In his book The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren states that the five purposes of the church are: worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, and service. At the risk of impinging upon today’s popular Southern Baptist ecclesiology, these purposes must be challenged. If not the purposes themselves, at least the definitions of the purposes according to Warren should be called into question. One glaring biblical mistake in Warren’s definition of the church is the exclusion of the church’s right to exclude –church discipline. Were Southern Baptists to recover this lost “discipline” of the church, they would undoubtedly discover with it, the blessing of God.
Church Discipline in the Bible
The primary biblical text used in advocating church discipline is Matthew 18:15-20. Regarding this passage, commentator John MacArthur states,
It is with the church’s responsibility to keep itself pure that Jesus deals in Matthew 18:15-20. He is still teaching about the childlikeness of believers, illustrated by the young child He had called to Himself and set before the Twelve (v.2). He had declared that a person enters and is considered great in the kingdom by becoming like a little child (vv. 3-4) and that, once in the kingdom, believers are to be protected like little children (vv. 5-9) and cared for like little children (vv. 10-14). He now declares that they must also be disciplined like little children.
In this passage, we see a four-step “template” for proper discipline in church life. The process is as follows: when one knows of a brother in sin, he is to rebuke him privately first (v 15). If he does not repent, the person is to rebuke the brother in sin with one or two other brothers (v 16). If the brother remains incessant in his sin, he is to be rebuked in the presence of the entire church (v 17). If this third step does not cause the brother to turn from his sin, the congregation is to resort to the fourth and final step –excommunication (v 17). Although each step leads to the next, if the errant brother repents at any point in the process, the process has been successful and is therefore aborted. Though it may sound very mechanical and inhumane to describe it in such terms, the process is actually to be done out of love for the falling brother, for the church and its witness, and for the holiness of God and His people. Scholar Robert Reymond says,
Just as God authorized Israel in its “theocratic” character to place those who committed sins “with a high hand” under the ban (herem) to be punished with extermination, so also the Lord Jesus Christ has given his church the authority to discipline its unruly and reprobate members in order to promote its purity and well-being (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-18; John 20:23). Just as by the preaching of the Word the wicked are doctrinally separated from the holy, so also by discipline the church authoritatively separates between the profane and the holy.
Matthew 18 is the key text for church discipline, but it is not the only inscripturated evidence of the practice. Any avid Sunday School attendee should know it is God Himself who initiated such measures in the church. The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) proves that God values the holiness of His church, even to the point of discouraging outward growth (vv 5, 11). Paul also says God caused some to be weak, ill, or even dead for ignoring personal sin while taking communion (1 Cor 11:30). But more biblical precedent does exist for the church’s responsibility to carry out discipline.
Reymond sums up the biblical teachings regarding church discipline as follows:
The exercise of discipline is extremely important for the glory of God and of Christ, the purity of the church, and the reclaiming of disobedient members (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; 1 Tim. 1:20; Titus 3:10). However, the authority to discipline that Christ has given his church is for building up and not for destroying (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). Therefore, it is to be exercised in mercy and not in wrath (Gal. 6:1). In this the church is to take the part of a tender mother (1 Thess. 2:7), correcting her children for their good, that everyone of them may be presented faultless in the day of the Lord Jesus.
The absence of discipline in the Southern Baptist pulpits of today is not due to an absence of the subject in the Scriptures.
Church Discipline in History
Although today’s average Southern Baptist would probably never know it, church discipline played a key role in the day to day polity of early Southern Baptist church life. Article 34 of 1679’s The Orthodox Creed states,
We believe that the great King and Lawgiver, Christ, the universal and only Head of His church, hath given to His visible church a subordinate power, or authority, for the well-being, ordering, and governing of it, for His own glory and the church’s profit and good, the executive part of which derivative power of discipline and government is committed to His ministers, proportionable to their dignities and places in the church in a most harmonious way, for the beauty, order, government, and establishment of the same, and consisteth in the exercise and execution of the censors, or rod of correction, he hath appointed therein, for the purgation of the same, in order to present scandals and offenses, both public and private.
