A sobering sense of reality is setting in as the nation watches the dissolution of the Clinton presidency. One by one, leading political figures are distancing themselves from the president and waiting for the release of the special prosecutor's report.
But where is the voice of the church? Constitutionally, the president's fate is the responsibility of Congress. Theologically, the president's sin is a matter for the church. Congress must determine if President Clinton has broken the law. The church already knows that the president has broken the commandments.
To be sure, several Christian leaders have denounced the president's behavior, and some have called for his resignation. But the one Christian voice that would be most helpful in this matter is silent: the voice of President Clinton's congregation.
As the New Testament makes clear, discipline is an essential responsibility of the church. Called to be a holy people, the church is to maintain purity of doctrine, conduct, and devotion. Our Lord himself gave the church explicit instructions for confronting a brother who has sinned, and the church cannot consider the sins of its members as "none of its business."
And yet, today the very mention of church discipline is enough to start a firestorm. I certainly faced a fury when I issued a public call for President Clinton's congregation, Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, to exercise church discipline as mandated by Scripture. Some Christians were outraged that anyone would call for such a thing in this "enlightened" age. To these, at least, my call for church discipline sounded like a proposal to bring back the Salem witch hunts.
This controversy indicates something of the amnesia from which the church suffers at the end of the 20th century. With biblical illiteracy rampant in the church, it is no surprise that many Christians have never heard of the ministry of loving and corrective church discipline. It is no wonder that our churches look so much like the world.
Historically, discipline has been recognized as one of the four essential marks of the true church. Its absence invalidates the church's moral authority and dangerously weakens our witness.
Shaped by the modern cult of personal autonomy, most modern Christians consider their personal behavior to be a private matter-and none of the church's business. Most congregations have been only too willing to accept this claim of personal privilege. Seeking to avoid offending their members, many churches have dropped discipline altogether, leaving personal morality a matter of "don't ask, don't tell" by policy and practice. Sound familiar?
The president's pattern of repeated sin cries out for a biblical response. Despite having admitted to at least two adulterous relationships and having been caught in a series of lies, Mr. Clinton remains a member, apparently in good standing, of a Southern Baptist congregation.
Writing to the Corinthian congregation, the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 5:11 instructed the church not to "associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral." Such a man, if unrepentant and persisting in his sin, is to be removed from the congregation. Why should the church take such a dramatic action? Paul explained that the church is to judge its own members, and warned that those who practice such sins will not enter the Kingdom of God.
As the Lord made clear, we should hope that confrontation and correction would recover a brother. America recognizes that Mr. Clinton faces a grave political crisis. He now finds himself in a spiritual crisis as well. His only hope may be Christians who will call him to accountability, confront him with the reality of his sin, and point him to Christ's provision for forgiveness. He desperately needs the moral and spiritual guidance provided only by biblical church discipline. The last thing he needs is to be left alone.
The public nature of his sin demands a public accountability before the church. There is no zone of personal privacy for easy refuge. No one can force President Clinton's congregation to take up this biblical responsibility. But the world will be watching to see what this church really believes. Tertullian, one of the leaders of the early church, once remarked that "discipline is an index to doctrine." Our moral discipline reveals our true beliefs and doctrine.
The church cannot tolerate known sin without exposing its members to peril and bringing ruin to its gospel witness. Christians are sinners saved by grace, and are to watch over each other in love, even as we watch ourselves. To the Galatians Paul wrote in Galatians 6:1 that "if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted."
The president's sin demands a spiritual response. The strange silence of the church is a sign of its weakness, timidity, and fear before the world. We should fear a far greater danger. One of the most influential church manuals of the last century recorded a warning familiar in its day: "When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it." We cannot say we were not warned.