Years ago I had the privilege of preaching at 1st Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri. The pastor (at that time) told me a fascinating story about the church’s most infamous member: Jesse James. Evidently Jesse was a member in good standing when he led the first daylight bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri, a town about ten miles away. The church minutes record that deliberations to discipline Jesse were complicated by the concern that he might burn down the building. Everyone in the community knew Jesse was staying at his mother’s farm (she was a Sunday school teacher at the time), so two deacons were selected to go to confront him according to the guidelines of Matthew 18. The minutes of the next business meeting report that, for one reason or another, the deacons never could find the time to visit the notorious bandit. Then the minutes report that Jesse himself arrived at the meeting, and wishing to cause no embarrassment to the congregation, requested his name be removed from the roll. The church obliged.
In 2008, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution admitting that Southern Baptists had failed to obey New Testament principles concerning church accountability. The decline of accountability and discipline in SBC life is well documented. However, a foundational ecclesiastical principle is that the body of Christ is composed of individual members who are truly integrated with one another (see 1 Cor 12). When put into practice, this principle is a beautiful manifestation of the love of Christ for his Church. Each member, when he unites with a congregation, makes himself accountable to that local body, and he is to care for the welfare of every member as he would care for himself. So what went wrong? How did such a powerful truth disappear from the collective consciousness of Baptists? How did accountability come to be viewed merely as discipline—or more often than not—degenerate into mere punishment?
Some very good studies explore these questions in better detail than I can give them in this blog (see Gregory A. Wills, “Southern Baptists and Church Discipline”), but I want to focus on just one factor: the tendency to select the wrong candidates for discipline. In other words, in times past too often discipline was exercised in a vindictive and arbitrary manner. We need to recover what was good about our forefathers’ practice while at the same time try to avoid their mistakes.
The Bible focuses on two types of members that are to be reproved by the congregation, but Baptist churches unfortunately focused too often on a third. Public discipline should be reserved for (1) the indifferent and (2) the obstinate, but many times it was directed at (3) the weak. The indifferent member is the one who stops showing any interest in Christ and the things of God. He demonstrates his apathy by his lack of attendance or support; he is spiritually lazy (2 Thess 3:6-15). It is not unusual for a traditional Baptist Church to have a church roll four or five times larger than its actual active membership. The Bible never gives comfort to the indifferent (just take a look at the Book of Hebrews) and neither should we.
The obstinate member is the second type of professing believer who the Bible directs us to call into account. This is the person who either is involved in flagrant sin, seriously disrupts the life of the church, or advocates clearly heretical beliefs. He (or she) disregards attempts by believers to be reconciled, has no desire to repent, and in fact digs in his (or her) heels (1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 1:20; Titus 3:9-11). The New Testament requires the local church to act in such cases (Matt 18:15-17).
However, more often than not, discipline was not directed at the backslider or the hard-headed, but at those who stumbled. There is a world of difference between the one who is “stiff necked” and the one who is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1-3).The church is instructed to give attention to both, but in very different ways. Too often the targets of discipline were unwed teenage mothers or those struggling to overcome an old life of drug or alcohol abuse. In these instances, discipline was not exercised so much as it was wielded. Too often discipline became a weapon. Spiritual struggles and stutter-steps are not signs that one is unsaved. Just the opposite; it is one of the surest signs of spiritual vitality. Ask anyone who ministers to those who have been saved from a variety of addictive behaviors. They will tell you the old cliché, “Only live fish struggle to swim upstream; dead fish float with the current.”
Spiritual battles indicate spiritual life. I’m not as concerned about the eternal destiny of those beleaguered with temptation as I am with the member who doesn’t give a rip. Accountability is always in order; discipline is not. So we must be discerning about when and when not to discipline. We do not want to be like a church in northeast Arkansas with which I am familiar. The minutes from one of its business meetings of long ago tell how the congregation debated whether or not watching a square dance was grounds to be “churched.” Not dancing, mind you, but just seeing others dance. The church concluded that this indeed was sufficient cause and duly kicked out the guilty parties.
In no small measure, an important element in the successful reimplementation of the principle of accountability and the practice of church discipline will be whether we teach our people how to distinguish between those who demonstrate a lack of concern or open rebellion from those who stumble on the journey. (First posted on 06-19-08)