17th Century

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.

John Smyth: Not the Founder of Baptists

John Smyth (c. 1570-1612) is an important figure in Baptist history, mainly because of his commitment to religious liberty, a believer’s church, and “baptism” of believers. He was not, however, the founder of Baptists (Wikipedia is wrong.). His baptism was not technically baptism as it was done by affusion (pouring) and he did this to himself (se-baptism). The seventeenth-century English Baptists  did not acknowledge Smyth as their founder or initiator of the practice of baptism. In his work on baptism published in 1691, Hercules Collins directly refuted the claim that the English Baptists had received their baptism from John Smyth. This refutation was made in response to the paedo-baptist Thomas Wall who had claimed in his book Baptism Anatomized that the current “English Anabaptists” had “successively received” their baptism from Smyth who had baptized himself.[1] In Believers-Baptism from Heaven, Collins asserted that the Baptist community of which he was a part had not, in fact, had their baptism passed down to them from Smyth. In refuting this charge, he referenced then living sources who knew better. In so doing, he charged Wall with falsehood in his derogatory accusation regarding the origin of Baptists.

How many Leaves hast thou spent in thy Book, in asserting and maintaining a Lie, and to cast Filth upon the holy Ways of the Lord? Could not the Ordinance of Christ, which was lost in the Apostacy, be revived, (as the Feast of Tabernacles was, tho lost a great while) unless in such a filthy way as you falsly assert, viz. that the English Baptists received their Baptism from Mr. John Smith? It is absolutely untrue, it being well known, by some yet alive, how false this Assertion is; and if J.W.[2] will but give a meeting to any of us, and bring whom he pleaseth with him, we shall sufficiently shew the Falsity of what is affirmed by him in this Matter, and in many other things he hath unchristianly asserted.[3]

Those “yet alive” would certainly have included William Kiffin (1616-1701) and possibly Hanserd Knollys (b. 1599), who did not die until September of 1691, the same year in which these words were published.[4]

[1]Thomas Wall, Baptism Anatomized (London: G. Croom, 1691), 106-8.

[2]For some reason, Collins calls Thomas Wall “John Wall” in his response. Cf. Collins, Believers-Baptism from Heaven (London, 1691), 108 and 114. Thus, the initials “J. W.” in this quote. This is all the more curious since the cover page and table of contents both use Thomas Walls. Perhaps it was an intentional slight to liken Walls with the infamous John Child with whom he compares him on p. 114.

[3]Collins, Believers-Baptism from Heaven, 114-15. Italics in the original.

[4]Knollys had attended the 1691 General Assembly held 2-8 June 1691. He died on September 17, 1691, in his ninety-third year. For more on Knollys, see Barry H. Howson, Erroneous and Schismatical Opinions: the Question of Orthodoxy Regarding the Theology of Hanserd Knollys (c. 15991691) (Leiden: Brill, 2001).