Contemporary Baptist churches are practically void of church discipline. One is left to wonder the reason of this; therefore, one must research the historicity of church discipline in Baptist churches. This discourse is valuable to all denominations in that, just as the Baptists seem to have lost this practice, so do denominations. Further this concept is essential to every Christian’s view of ecclesiology. If Christ’s bride is unfaithful, regardless of verbal promises, what love does She have for the Bridegroom?
“…Perhaps it is time to see church discipline at the center of Christian faith. Church discipline is part of the gospel (Jeschke 1972, 3).” As church discipline is lacking and needed, this discourse aims to catalyze Baptist concern in this area. This article seeks to briefly review the historical practice of church discipline in Baptist churches in and prior to the 19th Century, and the decline of church discipline in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the discusses the need of church disciple in the contemporary church.
Discipline in Early Baptist Churches
Because Scripture clearly prescribes personal holiness and church discipline, Baptists in early America were devoted to these practices (note Dagg and Mells below). Baptist leaders sought to build their denomination on Scripture alone; it is interesting that the Baptist denomination was primarily a grassroots movement among the poor and uneducated of America (Hammett 2005, 111).
Dagg, as a formidable Baptist leader in his day, focuses on the need strictly for a regenerate church membership,
In order that the church may judge whether a candidate is duly qualified for membership, they should hear his profession of faith. He is bound to let his light shine before all men, to the glory of God; and it is especially needful that they should see it, with whom he is to be associated in fellowship as a child of light. He is bound to be ready always to give an answer to every one that asketh the reason of the hope that is in him; and especially should he be ready to answer, on this point, those who are to receive him into their number, as called in one hope of their calling. He is bound to show forth the praise of him who has called him out of darkness into his marvellous light; and he should rejoice to say, “Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul (Dagg 1858, 3).”
This reflects the concept that the church is to be pure, in conception, growth, and practice. Sadly, this doctrine lost favor after the Civil War. At this time in history, the church was central to life, therefore believers lived in daily community in and out of the walls of the church. In order to promote church purity, Baptists considered themselves accountable to each other for the sake of purity. There was a concept of true family in the church. As families seek to correct each other; not in punishment, but in growth, so the church is to grow correctly (Hammett 2005,119-19).
The views which are presented in the following pages are such as have been held by the Baptist churches from time immemorial. The Author attempts to do no more than to exhibit the sentiments of our Fathers, and to defend them by showing that they are sustained by the Scriptures. It is not asserted, however, that in no instance have the principles herein set forth been departed from. In times of excitement, when party spirit ran high, or personal resentment swayed men’s minds, revolutionary measures have been resorted to in some few of our churches, and these principles have been trampled under foot. Such irregularities have never failed to be disastrous to those who perpetrated them, and their influence upon the cause of Christ has been only evil, and that continually. One of the unhappy effects is that they are taken as precedents by those who are not well informed and quoted as instances of Baptist usage. (Mell 1860, 1)
Thus, one can see that in the 19th century, Mell “asserts” that church disciple was commonplace in the Baptist church, and in places it is not it is “irregular”. Discipline was the rule, not the exception. In fact, purity of members was so valuable that in Mississippi and Louisiana, some slave owners were disciplined for not treating their “black brother[s]” well (Jeschke 1972, 138). It is clear that Baptist in the 19th century desired purity in the church. It is surprising to some, that while disciple was practiced regularly, this era experienced great growth in the Baptist churches. “Discipline was not one of the lost arts in the 50’s (Vedder 1907, 364).” It seems that church discipline was central to church life in days prior to the Civil War. In fact Wills shows that even though Baptist churches disciplined 2% members to the point of excommunication annually, in these years, Baptist churches grew at a rate near twice the population (Wills 1997, 22). It is interesting to note that the historic Baptists documents that were used as a guideline of discipline fall strictly in line with Matthew 18:15-21. This is observed in Mell’s second chapter on corrective discipline. Mell does not support a trial type of discipline, nor does he promote swift church hearing. His does strive to progress as Jesus teaches; to the brother first, then with two or three to the brother, then finally before the church (Mell 1860, Contents).
Decline of Discipline in Baptist Churches
The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other (Mohler 2006).
