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The Lost Practice of Church Discipline

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. The 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 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.

Democratic Religion by Greg Wills.

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.