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New Southern Seminary journal focuses on church discipline

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it, remarked nineteenth century Baptist theologian John L. Dagg.

The winter edition of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology — which focuses on church discipline — concurs with Dagg’s assertion. The journal — a publication of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — analyzes the loss of biblical church discipline and calls for its recovery.

Essayists include Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., Capitol Hill Baptist Church pastor Mark Dever, Faith Seminary professor H. Wayne House and Southern Seminary professors Thomas Schreiner, Greg Wills, Don Cox and Hershael York.

The writers point out that church discipline is virtually nonexistent in evangelical circles today, having been relegated to a relic of church history. Mohler attributes the loss of church discipline to a radical notion of individualism that exists in much of modern-day evangelicalism.

“Individuals now claim an enormous zone of personal privacy and moral autonomy,” Mohler writes. “The congregation — redefined as a mere voluntary association — has no right to intrude into this space. Many congregations have forfeited any responsibility to confront even the most public sins of their members. Consumed with pragmatic methods of church growth and congregational engineering, most churches leave moral matters to the domain of the individual conscience.”

In his editorial, Schreiner contrasts biblical church discipline with a false view of “judging” held by today’s politically correct culture.

“What must be said at the outset is that discipline is not contrary to love but, an expression of love, when properly applied,” Schreiner writes. “Our culture is quick to use labels, such as ‘mean-spirited,’ ‘harsh,’ and ‘proud’ against those who exercise discipline. We are prone to confuse love with sentimentality, thinking that love is always accepting, soft, and tolerant.”

Wills, associate professor of church history at Southern, demonstrates by historic example Southern Baptists’ stalwart commitment to biblical discipline in the nineteenth century south.

Wills argues that, while Southern Baptists have embraced the inerrancy of Scripture, many have been slower to carry out its teaching on church discipline.

“In our churches, however, we demonstrate considerable ambivalence toward asserting such authority,” Wills writes. “We want to make certain that our missionaries and seminary professors are orthodox in faith and pure in behavior, but we tolerate much lower standards in our churches.

“Pastors, missionaries, and teachers are rightly held to higher standards. But our churches falter in enforcing New Testament standards of church membership. Once persons have prayed the sinner’s prayer and submitted to immersion, their membership is secure in most churches for as long as they wish to remain a member — usually longer.”

Wills clearly sets forth the purpose of church discipline: “Christ commanded his churches to exclude those who were immoral or who denied the doctrines of the gospel. They could not in good conscience call themselves Christians while ignoring the clear command of Christ.

“Baptists drew encouragement in their practice however from reflecting on the benefits of the discipline. The benefits, they felt, were basically three: discipline kept the churches pure and thereby glorified Christ; discipline aided the offenders themselves; and discipline fostered revival and the conversion of sinners.”

Dever outlines both the Scriptural imperative and guidelines for church discipline. Church discipline, he writes, is not a matter of being mean-spirited, but rather a practice that should humble all Christians, making them keenly aware of their fallible nature.

“When we hear of discipline, we tend to think of correction or of a spanking,” Dever writes. “If we’re particularly literate we have visions of Hester Prynne wearing her scarlet ‘A’ around the nightmarish Puritan New England town of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s misdirected imagination.

“We should all, without hesitation, admit our need for discipline, our need for shaping. None of us is perfect, finished projects. We may need to be inspired, nurtured, or healed; we may need to be corrected, challenged, even broken. Whatever the particular method of cure, let’s at least admit the need for discipline. Let’s not pretend or presume that you or I are just as we should be, as if God had finished His work with us.”

Dever writes that churches should carefully examine who is allowed to become a member of their congregations and exercise biblical church discipline to clearly delineate the church from the world.

“We need to be able to show that there is a distinction between the church and the world — that it means something to be a Christian,” he writes. “If someone who claims to be a Christian refuses to live as a Christian should live, we need to follow what Paul said and, for the glory of God and for that person’s own good, we need to exclude him or her from membership in the church.”

Mohler asserts that the church will continue its downward spiral morally and theologically unless biblical church discipline is rediscovered and practiced.

“… without a recovery of functional church discipline — firmly established upon principles revealed in the Bible — the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism,” he writes. “Evangelicals have long recognized discipline as the ‘third mark’ of the authentic church. Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity.”

Cox brings forth a facet of biblical church discipline often omitted from any discussion of the subject: its aim at spiritual formation for the person or persons under discipline.

“To understand church discipline properly, we must first broaden our horizon concerning the subject,” Cox writes. “Church discipline is, in actuality, a binary concept rooted in Scripture that seeks to accomplish at least four goals: These goals are: (1) to build a regenerate church membership; (2) to mature believers in the faith; (3) to strengthen the church for evangelism and the engagement of culture; (4) and to protect the church from inner decay.”

Excerpts of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology can be viewed on-line at www.sbts.edu/news/sbjt/sbjt.html. The SBJT can be purchased by calling 1-800-626-5525 (ext. 4413).
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: SBJT — CHURCH DISCIPLINE.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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