Dr. Dever, we do appreciate you granting us this interview.
Thank you very much. I’m delighted to spend the time with you.
We will be referencing two things rather frequently throughout this interview, so I suspect we need to offer some definitions up front. Dr. Dever, if you don’t mind, could you give us a definition of (1) church membership and (2) church discipline?
“Church membership” would be the concept that there are a certain number of people who have committed themselves before the Lord and with each other to the service of God in a particular local assembly, in a particular local church. “Church discipline” is really the larger idea of us as Christians realizing that in that church part of the function is for us to help each other grow up in Christ.
Commonly, when people use “church discipline,” they don’t mean it in the formative sense, but only in the corrective sense. But really, technically, it would be all of the training we do: Sunday School, preaching, everything. That would be considered formative, the positive side. Negatively, when you correct somebody, it’s called “corrective church discipline,” and that’s usually taken from Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, and elsewhere, but mainly from those two texts about how we should try to realize that our brother’s or sister’s sanctification is partly our responsibility also. Then, when we confront them, if they don’t change, as Jesus says in Matthew 18, after being confronted by us alone, and then by two or three others that come with us, then finally, our appeal is to the ecclesia. That’s the word that’s used there in Matthew 18. It’s to the church. And so we take it not to the Southern Baptist Convention or not to simply the pastor and staff or to the board of deacons, but we take it to the church. And so it’s called “church discipline.”
You have dealt with the topics of church membership and church discipline in your book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and also in the book Polity, which is a collection of writings. But you contributed an essay to that and edited it.
Why have you felt led to focus so much on these two topics?
Well, because when I look at the gospel in America today, I think one of the main roadblocks is not our lack of telling people, though I want us to tell people more, but it’s what our churches look like when they’re full of people who say they know it and believe it. And I think our churches are one of the main roadblocks to our evangelism. So I don’t think we need one hundred more churches doing Evangelism Explosion. I think we need one hundred more churches practicing church discipline. And once those churches begin to look distinct from the world, then all of a sudden the verbal witness that all of the Christians give starts to mean a lot more.
Would you mind sharing with us a little bit about the steps you have led Capitol Hill Baptist Church to take towards reinstituting meaningful membership and church discipline? And could you speak a little bit on how the church has received this move?
Yeah. The steps I’ve taken, there have been a lot, some very overt, some pretty subtle. I’ve been honest all the time. I was clear with people initially, when we first started talking about this, that I thought the Bible was very clear on this. Now, I didn’t know how we could get from where we were to where we needed to be, but I was clear about what the Bible taught about where we needed to be, and they could help me think through about how we get there.
After I had been here a couple of years, we ended up trying to find all of the members that we had, that we couldn’t find, who didn’t come along regularly. We had five hundred members, about one hundred and thirty attending. And so we talked to old members and tried to find people. So finally I sent out a letter. The deacons knew about it. I should have probably had the deacons do this, but I just did it. I sent out a letter I think on February 1 of 1996, sending out a copy of our statement of faith and our church covenant, saying, “Look. If you sign this and return these, we would appreciate it, knowing that you are still with us in faith and practice.” And we sent that out to people who were here every Sunday and to people [who] nobody even knew who they were. We sent it out to the whole membership list. And we said in the letter, “If you haven’t done this and returned them to us by May 1st, that you would be subject to a motion to remove you from membership in the church, in this local church. And we hope you are well and that you are involved in another local church and just had neglected to tell us.” Something like that.
So we did that and then in our main members’ meeting we actually voted out, out of our 500 members, 256. And that was a big step towards meaningful membership. And then, since then, it’s just slowly but surely gotten better and gotten more refined where now we have about 249 members I think and about 500 attending.
That seems to be rather different from the average Baptist church which has just the opposite, 1,000 people on roll and 200 attending.
Well, it’s rather different from the average Baptist church today. It isn’t different from the way Baptist churches were one hundred and one hundred and fifty years ago. Baptist churches used to be famous for looking after their membership. So what we’re now probably the worst about we were definitely the best about. This was a distinctive of Baptist churches.
What do you think has contributed to the decline of this?
