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.

“Satan…will do anything to hold up evangelism and divide Christians.” J.I. Packer

e&sJ.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God should be required reading for all who desire to understand and discuss the relationship between divine sovereignty and human relationship with its implications for evangelism. It is at once a plea to take Scripture’s teaching regarding both divine sovereignty and human responsibility seriously and a call to declare the gospel indiscriminately to all. In the paragraph below, first published in 1961, Packer presciently responds to the current debate between Calvinists and Traditionalists in the Southern Baptist Convention. His words are a stern warning against the tendency of both sides “to grow self-righteous and bitter and conceited as they criticize each other.”

This is a question that troubles many evangelical Christians today. There are some who have come to believe in the sovereignty of God in the unqualified and uncompromising way in which (as we judge) the Bible presents it. These are now wondering whether there is not some way in which they could and should witness to this faith by modifying the evangelistic practice which they have inherited from a generation with different convictions. These methods, they say, were devised by people who did not believe what we believe about God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation; is that not of itself reason enough for refusing to use them? Others, who do not construe the doctrine of divine sovereignty in quite this way, nor take it quite so seriously, fear that this new concern to believe it thoroughly will mean the death of evangelism; for they think it is bound to undercut all sense of urgency in evangelistic action. Satan, of course, will do anything to hold up evangelism and divide Christians; so he tempts the first group to become inhibited and cynical about all current evangelistic endeavors, and the second group to lose its head and become panicky and alarmist, and both to grow self-righteous and bitter and conceited as they criticize each other. Both groups, it seems, have urgent need to watch against the wiles of the devil.

J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (InterVarsity Press, 1961, rev. ed. 2008), 94.

A Better Way Forward for Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the SBC

Historically Baptists who desired to cooperate with one another have sought to unite around truths held in common, rather than seeking to divide over differing opinions on various matters of interpretation. Southern Baptists have agreed to cooperate together within a consensus statement, The Baptist Faith  and Message. This confession provides precise language where needed, but is broad enough to allow for both Calvinists and non-Calvinists to cooperate together for the sake of the Great Commission. As a historian, I believe that by looking backward we can often find our best way forward. A clear example of the type of cooperation needed today is seen in the Terms of Union Between Regular and Separate Kentucky Baptists of 1801. This document facilitated the cooperation between Calvinists and non-Calvinists which eventually resulted in the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.

On the second Saturday of October 1801, the Elkhorn (Regular) and South Kentucky (Separate) Associations were reconciled together as a single body of Baptists in full correspondence and communion based on the following statement:

We, the committees of the Elkhorn and South Kentucky Associations, do agree to unite on the following plan:
1st That the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the infallible word of God, and the only rule of faith and practice.
2nd That there is one only true God, and in the God-head or divine essence, there are Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
3rd That by nature we are fallen and depraved creatures.
4th That salvation, regeneration, sanctification, and justification, are by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
5th That the saints will finally persevere through grace to glory.
6th That believers’ baptism, by immersion, is necessary to receiving the Lord’s Supper.
7th That the salvation of the righteous and punishment of the wicked will be eternal.
8th That it is our duty to be tender and affectionate to each other, and study the happiness of the children of God in general; to be engaged singly to promote the honor of God.
9th And that the preaching Christ tasted death for every man, shall be no bar to communion.
10th And that each may keep up their associational and church government as to them may seem best.
11th That a free correspondence and communion be kept up between the churches thus united.

Unanimously agreed to by the joint committee. Ambrose Dudley, Joseph Redding, Robert Elkin, John Price, David Barrow, Daniel Ramey, Thos. J. Chilton, Samuel Johnson, Moses Bledsoe.

This is the historic approach for American Baptists which has worked for over two hundred years. While each individual, church, association, and entity is free to retain its own distinctives, we are united because we have agreed to cooperate under the banner of the Southern Baptist Convention for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission together. The Baptist Faith and Message sufficiently defines the kind of doctrinal agreement that we need to be able to do this effectively. I believe that this historic approach continues to be the best way forward in the days ahead.

My Initial Reaction to “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”

I read with great interest this morning “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation”. This consensus statement compiled by several Southern Baptist pastors, professors, and leaders has an impressive list of signatories. Many of those who have already signed this document are heroes of mine, some I consider friends. Since I care deeply about the issues discussed in the statement and the individuals who have signed it, I had a number of initial thoughts about the document. I thought it might be helpful to others for me to share my initial reaction to the document.

