Without a recovery of functional church discipline – firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible – the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism. Evangelicals have long recognized discipline as the “third mark” of the authentic church (Polity, Mark Dever, ed. pg. 43).
In his article, Dr. Mohler is quoting the Belgic Confession of 1561. It is the goal of Dr. Mohler to show that the early church practiced discipline, and the historic accounts of the church prove that discipline was not only practiced, but was an essential mark of a true church. In the premiere text given to church discipline, Matthew 18:15-20, our Lord discusses the exact plan a church should follow in the matter of discipline. The question we must ask today is, does discipline work?
The Early Church
First, it should be noted why discipline worked for the early church. In the early church setting, the body of believers were closely bonded together in love having been saved out of a vile world of sin. As a result, these believers bonded together as a family. The church in a particular city would often meet together as a full group of believers, and they did not have First Baptist, Second Baptist, Calvary Baptist, and Lighthouse Baptist Churches on each block as an individual rode through the city on his mule. The local church in each city was generally small (especially in comparison to our cities) and as a result the body of Christ became very close. The body often cared for one another and showed love to one another. Therefore, if you had a sinning brother, and he refused to repent after two meetings (private and with other witnesses), he would be brought before the church as a whole. If the brother did not repent on the third opportunity (once in private, once with witnesses, and once before the church), he would be put out of the church and treated as a publican and tax collector. The individual would not be able to ride his mule down the road to Second Baptist and join their assembly after being put out of his former church. Therefore, being excommunicated from the body of believers and repelled by the membership was a grave thing to consider. Due to the great benefits of love, care, and protection that was available under the membership of the local church, a person who was in danger of being put out of the church had to consider the lasting consequences. Excommunication would be detrimental to the sinning individual, and therefore, it was feared by the body.
The Modern Church
Today, many different factors are present in the equation of church discipline. First, we must note the amount of local churches in our day. We have many different Baptist churches, as well as other denominations that have bodies of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, if a person is bought before his church in a matter of sin, and he refuses to repent, excommunication (as the final step) is not as frightful as it was for the believers of the early church. For instance, when a person is excommunicated from one fellowship, he can ride in his B.M.W. down the road to the next Baptist church and obtain membership very easily. Therefore, the scare factor is not as prevalent in our culture as it was for the early church.
The Modern Discipline Dilemma
There are several factors that create what I call the “modern discipline dilemma.” Unfortunately, when a person is excommunicated from one fellowship, often he or she is welcomed into another local body of believers. Thus, the individual is able to completely evade biblical church discipline. There are three factors that fuel this modern dilemma, and we as church leaders, pastors, and laypersons must work to avoid such dilemmas in our day in order to guard the purity of the local churches and force disciplined individuals to face their discipline and repent! The three factors of our modern discipline dilemma are listed below:1. The Amount of Churches2. Greedy Church Leaders3. Unbiblical ChurchesModern Dilemma (Factor #1 – The Amount of Churches)The amount of churches in a typical city is unbelievable! For instance, according to the website of the Southern Baptist Convention (www.sbc.net), there are more than 100 churches in a 16.25 mile radius of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. See the stats by visiting this page [Click Here]. These stats only record the SBC affiliations, so there are actually more than 100 churches in the 16.25 mile radius of the SBTS campus.This presents a large dilemma. What happens when someone desires to avoid discipline? Could they possibly join another one of these churches undetected? Yes, it is very probable. Therefore, this presents a very serious dilemma in our day. We must work to create some network that prevents disciplined members from avoiding proper and biblical discipline.Modern Dilemma (Factor #2 – Greedy Church Leaders)Unfortunately, many church leaders do not check out prospective members before accepting them into their churches. Often people walk an aisle and are voted upon immediately following the invitation and accepted into the local church without any discussion of their salvation, the belief system of the local church (expectations of members and church constitution), or previous membership status in other churches. This dilemma is faced due to greedy church leaders who are more interested in numbers and money than they are about preserving the purity of the local assembly.Modern Dilemma (Factor #3 – Unbiblical Churches)It goes without saying that many churches today are far less biblical than they should be. Certainly no church will be perfect until Christ returns, but specific essentials are necessary before a local assembly can be called a true church. One of the qualifications and essential marks is a regenerate membership. A true church is made up of believers who have been called out of a world of darkness and sin and adopted into the family of God through the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Greek word, (ekklesia) which is translated “church” in our New Testament, means a called out assembly. Therefore, if an assembly is willing to accept members into their body without a valid testimony or examination to ensure that the individual is a true Christian, the assembly would be better suited under the name of “social club” than church.With assemblies that welcome unregenerate members into their assembly, it becomes very easy to avoid, escape, and allude proper discipline which is being carried out upon a sinning member.
What are some possible solutions?
There are several possible solutions to this problem. First, with our technology today, a database could be established under the SBC website that would enable church leaders (pastors and elders) to provide information (name of individual, city, and church name) about all excommunicated individuals who never sought reconciliation and repentance. This data would only be available to the leadership of the church and not accessible by the general public. The data could be protected by a secure connection and available only through passwords given to SBC churches. When a person seeks membership status in a local SBC church, their name could be searched through the database of the system in a matter of seconds and it would provide information on them if they had been disciplined in another church and excommunicated from their fellowship. The major set back to this possible solution is the fact that other churches outside of the SBC would not have access to the database, and therefore, individuals who were disciplined in a church in another denomination would be able to bypass the database check.Another solution to this problem would be to dismember any church from the SBC that does not make church discipline a priority in their church. If church discipline is an essential mark of a true church (as history verifies), the SBC should only accept churches into membership who meet the qualifications of a genuine church (discipline being one of the qualifications). Money should not be the driving force behind membership! It is not recognized as a qualification for membership into the local church, and it should not be the determining factor for membership in the Southern Baptist Convention.While I do not claim to have all of the answers, I do see a need for change and reform that will make a difference for Christ Jesus. It is my prayer that we as church leaders will take a step in the right direction and exalt Christ as we head in the right direction. The answer to all of our problems is not more people and more money. The way to a solution will be discovered when local assemblies return to a biblical foundation based upon the essentials of a true church!
I conclude that discipline does work! Although much reform is needed to ensure that all disciplined members are forced to face their discipline, nevertheless, discipline works! The Lord Himself stated in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This verse is speaking in regard to church discipline! Therefore, it should be noted that when biblical church discipline is carried out, our Lord Christ is present! Furthermore, discipline is successful in all cases, even when members evade and join other fellowships. Discipline is not successful only when disciplined members repent, it is successful in all cases because it protects the purity of the church of Jesus Christ.For God’s Glory!Rev. Josh Buice