Oh, a lot of things. I mean, spiritually, people’s affluence, people wanting to be served, consumers moving to urban areas where churches are close enough to where they compete for members, pastors not being taught this. I’m sure any real abuses that happen, and, of course, there were, anytime sinners like you and me are involved, any time abuses happen in church discipline, I’m sure those were repeated endlessly. And so I’m sure those stories would have been used against practicing it at all, because to practice it at all would have been in some way to have been involved in some kind of abuse of it. Now, I’m sure it’s just a combination of things like that. Also I think the theology changed and churches became more and more man-centered. I think people more and more misunderstood what it really meant to be converted. I think our evangelistic practices watered down the gospel. I think we started taking responses very quickly. We started baptizing people at a much younger age.
You know, I’ve been reading a lot of Baptist biographies in the last couple of years and noting baptismal ages. And if you look at all the Baptist leaders in the nineteenth century, they were all baptized at 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21. It’s when they get out of the home, or they have their first job, that’s when they’re baptized. Baptists these days baptize children at 12, or at even 8, or younger. It’s very hard. I mean, I’ve got kids. It’s hard to look at the kids who are pretty obedient, love their parents, and want to have the approval of their parents, it’s hard to know whether or not they’re really born again. I mean, of course they’re being sincere when they tell you something, but people can be sincere and be wrong, and I think we’ve just lost a lot of that subtlety of judgment. It’s not been encouraged among the pastors in our churches.
Do you think a church can move towards instituting church discipline if that church does not seek to redefine membership itself? Why or why not?
No. No, no, no. That’s a great point Wyman. No, not at all. No, and even there, before you seek to redefine membership, you’ve just got to define what it means to be a Christian. You’ve got to be clear on the gospel. You know, “Repent and believe.” Those were the words that Jesus used again and again. They’re used in Acts again and again. You really are going to have to look at the gospel and your practice of evangelism. Yeah. Discipline comes a bit more down the line I think, part of a package I should say.
Can you share with us some practical steps churches can take towards making membership more meaningful?
Well, I think the place to begin is with the pulpit. I mean, the two key places are the pulpit, where the pastor is committed to expositional preaching. Teach people God’s Word. Tell people the truth. Tell people what He says in His Word. Commit yourself as a pastor. Just lash yourself to the Word, that you will go through it and that you’re not going to have another agenda, there are not other things that you are trying to do. You’re not just going to stick on, you know, prosperity or how God helps you improve your self-esteem, or a series on your favorite topic, theologically. No, just preach the Bible to people. And [secondly], as a pastor, just be careful about taking in members. Look at the way your church takes in members.
Yeah, it is interesting that in the average Baptist church anyone can just walk the aisle and they’re pretty much voted in and no one knows anything about them.
Yeah, and people need to realize how new that practice is. I mean, you’ve got people in your church probably who are old enough to remember when it wasn’t like that. I’ll bet you back in the early seventies and late sixties they would at least leave those members until the next members’ meeting, even if they would call one, a special one, the following Wednesday night. But see, those practices have changed, really more recently than we may realize.
Even at our church, we started using our church covenant. We have everybody sign the statement of faith and the church covenant when they join. The members only, the members of the congregation stand and read it before we come to the Lord’s table. Well, when I first proposed this to the congregation back in 96, we had an older lady in her 80’s, she’s since gone to be with the Lord. She’d been here since the 1930’s but she had come from a small town in Mississippi. And she put up her hand and said, “Oh, Dr. Dever, this is the way my church did it when I was a little girl back in Mississippi.”
I looked in my own church’s church minutes, here in Washington, D.C., which was founded in 1878. They used to have what they called “Covenant Meetings” the Thursday before communion. Anytime they would have communion, they would have a “Covenant Meeting” the Thursday night before, just for the members of the congregation, to come, reaffirm their covenant together, to prepare themselves for the Lord’s table.
