just show up and say, “Give me my letter of membership. I’m leaving town.” It doesn’t work that way. Only the majority voice of the congregation has the authority to accept or decline members. So it appears the church was right to pursue Ms. Hancock even though she asked them not to contact her further. But the article indicates that the pastor “kept calling”. This pursuit may have been out of genuine love and concern, but the reality is that you can’t twist someone’s arm into repentance (or at least you shouldn’t). Ms. Hancock made it clear that though she tried to end the relationship with her boyfriend (some 10x’s), she didn’t have enough self-control to remain in relationship with him without engaging in sexual intercourse. She cast her lot. Her allegiance was to this man, not to Christ. GCC should have brought the matter before the church without what appears to be an incessant, overbearing pursuit.

Ms. Hancock is worried that a “crufixion” is going to take place on January 4. Sadly she misses the grim reality that a crufixion has taken place and it has everything to do with Ms. Hancock’s shame. Jesus endured the agony of the cross for Ms. Hancock’s sins. He was subjected to the wrath of God for the sins of the world – sins such as sexual immorality, lack of self-control, pride, greed, ambition, envy and more. If Ms. Hancock were as concerned about Jesus (she is a confessing believer) as she is about her reputation, I doubt this story would have made headlines today.

There is one other comment I want to make about the article. Darrell Bock, a research professor from Dallas Theological Seminary, said that public church discipline is “normally reserved for church leaders as opposed to ‘a normal member of the church'”. This simply isn’t true. 

In 1Corinthians 5 there is nothing to indicate that the church member being disciplined is a church leader. Here we have a professing believer having a sexually relationship with his mother-in-law. This was a normal church member whom Paul says is to be expelled from the church (5:2), by the will of the congregation (5:4), to be handed over to the realm of Satan for the destruction of his carnality (5:5), for the sake of his restoration and the purity of the church (5:6-8).

Culturally, the practice of church discipline will likely continue receiving the same kind of publicity as this story in Jacksonville. The question is whether or not churches will embrace or continue the practice of biblical church discipline within a culture where scandalous secrets are revealed for entertainment purposes. Churches must be cognizant of the reality that acts of church discipline will become fodder for public discourse in a “tell all” world. This means that guarding the purity of the Church has never been more necessary than it is today. When a church responds to unrepentant sin in church discipline, the unrepentant believer may respond in a way that the focus is shifted off them and upon the congregation. Because of the far-reaching implications, shame and reproach that may be brought upon the name of Christ in a world where nothing is considered sacred or private, the Church needs to live consciously as a peculiar people so that when the world’s gaze is fixed upon Her in a very public way, they will see the glory of Christ.