Brief Survey of Historical Background to Church Discipline in Baptist Churches

Tonight for an open forum on church discipline sponsored by the Franklin Baptist Association I was asked to give a brief historical survey of church discipline in Baptist life. Below are my prepared remarks.

First, and most importantly, it is biblical. It was commanded by Christ for His church (Matthew 18:15-19). It was practiced in the early church (1 Corinthians 5) and throughout church history. Others will address the scriptural basis for the practice, so I want to focus on why church discipline has historically been important to Baptist churches.

Baptist churches have especially been concerned about the issue of church discipline because of our commitment to a regenerate church membership. When English Baptist churches began to form in the 17th century, they were different than their Church of England counterparts precisely because they were composed only of baptized believers. This was in contrast to the national church whose individual churches were made up of everyone who lived in their parish.

Since Baptist churches were committed to a regenerate church membership, only baptized believers showing evidence of being born again were allowed to be members of their churches. Since these churches weren’t composed together of all adults and their children living in geographical proximity to the church, they were united together by a common confession of faith (what we believe) and covenant (how we agree to live together).

This is foundational! We don’t have any grounds for our existence if we are not united around a confession of faith and a church covenant. We need to recover these documents. You likely had to have them to incorporate or constitute, but sometimes they just get relegated to the archives. These are important documents for you to use in recovering your church’s identity.

Since Baptist churches were composed of members who agreed to certain doctrines and a certain way of life, whenever members deviated from those doctrines and way of life, there was a means to remove them from membership. This is vital because church membership is a church’s testimony that we believe an individual is a Christian. If that person can deny essential truths and/or live in unrepentant sin, there is no reason to believe that person is a genuine believer. To allow them to remain as a church member is to contribute to that individual’s self-deception. Or course, church discipline isn’t just excluding members. It isn’t merely corrective, but is also formative. I’ll let others explain that later.

For the earliest Southern Baptists, church discipline was essential to healthy church life. A popular and influential church manual in the nineteenth century gave three reasons for church discipline:

  1. The Glory of God.
  2. The Purity of the Churches.
  3. The Spiritual good of the disciplined.

So important was church discipline that the early nineteenth-century Baptist theologian, John L. Dagg (1794–1884) said, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” This may explain the powerlessness of our churches today!

One of the most common questions I’m asked whenever I talk about church discipline is, “Does anyone really do that anymore?” American Baptist Historian Greg Wills has addressed the issue of the decline of church discipline in the late nineteenth century:

After the Civil War, Baptist observers began to lament that church discipline was foundering, and it was. It declined partly because it became more burdensome in larger churches…. Urban churches, pressed by the need for large buildings and the desire for refined music and preaching, subordinated church discipline to the task of keeping the church solvent. Many Baptists shared a new vision of the church, replacing the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency. They lost the resolve to purge their churches of straying members.

No one publicly advocated the demise of discipline. No Baptist leader arose to call for an end to congregational censures. No theologians argued that discipline was unsound in principle or practice. No “freedom” party arose to quash the tyranny of the redeemed. It simply faded away, as if Baptists had grown weary of holding one another accountable. Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion, 9.

So, as Baptist churches became more prominent and big city, they increasingly lost the will to practice church discipline. But church discipline continued to be practiced well in to the early 20th century in rural areas in the south. Before I came to Frankfort, I served as the pastor of a small church in East Tennessee that was founded in 1908. Their church minute book was filled with cases of church discipline prior to World War II. When I was teaching the church and leading the church to embrace church discipline, this minute book was a tremendous resource to answer the question, “Would our church ever practice church discipline?”

Jan. 21, 1923 – Received acknowledgment by Littlefield of being drunk. He said he was guilty and sorry. No further action was taken.

March 4, 1923 – Charge against Mcfaller for drunkeness, a move and second to withdraw fellowship from him. What is the difference? Repentance

Oct. 13, 1923 – A charge against Homer Rogers for unchristian conduct and gave him till next meeting to report to the church.

Nov. 10, 1923 – Gave Homer extra month.

December 9, 1923 – Homer removed from church roll. Charges brought against Guyder.

Jan. 12, 1924 – Guyder removed from church roll.

Sept. 25, 1924 – Guyder restored to church roll.

March 7, 1925 – If a member comes to S.S. and leaves before preaching they are to be dealt with.

July 11, 1925 – Charges preferred against Pete Williams for denying the faith of the missionary Baptist doctrine. Withdrew fellowship. Charges preferred against Herbert Ryans for public drunkeness and swearing. Withdrew fellowship.

