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Obligation To Assume: Church Discipline

The article I wrote yesterday has caused a bit of a ruckus. I intended to answer some of the criticisms this morning, but then I had to try to keep Michaela from crying for two hours, and once I handed her off to Aileen, the phone rang a few times and before I knew it, the morning was getting away from me (it’s mostly Steve Camp’s fault—he and I just have too much to talk about). As you recall, I wrote about whether or not we, as Christians, have an obligation to assume or believe that others are also believers. I suggested that we are under this obligation when a person professes faith and is a member of a “true” church. I was prepared for some criticism, and when Joe Carter mentioned that he would answer this article, I pointed out that I knew there were several holes in my argument which I was sure he would have no trouble finding.

True to his word, Joe took issue with several things, among them my use of the Belgic Confession. “While I consider the Belgic Confession to be a magnificent creed and a beautiful exposition of doctrine, I also believe it to be significantly flawed. In order to understand the requirement for ‘pure administration of the sacraments’ we have to look at Article 34: The Sacrament of Baptism.” The Confession, of course, then advocates infant baptism. Joe concludes “A ‘true church’ is, according to this confession, one that adheres to infant baptism as a ‘pure administration of the sacrament’ of baptism. That means me, John Piper, Al Mohler, and the 16 million members of the SBC are apparently spending our Sundays at a ‘false church.’ (The same could be said for Tim himself since he is a ‘Reformed believer attending a Baptist church.’)”

I should point out that, as a Baptist, I consider the Confession a great document and one that is useful even to me. I look to the confession as a solid summary of the three marks and do not necessarily agree with how the writers of the document further define those three marks. The marks can easily apply to churches other than those which hold to paedo-baptism. I’d suggest that this was something of a red herring, for it seems to have kept Joe from interacting with the marks themselves—marks which I consider a useful guide to a true church.

Mike at “Eternal Perspectives,” who said on another site that I had a bad day yesterday, wrote a lengthy article called The Problem with Whitewash and Turpentine where he expressed his disagreement with me. On the whole I think he understood my argument, though he disagreed with it.

Conversely, John at “Blogotional” seems to have (quite conventiently, really) overlooked my main point. He asked “Who Then Is My Brother? as if my article suggested that only those who profess faith and attend a true church can be believers. Of course my article merely asked who we are under an obligation to assume is a believer, rather than who is a believer. There is a vast difference. He also objected to my criticism of the Roman Catholic Church.

Were I to criticize my article, I would probably point out that very few churches really do practice proper church discipline, and thus there are not a lot of churches left that actually adhere to the three marks I presented. In theory, most churches make some attempt at articulating a policy for church discipline. Sadly, few actually practice it. Many that do practice it, use it more as a tool for ridding themselves of dissenters than a God-given means of separating the wheat from the chaff. This was proven true a few days ago when even the The United Church of Christ, which touts an open-door policy that welcomes everyone and declares that no one will ever be kicked out of the church’s membership, was removed from membership for raising questions about the church’s spending.

So for today I would like to discuss church discipline. I was surprised, when I searched the archives of this site, to see how little I have written about this. However, I found an article which summarized much of what I believe and, having tidied it up, bring it to you today as a basis for what I’d like to say tomorrow (if the phone is a little bit quieter):

Much has been written in our day about healthy churches. Men like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, known as being at the forefront of the church growth movement, insist that their primary concern is not with making churches bigger but with making them healthier. Mark Dever, in 9 Marks of a Healthy Church includes an appendix that lists the prescriptions offered by many contemporary authors. Though this is merely a small sample of what people have suggested, the list comes to over 10 pages. Clearly there is some controversy regarding how we can discern a healthy church from a corrupt one.

Since the time of the Reformation most Protestants have agreed on the marks of a true church (not to be confused with a healthy church). These are summarized in the Belgic Confession, Article 29, which says “The marks by with the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preaching therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.” While not all confessions included church discipline as one of the marks, where absent this was assumed as being integral to the proper administration of the sacraments, for they are to withheld from those who are engaged in gross sins. Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin and Cramner, for example, all agreed on these marks.

Church discipline is an area that is largely overlooked in the contemporary church, yet is one that is necessary for a church to be a true church and to be a healthy church. Until recent times, discipline was viewed as one of the primary functions of the leadership of a church. Until the mid-1800’s, Southern Baptist churches would excommunicate, on average, two percent of their membership in any given year! Church membership was considered both a privelege and a responsibility, and those who did not meet their obligations were swiftly removed. Churches were serious about sin.

As churches changed in the mid to late 19th century, discipline faded. It seems that an emphasis on holy lives was replaced by an emphasis on solving society’s ills. Greg Wills has written extensively about the changing views on church discipline in Democratic Religion:

In fact, the more churches concerned themselves with social order, the less they exerted church discipline. From about 1850 to 1920, a period of expanding evangelical solicitude for the reformation of society, church discipline declined steadily. From temperance to Sabbatarian reform, evangelicals persuaded their communities to adopt the moral norms of the church for society at large. As Baptists learned to reform the larger society, they forgot how they had once reformed themselves. Church discipline presupposed a stark dichotomy between the norms of society and the kingdom of God. The more evangelicals purified the society, the less they felt the urgency of a discipline that seperated the church from the world.

Church discipline today is generally reserved for only the most terrible sins. I suspect many churches are willing to overlook almost any sin provided it does not cause rifts in the church and call the leadership into question. Disunity is the cardinal sin of the twenty-first century. Matters of morality and godliness are regarded with far more leniency. Sadly this shows that many church leaders are more concerned with how the members of their churches regard them than with how they regard God. This has not always been the case. Even 100 years ago many churches considered almost any consistent transgression of biblical rules grounds for discipline. In 9 Marks of a Healthy Church Mark Dever provides some examples from the rules of his church which were drawn up in 1878. The document outlined many ways in which members could be liable to discipline. They included: any outward violations of the moral law; any course which may…be disreputable to it [the church] as a body; neglecting to contribute financially; being habitually absent from church. In short, the church required believers to act and live like believers and any consistent transgression of this rule would begin the process of discipline as outlined in the Scripture.

Clearly this model, which seems to have been quite common in that day, is unusual for our time. But consider the impact on our churches if we placed under discipline those who miss church on an ongoing basis, those who live in sin and those who refuse to give financially to the church - in short, those who show clear evidence of ongoing, unrepentant sin in their lives. Evidently attendance would fall dramatically. But would this be a bad thing? It seems to me that a lean church composed of committed believers is far superior to a bloated body composed of a mix of believers and unbelievers. Almost sixty years ago H.E. Dana observed that:

The abuse of discipline is reprehensible and destructive, but not more than the abandonment of discipline. Two generations ago the churches were applying discipline in a vindictive and arbitrary fashion that justly brought it into disrepute; today the pendulum has swung to the other extreme - discipline is almost wholly neglected. It is time for a new generation of pastors to restore this important function of the church to its rightful significance and place in church life.

I wonder how the church would change if discipline were taken seriously. I wonder how many goats would immediately flee the assembly of the sheep. But wouldn’t the church be better for it? Mark Dever observes that “Jesus intended our lives to back up our words. If our lives don’t back up our words, the evangelistic task is injured, as we have seen so terribly this last century in America. Undisciplined churches have actually made it harder for people to hear the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ.” I fully agree. Churches in which the members show little evidence of the Spirit’s work of sanctification appeal to the world and harm the task of evangelism. Laxity in this area brings harm and shame to the church of Jesus Christ.

The great irony may be that those churches which are most concerned with evangelism are those which do the most to harm their own witness with their bloated, often largely-unregenerate membership.