NASHVILLE -- Increasing numbers of Southern Baptists are claiming that church discipline is not merely a relic of the past.

Some churches have instituted a process drawn from Scripture of correcting and, if need be, eventually dismissing unrepentant members for public sins. The ultimate goal of the discipline process is repentance and restoration of sinners, the churches say, citing Baptists of past centuries as examples of how church discipline can benefit individuals and churches.

The return to church discipline has been gaining momentum for several years.

"The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church," R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote in a 2001 essay in a book titled "Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life," edited by Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

"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,” Mohler observed.

"[W]ithout a recovery of functional church discipline -- firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible -- the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism," Mohler wrote.

Jeff Noblit, pastor of First Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., agreed with Mohler's call for church discipline and said he has seen it practiced successfully firsthand.

Eighteen years ago when Noblit became pastor of First Baptist, he developed a conviction that church discipline is biblical and builds the purity of the church. Noblit's conviction stemmed from reading the Bible and Baptist writings from past generations, including the New Hampshire Confession, the First and Second London Confessions and the works of Charles Spurgeon.

Responding to Noblit’s leadership, First Baptist began to practice church discipline according to the process outlined in Matthew 18.

The first step in church discipline is for one person to confront a sinning church member privately, Noblit said. If the individual does not repent, the confronting person should take two or three others with him and confront the sinning church member again, the pastor continued.

If the sinning church member still will not repent, Matthew 18 says to take the matter before the church, Noblit said, noting that First Baptist does this in Sunday School departments initially.

"In a church our size (approximately 1,000 active members) ... we tell it to a Sunday School class or maybe a Sunday School department," Noblit said. "And that group of people will begin to appeal to that person. If they refuse to listen to that group, then the Bible says to bring it before the church."

When a discipline case proceeds to the point of coming before the entire church, Noblit shares with members the steps already taken and mentions the name of the offender and the sin in question. The church subsequently votes on the member's removal.

"We exhort the body to not be gossiping or spreading strife, but to pray," Noblit said. "As the Scripture says, if they see this person or have fellowship with them, they're to humbly appeal to them to repent and be restored to the body."

In most cases discipline never advances to the point of a vote to dismiss the offender from the church because people generally repent early in the process, Noblit said.

"Fortunately there is repentance very often," the pastor said. "The great majority of times things can remain covered. The Scripture says it's a blessing to cover sin. It doesn't mean you excuse sin, but you deal with it confidentially and privately. And that is discipline. But it is fairly common in the life of our church to publicly dismiss someone -- it has happened numerous times."

When a person is dismissed from the congregation, the dismissal is never permanent and the offender may always repent and be restored, Noblit said, adding that restoration is the goal of discipline.

One of First Baptist's many examples of restoration is Scott Carrier, who was dismissed five years ago for drunkenness. After a process of recovery, he was allowed back into the church's membership and is an active member today.

Carrier said he deserved the discipline and that God used it to change his life.

"It was genuine repentance on my part, and after a time I was allowed back into the church," Carrier told Baptist Press. "One of the major things [discipline] did for me was humble me. It also let me know I was coming back to something worth coming back to. I was coming back to something that's valuable and not to be toyed with and not to be sinned against."