I mean, these things are not that distant in the past in our churches. We’ve taken what went on in the 70’s and 80’s as traditional Southern Baptists. When I got here, I started doing membership interviews with somebody before I would bring them to a members’ meeting for a vote, where I would just meet with them, hear their understanding of the gospel, get their own testimony of faith, hear about how they came to know about the Lord. And sometimes I would find that the people weren’t Christians and then I’d do a Bible study with them. Some of them I saw come to know the Lord and they’re now members of the church. Others, on the other hand, most of them were Christians, but it was just giving me a chance, as a pastor, to get to know them, to make sure that they understood the gospel and could express it to others. Well, providentially, just as I was working on doing this, I started this membership form and I had had some questions about it. I found a “Membership Interview Form” from the Metropolitan Baptist Church, which is what ours was called then, in January of 1895, exactly a hundred years earlier to the mark, which was completely unrelated, I didn’t even know they had done it.
Hard to argue with that, I would think.
Well, it’s sad that Baptists find it harder to argue with tradition than the Bible, but yes, at least you can’t say it’s un-Baptist. Now there’s still the question of is this consonant with Scripture? But if you want to know what Baptists have done, well actually I tell people all the time, “I don’t have any new ideas. I’m just telling you what your great-grandparents were all doing and you’ve just all forgotten.” But they were a lot healthier churches than the churches we have had for the last couple of generations, which I think make it in many ways very difficult to evangelize this country. When you’ve got a small town with fifteen Baptist churches and between them you have more members than you have in the population of the town, and you have people singing in your choir who are known to be lousy bosses or extorting or adulterers, and nobody says anything about it, I mean, I’m going to go become a Muslim or a Mormon or somebody that means what they say. What I’m going to do is associate with those people.
What is the biblical justification for this? I mean, if you look at Acts 2, just a surface reading there seems to suggest that after Peter’s Pentecost sermon they believe and become members of the church.
Well, you’ve picked a difficult thing there to use as a paradigm, and I think we can use it in a lot of ways. I mean, it’s the very first time where the Holy Spirit is poured out. You’ve got to keep going with the New Testament to see these things develop.
Right. Well, what would you look to scripturally to find a biblical justification for having some requirements on the front end of membership, before people are accepted fully into the church?
Ok, good question. Well, even in Acts 2, they’re repenting and believing and being baptized. And yet that baptism I don’t think is essential for the forgiveness of sins. You know, our Church of Christ friends tell us that that “eis” there in Acts 2:38, “into”, means that that makes it effective. Well I don’t think that’s true at all. The baptism doesn’t save us in that sense. Peter says in 1 Peter 3 it saves us in the sense of it’s an appeal of a clear conscience toward God. It’s our conscience being cleared by the Holy Spirit, by His forgiving us, that saves us. When Paul talks about baptism, he doesn’t mention it as saving. He’s very clear it’s faith alone that saves. And yet, baptism is what happens when you become a Christian. So apparently there are lots of things that are really important that are not essential for our salvation. We tend to forget that. We tend to think as modern pragmatic Americans that if it is not essential for our salvation, then it’s unimportant. Well Baptists should be, of all people, the ones who know there are actually a lot of things that are very important that aren’t essential. So I think my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, many of them are Christians. I love them. But I don’t think they’ve been baptized, and they can’t join this church if they’ve only been baptized as an infant because I don’t think that’s baptism biblically. They have to be baptized as a believer.
So, anyway, that would be one example. Baptism would be a good example of that. That seems to be presumed in the New Testament, that that’s what you do. The clearest idea where you get this requirement is it’s just a fleshing out of what it means to repent and believe. So, in Matthew 18, with the brother who sins against the other brother, and he won’t repent of it, his lack of repentance is essentially falsifying his claim to be a Christian. And the Christian community as a whole then, is called on to treat him, or that local assembly is called on to treat him as a “pagan or a tax collector.” And then in 1 Corinthians 5, where this man has apparently slept with his dad’s second wife or something, Paul is calling on that church to exclude him. Well, that presumes that there was a certain definite community from which he’s excluded. Paul specifically says, “Look, I’m not saying don’t have anything to do with adulterers at all. Then you’d have to go out of the world!”, he says in 1 Corinthians 5. “But, if they call themselves a Christian…” And in Corinth, of course, there weren’t 17 churches, there was just the one, and Paul’s probably writing to it pretty soon after it was founded. Well then, for them to associate with that local church, that means that they get to own the name of Christian.
