On a quiet Sunday morning in June, as worshippers settled into the pews at Allen Baptist Church in southwestern Michigan, Pastor Jason Burrick grabbed his cellphone and dialed 911. When a dispatcher answered, the preacher said a former congregant was in the sanctuary. “And we need to, um, have her out A.S.A.P.”
Half an hour later, 71-year-old Karolyn Caskey, a church member for nearly 50 years who had taught Sunday school and regularly donated 10% of her pension, was led out by a state trooper and a county sheriff’s officer. One held her purse and Bible. The other put her in handcuffs.
The charge was trespassing, but Mrs. Caskey’s real offense, in her pastor’s view, was spiritual. Several months earlier, when she had questioned his authority, he’d charged her with spreading “a spirit of cancer and discord” and expelled her from the congregation. “I’ve been shunned,” she says.
Her story reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.
The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
Watermark Community Church, a nondenominational church in Dallas that draws 4,000 people to services, requires members to sign a form stating they will submit to the “care and correction” of church elders. Last week, the pastor of a 6,000-member megachurch in Nashville, Tenn., threatened to expel 74 members for gossiping and causing disharmony unless they repented. The congregants had sued the pastor for access to the church’s financial records.
First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Ala., a 1,000-member congregation, expels five to seven members a year for “blatant, undeniable patterns of willful sin,” which have included adultery, drunkenness and refusal to honor church elders. About 400 people have left the church over the years for what they view as an overly harsh persecution of sinners, Pastor Jeff Noblit says.
The process can be messy, says Al Jackson, pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala., which began disciplining members in the 1990s. Once, when the congregation voted out an adulterer who refused to repent, an older woman was confused and thought the church had voted to send the man to hell.
Amy Hitt, 43, a mortgage officer in Amissville, Va., was voted out of her Baptist congregation in 2004 for gossiping about her pastor’s plans to buy a bigger house. Her ouster was especially hard on her twin sons, now 12 years old, who had made friends in the church, she says. “Some people have looked past it, but then there are others who haven’t,” says Ms. Hitt, who believes the episode cost her a seat on the school board last year; she lost by 42 votes.
Scholars estimate that 10% to 15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice church discipline — about 14,000 to 21,000 U.S. congregations in total. Increasingly, clashes within churches are spilling into communities, splitting congregations and occasionally landing church leaders in court after congregants, who believed they were confessing in private, were publicly shamed.
In the past decade, more than two dozen lawsuits related to church discipline have been filed as congregants sue pastors for defamation, negligent counseling and emotional injury, according to the Religion Case Reporter, a legal-research database. Peggy Penley, a Fort Worth, Texas, woman whose pastor revealed her extramarital affair to the congregation after she confessed it in confidence, waged a six-year battle against the pastor, charging him with negligence. Last summer, the Texas Supreme Court dismissed her suit, ruling that the pastor was exercising his religious beliefs by publicizing the affair.
Courts have often refused to hear such cases on the grounds that churches are protected by the constitutional right to free religious exercise, but some have sided with alleged sinners. In 2003, a woman and her husband won a defamation suit against the Iowa Methodist conference and its superintendent after he publicly accused her of “spreading the spirit of Satan” because she gossiped about her pastor. A district court rejected the case, but the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the woman’s appeal on the grounds that the letter labeling her a sinner was circulated beyond the church.
Advocates of shunning say it rarely leads to the public disclosure of a member’s sin. “We’re not the FBI; we’re not sniffing around people’s homes trying to find out some secret sin,” says Don Singleton, pastor of Ridgeview Baptist Church in Talladega, Ala., who says the 50-member church has disciplined six members in his 21/2 years as pastor. “Ninety-nine percent of these cases never go that far.”
When they do, it can be humiliating. A devout Christian and grandmother of three, Mrs. Caskey moves with a halting gait, due to two artificial knees and a double hip replacement. Friends and family describe her as a generous woman who helped pay the electricity bill for Allen Baptist, in Allen, Mich., when funds were low, gave the church $1,200 after she sold her van, and even cut the church’s lawn on occasion. She has requested an engraved image of the church on her tombstone.
Gossip and Slander
Her expulsion came as a shock to some church members when, in August 2006, the pastor sent a letter to the congregation stating Mrs. Caskey and an older married couple, Patsy and Emmit Church, had been removed for taking “action against the church and your preacher.” The pastor, Mr. Burrick, told congregants the three were guilty of gossip, slander and idolatry and should be shunned, according to several former church members.
“People couldn’t believe it,” says Janet Biggs, 53, a former church member who quit the congregation in protest.
