Baptists must reclaim church discipline and membership, scholars say
Southern Baptist scholars gathered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to assess and discuss the core doctrines of church discipline, baptism and the Lord’s Supper during the second conference in the seminary’s Baptist Distinctives Series, Sept 29-30. The conference was titled “Maintaining the Integrity of a Local Church in a Seeker Sensitive World: The Baptist Perspective on Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Discipline.”
In his presentation of “The Historical Development and Loss of Church Discipline in Baptist Churches,” presenter Gregory Wills said the degree to which churches implement church discipline is a predictor of whether the church is safe from disaster.
“[Church discipline] is the canary in a coal mine,” said Wills, who is professor of church history and director of the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “When the canary in a coal mine keels over, catastrophe impends. When church discipline is lost, catastrophe impends.”
According to Wills, church discipline among Baptists began to decline in the late-19th century and early-20th century. He attributed the decline to the rise of pragmatism, individualism and secularization in the culture at large. This decline in discipline also permitted liberalism to make crucial inroads into many Baptist churches, he said.
Lax discipline was a new development among Baptists. Earlier Baptist churches had a strong commitment to church discipline in earlier centuries, Wills said.
Baptist churches stood for proper discipline “because they feared God more than men; because Christ commanded it,” Wills said. “They had no more freedom to neglect church discipline than they had to neglect baptism, communion or preaching faith in the name of Christ. They believed that Christ commanded a specific church order, and they pressed themselves to carry it out no matter how impractical or ineffective it might appear.”
Wills said early Baptists were confident that God would bless the faithful practice of church discipline.
“Church discipline was a gospel remedy for sin and temptation. It was an essential part of the means that God gave for sanctifying believers,” Wills said.
Another presenter was Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Dever said that churches could not effectively reinstitute biblical church discipline until the meaning of church membership is renewed.
The Cambridge-educated Dever has written and spoken extensively on the subject of church polity. Developing a plan for church discipline was the 11th step of a 12-step plan Dever proposed for a renewed commitment to local church membership. A system for church discipline came after other steps such as consistently proclaiming and applying the gospel message, writing a church confession, and instituting a membership class.
“We should realize that our immediate assurance to someone else of their salvation based merely upon their verbal profession of faith in Christ may not be the most loving thing we can do,” Dever said. “Joining the church is joining an assurance of salvation cooperative. We are to observe evidences of God’s grace in each other’s lives and to encourage one another by them. And we are supposed to correct one another when occasion requires.”
Dever said that a thoughtfully implemented approach to church membership should foster evangelism, love among Christians and submission to God and church leaders. Meaningful church membership helps Christians display the character of God, he said.
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., discussed the meaning of believer’s baptism, and preached in chapel. Several Southwestern Seminary professors presented papers at the conference. David Allen, dean of the school of theology and professor of expository preaching, outlined the biblical basis for the traditional Baptist mode of baptism by immersion.
Stanton Norman is associate professor of theology and chair of the Cooperative Program of Southern Baptist Studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Norman discussed biblical standards for the reestablishment of church discipline. John Hammett, professor of systematic theology at Southeastern Seminary, submitted a paper titled, “Regenerate Church Membership.”
Jason Lee, Southwestern Seminary associate professor of historical theology, demonstrated that baptism is a believer’s covenant with the local church. Dean of The College at Southwestern Emir Caner and Interim Vice President of Student Services Thomas White examined the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Malcolm Yarnell, director of the seminary’s Center for Theological Research and of one of the conference’s organizers, presented a paper on the priesthood of all believers.
The scholarly papers presented at the conference are being bound together and printed into a single paperback volume that will be available at reasonable cost to anyone interested in the subject matter. For information about registering for the 2007 conference or purchasing the book from the 2006 conference, e-mail Kelly King at firstname.lastname@example.org.