What Paul is saying is, “Look, that man may be confused in his own mind, but to try to clarify that confusion for him, to try to clear it up, and certainly to clear it up for outsiders, and certainly to clear it up for your own members so that they don’t get confused about what it means to be a Christian, you put that man out of the assembly. ‘Hand him over to Satan’ so that you hope his soul will be saved. So that you’ll see this.” And we hope that that is what actually happened, because in 2 Corinthians 2, if you go on and read that, in the next letter that Paul writes to the Corinthians, in the second chapter of it, he writes to them and, we don’t know if it’s the same situation, but he says in chapter 2 verse 6, “The punishment afflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now you ought to forgive and comfort him so that he won’t be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
So it sounds like this guy must have repented and yet the church was having some questions about readmitting him. But even there it’s interesting. It says, “by the majority” in verse 6. There’s the assumption that there’s a certain group of people, and these are the members of the local church. They’re a definite, known group. And we know the early church had lists for widows and other people. We know that from the pastoral epistles. So it looks like here also there is a certain, definite group of people that make up, if you will, the electoral roll of the church. They were members of the church. They vote, and the majority of these had voted him out. And now he’s appealing. He’s saying, “Come on guys. You need to vote him back in. He’s repented.”
I would like to play devil’s advocate here and present to you a number of objections to the practice of church discipline. I would like to ask you to respond to these objections as I present them.
Objection 1 – We are all sinners. Therefore, we can never bring church discipline against another without making ourselves hypocrites at the same time.
First of all, if that sentiment is ever offered from a genuine spiritual sensitivity then it’s a good thing. That’s a good concern to have. But I don’t think that that person who is making that objection would understand church discipline very well, because you never discipline somebody merely for sin. In that case we would be hypocrites because we should all be disciplined for sin. There’s no question about that. But that’s not why we discipline.
We discipline for unrepentant sin, for persistent sin. That’s what we discipline for. And there, no, it’s not hypocritical, because, you know, Wyman, if you’ve got some sin in your life that you’re deliberately holding on to, not that you continue to struggle with that, that’s different, but that you are, as Christians in the past used to say, “high handedly” sinning, deliberately sinning, holding on to it and continuing on, then that’s something that you do need to turn loose of, especially if you want to keep calling yourself a follower of Jesus. And if you won’t do that, well, that’s why you commit to other Christians. That’s why I’ve committed to these other Christians in Washington, saying, “Look, if I start committing adultery on my wife and I won’t stop, I want you guys to come after me.” I want for me to realize, for my wife to realize, for my kids, for the church, for the watching world around me to realize that what I am doing is not what it means for someone to live as a Christian. And, of course, the church cannot speak ultimately to the fate of my own eternal soul. We don’t do that when we discipline somebody. What we’re saying is, “You are living like a non-Christian. You are living like somebody who doesn’t know the Lord.”
Objection 2 – Church discipline is a violation of Christ’s admonition against judging others and, specifically, of his treatment of the adulterous woman in John.
Again, these are just misconceived…first of all, in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not lest you be judged,” Jesus clearly doesn’t mean there that you should never make critical statements about anybody. What He’s trying to say there is particularly that you’re not in the place of God, that you should not put yourself in the place of One who is going to make the final, eternal judgment about somebody. So, I think that’s what He means with the Matthew 7:1 passage. People misuse that all the time, and I think as Christians we’ve got to be particularly careful not to encourage any kind of idea that judging is always wrong. That really bounces back on us.
In Romans 13, the state is called to judge. We certainly know that God judges and we don’t think that He’s wrong to do that. I mean, He should judge. You know, He’s judged us for our sins. And we know from Romans 1:3 that everybody is under judgment. The prophets are all about God judging His people and the nations. And we know that God is going to judge our own work, so it’s going to be declared “wood, hay, and stubble.” We know that He disciplines His own children in Hebrews 12, and we’re supposed to want that if we’re a Christian. He is righteous in His judging. We have the really strict stories of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 where God judges them for their sins and in the Old Testament, in Joshua, with Achan’s sin, where he and his family were judged. And Jesus Himself, who said that, is going to be the judge of the self-righteous.