Baptist fathers Benjamin and Elias Keach state in their 1697 covenant, “We do promise to watch over each other’s conversations, and not to suffer sin upon one another . . . to warn, rebuke, and admonish one another with meekness, according to the rules left to us of Christ in that behalf.” And later, “We do promise to bear with one another’s weaknesses, failings, and infirmities with much tenderness, not discovering to any without the church, nor any within, unless according to Christ’s rule and the order of the gospel provided in that case.”
This sort of covenant did not disappear in the eighteenth or even nineteenth century. In Democratic Religion, Southern Baptist historian Gregory Wills states that Southern Baptists of the 1800’s,
rejected modernity’s individualism. Baptist piety had individualist characteristics rooted in the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers . . . but they repulsed the privatizing trend of democratic individualism. The church, they believed, had prerogatives that superseded those of individuals. The redeemed community determined corporately the meaning of the sacred text, the shape of Christian spirituality, and the regulation of virtue.
Wills then proceeds to present thoroughly researched and documented evidence to support this statement.
It was in the 1850’s when James P. Boyce, founder of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, saw fit to include discipline alongside worship as one of the purposes for Christ’s church. “John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential [Southern Baptist] church manual of the nineteenth century, noted: ‘It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.’”
Nineteenth century Southern Baptists may, perhaps be faulted in carrying out church discipline, but it is definitely not for being too relaxed. If Southern Baptist churches lack discipline today, it is not for a lack in Southern Baptist history.
Church Discipline Today
Most Southern Baptist churches that claim to exercise church discipline today reserve such practices only for a select group of people within the church, such as church leaders or members well known within the community. Although the exercise of biblical discipline is generally lacking in today’s Southern Baptist church life, there are many influential advocates. While some Southern Baptist churches of today are doing away with the concept of “church membership,” Donald Whitney (professor of spiritual formation at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) sees church discipline as a biblical proof for membership.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says,
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. The absence of church discipline is no longer remarkable-it is generally not even noticed. Regulative and restorative church discipline is, to many church members, no longer a meaningful category, or even a memory. The present generation of both ministers and church members is virtually without experience of biblical church discipline.
Mark Dever is the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC and author of the article “Why We Disciplined Half Our Church.” In A Display of God’s Glory, he sets forth that, “it is indisputable that one of the functions of a local church family is to draw boundaries which will exclude people who are themselves unwilling to be excluded from membership in the church.” In Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Dever proposes:
Biblical church discipline is simple obedience to God and a simple confession that we need help. Here are five positive reasons for such corrective church discipline. Its purpose is positive (1) for the individual disciplined, (2) for other Christians as they see danger of sin, (3) for the health of the church as a whole and (4) for the corporate witness of the church. Most of all, (5) our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride’s sake, but for God’s name’s sake.
If Southern Baptists do indeed lack this biblical mark of a healthy church today, it is not for lack of modern prophets. Within Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches, these three men and other like-minded people are in places of influence prophetically crying for change.
Change is Possible
Change is possible in Southern Baptist churches of today. Church members have already at their disposal, a solid biblical foundation to stand on, a rich heritage to draw from, and a slew of others to link arms with. If SBC church leaders will be willing to redefine the popular notions of the day regarding the purposes of the church, God will be pleased to pour out blessings on these churches and be glorified in the process. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” (1 Pet 3:13-14).
This is not to say that the road will be easy. As any minister knows, “change” is the wrong word to bring up and stay popular within a congregation. Still, most things worth doing take time and many take hard work. The Bible never presents orthodoxy as a byproduct of love for the Savior; Southern Baptists must be proactive. If SBC churches changed for the worse in the twentieth century, by God’s grace they can continue to change for the better in the twenty-first.
Broadus, John A. Edited by Timothy and Denise George. Baptist Confessions, Covenants, and Catechisms. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999.
Dever, Mark E. A Display of God’s Glory booklet. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001.
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church booklet. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001.
MacArthur, John Jr. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Matthew 16-23. Chicago: Moody, 1998.
Mueller, William. A History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959.
Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.
Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995.
Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church. Chicago: Moody, 1996.
Wills, Gregory A. Democratic Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Mohler, R. Albert Jr. “Church Discipline: The Missing Mark.” In The Compromised Church, ed. John H. Armstrong, 171-88. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998.