A few weeks ago, someone raised a question in a comment regarding church discipline. I don’t remember exactly how it was phrased or who raised it. What I recall as the essence of the question was this: What is church discipline, specifically in a Baptist context?
Which is, of course, a great question. I would attempt to give you a blog-length answer, and I will start at the end and work backwards.
The first point to consider is this: What is a “Baptist context?” What is it about Baptists that makes this question different? Here are some key truths regarding Baptists that matter for considering church discipline:
- Baptists claim the Bible as their only authority. Not even denominational creeds like the Baptist Faith & Message are to be considered equal to the Bible. These only serve to explain what we believe the Bible says. Any concept of church discipline must be connected to the Bible.
- Baptists claim the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole head of the Church. There are no human authorities that sit as His equal, His advisor, or His single representative on earth. Any concept of church discipline must be connected to the authority of the Risen Christ.
- Baptists claim the individual believer is both capable and responsible before God. There is one mediator between God and mankind, the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore individual believers are capable of standing directly before God.
- Baptists claim the autonomy of the local church. Each local church, while we should be interconnected and mutually supporting, is responsible to the head of the church Himself. This allows each church the right and responsibility to make its own decisions regarding membership and participation.
- Baptists claim that churches operate under the Lordship of Christ through individual, Spirit-led, Bible-based, baptized believers that are the membership of the church. We see that expressed, typically, in some measure of direct democracy whereby the whole church prayerfully seeks God’s Word and will and agrees to do it.
- Baptists claim, with all our hearts, that salvation is by grace through faith because of the death and resurrection of Christ. Only and solely: the church cannot make or unmake the salvation of an individual. No form of church discipline may rightly claim to remove God’s grace from a believer or condemn them to Hell. That is simply a Biblical impossibility: salvation is God’s, not man’s.
- Baptists claim that grace is necessary for all for salvation, and so no person is without the need for Christ.
Now, go fill up your coffee mug and come back for the rest of this.
The idea of church discipline is primarily rooted in two passages of Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5. These are not exhaustive, but Acts 5 is not really instructive here and most other portions applied here hang the framework on Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians. There’s some books out there that address the whole issue, so grab one of those exhaustive treatments if you need it.
Let us start with what Jesus says in Matthew. This passage primarily addresses sin that is between two individuals. I will defer to the commentaries that claim “against you” is probably appropriate though missing in a few major manuscripts, but its absence from Sinaiticus and Vaticanus is worth a nerd-look. The process outlined is fairly well-known and proceeds in stages. Each one provides the opportunity for repentance: individual, small group, and then the church as a whole. (Another nerd point: Jesus only uses the word “ecclesia” for church in two places: here and Matthew 16 at Peter’s Confession of Christ.)
Someone who remains unrepentant should then be treated “As a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
1 Corinthians 5 speaks to a specific situation in Corinth. There were people in the church living in open sexual immorality and the church, rather than even be ashamed by this, was apparently boasting about the situation. Paul declared that someone who is living in immorality that not even Corinth’s licentious populace enjoyed should be “expelled” from among the church.
One critical consideration for how this applies? What is the difference between a modern Baptist context and the Corinthian Church of the first century? There is a wide debate on how to answer that question: it likely hinges on whether or not the church at Corinth had public access meetings or not.
Between these two passages, we should find that church discipline is appropriate in the case of unrepentant sin. We should also find that the church cannot sit idly by while publicly known church members disgrace the Gospel by living in open immorality. We should certainly not celebrate that.
Now, the question comes down: How does this actually look?
Too often, it looks bad. My experience and observation shows that we either have too much church discipline or too little. Too much in churches that try and control every last action of their members. Too little in the churches that leave people in leadership in spite of definite sin in their lives. This is a complex issue that rejects the simplistic answers many of us want to bring to it.
I will offer a few points that I think are critical:
1. Church discipline must apply equally to all in the body of Christ. There are no loopholes for those at the top. This is re-illustrated in Paul’s confrontation of Peter in Galatians: even an Apostle made mistakes, and we are not exempt. Likewise, one does not purchase exemptions: those were called indulgences back around 1517 and we have held ever since that earthly wealth is not the key to the Kingdom.
2. Church discipline is about sin. Not disagreement or differences of opinion, but actual sin. The definition of sin must come, based on our Baptist beliefs above, from Scripture and not from a human construct. Further, it must be clear sin and unrepentant sin: this implies either a pattern of behavior or a single incident with distinct consequences on others. That you once skipped church is nonsense.
3. Church discipline is grace focused. If your only goal is get rid of a person or to punish an individual, that is not Biblical church discipline. If your goal is the strengthening of the church, then you are starting in the right direction.
4. Church discipline is local. It is not the place of a church in one place to dictate another church’s membership and composition. That does not exempt churches from a duty-to-warn, especially regarding leaders and victimizers, but if someone has simply faded from a church in one place and then joins another, that is the business of the new church. Not the old one.
5. Church discipline is not a weapon. It is a shield of last resort.
6. Church discipline should be clear up-front. The definition of sin should be clear in a church, and those who participate should know what it is. This should acknowledge clearly the reality that we all live in need of grace and that knee-jerk reactions cannot be part of church discipline.
7. Church discipline results in this: the removal of an individual from leadership within the church or from membership, but not attendance. Do we exclude tax collectors and Gentiles from our churches? Nonsense. If the goal is redemptive, then excluding someone from attending where grace is proclaimed is antithetical to the goal.
Ultimately, we need wrestle with this: church discipline is to protect the purity of the church’s witness of the Gospel. It is not about the ego of anyone, nor about the appearance of unity on every minor detail. This should be cautiously entered into–especially in cases not of gross immorality.
After all, Peter’s follow-up question was about personal forgiveness, the first stage in the Matthew process. And Jesus instructs him to forgive 490 times. Before we take a matter to the church, have we taken that step?
None of this should be understood to say that people cannot take appropriate steps for personal safety; likewise that a church should wait to protect the weak from predators.
We should just be very clear about what we really mean by that. Someone who isn’t as convinced of a Young Earth or a Late Exodus or whatever else is not a predator. Further, one who does not support the new building fund is not sinning. One who burns the building down is.
In all, there is no real consensus in Baptist life regarding church discipline. This is offered to provide some guidelines for a jumping off point. Where do we go next? More into grace than into law should be the answer–but how?