You look at Matthew 23 where He’s talking to the Pharisees. It’s clear that Jesus, where He said, “Judge not lest you be judged,” well, He clearly does not mean that in a way that a lot of people mean that today, because the Prince of Peace is pretty big on saying, “There must be righteousness.” You know, He came not to bring peace, but a sword. And finally, of course, that culminates in the Bible with Revelation where you see there is going to be this final judgment. And we even know from Luke’s gospel that there are “greater” and “lesser” judgments, depending on how much knowledge somebody has about a sin. So there’s no question that Jesus Himself acts as a judge even though He said, “Judge not.” The woman at the well, He kind of challenges and encourages, but yet the rich young ruler, who people think was probably a little more moral and we would let teach a Sunday School class, Jesus sees self-righteousness in him.
Some people will say, “Ok, God can judge. Jesus can judge. But what about ourselves? I mean, we can’t do that.” Well, we’re called to judge ourselves. You know, before we come to the Lord’s table, in 1 Corinthians 11, “Examine yourselves.” In Proverbs, the very way we’re called to have wisdom all the time. And then, we are called to judge each other. In 1 Corinthians 4 and 5, those very passages we’ve been thinking about, or even in chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians, where he tells them, “Look, you’ve got disputes between you? Appoint judges from among you,” he even says.
Now, we’ve got to be careful about doing it. One of the problems in Job is that his counselors judged him wrongly. So it can certainly be done wrongly. Or when the guy is born blind in John 9 and the disciples say, “Who sinned? Him or his parents that he should be blind like this?” Well, they were wrong in that. So, we’re certainly not like God. We’re certainly not unerring in our judgment, but we are called to judge. Jesus is the one who gives that teaching in Matthew 18, the brother who sins against you, what you’re supposed to do. So that’s the same Jesus who said, “Judge not lest you be judged.” We don’t go for vengeance or revenge. That’s the Lord. And we can certainly be wrong. But we are certainly called to be discerning in teaching.
Paul praised the Bereans in Acts 17 because they searched the scriptures to see if it was true. Peter in 2 Peter 3 exhorts the Christians he’s writing to to “be on your guard against the false teachers.” Most of the New Testament letters are written about that. So these Christians were expected to judge the teaching of people who were presenting themselves as Christian teachers. So that would mean that people in your congregation, Wyman, are supposed to be judging your teaching. They are exhorted to do that in the New Testament. And you are to encourage them to do that.
But not just the teaching, but even the living, and this is where people maybe feel more uncomfortable. But, that “expel the immoral man” in 1 Corinthians 5 that we just talked about, that’s so clear. And in 1 Timothy 3, certainly church leaders like you and me, we’re supposed to have a good reputation. We know in James 3:1 that we’re going to face a stricter judgment. We have a stricter accounting that we’re going to have to give. We’re teachers of God’s word, publicly.
The other story you mentioned is the woman caught in adultery. Certainly we’re to show mercy. Mercy is a wonderful, Godly attribute. But you don’t use mercy to run off the road something like church discipline. Mercy is what you do in the context of all these other things. It’s certainly not what you use to short circuit them, all this other clear teaching of Scripture.
Objection 3 – Church discipline is an interesting idea, but it will not work in modern American society.
Well, again, if their spirit’s good, I would say, “Brother or Sister, I understand! I’m not sure if I could get it to work in a lot of places too!” But, if I’m going to act like that, I’m probably not even going to be a Christian. The Christian life, how are we supposed to do this? I mean, the Christian life is a supernatural life. And what is supposed to go on in the local church is it is supposed to be a supernatural community, a community that you cannot explain without the Holy Spirit of God and His activity.
Objection 4 – When you remove somebody from membership in a church, you also remove the possibility of seeing that person overcome their sin.
