If you wanted to scare your readers into avoiding conservative Christian churches, how would you go about it?
The Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal section did a bang-up job on Jan. 18 with a hostile, one-sided article about church discipline, complete with a color drawing of a banished soul and the headline "Banned From Church" in massive type.
On the full runover page, the piece is illustrated with a graphic entitled "Cast Out" that helpfully gives us "A Brief History of Shunning, Excommunication and Getting Burned at the Stake in Christianity."
Skipping happily down the church hater's version of Memory Lane, the graphic shows Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and various dark moments in church history such as witch burnings, Galileo getting jailed for heresy and Joan of Arc's martyrdom. It finishes with the 20th century example of California pastor David Hocking losing his ministry  in 1992 over a relationship with a married woman.
Alexandra Alter, the author, constructs her article around the case of Karolyn Caskey, 71, who has continued to attend the Allen Baptist Church in southwestern Michigan after being expelled over a dispute with the new pastor, who declined to be interviewed. Even if the one-sided account is roughly accurate, why make it the centerpiece? The effect is to portray church discipline as bizarre and anachronistic. Indeed, the subheadline is:
"Reviving an ancient practice, churches are exposing sinners and shunning those who won't repent."
As Alter explains in the article, "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."
Egad. How frightening is this trend?
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.
"Two dozen lawsuits" sounds alarming until you realize that America has 536,480 church congregations (as of 2000, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives ). Alter reports that 14,000 to 21,000 U.S. Protestant evangelical churches, or 10 to 15 percent, practice some form of church discipline. With all that discipline (and counseling) going on, a couple of dozen cases is hardly a legal avalanche.
Since Alter put churches in the dock for enforcing the "ancient" practice of shunning, she should have analyzed the relevant biblical passages. No such luck. The best we get is: "Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned." My guess is that Alter probably heard about Matthew 18:15-17, in which Jesus  Himself instructs the church in how to deal with unrepentant sinners:
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that "by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector (New King James Version).
It would make sense for any article on church shunning to include the passage above. At least it would unless the writer is Bibliophobic. Or biblically challenged. Perhaps Alter was worried about making an error like the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, who once cited a verse from "Eleven Chronicles." (The Old Testament includes the books First Chronicles and Second Chronicles, usually written as I Chronicles and II Chronicles.)
Moving along in her piece, Alter quickly returns to making churches look like meanies, with anecdotes like this one:
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 had refused to repent, an older woman was confused and thought the church had voted tosend the man to hell.
Presumably, the pastor straightened her out instead of putting her in a ducking chair in a nearby river (an activity the reader can see in the informative Cast Out graphic). But you can't be too sure when it comes to these conservative Christians.
Weaving the sad, arguably deplorable plight of Mrs. Caskey throughout the article, Alter pauses here and there to share more historical nuggets that might persuade even the most curious never to darken a church door. At least, not the doors of evangelical churches, or those in Catholic dioceses where some bishops have denied communion to public figures who support abortion on demand.
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.
And it's a good thing too, or lots of "pro-choice" and serial-marrying politicians might be embarrassed, leaving us all fewer "choices."