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7/25/97 Reassert church discipline, prof says of in-depth study

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Church discipline, an unpleasant and largely ignored part of contemporary evangelical churches, was an important staple of early American Baptist life, according to a Southern Baptist church history professor.
Properly understood and practiced, the reassertion of church discipline in Southern Baptist life is desperately needed, says Gregory Wills, assistant professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and archives and special collections librarian for its James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
Wills’ dissertation, “Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900,” was published this year by Oxford University Press. He was awarded the doctor of philosophy degree last year by Emory University in Atlanta.
The thesis of the work, according to Wills, is, “19th-century Southern Baptists maintained a delicate balance between democracy and authority.” That balance is most evident, Wills asserts, in the area of church discipline. Issues related to associational life and authority also were considered in the research.
Wills studied minutes of about 40 Baptist churches in Georgia during the period, as well as sermons and articles published from 1833 to 1900 in The Christian Index, the newspaper of Georgia Baptists.
According to Wills, Baptists were different from Methodists, Presbyterians and other hierarchical denominations in that Baptists “exercised discipline democratically from below,” while the others enforced it from above through ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Baptists had “this wonderful mix of radical democracy and strict church authority” which resulted in the “strictest ecclesiastical authority of any of the denominations,” Wills says. Such practice of discipline undermines a “prevailing consensus” among scholars “that the popular churches … had embraced by around 1800 a thoroughgoing individualism,” Wills asserts.
The individualism of the Baptists was “in the Reformation sense of priesthood of all believers — each one must exercise faith individually for salvation, each one prays directly to God individually,” Wills says. “But they were not individualists in the political sense of Jeffersonian Republicanism.
“Rather, they demanded submission to the corporate authority of the church on issues of theology, piety and behavior,” Wills says.
After the Civil War, Wills notes there was a “steady, uninterrupted decline in rates of church discipline.” Urbanization, the issue of dancing, a more “thoroughgoing individualism,” the “efficiency movement” in churches and the “changing definition of the church itself” were all factors that led to the decline in discipline, according to Wills.
On the factor of individualism, Wills says, “Whereas prior to the Civil War Baptists were certain that in many important areas the rights of the community of the redeemed superseded the rights of the individual,” by 1920 or 1930 individualism “has worked its way all the way through the churches and Southern Baptists have become convinced that the individual cannot be judged by the community.”
The definition of what constituted a church was also an important factor, Wills says.
“Prior to the Civil War, Baptist churches in the South saw themselves primarily as sanctuaries of the redeemed, havens of purity. The church’s primary definition was a pure society. Purity was its chief characteristic. After the Civil War, purity is not rejected as an important characteristic, but it becomes subordinate to efficiency. … And sometimes when efficiency and purity were at odds, Baptists chose efficiency.”
If a prominent church member who contributed a significant portion of the pastor’s salary became known as a Sabbath-breaker or dancer, Wills says Baptists became less willing to discipline for fear of losing the member and his contributions to another church. Such a loss would reduce the “efficiency” of the congregation, Wills says Baptists began to rationalize in the early 20th century.
“Efficiency itself was not a bad thing,” Wills noted. “The churches gained a great deal in terms of financial stability through this movement toward efficiency. And lay involvement in various aspects of the ministry such as witnessing and foreign missions, care for the poor, these kinds of things were all benefited by this move toward efficiency.”
As Southern Baptists approach the 21st century, what are the prospects for a reassertion of the practice of biblical church discipline?
“Humanly speaking, I am not optimistic that Southern Baptist churches will submit themselves to God’s Word on this matter,” Wills admits. “But divinely speaking, I am hopeful that God will do a work of awakening and grace in the hearts of Southern Baptists throughout the churches that will humble them and bring them once again before the Word of God.”
The willingness of Southern Baptists to reaffirm the authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures provides reason for hope, Wills says.
“Are we going to take the Scriptures seriously? Are we going to trust the wisdom of God as revealed in the Scriptures? Or are we going to trust human wisdom?” Wills asks.
If Southern Baptists do not advance beyond the affirmation of the Bible’s veracity, Wills believes “the reformation begun over the authority of the Scriptures was a false start — it did not bear fruit as a true reformation.”

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith
  • James A. Smith, Sr.
  • Sr.