The Gospel Coalition


A Tale of Two Governments

Robert J. Renaud and Lael D. Weinberger | Review by: David V. Edling

Robert J. Renaud and Lael D. Weinberger, A Tale of Two Governments: Church Discipline, the Courts, and the Separation of Church and StateDunrobin Press, 2012. 192 pp. $14.99.

The mere possibility of lawsuits related is enough to tempt many church leaders to avoid even considering the practice of corrective church discipline. In addition, fear of man (“What will people think?”; “What if they accuse us of being harsh or unloving?”) has frequently been enough to tip the scales away from the faithful practice of redemptive church discipline. Robert Renaud and Lael Weinberger, legal experts and devoted churchmen, argue well in A Tale of Two Governments that this should not be the case. While fear of having to interact with the secular courts and fear of man may dampen the zeal to follow the biblical prescription when a church member hardens his or her heart and remains stuck in sin, these authors effectively refute the idea that such excuses hold any validity. The most significant contribution these authors make to life together in the church today is to provide church leaders and members with confidence—confidence that these common fears can be replaced with the knowledge that being biblical is protected by the laws that govern both church and state.

The foundation for their argument is Scripture. They effectively exegete the relevant passages, including an explanation of how Jesus proclaimed he would build his church by giving men “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19), that is, the unique authority both to open the kingdom (through the preaching of the gospel) and to regulate its internal administration (through the practice of church discipline, binding and loosing sin). Using a threefold approach of (1) church history (specifically a “high point” review of 2,000 years of church-state relations); (2) a concise review of the common law and American jurisprudence (the development of the current legal doctrine called “church autonomy”); and (3) practical theology (how to keep your church out of court), Renaud and Weinberger deftly weave together their “tale” that leaves the reader with only one conclusion: if we are wise, we need not fear the courts or the reaction of our church members as we fulfill the call of Christ to love his people and build his church as he has directed using church discipline to restore, protect, and keep pure that for which he died.

Discipline and Law

What does it mean for the church to “be wise” from a secular legal perspective in light of the many court cases that have been decided over the years? As these authors summarize, church leaders must be aware of legal principles that will protect the church in its practice of discipline. Failure to stay within these boundaries may leave the church unprotected. The “church autonomy” doctrine is built on the First Amendment’s embedded theology that God established two separate but equal governments, but the First Amendment doesn’t necessarily bar all claims that may touch on religious conduct. To protect the legal distinction church leaders must understand that their jurisdiction to practice discipline depends on following the law. Central to understand is the “implied consent” that exists in a truly voluntary relationship between church and member (typically through formal membership), that an act of discipline must be grounded in a church’s doctrinal commitments that have been clearly articulated and are supported by recognized religious belief and practice, and that the church must have a clearly stated policy for the practice of biblical church discipline (usually set forth in its constitution or bylaws). Further, church leaders must help members understand the limits of confidentiality because church discipline, by definition, requires others knowing of the continuing sin in the life of one who fails to repent and change. The authors recommend, as would I, the reading and study of a case such as Westbrook v. Penley (231 S.W. 3d 389, Texas Supreme Court, 2007), easily found on the internet or in any law library.

Having mediated among thousands of Christians in dozens of churches, I know firsthand the devastating effects that the lack of church discipline has on individuals, families, and church bodies. Renaud and Weinberger provide a biblical roadmap by which churches may discipline their sheep while also remaining wise and practical stewards. They do this by resting their counsel on careful biblical exegesis, centuries of church history, and legal analysis of the most current court cases. An example of their thoroughness and precision is their distinguishing the use of the term “two kingdoms” from “two kingdom theology” as used by a writer such as David VanDrunen (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms [Crossway, 2010]), who, interestingly, is also a licensed attorney. The inclusion of extensive and detailed endnotes, chapter summaries, and recommendations for further study exponentially multiplies the importance, credibility, and lasting value of this small, readable book. I am confident that laypeople and ordained leaders will come away with a strong call to lovingly and faithfully obey all that Scripture calls them to do as regards the rescue, care, and shepherding through discipline of their fellow church members.

Consider whether your church may be failing to obey God’s appointed means of soul care through the faithful and consistent practice of redemptive church discipline. Then read this book and consider each biblical citation, each example throughout church history, and each (stunning) case in our current legal climate. If you do, I believe it will change your convictions and your practice. Real soul care must be what the church is about if we are going to build congregations consistent with the ekklesia Jesus instituted. There is no excuse for a church not to practice the biblical mandate of church discipline, and this book shows you why. Building a culture of peace in your church that uses the gift of authority Christ granted takes time and effort, but there really is no alternative. In A Tale of Two Governments, we have been given another worthy resource that will both encourage and equip.

David V. Edling is co-author of Redeeming Church Conflicts (Baker, 2012) and was the director of church relations at Peacemaker Ministries before his retirement.

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