Church Discipline in Church History (Conclusion)

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 ConclusionNote: This is the conclusion to a four part series addressing the practice of Church Discipline over the course of the life of the Church. The previous posts may be accessed in order here, here, and here.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes in the landscape of the Protestant Reformation by the time of the 19th century was the various expressions of the faith which had come into their own. For example, the Baptists had grown from the Anabaptists and English Separatists of the Continental as well as English Reformations.1 These early Baptists held that church discipline was a practice necessary within a redeemed community and applied the practice rigorously in the New World which makes them a good starting place for examining the practice of church discipline and restoration in the contemporary church.2

Baptist Practice in the 19th Century

In 19th century America a Baptist in the antebellum South would not have been inclined

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

to recognize as a church any assembly which did not practice church discipline.3 In such cases church discipline took three forms or outcomes; 1) rebuke for minor offenses, 2) suspension for more serious offenses, however, the suspended party could still attend services but not take part in the Lord’s Table, and 3) excommunication which was the most severe punishment of the three. Regardless of the level of censure applied, repentance and confession were met with forgiveness and restoration.4 This freely given forgiveness to repentant souls may also be the reason why even excommunication did not necessarily mean complete exclusion from attending services of the church but rather that the rights and privileges of church membership had been withdrawn.5

But what offenses might cause a 19th century Baptist to come under discipline by the local church? Haines reveals that the causes could be non-attendance of church meetings and worship services, withholding support, drunkenness, fighting, profanity, sexual immorality, and something called contempt.6 In the case of contempt, it would seem this charge was the result of a previous call to repentance for some other offense/sin which had gone unheeded.7 But even with these strictures in place to ensure the compassionate dealing with wayward brothers and sisters there were still some offenses which seemed to result in immediate dismissal, such as adultery, and joining a church of a different denomination.8

The thing to recognize in the case of these 19th century Baptists is that the practice of church discipline and restoration was undertaken with the “twin goals [protecting] the purity of the church and to reclaim the sinning brother.”9 In other words in the minds and hearts of these Christians there could be no church discipline without restoration as a desired outcome. Of course this attitude did undergo some change by the late 19th and early 20th century to the effect that more cases of discipline were settled in shorter time with the outcome being excommunication instead of some lesser censure.10 This change in practice has led some to conclude that “church discipline usually discredited the church.”11

20th Century Proponents

At first glance it would appear the church has not changed much from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. Many Baptists may even fear the practice of church discipline would lend itself to a decline of local church membership instead of a strengthening of the same. However, to do so would betray a belief of their forebears in the faith, “True saints survive discipline, but false saints do not.”12 What is meant here is that true believers are revealed to be so by the repentance they exercise in the face of correction, while false believers or tares are likewise revealed by their lack of or refusal to repent.

Mark Dever

Mark Dever

Although many within the Southern Baptist community did not tend toward the practice of church discipline and restoration until the latter part of the 20th century after its decline in popularity following the 19th century,13 at least one prominent Southern Baptist church in America sees it as part of a healthy church culture. The church in question is Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. which is pastored by Mark Dever. Dever is the author of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church which was first published in 1997. In this work Dever comes to a level of agreement with Calvin in seeing church disciple as a mark of a healthy church.14

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention are found examples of local churches recapturing this practice, especially in the non-denominational and Bible-church movements. A famous example is found in pastor and author, John MacArthur’s ministry. He often relates that upon his call to serve as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Southern California that a condition of his coming aboard would be the practice of calling wayward church members to repentance though the process of

John MacArthur

John MacArthur

church discipline. He was met with some of the same concerns Southern Baptists have put forth, that no one would want to be part of a church with such practices. Time has proven this to not be the case as MacArthur has recently celebrated 46 years as the pastor of an every growing local church. 15

In both examples, the goal of church discipline is the restoration of the sinning brother or sister. In the case of Capitol Hill Baptist Church the entire congregation takes part in the process as part of the congregational rule model of church polity, while at Grace Community Church it is a process handled primarily by the Elders/Pastors as part of the Elder Rule model of church polity.16 It is the influence of such role models to the local church that have contributed to the issue of church discipline and restoration being continued in the 21st century.

21st Century Practice

Much of the practice of the 21st century church is reflective of church practice at the close of the 20th century some fifteen years hence. Some churches still have a low view of church membership which is accompanied by a low view of the church discipline and restoration process in many cases. Likewise, some churches legalistically enforce church discipline in such a manner that restoration does not seem to be possible.

Fortunately, there are churches which are searching the Scriptures and doing the best they can to call sinning members to repentance to the glory of God and the benefit of the brother or sister involved. In these cases it is not the large churches like Capitol Hill Baptist or Grace Community which are laboring in such a manner, but the ‘little guys’ ministering in relative obscurity seeking to lovingly go after the one, because the ninety-nine are safe (Luke 15:1-7). Time will tell if the 21st century will close as the 19th century did with Christians growing weary of holding one another accountable, let us hope not.17

SurveyThis survey of a few of the epochs of Christianity’s history has been provided in order to provide a brief background to those wishing to better understand the practice the church as a community has undertaken to seek the repentance of its membership via discipline as well as restoring those members who have exercised the same. This activity has been viewed from the perspective of the Apostolic Church presented in the New Testament, the period of the Church Fathers, the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in The Reformation, as well as the contemporary church of the 19th thru 21st centuries.

  1. Steven M. Haines, “Southern Baptist Church Discipline, 1880-1939,” Baptist History and Heritage 20, no. 2 (02 Apr 1985): 15.
  2. Jim West, “Nineteenth Century Baptists and Church Discipline: Case Studies from Georgia,” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 80-81.
  3. Gregory Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) quoted in Jim West, “Nineteenth Century Baptists and Church Discipline: Case Studies from Georgia,” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 84.
  4. West, 82.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Haines, 16.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 15 & 18.
  9. Ibid., 14
  10. Ibid., 23.
  11. Gaines S. Dobbins, The Efficient Church (Nashville: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1923) cited in Steven M. Haines, “Southern Baptist Church Discipline, 1880-1939,” Baptist History and Heritage 20, no. 2 (02 Apr 1985): 26.
  12. West, 84.
  13. Haines, 15.
  14. Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, new expanded ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 167-193.
  15. This section based upon recollections of the author from his time as a student at The Master’s Seminary (B.Th. 2014) and a Deacon of Grace Community Church (2011-2013).
  16. This difference of church polity is provided to demonstrate that various models of church government practice church discipline and restoration.
  17. Gregory Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) quoted in Jim West, “Nineteenth Century Baptists and Church Discipline: Case Studies from Georgia,” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 83.
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