Church Discipline: Lost, but Recoverable

Church Discipline: Lost, but Recoverable

James Leo Garrett, Jr.

This article first appeared in the Western Recorder, (July 23, 1959) and is reprinted by permission.

One of the most neglected and unpopular themes of our era is church discipline. To consider it one needs no crusading complex, but to do anything about it calls for a yearning to be a “prophet” rather than a “priest,” the latter term being translated, “an ecclesiastic,” or, being interpreted, a drifter with the strongest current of the “status flow.”

I.

The contemporary age is characterized by a lack of discipline. This begins with the individual and the paucity of true self-discipline. Most people like to be entertained, to be helped, to be passively taught, to be served. Only a few are willing to discipline themselves in work, in study, in unselfish service to others. Many are caught up in the grandiose delusion of “something for nothing.”

The same absence of discipline is manifested in today’s homes in America. Parents are often not willing to provide either the positive nurture for children which grows out of spiritually and emotionally mature family life or the negative correction which curbs disobedience and those attitudes which issue in juvenile delinquency. Young people, reared in and conditioned by domestic life without discipline, expect the school, society, and the state to provide a similar laissez faire environment. Thus, the school must necessarily inherit the problems of discipline unsolved by the home and is supposed to attempt the discipline which inheres in education itself.

The civil order is burdened with the problem of discipline, not only in its prosecution and punishment of those who commit crimes but also in the failure of so many of its citizenry to submit to the discipline of public service.

The lack of discipline in international relations is clearly indicated by the hot wars of aggression and the “cold war” of “peaceful coexistence.”

Unfortunately, the churches for the most part are no exception to this contemporary trend toward the breakdown of all discipline. Church discipline, which was of so great concern to our forebears in the gathered church tradition of Protestant Christianity, and this includes Baptists, no longer affects the lives or even is registered on the lips of their spiritual descendants. To paraphrase MacArthur, church discipline has never officially died; it has just faded away!

II.

Is church discipline Biblical? Without raising the question of internal discipline in the community of Israel, one may turn to the New Testament where an affirmative answer awaits the inquirer. Some discipline within the Christian congregations was wrought by direct divine agency as in the instance of the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, who “lied to the Holy Spirit” by retaining part of the proceeds from the sale of a certain piece of property while pretending to give all to the Christian community (Acts 5:1-11). Some discipline was also accomplished by the voluntary withdrawal or departure of those who were not truly Christians. This seems to be the import of the statement in 1 John 2:19: “They (i.e., many anti-Christs) went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.” However, the discipline of the Christian churches of the New Testament era was, according to the Apostle Paul, also to be exercised by the specific action of the churches. Perhaps no passage makes this clearer than 1 Corinthians 5. Christians and churches of the twentieth century may neglect, abandon, or deny the validity of church discipline in its negative aspects, but they cannot claim the authority of the New Testament for doing so.

III.

The early Baptists–indeed most all Baptists through the nineteenth century–were greatly concerned about and definitely engaged in the practice of church discipline. They found in the New Testament not only Acts 2:47 RSV, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved,” but also Matt. 18:17 RSV, “If he (your brother) refuses to listen to them (witnesses), tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

One of the clearest statements about church discipline in Baptist history is the “Summary of Church-Discipline” adopted in 1773 and published in 1774 by the Charleston (S. C.) Baptist Association. As a well-orbed presentation of church discipline the “Summary” deals with both positive and negative aspects. Present-day Christians should realize that all Christian nurture, whether through the educational organizations of the church or in the direct spiritual and moral confrontation of a member with members in the fellowship of the church, is Christian and church discipline. Such church discipline, according to the “Summary, ” has as its negative side the censures of the church, namely, rebuke or admonition, suspension, and finally excommunication. Basic principles and specific procedures for the application of these censures are described. Furthermore, it is the duty of every church member to submit repentantly to the church’s discipline “so far as it is consistent with the Word of God.” It is the duty of the church to administer the discipline with prayer and solemnity. It is the duty of the minister, says the Charleston “Summary,” to see that the discipline determined by the congregation is duly executed, and he himself as a member of the congregation is subject to its discipline.

Present-day Baptist churches, whether they claim an historical succession to the apostles or affirm a qualitative likeness to New Testament churches, do not for the most part stand in the apostolic and/or Baptist tradition of church discipline. The factors making this so may be legion: The breakdown of the distinction between “church” and “world,” the stressing of numerical gains in church membership, abuses in the former practices of church discipline, a gradual substitution of professional efficiency for genuine ministerial piety, the popularization of church membership, the admission of the unregenerate to the churches, the blurring of essential lines or moral and ethical distinction! The question may aptly be raised, “Are we today the neo-Baptists?”

What is to be done about the present abandonment of church discipline, especially in its negative aspects? Can the trend be reversed? Can discipline be rightly restored without the abuses that often accompanied its abandonment? Can its restorative, reclamatory purposes be kept in view while it is being administered? These are major questions that call for clear and dedicated answers.

Church discipline is a corollary of the doctrine of the Christian life, wherein Christians must, as Paul said, keep on “putting off the old man” and “putting on the new man.” “Discipline” and “discipleship” come from the same Latin word, meaning “to learn.”

Church discipline is implicit likewise in our Baptist ecclesiology, which has in its best expressions always held forth the necessity of a disciplined as well as a regenerated and baptized membership.

Church discipline is needed as a deterrent to the moral decline of our time. It used to be said of Baptists because of their congregational polity and tendency to air disputes publicity, “The Baptists wash their dirty linen in public.” One wonders whether the time may fast be approaching when Baptists just “hang their soiled linen out to dry.” Church discipline, because of its New Testament basis, should have its rightful place in Baptist life and practice. The New Testament has more clear statements on church discipline than on the millennial reign, but there seem to be no pro-, anti-, or a-parties shaping up. Dr. J. B. Gambrell said that “we Baptists are many but not much,” but church discipline of both positive and negative variety can help Baptists to be both “many” and “much.”

Church discipline will depend to a large extent on those who have the responsibility not only to proclaim the gospel of Christ but to instruct, exhort, and admonish Christians as to the well ordering of their lives in the fellowship of the body of Christ. Yet it should be the concern of all church members. The tide cannot be turned overnight, as readily as one would obtain money to get a ping-pong table or volleyball court for the church’s young people or get the Brotherhood to have a supper. Christians can bear witness to and practice the truth of Christian discipline both in their individual lives and in the fellowship of the people of God. What do you say? Are you willing? May God help us so to do!


When this article was first published in 1959, the issue of church discipline was being discussed among Southern Baptists almost solely in reference to the problem of nonresident church members. In 1962 Broadman Press published within its “Broadman Historical Monograph” series the present author’s Baptist Church Discipline: A Historical Introduction to the Practices of Baptist Churches, with Particular Attention to the Summary of Church Discipline Adopted in 1773 by the Charleston Association, which contained the text of the Charleston Summary. The modest interest in church discipline aroused in the 1950′s and in the early 1960′s soon was displaced by issues of racial justice, war, poverty, and sexual revolution. Baptist Church Discipline went out of print after the first edition and has not been reprinted. In 1988 a British Baptist pastor, Michael John Collis, submitted a Th.M. thesis to the University of London on “The Theology and Practice of Church Discipline amongst Baptists with Particular Reference to Baptists in the United Kingdom,” and it remains to be seen whether such a study is indicative of a new interest in and concern about church discipline among British Baptists.

JLG, Jr.