Friday, June 5, 2015

Church discipline among Baptists

Serving on my Baptist church's historical committee as a teenager gave me access to the church's vault where resided the minute books for business meetings dating back to the organization of the church in the 19th century. A recurring matter of business was the discipline of church members. That doesn't happen often (if ever) in our churches today. There are Baptist congregations that do attempt it and 9Marks has advocated its revival along with a greater significance attaching to church membership. Here Collin Garbarino explains how church discipline was once practiced among Baptists and how it differed, because of Baptist polity, from the practice in other traditions. First, its basis in Scripture:
In Matthew 18, Jesus says:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
...[I]n the traditional Baptist understanding of discipline, the leaders don’t have that much authority. If one wants to understand the 9Marks model of church discipline, then one needs to understand the Baptist traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Authority rested with the congregation, and the congregation operated in a democratic fashion. ....

This democratic bent wasn’t merely expressed in church discipline. It was expressed in Baptists’ conception of membership as a whole. One isn’t born into a Baptist church, and someone can’t join without the church’s consent. The congregation must vote to let the member in. This vote has become a formality in some Baptist churches, but 9Marks encourages congregations to take it seriously. In the same way, a member of a Baptist church doesn’t just leave. Traditionally there were only two ways out of a Baptist church—death or the congregation votes you out. This discharge could be either honorable or dishonorable. One’s membership in a Baptist church isn’t voluntary.

These Baptist features make their form of church discipline different in character from other Christian groups. Those groups who baptize infants think about membership in a decidedly different manner. Those groups who invest authority into some form of hierarchy will wield authority in a very different manner. ....

Of course, oftentimes Baptist churches don’t practice discipline well. Sometimes discipline does become abusive, and sometimes leaders aren’t ready for the problems that crop up in their congregations. Unfortunately, Baptist leaders in democratic churches sometimes slip into lording over their congregations, rather than recognizing that the congregation wields authority in the name of Jesus. ....