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Baptist history evidences church discipline

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Prior to the last century, Baptists “practiced church discipline on a large scale” and regarded the practice as a normal part of church life, according to church history professor Greg Wills.

Between 1781 and 1860, for example, “Baptists excluded more than 40,000 members in Georgia alone,” Wills, director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted in a 2001 essay in “Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life,” edited by Southern Baptist pastor Mark Dever.

“Across the nation in this period they excluded between one and two percent of their membership every year. But the number of church trials was yet greater. Only about half of the offenders received excommunication. Baptists on average disciplined between three and four percent of their membership,” Wills wrote.

Baptists generally exercised discipline at monthly Saturday conference meetings, Wills noted. At such meetings church members accused offenders of specific sins. The accused usually confessed guilt. But when the accused either denied guilt or was absent, the church appointed a committee to investigate the matter. The committee reported its findings at a subsequent meeting and recommended a verdict and sentence. The members then voted on the verdict and the penalty if the offender was found guilty.

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Churches generally imposed either admonition or excommunication on offenders who were found guilty, Wills noted. Many excommunicated members maintained their piety and were eventually restored to church membership, he wrote, noting that Baptists followed the process outlined in Matthew 18 for church discipline.

“Baptists sought to restore offenders to holiness,” Wills wrote. “They believed that church discipline helped believers overcome sin and temptation.”

Several documents from past generations of Baptists confirm that discipline was the norm among Baptists in general and Southern Baptists in particular through the 19th century.

“A Summary of Church Discipline,” written by the Charleston Baptist Association in 1774, argues that the Bible prescribes three “censures” for “rebellious and unworthy members” — rebuke or admonition, suspension and excommunication. The various censures should be applied depending on the severity of an offense, according to the document.

The goals of church discipline are “the glory of God,” “to purge the church and preserve it from infection,” to clear the church of immorality and false doctrines and “the good of persons excommunicated,” the documents says.

William B. Johnson, the first president of the SBC, argued in an 1846 essay that Scripture demands church discipline.

“In relation to this part of the discipline of a church (the exclusion of disciplined members), it is important to understand, that a proper attention to its exercise is indispensable to the welfare of the body,” Johnson wrote. “And further, that by the faithful, vigilant supervision of the rulers of the church and the duty of the members, the necessity of its exercise may be, as far as possible, prevented.”

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Patrick Hughes Mell, a former president of both the SBC and the Georgia Baptist Convention, presented a detailed summary of the discipline procedure for both public and private offenses in his 1860 treatise “Corrective Church Discipline: With a Development of the Scriptural Principles Upon Which it is Based.”

“The views which are presented in the following pages are such as have been held by the Baptist churches from time immemorial,” Mell wrote in the preface. “The Author attempts to do no more than to exhibit the sentiments of our Fathers, and to defend them by showing that they are sustained by the Scriptures.”
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