Increasing numbers of Southern Baptists are claiming that church discipline is not merely a relic of the past.
Editor’s note: First in a series of three
(BP) – Increasing numbers of Southern Baptists are claiming that church
discipline is not merely a relic of the past.
have instituted a process drawn from Scripture of correcting and, if need be,
eventually dismissing unrepentant members for public sins. The ultimate goal of
the discipline process is repentance and restoration of sinners, the churches
say, citing Baptists of past centuries as examples of how church discipline can
benefit individuals and churches.
The return to
church disciple has been gaining momentum for several years.
“The decline of
church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary
church,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote in a 2001 essay in a book titled “Polity:
Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life,” edited by Mark Dever, pastor
of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
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 observed.
recovery of functional church discipline — firmly established upon the
principles revealed in the Bible — the church will continue its slide into
moral dissolution and relativism,” Mohler wrote.
pastor of FirstBaptist
Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., agreed with Mohler’s
call for church discipline and said he has seen it practiced successfully
ago when Noblit became pastor of First Baptist, he developed a conviction that
church discipline is biblical and builds the purity of the church. Noblit’s
conviction stemmed from reading the Bible and Baptist writings from past
generations, including the New Hampshire Confession, the First and Second
London Confessions and the works of Charles Spurgeon.
Noblit’s leadership, First Baptist began to practice church discipline
according to the process outlined in Matthew 18.
The first step in
church discipline is for one person to confront a sinning church member
privately, Noblit said. If the individual does not repent, the confronting
person should take two or three others with him and confront the sinning church
member again, the pastor continued.
If the sinning
church member still will not repent, Matthew 18 says to take the matter before
the church, Noblit said, noting that First Baptist does this in Sunday School
“In a church our
size (approximately 1,000 active members) … we tell it to a Sunday School
class or maybe a Sunday School department,” Noblit said. “And that group of
people will begin to appeal to that person. If they refuse to listen to that
group, then the Bible says to bring it before the church.”
When a discipline
case proceeds to the point of coming before the entire church, Noblit shares
with members the steps already taken and mentions the name of the offender and
the sin in question. The church subsequently votes on the member’s removal.
“We exhort the
body to not be gossiping or spreading strife, but to pray,” Noblit said. “As
the Scripture says, if they see this person or have fellowship with them, they’re
to humbly appeal to them to repent and be restored to the body.”
In most cases
discipline never advances to the point of a vote to dismiss the offender from
the church because people generally repent early in the process, Noblit said.
is repentance very often,” the pastor said. “The great majority of times things
can remain covered. The Scripture says it’s a blessing to cover sin. It doesn’t
mean you excuse sin, but you deal with it confidentially and privately. And
that is discipline. But it is fairly common in the life of our church to
publicly dismiss someone — it has happened numerous times.”
When a person is
dismissed from the congregation, the dismissal is never permanent and the
offender may always repent and be restored, Noblit said, adding that
restoration is the goal of discipline.
One of First
Baptist’s many examples of restoration is Scott Carrier, who was dismissed five
years ago for drunkenness. After a process of recovery, he was allowed back
into the church’s membership and is an active member today.
Carrier said he
deserved the discipline and that God used it to change his life.
“It was genuine
repentance on my part, and after a time I was allowed back into the church,”
Carrier told Baptist Press. “One of the major things [discipline] did for me
was humble me. It also let me know I was coming back to something worth coming
back to. I was coming back to something that’s valuable and not to be toyed
with and not to be sinned against.”
was “grievous” initially, Carrier continued, but brought a “peaceable and good
“I can honestly
say today my life is better than it’s ever been. I’m closer to God than I’ve
ever been. My marriage is in better shape than it’s ever been, and God’s done
some remarkable things in His grace.”
disagrees with those who say churches should not practice discipline today.
“I know a lot of
people in this day and age don’t like this idea (church discipline), but it was
a valuable thing in my life,” he said.
pastor of LakeviewBaptistChurch
in Auburn, Ala., is another pastor with a conviction
that church discipline is essential for a congregation to serve God obediently.
has pastored Lakeview 27 years but led the church to practice discipline only
after a providential encounter on a mission trip to Latvia about 10 years ago. While
leading a conference for Latvian ministers, Jackson was asked by a Latvian pastor how his
church practiced church discipline.
“I had to hang my
head in shame and say, ‘My brother, I’m sorry but we don’t. And I know better
because I’m very familiar with what the Scripture teaches,’” Jackson recounted.
He came home
determined to obey God and preached a three-part sermon series on church
discipline, in which he explained the purpose of church discipline, who should
be disciplined and the process that should be used. Following the series a
woman approached Jackson
and told him that her husband was committing adultery and seemed like a
candidate for the discipline process. After several visits to the offender,
first by Jackson and then by Jackson along with other leaders, the man
refused to stop his adultery.
Jackson brought the matter before the deacons
next, who agreed to proceed with discipline after prayer and discussion. A
letter to the offender informed him that the deacons would recommend to the
church that it break fellowship with him if he failed to respond to the letter.
The man never responded, so the church held a special business meeting
following a Sunday morning service. At the meeting Jackson reviewed the biblical guidelines for
church discipline and presented the name of the man to be voted on but did not
disclose the specific sin.
“Then I took a
deep breath and we voted,” Jackson
said. “And it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. We voted by lifted
hands, and I think there were six no votes (out of approximately 1,000 members
In the aftermath
of the vote at least one member was confused, thinking that the church’s
decision would result in the man going to hell. But after clearing up the
misunderstanding, the church maintained unity.
never repented, but Jackson
said maintaining holiness in the church and obeying the Bible made the matter a
success. He advises other churches that are thinking about beginning church
discipline to obey God but proceed carefully and slowly.
“My caution would
be: Build consensus and work with your deacons to do this,” Jackson said. “… In order to be unanimous
in a decision like this, you’ve got to have godly lay leaders who desire above
all else to please God.”
Pastors who are
new to their churches should be especially cautions when attempting to
institute discipline because a proceeding without consensus could result in a
church split or the pastor being fired, Jackson
“If you can’t
build consensus among your lay leaders, you need to just be patient and stay
put until you can build consensus,” he said.
pastor of BuckRun
in Frankfort, Ky., also has practiced church discipline on
several occasions in the churches where he has pastored. Most recently he led
Buck Run to rebuke publicly a man who embezzled approximately $250,000 from his
employer to fund a gambling addiction. The man repented and now praises church
discipline as an instrument of grace in his life.
York, who also
serves as Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern
Seminary, advises pastors to teach their churches about discipline over time
and realize that a loving church always seeks to deliver its members from sin.
“Get people to
understand that our goal is always restoration,” York said. “Our goal isn’t a clean church
role. Our goal is restoration. Get them to buy into that concept. Then I think
you can really bring them on board.”