How did the church arrive in such a situation? With such strong beginnings and now for discipline to be taboo among Baptists today is unnerving. Reflecting on the fact that Quaker lives were strictly guided by the church, Vedder criticizes the church’s active voice in spousal and business disputes, “and such offenses as covetousness, slander, and idleness.” He states, “To the Baptists of to-day this kind of discipline seems a meddlesome interference with personal rights and private affairs…” (Vedder, 1907, 236) Considering that Vedder pens only about 45 years after Dagg and Mell, this is a illuminating statement.
With the rising influence of individualism it seems that 20th century Baptists thought the church should “butt-out.” This was likely not aided by Reconstruction, as ‘Yankees’ and carpetbaggers ‘invaded’ the South, surely the privatization of the individual grew. This fostered an “us versus them” mentality, which leads to a “me versus you” idea. Further, Jeschke proposes that in addition to government discipline functions, possibly the “holiness-pentecostal-charismatic movement” experience, while instituting discipline at times, provided a “subconscious substitute for the holy life” (Jescheke 1972, 144-45).
It should be said that there have obviously been abuses of church discipline. This can be traced as far back as A.D. 451 when the Council of Chalcedon would excommunicate any minister who accepted the pastorate of another church, and the Bishop that approved him, without the express permission of the Roman Catholic Church (Hammond 1874, 67). Other examples are equally difficult to understand, such as attending a football game leading to probation of service , marrying outside the church leading to excommunication, missing service leading to public accusation (Cramp 1863, 382). It is no surprise that “One Southern Baptist says, “The overreaction of most Southern Baptist congregations to the abuses in church discipline in the past have made them very slow to return to the spiritual practice”” (Jescheke 1972, 143).
Perhaps the clearest error in all of church history is the conformation to the culture. This is seen clearest in “Christian” celebrations and practices. Christmas trees, the naming of “Easter” and “Sunday”, and Halloween are a few of the places Christianity has accommodated the culture over the faith. Regarding church discipline, the vast rise of Individualism accompanied the decline in discipline. It is clear from Vedder’s statement above that “personal rights and private affairs” are considered more important than the active and open sins of church members. Individualism eventually raises one above all in every matter. This is the bedrock of postmodernism. As the “American Dream” developed, the vitality of Christian community declined (Hammett 2005, 115). Also, Wills states, business methods “replaced the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency… No one publicly advocated the demise of discipline… It simply faded away, as if Baptists had grown weary of holding one another accountable (Wills 1997, 9 139-40).”
It seems that with the privatization of religion, Biblical truth has become relative. When people have plumbing problems they call an experienced plumber; with taxes, an educated accountant is consulted; moreover, with terminal illness, only the best medical specialists are sought. It is rather strange that when it comes to the valuable and eternal soul of man, that it is a ‘personal matter’. This is seen best in Vedder’s praise of Baptist “growth” in the early twentieth century, “The denomination statistics show that 4,181,686 … were members of regular Baptist churches…1/18 of the population. If we add “adherents”-those connected with Baptist families, congregations, Sunday-schools-1/7 must be reckoned a Baptist in sentiment….what could be more gratifying to a religious body (Vedder 1907, 366)”? While this is disturbing in many ways, perhaps the most obvious is that this Baptist minister is eager to more than double the number of Baptists simply by association in 1900. Clearly, the ‘explosion’ of Baptists in the twentieth century brought much power to the Baptist denomination. Being “Baptist” was losing a stigma, as were other denominations. As Baptists churches grew, it became more difficult to maintain discipline. Moreover, as every generation progresses, there are cultural taboos to a previous generation, which a younger generation will embrace. With the rise of Individualism and relativism, the ‘old’ practice discipline was seen as judgmental and self righteous (Hammett 2005,115).
Discipline in the Contemporary Church
While it is disheartening that discipline has disappeared in Baptist churches of the last century, it is understandable that it remains absent. The issue is not regarding discipline per se, but rather regarding culture. It has been clear discussed that it was mainly due to the rise Individualism and relativism that church discipline declined.
Fox News recently published an article stating that on average the generation of people between 46-18 is more narcissistic than any before (Associated Press, 2007). It is worth considering how this generation came to this sad state. It is not far fetched to conclude this is due to the influence of the previous generation (their parents). That generation was surely swayed by the previous generation. This rough timeline leads inevitably to the turn of the 19th century. It is apparent that the principles set forth in Scripture and practiced historically be Baptists (and others) for centuries prior to the last two, are superior to the trends in culture.
