Whatever happened to congregational discipline? Few congregations do it anymore.
Gregory Wills’ dissertation on why it fell out of favor in the 1800s and 1900s is fascinating (Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the South, 1785-1900). Two major factors led to the demise of congregational discipline: (1) the Industrial Revolution: technology allowed people to do twice the amount of work in half the time ... people used the extra free time to entertain themselves in worldly ways; and (2) the Church Growth Revolution: the desire to grow larger churches led to an unwillingness to confront sinful behavior.
Contrast that way of thinking with the Protestant Reformers. Most Reformers taught three marks distinguished a “true” church from a “false” one: (1) right preaching of the Word of God; (2) right administration of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper); and, (3) right congregational discipline.
Protestant confessions of faith reinforced this by including whole sections on right congregational discipline. For instance, The Westminster Confession (1646) is the standard-bearer for nearly all Protestant confessions that followed it. It’s section on “Church Censures” is longer than its section on “Saving Faith.” The 19th century Baptist theologian, J.L. Dagg, said, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
They all are saying the same thing: If you don’t practice church discipline, then you won’t have a church. You will have a social club. Sadly, many churches today find themselves in that condition.
Jesus taught congregational discipline in Matthew 18:15-20. His motive is clear: Restoration of the sinner. The process is simple: (1) confront the sinner one-on-one; (2) if he refuses to repent, confront him with two or three witnesses; (3) if he refuses to repent, bring the matter to the whole congregation; (4) if he remains obstinate, treat him as an unbeliever (meaning, actively evangelize him). Disciplinary actions in NT congregations fell into three broad categories: (1) false doctrine, (2) unholy living; or, (3) disrupters in the congregation.
Some people disagree with this whole notion. I sympathize with them. I really do. It can be a painful process. And their objections seem valid: “It will lead to hurt feelings” ... “If we exclude them, they will never get saved” ... “Who are we to judge?”
At the same time, God is wiser than man. We must trust His counsel here, not man’s.
We all have watched TV shows about drug addicts. When an addict’s family members recognize his/her sin-problem, they get together and perform a “group intervention.” Why? Not because they are mean-spirited, but because they care. Wayward members need the same type of “faith-family intervention.” It is not done from spite. It is done from a heart of love.
There are several reasons why congregational discipline is good (from Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church):
- For the person disciplined, as they see others who care;
- For other Christians, as they see the danger of sin;
- For the health of the church;
- For the corporate witness of the church in the community;
- For the glory of God, as we reflect His Holiness.
Sometimes Scripture calls us to do courageous acts. This is one of them. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s not. Thankfully, we have a beautiful promise from Jesus: He is present with us when we practice church discipline. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). These were His last words on the subject. What a wonderful promise!
Does your congregation practice discipline? If not, maybe it’s time to start. Talk with your pastor about it, and remember these three tidbits of advice:
1. Don’t be overly strict (or your church will become a cult);
2. Don’t be overly lenient (or your church will become a club);
3. Don’t go beyond what is written in Scripture.
If you follow these guidelines, the Spirit will grant you wisdom.
Chipley Thornton is pastor of First Baptist Church-Springville.