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."
Being disciplined was "grievous" initially, Carrier continued, but brought a "peaceable and good fruit.”
"I can honestly say today my life is better than it's ever been. I'm closer to God than I've ever been. My marriage is in better shape than it's ever been, and God's done some remarkable things in His grace."
Carrier strongly disagrees with those who say churches should not practice discipline today.
"I know a lot of people in this day and age don't like this idea (church discipline), but it was a valuable thing in my life," he said.
Al Jackson, pastor of Lakeview Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala., is another pastor with a conviction that church discipline is essential for a congregation to serve God obediently.
Jackson has pastored Lakeview 27 years but led the church to practice discipline only after a providential encounter on a mission trip to Latvia about 10 years ago. While leading a conference for Latvian ministers, Jackson was asked by a Latvian pastor how his church practiced church discipline.
"I had to hang my head in shame and say, 'My brother, I'm sorry but we don't. And I know better because I'm very familiar with what the Scripture teaches,'" Jackson recounted.
He came home determined to obey God and preached a three-part sermon series on church discipline, in which he explained the purpose of church discipline, who should be disciplined and the process that should be used. Following the series a woman approached Jackson and told him that her husband was committing adultery and seemed like a candidate for the discipline process. After several visits to the offender, first by Jackson and then by Jackson along with other leaders, the man refused to stop his adultery.
Jackson brought the matter before the deacons next, who agreed to proceed with discipline after prayer and discussion. A letter to the offender informed him that the deacons would recommend to the church that it break fellowship with him if he failed to respond to the letter. The man never responded, so the church held a special business meeting following a Sunday morning service. At the meeting Jackson reviewed the biblical guidelines for church discipline and presented the name of the man to be voted on but did not disclose the specific sin.
"Then I took a deep breath and we voted," Jackson said. "And it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. We voted by lifted hands, and I think there were six no votes (out of approximately 1,000 members present)."
In the aftermath of the vote at least one member was confused, thinking that the church's decision would result in the man going to hell. But after clearing up the misunderstanding, the church maintained unity.
The offender never repented, but Jackson said maintaining holiness in the church and obeying the Bible made the matter a success. He advises other churches that are thinking about beginning church discipline to obey God but proceed carefully and slowly.
"My caution would be: Build consensus and work with your deacons to do this," Jackson said. "... In order to be unanimous in a decision like this, you've got to have godly lay leaders who desire above all else to please God."
Pastors who are new to their churches should be especially cautions when attempting to institute discipline because a proceeding without consensus could result in a church split or the pastor being fired, Jackson said.
"If you can't build consensus among your lay leaders, you need to just be patient and stay put until you can build consensus," he said.
Hershael York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky., also has practiced church discipline on several occasions in the churches where he has pastored. Most recently he led Buck Run to rebuke publicly a man who embezzled approximately $250,000 from his employer to fund a gambling addiction. The man repented and now praises church discipline as an instrument of grace in his life.
York, who also serves as Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern Seminary, advises pastors to teach their churches about discipline over time and realize that a loving church always seeks to deliver its members from sin.
"Get people to understand that our goal is always restoration," York said. "Our goal isn't a clean church role. Our goal is restoration. Get them to buy into that concept. Then I think you can really bring them on board."
© Copyright 2007 Baptist Press