The culture has taught the church a valuable lesson regarding discipline. This lesson contrary to the opinion of some isn’t that “culture is against Christianity”. What the culture of the 19th century taught Baptist churches as the exploded, was that people are hungry for Biblical truth and community, even if it is uncomfortable. The 20th century taught Baptist churches, that if there is no Biblical leadership, people will follow any leadership, even their own. The church should also learn that if discipline is not Biblical (as in the Counsel of Chalsedon), people will seek Biblical truth elsewhere (Reformation). Wills gives account of a man who was brought before the church for discipline on account of having dancing and fiddle music at his daughters wedding. While is clear from the account the steps set forth in Matthew 18 for church discipline were not followed, one thing is educational. When the man was given the chance to address the church, he points that the church is quick to point the sins of a poor man out, but ignore other sins of rich giver to the church. He contrast judged fiddle music (of the poor) with condoned piano music (of the rich). At the end of the man’s defense the entire church rose in repentance of their double standards and praised God for this event that brought purity (Wills 1997, 27).
It would behoove the contemporary Baptist church to consider her history. Her recent past is seeping with a ministry that conforms to culture; her history is a ministry that transforms lives. In recent years Baptist have strived to be programmatic in approach to ministry, this is a model of a 20th century business model. This model has produced “membership” that is at best nominal. John Hammett, when discussing contemporary Baptists in 2004 states, “…of those more than sixteen million (Baptist church) members only 6, 024,289, or 37 percent were on average present for Sunday morning worship…they remain in good standing at most Baptist churches… Yet they are not living like regenerate believers. (Hammett 2005, 109)” Hammett is correct to correlate regenerate church membership with church discipline. At hearts cry, he is begging to tell nearly ten million people that they are not in the light, they have no fruit.
As regenerate church membership and church discipline are correlated, people must see church disciple for what it is, not what it appears to be to a narcissistic individualistic society. Mark Dever stress that churches must practice disciple for five reasons.
1. For the good of the person disciplined.
2. For the good of other Christians, as they see the danger of sin.
3. For the health of the Church as a whole.
4. For the corporate witness of the church.
5. For the glory of God, as we reflect His holiness (Dever 2000, 174-176).
The wise reader will note that these reasons focus on the good. For Dever, to evaluate the New Testament teaching of church discipline is to see the goodness of God and the Gospel. This should appeal even to the American culture, that God and His Church seek good things for people. Discipline should not be seen as a penal sentence, but rather as a friend who takes cars keys from a drunken friend. It is not judgmental damnation, but concern that is to motivate the church to discipline.
While it is important to understand the historic practice and reasons of decline in church discipline, it is foremost essential to understand that it is Biblical. Baptists should not follow practices simply because they are historic, as shouldn’t any denomination. Baptist churches have long prided themselves on being “Biblical”, as seen in this article. In recent years, it is clear that Baptists have not been Biblical nor historically Baptists in this area.
Church disciple that is practiced in a Biblical manner and a loving heart can transform the contemporary church. This truth is both Scriptural and historic. Christians of all denominations must love Jesus in order to be worthy of the title. If Christians love Jesus, they should follow Him. To turn the cultural driven church to a Christ driven church will be difficult. Jesus calls Christians to difficult tasks, yet He assures final victory.
Associated Press. 2007. Study: College Students More Narcissistic Than Ever. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,254904,00.html. (Accessed 04/17/07)
Cramp, J.M. 1863. Baptist History. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.
Dagg, J.L. 1858. Manual of Theology 2nd Part: A Treatise on Church Order. Charleston: Southern Baptist Publication Society.
Dever, Mark. 2000. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Wheaton: Crossway Books.
Hammett, John S. 2005. Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids: Kregel.
Hammond. 1874. Canons of the First Four Councils. Oxford and London: James Parker and Co.
Jeschke, Marlin. 1972. Disciplining in the Church. Scottsdale: Herald Press.
Mell, P.H. 1860. Corrective Church Discipline. Charleston: Southern Baptist Publication Society.
Molher, R. Albert Jr. 2006 Church Discipline: The Missing Mark. http://www.the-highway.com/discipline_Mohler.html. (Accessed 04/01/07)
Vedder, Henry C. 1907. Short History of the Baptists. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society.
Wills, Gregory A. 1997. Democratic Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.