Ok, that’s the worst objection yet. That person needs to think a bit more about what causes repentance. They need to realize that they are just straight up disagreeing with the apostle Paul and Jesus, because Jesus said, “Treat them like a pagan or a tax collector.” Paul is the one who seemed to think, in 1 Corinthians and in writing the Pastorals, that handing them over to Satan could actually lead to their repentance. So, the idea that they need to be in church…now, I think that when you take that name away from them, if you say to them corporately, “Look, you, individual who is in unrepentant sin, will not change, will not turn loose of it, you may not keep calling yourself a Christian with our consent.” Now, we’re not trying to take away your civil rights in this country. You can go around calling yourself a Christian all you want, but we’re just giving a public witness and a witness to you that you are not giving evidence of that in your life. So we want to stand in contradiction to that and we want to be praying for you. So you’re welcome to come. We hope you do come. We’re not trying to keep you out of the meeting of the church. We’d rather you be here than any place in the world, but you certainly will not come to the Lord’s Table, will not be a member of this church, will not be regarded as someone who is. You know, you certainly will not be a member, you certainly will not be voting, and we will be public and clear about the fact that you are separating yourself from what it means to be a follower of Jesus by your attachment to this sin and your refusal to repent.
Let’s talk a little bit about elders.
Ok, whole different topic. You can have elders and no discipline and you can have discipline and no elders. I think the one helps the other, but they’re not essential to each other.
Ok, that’s what I was going to ask. What role do your elders play in the process?
Well, they’re very helpful. We have 350 members. I’m just one guy. There are six elders, six of us who are elders, including myself. We have one difficult situation I can think of that another brother is following up right now, looking into. It takes time. These are difficult issues. You don’t need to move quickly on these kinds of things. You know, bring them in, you pray with them, you talk with them, and you work with them for months on things like this usually.
Well, I’ve heard it argued that church discipline can be and maybe ought to be handled among the elders privately.
Well, that’s a good Bible church or Presbyterian position. And certainly if there is repentance, well then that’s fine, then you’re at Matthew 18, as long as you’re not talking about a leader of the church. If you’re talking about a leader of the church, 1 Timothy 5 would demand it be public I think. But, if you’re talking about just anybody else, who’s not an elder in the church, then I think, yeah, if they’re repenting, that’s great. But, if they don’t repent, well then Jesus in Matthew 18 doesn’t have that final court being the elders. He has it being the assembly, the congregation.
Well, it would be a lot easier if it were just the elders, I would think.
But it might not be as effective.
It would be easier from the standpoint of just dealing with a situation privately, but the ultimate rule would…
But, you also, you look at the teaching opportunity you’re missing.
I mean, my congregation has gotten to see me standing in front of them weeping because of my love for a brother who went into adultery and would not repent. So, just think of all those things those hundreds of people will learn about the Christian life, about the importance of their marriage, about the importance of their vows, about the depth of love they’re to have for one another. I mean, just so many things. So, I understand, believe me, my flesh understands the convenience, the desire to avoid the possibility of any kind of lawsuit, the desire to avoid bad blood. I understand all of those kinds of things. But as a Christian, and particularly as an elder, as somebody who reads Hebrews 13:17, and realizes that I’m going to be accountable before the Lord for these people. I desperately want them to be taught well. And I can understand why, just like in a family you go through difficult things, but we learn through them. Well, I can understand why God wants the family to see this when it happens.
Has your church been involved in legal situations that have arisen from church discipline situations? I don’t know if you can address that.
Sure I can. No, not yet, not that I’m aware of.
Have you taken measures to…
Well, you know, there’s actually some pretty good precedent in churches on the books legally in various places around the country, for churches having the right to discipline. That’s also been challenged. In some ways, that’s the mean reason we have religious freedom in this country. You know, the Baptists pushed for separation of church and state in large part because they didn’t want the state interfering with their own practice of church discipline. That’s what’s behind it. It’s not Barry Lynn, Americans for the Separation of Church and State, or just trying to say, “We need to make sure we have a kind of secular, neutral state.” No, their concern was for the church. And I don’t know what Barry Lynn thinks. I should say that. But, certainly in that kind of position, the more left wing position that’s often talked about…no, the concern at the founding of the country, as far as I can tell in reading it, was from religious folks like John Leland, the Baptist leader of Virginia and Isaac Backus in New England, who very much desired Baptists to be free to associate together and to practice their own discipline without harassment from the state. So, Ken Sande, with Peacemakers Ministries, has information on this.
