Friday, August 19, 2011

Church discipline: Practically recovering regenerate church membership

Part of a series on the church. 

Matthew 18:15-20. When we mention church discipline, we often get the picture in our minds of kicking somebody out of the church because the church members think they are ‘holier than thou,’ but church discipline is actually a system based on Matt. 18:15-20, ordained by Jesus, to lovingly restore believers to a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and to foster harmony among the body of Christ.

We need to recover the practice of church discipline. Changing our baptism and church membership policies should greatly reduce the need for church-wide discipline. The Biblical basis for church discipline is abundant: Matthew 15:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-12; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:20; Titus 3:10

Historically, the Catholic Church lost the practice, but some of the Reformers called it a mark of a true church. Anabaptists were strict on discipline, including shunning former members. Early Baptists did not practice shunning, but discipline was common for moral violations and doctrinal error. Between 1845 and 1900, SBC churches disciplined 1.3 million members and expelled around 650,000, but the practice disappeared by 1950. “No one urged its neglect, and nearly all agreed that it should be restored. But they failed to see that they had embraced new commitments incompatible with church discipline.”

Several changes in church and society led to the decline of church discipline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: (1) a growing American individualism which eroded the authority of the church, (2) the decline of doctrinal teaching on sin and depravity of man replaced by an evolutionary model of the goodness of human nature as not needing discipline, (3) general secularization of values, as churches adapted to culture and adopted principles of business, emphasizing numerical growth, (4) a crippling of church discipline being practiced with harsh, legalistic, punitive, and judgmental ways. 

Instead, churches (1) looked for ways to gain new members and keep them coming and happy, (2) redefined what it meant to be Baptist to focus on individual freedom and undermining the church’s authority “to judge belief and behavior,” (3) changed the churches mission to include curing social ills at the expense of communicating the Gospel, which secularized the churches. By the beginning of the 20th century, discipline in Baptist churches had become uncommon. Today it is very rare.

In order to restore discipline to the church, pastors should teach from Scripture on these ideas from Matthew 18 and other places. Congregations may want to place a brief statement in their by-laws or constitution of their understanding of Biblical church discipline, stating that it is not punitive but restorative for the individual and protective for the church, and stating that what calls for church discipline is not grave sin, but sin that the sinner refuses to admit and repent of. 

Discipline is not for the weak person who falls and is repentant, but for the rebellious one who denies his sin or refuses to repent. Further, it should be emphasized that exclusion from voting/Lord’s Supper should be only a last option, only exercised after repeated attempts to win over the offender, after prayer and love have been extended. It should never be hasty, but only after all other attempts at Matthew 18 are exhausted. It should never be final, but always open and hopeful that repentance will come and the offender welcomed back. In fact, we want the offender to continue to come to church where he may hear the Word of God and repent, but the exclusion extend to communion and voting at least.

Which sins should be a matter of church discipline? The only guideline that Scripture gives is the sin that one refuses to acknowledge as sin. It is wisdom to further limit exclusion to matters affecting the church, either its reputation in the community (sins of public knowledge) or its unity (sins that disrupt fellowship between two or more members) or doctrine (a member’s teaching or advocating unscriptural doctrine). But that matter should only come to exclusion after repeated attempts to resolve the issue in other ways have failed.

Is restoring the doctrine of regenerate church membership worth the trouble? It was the quest for a pure church that brought Baptists into being 400 years ago. Regenerate church membership is the Baptist mark of the church.