The conflict had been brewing for months. Shortly after the church hired Mr. Burrick in 2005 to help revive the congregation, which had dwindled to 12 members, Mrs. Caskey asked him to appoint a board of deacons to help govern the church, a tradition outlined in the church’s charter. Mr. Burrick said the congregation was too small to warrant deacons. Mrs. Caskey pressed the issue at the church’s quarterly business meetings and began complaining that Mr. Burrick was not following the church’s bylaws. “She’s one of the nicest, kindest people I know,” says friend and neighbor Robert Johnston, 69, a retired cabinet maker. “But she won’t be pushed around.”
In April 2006, Mrs. Caskey received a stern letter from Mr. Burrick. “This church will not tolerate this spirit of cancer and discord that you would like to spread,” it said. Mrs. Caskey, along with Mr. and Mrs. Church, continued to insist that the pastor follow the church’s constitution. In August, she received a letter from Mr. Burrick that said her failure to repent had led to her removal. It also said he would not write her a transfer letter enabling her to join another church, a requirement in many Baptist congregations, until she had “made things right here at Allen Baptist.”
She went to Florida for the winter, and when she returned to Michigan last June, she drove the two miles to Allen Baptist as usual. A church member asked her to leave, saying she was not welcome, but Mrs. Caskey told him she had come to worship and asked if they could speak after the service. Twenty minutes into the service, a sheriff’s officer was at her side, and an hour later, she was in jail.
“It was very humiliating,” says Mrs. Caskey, who worked for the state of Michigan for 25 years before retiring from the Department of Corrections in 1992. “The other prisoners were surprised to see a little old lady in her church clothes. One of them said, ‘You robbed a church?’ and I said, ‘No, I just attended church.’ ”
Word quickly spread throughout Allen, a close-knit town of about 200 residents. Once a thriving community of farmers and factory workers, Allen consists of little more than a strip of dusty antiques stores. Mr. and Mrs. Church, both in their 70s, eventually joined another Baptist congregation nearby.
About 25 people stopped attending Allen Baptist Church after Mrs. Caskey was shunned, according to several former church members.
Current members say they support the pastor’s actions, and they note that the congregation has grown under his leadership. The simple, white-washed building now draws around 70 people on Sunday mornings, many of them young families. “He’s a very good leader; he has total respect for the people,” says Stephen Johnson, 66, an auto parts inspector, who added that Mr. Burrick was right to remove Mrs. Caskey because “the Bible says causing discord in the church is an abomination.”
Mrs. Caskey went back to the church about a month after her arrest, shortly after the county prosecutor threw out the trespassing charge. More than a dozen supporters gathered outside, some with signs that read “What Would Jesus Do?” She sat in the front row as Mr. Burrick preached about “infidels in the pews,” according to reports from those present.
Once again, Mrs. Caskey was escorted out by a state trooper and taken to jail, where she posted the $62 bail and was released. After that, the county prosecutor dismissed the charge and told county law enforcement not to arrest her again unless she was creating a disturbance.
In the following weeks, Mrs. Caskey continued to worship at Allen Baptist. Some congregants no longer spoke to her or passed the offering plate, and some changed seats if she sat next to them, she says.
Mr. Burrick repeatedly declined to comment on Mrs. Caskey’s case, calling it a “private ecclesiastical matter.” He did say that while the church does not “blacklist” anyone, a strict reading of the Bible requires pastors to punish disobedient members. “A lot of times, flocks aren’t willing to submit or be obedient to God,” he said in an interview before a Sunday evening service. “If somebody is not willing to be helped, they forfeit their membership.”
In Christianity’s early centuries, church discipline led sinners to cover themselves with ashes or spend time in the stocks. In later centuries, expulsion was more common. Until the late 19th century, shunning was widely practiced by American evangelicals, including Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists. Today, excommunication rarely occurs in the U.S. Catholic Church, and shunning is largely unheard of among mainline Protestants.
Among churches that practice discipline, there is little consensus on how sinners should be dealt with, says Gregory Wills, a theologian at Southern Baptist Theological seminary. Some pastors remove members on their own, while other churches require agreement among deacons or a majority vote from the congregation.
Since Mrs. Caskey’s second arrest last July, the turmoil at Allen Baptist has fizzled into an awkward stalemate. Allen Baptist is an independent congregation, unaffiliated with a church hierarchy that might review the ouster. Supporters have urged Mrs. Caskey to sue to have her membership restored, but she says the matter should be settled in the church. Mr. Burrick no longer calls the police when Mrs. Caskey shows up for Sunday services.
Since November, Mrs. Caskey has been attending a Baptist church near her winter home in Tavares, Fla. She plans to go back to Allen Baptist when she returns to Michigan this spring.
“I don’t intend to abandon that church,” Mrs. Caskey says. “I feel like I have every right to be there.”