Oct. 11, 1925 – Deal with any members missing more than 60 days in Church service without legal excuse.

Jan. 17, 1926 – Charge against Gladys Underwood for fornication, removed. 25 people removed for Covenant breaking.

Feb. 20, 1926 – Motion to withdraw fellowship from Genette Golf for denying the faith of the missionary Baptist.

July 17, 1926 – Tommy Richeson removed for transporting whiskey.

April 17, 1927 – 4 charged w. nonattendance, 1 charged with unchristian conduct, 1 excluded for drunkenness.
Minute Book of West Broadway Baptist Church, Lenoir City, TN

Eventually, even the rural churches were influenced by their urban counterparts and the practice of church discipline faded as churches became more concerned about being viewed as successful by our culture than being faithful to Christ. It is hoped that now, as our churches are increasingly not cultural acceptable that we will return to the Scriptures to find our true measure of success in our submission to Christ’s authority over His church. Perhaps this will be the means that God uses to bring the long-desired revival to our churches.

The Day Theology Became Doxology For Me (Or, how God used the music of Steve Green in my life)

In ten days, our church (Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, KY) will have the opportunity to host a concert with Christian artist Steve Green. This is a dream come true for me because of the way God used the biblical truths in Steve Green’s music to shape the trajectory of my life.

I remember when I was 19 years old traveling on Northshore Rd. just between Martel Rd. and the brand new 140 that connected Oak Ridge and Alcoa, TN. As I drove it was raining and I was listening to a new cassette tape in my car. It was an album by Steve Green titled “The Mission” and I remember the specific song that I was listening to as I drove on Northshore with water falling from the sky in an afternoon shower into the lakes on both sides of the road.  The song was called “The Symphony of Praise.” This was the moment in my life when theology (the study of God) became doxology (the worship of God).

God was working in my life at that time in a number of ways. It was around this time that I was reading The Holiness of God and Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, Ashamed of the Gospel and Reckless Faith by John MacArthur, and The Pleasures of God by John Piper. And I was listening to God-centered music with lyrics like these:

The composer and conductor of the universe
Steps before the orchestra of God
Creation lifts their finely crafted instruments
As all in heaven wildly applaud

The seasons well rehearsed begin with His downbeat
And on his cue the sun trumpets the dawn
The whirling winds swell in a mighty crescendo
With each commanding sweep of His baton
The oceans pound the shore in march to His cadence
The galaxies all revolve in cosmic rhyme
The fall of raindrops all in wild syncopation
As lightning strikes and thunder claps in time

The symphony of praise
Conducted by the Ancient of Days
May each creation great or small
Lift their voices one and all
In the symphony of praise

Heaven waits in hushed anticipation
The great I AM then turns to mortal men
A massive chorus robed in spotless garments
Offer up their song of praise to Him
The glories of God explode in full orchestration
As all creation joins the thunderous refrain
“Worthy, Worthy
Lyrics from

Finally, here was music that matched the theology that I had been reading. The greatness of God that I was studying in Scripture, I was now hearing sung in praise to God. This was a pivotal moment in my life! The day when theology became doxology.


Steve Green

Steve Green will be in concert at Farmdale Baptist Church on Friday, August 28th, at 7:00 pm. Tickets are available and can be reserved here for only $5.00 each. A love offering will be taken during the concert.

Let’s Stop Talking about the “Good Ole Days”!


I call for a moratorium on white evangelicals talking about the “good ole days” when the United States was a godly nation. Why? Because it never was. Sure, there were times when on particular issues our nation has reflected certain biblical values better than at other times, but our nation has always been a nation of sinners who have been guilty of grievous sins. Let me be candid, it is easy for white evangelicals to romanticize the past because by and large the previous eras in American history were not marked by injustices to our ancestors. Of course, during every era we have had faithful men of God standing up and preaching the truth, and that’s exactly what we need today. However, when we idealize a particular era while glossing over its sins, we lose our credibility to proclaim the Word of God. Our authority must always be Scripture and not culture, not even 1950s culture.

If you’re looking for the godly era in American history, where will you find it? Not in the 1600s, when those who came for their own religious liberty refused that liberty to others by persecuting any who dared to dissent. Not in 1776, when those who declared all men to be created equal refused to treat blacks equally. Not in 1861-1865, when we fought a Civil War over whether states had a right to secede from the Union to preserve racial slavery as an institution. Not in the 1950s when racism was prevalent and institutionalized and many who sang “Jesus loves all the little children…red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” verbally and physically assaulted those who had a different color of skin. Not in 1973, when in the name of privacy and personal freedom mothers were given the right to murder their unborn children. Not in 2015, when evidence abounds that deep-seated racism still flourishes in certain quarters of American life. There is no golden age in American history. There are only eras where certain sins are tolerated, endorsed, and institutionalized. The golden age of American history is a myth.