  • I affirm any individual or group’s right to believe what they think God’s Word teaches.
  • I appreciate any attempt to systematically articulate what one actually believes. This is helpful.
  • I fear “traditional” Southern Baptists have misunderstood “historic” Calvinism at several points.
  • Perhaps some Calvinists have fostered this misunderstanding through their own misunderstanding of historic Calvinism.
  • If this statement is merely a declaration of what some (many, most?) Southern Baptists believe, I don’t have a problem with it.
  • In other words, we can disagree on various propositions, clarify others, but they have as much right to state their beliefs as I trust they would give me to state my own.
  • The perceived need for this statement demonstrates that it is not the historic or confessional view of Southern Baptists.
  • The term “Traditional Southern Baptists” (last 80 years) seems to distinguish it from historic Southern Baptists (first 80 years).
  • As long as this statement is merely an expression of beliefs that (like Evangelical Calvinism) fits comfortably within the Baptist Faith and Message, I don’t have a problem with it.
  • The only possible problem which I foresee is if this statement is going to be set forward as an additional “statement of faith” to the Baptist Faith and Message and made binding upon the entities of the Southern Baptist Convention in any way. The introduction and Preamble seem to rule this out as a motivation. I hope my reading of it is correct.
  • As long as this statement is not going to be made a litmus test for cooperation by churches or hiring by SBC entities, I don’t have a problem with it.

While I disagree with this document at several points, I do not believe that it has to be seen as divisive. The motivation and spirits of the individuals involved on both sides will determine whether this becomes a divisive issue in the SBC. It could be seen as a barometer of the health of the SBC that such important doctrinal matters are being openly discussed. As far as this document allows us to clarify our beliefs through dialogue, it can be a good thing. I think a number of clarifications/corrections of an implied misunderstanding of historic Calvinism are in order and I am sure this will be addressed in due time (perhaps even by me). But for now I’m happy to accept the statement on face value and assume the best about the motivation of my brothers in Christ. I encourage all to approach this issue with a grace-filled disposition.

Six Lessons from SBC 2011

I just got back home last night from Phoenix and the 2011 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was really a great experience and I wanted to put down some things I was thinking about today while reflecting on the week. The following are six takeaways from this week’s SBC in no particular order.

1. Phoenix is a great convention city.

Having never been west of Laredo, I didn’t know what to expect of the city of Phoenix. I certainly didn’t expect the most hospitable city to Southern Baptists in recent memory (I’ve attended seven of the last ten Conventions and the last five in a row. I didn’t attend when the Convention was last in Phoenix in 2003.). The venue was terrific. They have a great Convention Center with several hotels within walking distance, great access to food, and the Convention Center was only two blocks from Chase Field (home of the Arizona Diamondbacks). But more than all of these features, the people were the kindest and most welcoming of any of the large cities that I’ve ever visited. I can’t wait to go back the next time the Convention is in Phoenix.

2. Kevin Ezell is a great leader.

Although Ezell was a pastor in Louisville until recently becoming president of the North American Mission Board, I do not know him very well. I have only observed him from afar and heard many of my friends comment on what a great leader he is. I was not convinced. I am now. His honesty and courage during his report at this year’s annual meeting convinced me within 10 minutes of his presentation that he was the right man at the right time for the job. I thankful that he has been placed at this strategic post in this urgent day.

3. The center of gravity is shifting back toward the SBC in terms of church planting and reaching unreached people groups.

We must realize that God can and will do His work with or without Southern Baptists. Recent years have seen a rise in organizations who are targeting key missiological needs in North America and around the word. We should be thankful for such works of God as long as they are committed to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, it is encouraging to see that the emphases of the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board are now zeroed in on the two most important areas of need in our world today: church planting in urban and under-reached areas in North American and targeting unreached people groups around the world for the gospel. These are the areas that must be focused upon if we are to fulfill the Great Commission in our generation.

4. Being a messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention is a great privilege.

I am thankful to serve in a church that sees the importance of sending messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention. Being a part of the SBC is a tremendous stewardship. I believe that is important to participate in the process. Although like many others I was frustrated with some of the foolishness spouted from the microphones on the convention floor, I will nevertheless fight to defend the right of anyone duly elected messenger to speak on the convention floor. No entity head is above being asked a question and no messenger is too unimportant to be barred from making a motion from the floor. There is a beauty in the ugliness of the debates that occur at the convention. Namely, common men and women elected by their local churches are allowed to participate in holding accountable and shaping the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. A great illustration of the power of the messengers was seen this year as a resolution passed over by the committee was nevertheless adopted from the floor. This is not a top-down denomination.

5. Being a messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention is a serious responsibility.

Not only is being a messenger to the SBC a great privilege, it is also a serious responsibility. Although everyone has a right to participate, messengers should seek to be informed and edifying. Take the time to learn the basics of the parliamentary procedure. Know the difference between a motion and a resolution. The basics are printed each year in the Convention program. This year, one individual who has attended (and made motions) for decades made two motions which could (I won’t say should) have been submitted as resolutions. He should have known better. Another individual questioned an entity head in an attempt to embarrass him or another named individual. If the messenger had simply taken the time to Google search the issue and this entity head’s name, he would have gotten his answer and saved himself from looking foolish. Both of these individuals had the right to speak from the floor, but they should not have without being better informed.

