“One of the most glaring omissions in modern Baptist church life is the absence of the regular practice of biblical church discipline,” wrote New Orleans Seminary professor Stan Norman in a paper presented at the second conference in Southwestern Seminary’s Baptist Distinctives Series, held this fall. Titled “The Reestablishment of Proper Church Discipline,” Norman wrote that the concept of a spiritual accountability to God and one another is absent.
Early Baptist congregations would gather to heal breaches of fellowship, admonish wayward members, rebuke the obstinate, and if required, remove the unrepentant. By engaging in these activities, Baptists believe they were following the biblical pattern established by Christ and the apostles for the health and effectiveness of the church, Norman wrote.
“Contemporary Baptists seem instead to understand themselves as autonomous individuals casually associated together in loose-knit groupings called churches,” he said. “The concept of a spiritual accountability to God and to one another is tragically lacking or ignored.”
There are several biblical reasons for church discipline. Church discipline is directly commanded by Jesus, who gave his disciples the procedure for discipline in Matthew 18:15-20 and has given the church the necessary authority to correct a sinful person under a disciplinary process.
Throughout the Bible, the people of God are characterized by his holiness. The New Testament describes the church as the people of God who are to be known to the world by their purity of life and integrity of message, Norman wrote. God requires that his church reflect his holy character (1 Peter 1:16).
“The church exercises discipline with the authority of heaven, for the Lord is with them, providing assurance and guidance in the process,” Norman asserted.
Failure to discipline indicates unwillingness on the part of the church to ensure that God’s character is rightly and clearly reflected. Church discipline is one means church holiness is preserved, he said.
Historically, Norman said, Baptists and their forebears stressed church discipline. Its implications for church membership were prominent emphases in the early writings and practices of the Anabaptists, for example.
Church discipline was also prominently emphasized in the writings and practices of the early Baptists. The First London Confession of the Particular Baptists (1644) states that every member is subject to congregational discipline and that “the Church ought with great care and tenderness, with due advice to proceed against her members.”
One of the convictions of the Baptist forebears was their pledge to separate themselves from the world and to submit themselves to Christ and to each other. Church discipline was considered one means of achieving this distinction, Norman stated.
The occasion of church discipline can be understood as those sins that have a harmful, public effect upon the congregation in some way. The public nature and knowledge of the sins brought reproach upon the church, impugned the integrity of its message and mission, and dishonored the cause of Christ. Sins worthy of church discipline fall into three categories: fidelity to orthodox doctrine, purity and holiness of life, and unity of the fellowship, Norman wrote.
Norman noted that the Corinthian church, in failing to deal with the man who was living with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5:1, was rebuked for its tolerance of the man’s known sin.
“He instructs the Corinthian believers to ‘turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,’ a call for the church to excommunicate the man. This process appears to have had the desired effect; 2 Corinthians 2:4-8 indicates that the apostle had to remind the congregation to forgive and comfort the repentant man and to restore him back into the fellowship.”