by Jeff Robinson
Church discipline is a crucial aspect of a local church body's health and obedience to Scripture and its goal is the restoration of a wandering believer, author, speaker and professor Don Whitney said June 26 at the 26th annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference.
Citing a recent article by the Wall Street Journal on church discipline that depicted it as merely a method seeking to kick people out of the church, Whitney said church discipline instead is a loving act and is demanded by Scripture in texts such as Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5.
"The goal is to restore a believer to righteousness," Whitney said. "We want to bring them back, to heal the breach, to restore them in love.
"The need for church discipline is inevitable. Don't think your church will never need to practice discipline. Sooner or later, God will test every church, every minister, in this matter of discipline. You will come up against the opportunity and go into the desert or you will follow God."
Whitney serves as associate professor of biblical spirituality and senior associate dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The founder of the Center for Biblical Spirituality, Whitney is the author of several books including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and Spiritual Disciplines within the Church. He has served in pastoral ministry for 24 years.
The Founders Conference was held June 24-27 at Bethel Baptist Church in Owasso, Okla., with the theme of "Lengthening the Cords & Strengthening the Stakes: Renewing and Planting Local Churches." Founders was formed in 1982 to promote Reformed theology.
Matthew 18:15-20 sets forth three clear steps in the process of church discipline, Whitney said: first, confront the errant sinner in private; next, confront him again, this time taking along two or three witnesses; and finally, if those two steps do not bring him to repentance, take the matter before the entire church body.
The church should formally remove the erring person from the fellowship only after he demonstrates a persistent refusal to repent of his sins, Whitney said, adding that the first two steps might occur numerous times before the final, most drastic measure is necessary. Withdrawal of fellowship requires approval by the entire church, he said.
"We treat them as lost persons because they continually act like [lost persons]," Whitney said. "This is the ultimate effort to restore them and to bring them back. We give them every opportunity to respond to their sin in repentance as they ought to respond. We don't have the right to treat them un-Christianly or in an uncivil way; we are to love them and seek to evangelize them.
"But the goal should be reconciliation. You cannot over-emphasize the goal of winning your brother back."
God promises to support those churches with His presence that are obedient to the command of Christ to lovingly discipline wayward members, Whitney said.
Whitney said a local church should begin to discipline a member when:
‑Christian love is violated by serious personal offenses.
‑Christian unity is violated by those who form factions and destroy the peace of the church.
‑Christian law is violated by those living scandalous lives.
‑Christian truth is violated by those who reject essential doctrines of the faith.
There are at least three errors to avoid when practicing church discipline, Whitney said: inconsistency, severity, and leniency. Whitney pointed out that Southern Baptist churches in the 19th century regularly practiced restorative church discipline, but it gradually faded in the 20th century.
"A lot of people think church discipline takes place when you make the pastor mad and then he gets you kicked out of the church," he said. "But the Bible makes it clear that it is for the good of the individual and the spiritual health of the church body. J. L. Dagg famously wrote, When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.'
"Historically, the three marks of the church have been said to be the preaching of the gospel, the ordinances, and church discipline. If these historic marks of the church are indeed necessary, what do we think about the vast majority of churches today who do not have the last mark?
"This is a Christological issue, a Lordship issue. This is about Jesus Christ as Head of the church and His rule over our lives. God help us for His name's sake."
Copyright 2008 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press
Jeff Robinson is a free-lance writer based in Louisville, Ky.