6. A spirit of unity is pervading the Southern Baptist Convention.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this year’s Convention was the general sense of unity that pervaded the entire meeting. On Monday before the Convention officially began, the Executive Committee adopted a statement called an “Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation.” This statement was affirmed by the Convention on Tuesday. I believe that this statement reflects the heart of all of our Southern Baptist entity heads. There were no pot shots at others during the Convention, at least that I heard or recognized. Perhaps no one exemplifies this new spirit more than the new president of the Executive Committee, Frank Page. His report was both passionate and compassionate. The five core pledges of the statement will hopefully serve as a touchstone in the years to come.

This clearly has not been an exhaustive list of what happened in Phoenix this week.  Many other important, and even historic, events took place at this year’s Convention. For complete coverage from Baptist Press, see here. These have simply been my reflections upon SBC 2011 from my perspective. If you would like to watch any of the sessions from the Convention, you may do so here. There were also several great sermons at the Pastor’s Conference which you may view here.

Something Bigger Than Us

One of the joys of being the pastor of a church in the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention is the privilege of cooperating together with other churches for a purpose bigger than anyone of our churches. The Cooperative Program allows us to pool our resources together and do more than we could ever do individually.

The primary purpose for which we have cooperated together as Southern and Kentucky Baptists is for the spread of the gospel among all nations.  This purpose certainly includes missions in Kentucky and North America, but it especially means extending our efforts to get the gospel into nations which currently have little or no access to the gospel.

Over the years, many programs have been established in the United States that, while they are  mostly good and helpful, use vital resources for lesser purposes.  In a day when financial accountability is on all of our minds, we must not allow our budgets to reflect less than our commitment to take the gospel to every nation on the face of the earth.

The Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention is about examining our budgets (as individuals, churches, and institutions) to see if our expenditures really reflect our stated commitment to the Great Commission.  The result has been that Task Forces have been formed in the Southern Baptist Convention and in some state conventions (including Kentucky) to make recommendations to the messengers of their respective conventions.  At the Annual Meeting of the SBC meeting in Orlando, FL in June, the messengers adopted the report of the GCR task force.  This was an essential first step, but whether or not there is a genuine Great Commission resurgence depends on the responses of the state conventions and churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.  State conventions must be willing to adjust their budgets to reflect an emphasis on the Great Commission and churches must consider raising their Cooperative Program giving so that local, national and international mission needs will be met.

Today, the report of the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Great Commission Task Force was released.  I am pleased to announce that this report calls for Kentucky Baptists to give “More for Christ.”  This is a call to both individuals and churches.  It recognizes that a Great Commission resurgence can never be merely by adjusting numbers in a budget, but must spring from the hearts and actions of God’s people.  I believe this commitment will inevitably manifest itself in a change in our budgets, individually, corporately, and as a convention.  However, apart from individuals and churches resolving to do more for Christ in the days ahead, the Great Commission resurgence will remain a dream rather than a reality.

The most dramatic, and perhaps traumatic, aspect of the proposal of the Task Force is the call to move over the next several years to a 50/50 split in the KBC budget between the SBC and KBC (the current split is 63/37 with most of the funds staying in the Commonwealth).  This will obviously be a very difficult process.  Many good programs and positions will probably need to be cut.  However, we must choose between the good and the best.  I’m convinced that as long as more than 50% of our Cooperative Program giving stays in our own state, we cannot truthfully call ourselves a Great Commission people!

The report of the Task Force also calls for Kentucky Baptists to increase their Cooperative Program giving.  Some have maligned the whole Great Commission Resurgence movement as damaging this historic method of funding Southern Baptist work.  I believe that nothing could be further from the truth.  Failure to make the above mentioned changes in the budget will result in even more hemorrhaging from the CP.  Informed pastors and church members simply cannot in good conscience urge their churches to give more to the Cooperative Program knowing full well that the great majority of that money never leaves the state.  I am totally convinced that if the Mission Board of the KBC gives Kentucky Baptists a budget which reflects a compelling vision for the nations, we will give more than ever to make that vision a reality for the good of the nations and the glory of Christ!

Some will object to the proposals of this Task Force, and it is their right to do so.  However, please consider what the basis of their objections are.   For example, one of the cuts in the budget will probably be the matching retirement contribution that the KBC makes to the accounts of pastors, DOMs, and other KBC employees.  I receive and appreciate this benefit.  However, $17.50 a month (the max. amount given to pastors) is not worth more than one soul that has never even had the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Make no mistake, this is the issue.  There are unreached people groups around the world who have no access to the gospel.  Called and qualified missionaries who want to take the gospel to these peoples are being turned down by the IMB for lack of funds.  This must not be among a people who were founded and exist for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission.  We have a unique opportunity to do something about this tragic state of affairs.  Together we can, because this is something that is bigger than any one of us!