In what I’m proposing, I don’t want in any way to denigrate an entire group of people. Certainly, not all white Christians engaged in or supported the societal sins cited above. In fact, there are heroic examples of white Christians standing beside their black brothers and sisters to speak the truth to power. I also don’t want to discount the tremendous strides in human flourishing brought about by white evangelicals, particularly here in America. There is much to celebrate and remember fondly in our history, but we have to acknowledge the darker side of our past as well. Our past and present is a mixed-bag of both good and evil. We cannot accept one while ignoring the other. To put it more forcefully, we cannot praise the good, without condemning the evil.

We need to realize that whenever we talk about those bygone eras nostalgically, eras in which the ancestors of our black brothers and sisters were enslaved, beaten, hanged, and otherwise mistreated, we are communicating that we would rather go back to the days when white Christians were more respected and coddled, even if that means our black brothers and sisters would be subjugated and mistreated. I trust that most who use this language don’t mean this, but multiple conversations with my black friends indicate that this is exactly what they hear when such language is used.

If the above is not what we are trying to communicate, let’s find a better way to say what we mean that doesn’t communicate such an offensive message. Instead of talking about “Taking Back America” or “Reclaiming Our Culture,” let’s talk about calling all people in all cultures to repentance for their sins. If we do this honestly, we will not only renounce the sins of our day, we will also forthrightly acknowledge and condemn the sins of our white Christian ancestors.

Same-Sex Marriage and the Gospel

Today in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states. That’s new. It’s impossible to overestimate the historic nature of this decision and the sweeping ramifications that this decision will have on American life.

What isn’t new is our responsibility to love our gay and lesbian neighbors, to share the gospel with them, and to call upon them to repent of their lifestyle. We are to do this not out of hatred or fear, but out of love. We should love all of our neighbors, friends, and relatives enough to call upon them to trust in Christ and turn from their sin. By doing this for our gay and lesbian friends, we are not singling them out, but are simply delivering the same message to them that has delivered us and will deliver all kinds of sinners.

Marriage as defined by God is still the same–one man, one woman for one lifetime. No court decision will ever change that. I will continue to preach and teach this and will only perform ceremonies for biblical marriages, not because I want to deny happiness to others, but because I believe that the only way for people to be truly happy is to function as their Creator designed them.

What is legal isn’t always moral and what is moral isn’t always legal. In this case, as in all others, let us commit to recognize God’s authority rather than man’s. Let us uphold the biblical teaching on marriage. Let us even more steadfastly proclaim the biblical gospel that declares that unrepentant sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers will not go to heaven, but “such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Book Review: Baptists in America: A History by Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins


In Baptists in America: A History, Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, both professors of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, show how American Baptists have functioned alternatively as outsiders and insiders in American culture. Tracing Baptists from their beginning in the new world as a persecuted minority all the way to their late 20th-century prominence in the culture wars, Kidd and Hankins demonstrate that individual Baptists have often enjoyed acceptance while others have been maligned. It is a compelling narrative expertly told.

The authors are to be commended for not merely painting with a broad brush, but for dipping down into some of the individual stories and weaving the narratives together seamlessly. More than merely descriptive, Kidd and Hankins also delve into how theology shaped practice in particular areas. Most fascinating in this regard is their analysis of how the “soul competency” theology of Edgar Young Mullins (4th president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) accounts for how even progressive Southern Baptists were so little engaged in the Civil Rights movement (221-225).

While excellent overall, as a frequent reader of Baptist history I thought certain treatments were the best I have seen heretofore in an American Baptist survey text. I thought the treatments of “Baptists and Slavery” (chapter 6), “Baptist Schism in the Early Twentieth Century” (chapter 10), “Baptists and the Civil Rights Movement” (chapter 12), and “Schism in Zion: The Southern Baptist Controversy” (chapter 13) were especially well done. What made these treatments unique was the balanced way in which these controversial topics were discussed with an apparent attempt to understand and explain the why and how behind developments that could be viewed both positively and negatively.