And generally I think if you get someone, particularly if you teach in your membership introduction material and if you get someone to sign a document in which this is taught, then you should be fine as long as you’re not doing anything abusive with it. And if we come to the point in this country where we’re not, and that could certainly happen within our lifetimes, the country seems to be moving in a very bad way legally, if it does come to that then I still don’t think we have any choice. We’re not here to have a tax exempt status. We’re not here to follow Jesus just as long as we don’t get thrown into jail. If we’re Christians, we follow Jesus and the circumstances that happen to us in this life, well those are up to the Lord.
Is there not a potential danger that church discipline will denigrate into cold legalism?
I can certainly understand that with a prideful human heart legalism is always a problem. “Cold”? I don’t know what I’d do with that adjective, “cold.” All of this needs to be coming out of the fount of expositional preaching where you’re teaching God’s Word. I certainly wouldn’t want to go into a very legalistic church and just start saying, “Hey, you need to start practicing church discipline on top of that.” I would first want them to understand that they are sinners, that they deserve hell, that God’s being really nice to them not to send them to hell the day they were born. He continues to be nice to them every day that they have lived as they have sinned against Him. And once you get them understanding their own debt to God, that they’re in no position to go casting stones at anybody, once they understand that they’re entirely dependent upon God’s grace and they are at His beck and call for what He calls us to do in His Word, that’s the context out of which you practice church discipline together, not out of any kind of self-satisfaction. So that would be part of addressing a larger question, “Well, how is the church being fed?” So, yeah, I would probably try to improve the health of the church just with good feeding before I would ever touch a topic like church discipline.
How are churches to guard against members attempting to use the formal structures of communal discipline as avenues for settling personal grudges against other members?
Well, in the past, in Georgia in the early 1800s, if you’ve read Greg Wills’ book, Democratic Religion, in which he talks about Georgia Southern Baptist Churches in the 1800s, that was a problem sometimes because you had these small rural towns where everybody lived and always lived and everybody knew each other. And you didn’t move and everybody agreed to practice church discipline and everybody was practicing it. So I could understand how it could happen in those kind of contexts. Even there, church discipline was practiced and was practiced well.
But certainly in our context today, our difficulty is just all on the other side. Our’s would be, “How on earth would you ever get anybody on earth to agree to this?”, not “How is this going to work so well that people could actually target people with it?” Again, I think that’s less likely, and you’re certainly going to need to do this if you’re going to do it well in a church that understands grace. So that rebounds back to the pastors, your own teaching. Your teaching has to be good and healthy and wholesome on what it means to be a Christian, to follow Christ.
I think Wills says in his book, if I recall, that in cases where that happened and was proven to be happening, church discipline would be brought against the people who were trying to misuse church discipline.
Sure. Oh, yeah. Of course.
Which is an interesting idea.
But again, that’s like a bunch of Arminians sitting around worrying about hyper-Calvinism. Well you can do that but that’s probably not your main problem right now. Let’s worry about that when we get a little closer to it, and we are nine miles from that problem.
Could you please speak to the issue of restoration? Specifically, how are churches to restore members who have been removed and later repent of their wrongdoing? Is there some sort of probation period? Are they restored completely?
Well, you know, Scripture is not clear on this. 2 Corinthians 2 seems to make it clear that Paul was saying about whoever that was, whether or not it was the same guy, that this person should be restored. So we know it can happen. So I think we’re just called to look at principles in Scripture and move forward. Certainly we want to see repentance for sin and depending on what kind of sin it is that can be very hard to get evidence of. But that’s why you’ve got to have godly leaders, maybe like elders, who can take the time to look at something very carefully.
Well, we certainly thank you for your time. You’ve been very helpful and very insightful.
Well thank you. You might want to go the [9 Marks] website, www.9Marks.org. There will be a lot more information there.