A Plea for Church Discipline

Church discipline is a topic that has been too long ignored by evangelicals in general and Southern Baptists in particular. The time has come for us to face up to our failures at this point, to repent of our neglecting God’s Word and to begin reinstituting discipline in our churches.

This is a subject on which those who are Reformed and those who are not Reformed in theology can agree. Dr. Emir Caner (Dean of the undergraduate college at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX) is on record regarding his vociferous opposition to the historic Southern Baptist understanding of salvation as articulated in the doctrines of grace. However, he wrote this in recent comments on this blog: “The reason why only 37% of church members ever darken the door of the church on a given Sunday is the lack of church discipline” and “a church without church discipline does not meet the standards of the New Testament.” His brother, Dr. Ergun Caner (Dean of the Liberty Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg, VA) has decried the doctrines of grace in even stronger language, calling Calvinism a “virus.” Yet, he has written (speaking for both himself and his brother), “TRUE New Testament Churches, in our view, MUST practice church discipline to maintain fidelity to the text and model.”

My point in quoting these two respected Southern Baptist scholars is simply to underscore that church discipline is not a “Calvinist” issue. It is a Baptist issue. More importantly, it is a biblical issue.

Local churches are instructed to be disciplined. Every church which bears the name of Christ is obligated to obey our Lord’s teachings which are spelled out step-by-step in the inerrant, infallible Bible which God’s Holy Spirit inspired. Jesus said:

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. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:15-18).

This passage is not hard to understand. Even a child can outline the steps that Jesus says that church members are to follow when an unrepentant brother is among them.

Other passages give equally clear instructions to churches on how to handle wayward members. “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans. 16:17). “Put away from yourselves the evil person” (1 Corinthians 5:13). “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11). “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

These and other passages like them spell out how a church is to respond to immorality and impenitence in their midst. This is part of what is involved in the discipline of a local church. But it is only the corrective side of that discipline that the Bible requires. Before there can be any ground for correction, there must first be positive formation.

Formative discipline must be recovered before corrective discipline can be legitimately practiced in a church. The former involves a careful use of all of the God-ordained means in promoting genuine godliness among every church member. Thus, churches must insist that the Word of God is preached with simplicity and application. Members are to be taught–and should be expected to practice–the principles of holy living. Where this takes place the members will become increasingly “formed” by the Word of God and healthy spiritual growth will become the norm in a congregation. In such situations, corrective discipline (at least in its final form of removing a member from the church) will rarely be necessary.

Those who do not demonstrate a real, saving relationship with Christ and who show no interest in growing spiritually have no business being received into a church’s membership. This is not a false idealism nor an argument for perfection in Christians. Rather, it is a simple recognition that where there is life, there will be at least some demonstration of it. The church consists of new creatures. As Baptists have long argued on the basis of the New Testament, that an essential qualification for church membership is regeneration. Spiritual fruit cannot be cultivated where there is no spiritual life. What does not exist cannot be “formed” or shaped.

Thus, before corrective discipline can ever be restored to our churches formative discipline must begin. Many zealous pastors and church leaders fail to follow this pattern in restoring discipline to a congregation. The results are almost without exception disastrous. Even where disaster is averted what is being practiced is usually preacher discipline, not church discipline. A church must be taught God’s Word on this subject before practical steps to institute (or reinstitute) it are taken.

Formative discipline begins by a church exercising care in how it receives members. Where such care has long been neglected, there must be instruction on the biblical standards for church membership. The importance of membership–especially in a Baptist church–must be emphasized and prospective members instructed in the qualifications and responsibilities of membership. The very thought that a church would speak in terms of “qualifications” and “responsibilities” when thinking of new members is enough to send shivers down the spine of many who have never seen discipline practiced in a church. Yet, every church has at least some qualifications that must be met before a person is accepted as a member. I am simply suggesting that these be carefully considered and biblically evaluated, then carefully taught to those seeking membership.

John Dagg, a prominent nineteenth-century Southern Baptist theologian emphasized this point in his Treatise on Church Order. He wrote,

The churches are not infallible judges, being unable to search the heart; but they owe it to the cause of Christ, and to the candidate himself, to exercise the best judgment of which they are capable. To receive any one on a mere profession of words, without any effort to ascertain whether he understands and feels what he professes, is unfaithfulness to his interests, and the interests of religion (p. 269).

When the unregenerate are not only allowed but encouraged to join the church simply on the basis of a recited prayer, raised hand, firm handshake, completed decision card, or any other superficial method of spurious evangelism, they themselves are spiritually misled, the church is seriously weakened, and the cause of Christ generally in undermined. Yet this is precisely what has happened for more than a generation in thousands of our churches.

When he was the Director of Disciple
ship Training for the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Roy Edgemon studied this issue. In his comments at the 1991 Louisiana Baptist Convention’s Evangelism Conference he concluded that too much of our evangelism is “manipulative,” “shallow,” “abortive,” and “without integrity.” It is more interested in decisions than disciples.

Too often modern evangelistic technique is geared toward getting a sinner to agree with some facts and recite a prayer. Once this occurs, it is assumed he is saved. Those who go through these steps are commonly judged ready for baptism and church membership. The consequence of such practice, as Edgemon observed, is that “we lose thousands of people who are going to die and go to hell, thinking they’re saved. And they’ve never been saved.” This is a sobering thought. It highlights the desperate need of churches to reinstitute formative discipline (which will in turn lead to a recommitment to biblical evangelism).

Fortunately for Baptists, we have a rich heritage from which to draw as we seek to rediscover the biblical teachings on church discipline. Early generations of Baptists saw these teachings so clearly that they took their practice for granted. Yes, there were some abuses from time to time, but in such instances we have the benefit of learning even from their mistakes.

In generations past when Baptists had a more robust appreciation for their biblical ecclesiology, church discipline was readily acknowledged as an irreplaceable mark of a true church. Baptist leaders taught and wrote on it and Baptist churches practiced it. There was not perfect unanimity on every detail of practice as a comparison of their writings will demonstrate (you can make such a study on the founders website; I personally disagree with some of P. H. Mell’s instructions regarding those who have been unjustly expelled from a church). But there was a universal recognition that a church could not be a church without discipline. The consideration of our forefather’s insights can be very useful to help promote fresh dialogue and study of church life and practice.

As a pastor, seeing a local church rediscover the blessings of discipline has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my ministry. A church that embraces its responsibility to have a well-ordered membership is a joy to serve. Not because it is thereby free from problems. No church will ever be free from trials in this life (I have repeatedly assured my congregation that as long as I am their pastor, we will have problems!). But where discipline is being practiced, the problems can be handled in a God-honoring, healthy way. And as every pastor knows, it is not usually the “first-level” problems that seriously injure a church. The real damage is done by the problems that emerge when the initial difficulties are not dealt with in a proper fashion.

We desperately need to recover the biblical teachings on church discipline in this generation. The sincere Christians who are trying to follow Christ to the best of their ability in our churches deserve it. The insincere hypocrites who have attached themselves to our membership need it. The glory of Christ in His churches requires it. John Dagg argued, “when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” If he is correct, then the great need of the hour is for church leaders and their congregations to repent of disregarding the Word of God at this point, and plead with Him for grace and wisdom to restore biblical order by reinstituting both formative and corrective church discipline.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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