Even the conclusion (chapter 14) is fruitful as the authors explore the markers of Baptist identity, briefly discussing important distinctives such as religious liberty, soul liberty, the authority of Scripture, and the separation of church and state. This book focused on the dual nature of Baptists variously and at sundry times as insiders and outsiders. This evidence is surveyed in the concluding chapter; but the authors also seek to drop some conclusions about what makes a Baptist a Baptist. Noting the extreme diversity of Baptists, they rightly show that we cannot “make broad claims about what makes Baptists distinct.” Instead, we should talk about what “most” or “some” Baptists believed and did. Nevertheless, the authors do propose “three features that mark all Baptists throughout history”: (1) Baptism for believers only, (2) independence of local congregations, (3) Willingness to call themselves Baptists (251).

I recommend this book to all who want to understand the history of Baptists in America or the impact of Baptists on American culture (and vice versa). It will serve as an excellent textbook for a history of religion in America or American Baptists elective course on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This book raises all the important issues and will make for a great discussion starter, while at the same time being a competent guide, for the doctrinal and practical issues that have been, and continue to be, debated by Baptists. This book could also prove useful for those from other religious traditions, or “none,” who want to understand the complexity, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, identity of Baptists.

Andrew Fuller’s Dying Hope

On this date (May 7, 1815) 200 years ago, Baptist theologian and pastor Andrew Fuller died. Andrew Fuller was the theologian behind William Carey and the Modern Missionary Movement. His most famous work, The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, made the case for the universal responsibility of believers to take the gospel to the lost and for the universal responsibility of the lost to respond to the gospel message. Fuller, a Calvinist, had written much against hyper-Calvinism, a distortion of biblical teaching that resulted in a refusal to offer the gospel indiscriminately to all. After preaching what would prove to be his final sermon, Fuller dictated a later to Dr. John Ryland, Jr. In the letter he asked his old friend to preach his funeral sermon from Romans 8:10, “And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

He went on to say in the letter:

I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace; but that doctrine is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other hope than from salvation by mere sovereign and efficacious grace through the atonement of my Lord and Saviour: with this hope I can go into eternity with composure. Come, Lord Jesus, come when Thou wilt! Here I am; let Him do with me as seemeth Him good.

After closing the letter, he raised both hands and repeated the same sentiment from the letter with emphasis: “If I am saved, it will be by great and sovereign grace!  I have no raptures, but no despondency. My mind is calm. My God, My Saviour, my Refuge, to Thee I commit my spirit. Take me to Thyself. Bless those I leave behind.”

He then set up on his bedside and said, “All my feelings are sinking, dying feelings.” His wife was noticeably upset, so Fuller added, “We shall meet again. All will be well.”

Fuller’s son, Andrew Gunton Fuller, records his eyewitness account of the deathbed scene when his father joined the heavenly choir.

The dread day—dreaded by all but himself—arrived when he must submit to the test the hope with which he had declared he could “plunge into eternity.” It was (as in the present year) Lord’s day, May 7th. A profound silence reigned in the room. Nothing was heard save the measured breathing of the dying man. He seemed to have lost his consciousness, and to have entered on the borderland between worlds. No one thought now of trying to win his attention, when the sound of solemn psalmody was heard through the wall that separate the apartment from the congregation assembled for worship. His attention was roused; he tried to raise himself. Turning to my sister Sarah he said, “I wish I had strength enough.” “For what, father?” “To worship, child.” “Come, Mary, come and help me.” He was by careful and united effort raised up. He seemed to sing “with the spirit and the understanding” without the bodily accompaniment; then, joining his hands as in earnest prayer, the only words distinctly heard were “Help me!” and within half an hour from the time of rousing himself he joined the “everlasting song.”

Never, perhaps, had the choirs of earth and heaven been in nearer proximity—the dying pastor was the connecting link. If the eye of our faith sees that which is invisible, it will scarcely be a gratuitous imagination that hears in like manner the mingling of heavenly with earthly harmonies as we approach the innumerable company of angels and the spirits of just men made perfect.

Andrew Gunton Fuller, Andrew Fuller. Men Worth Remembering (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882),188-190.

A. W. Tozer on Spirituality in the Age of Machines

In The Pursuit of God, A. W. Tozer indicted 20th-century Christians for their lack of patience in spiritual activities. If this was true then, how much more is it true today. In the selection below, Tozer describes the contemporary practice and then gives some of its “tragic results.”

The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. We now demand glamour and fast flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals. We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.

The tragic results of this spirit are all about us. Shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit: these and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul.

A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1948), 69-70.