Historian Greg Wills traces church discipline
Democratic Religion:R Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900 by Gregory A. Wills (Oxford University Press) 208 pages, $29.95.
A five-year-old California boy became famous last week for taking a picture of a bird. However, this wasn’t just any bird. It was a California condor, a feathered friend not seen in that part of California for over 100 years.
I can understand the excitement of spotting a rare bird. A few weeks ago, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted a group of Baptist scholars who came together and talked about church discipline.
“Church what?” many would ask. Where it is not altogether forgotten, church discipline is often spoken of in mockery and jest. Al Mohler of Southern Seminary writes, “The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.”
Baptist historian Gregory Wills spoke at the conference on “The Historical Development and Loss of Church Discipline in Baptist Churches.” Wills is extremely qualified on the subject, being the author of an excellent book called Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900. This work examines the topic of church discipline, focusing on the ample historical record left behind in the state of Georgia.
Wills reveals that Baptists in the South maintained the practice of church discipline with vigor throughout much of the 19th century. “Because Baptists saw the church as a voluntary democracy, they pursued spiritual egalitarianism. Because they saw it also as a bastion of purity, they excluded the impure and the false.” Wills explains that it was only when the quest for efficiency and results (pragmatism) overtook the quest for purity that church discipline diminished among Baptists.
However, church discipline is not an optional attachment on the vehicle of Christianity. Wills believes that the degree to which church discipline is practiced is a predictor of whether the church is safe from disaster. John Dagg, a prominent 19th century Baptist leader, stated, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
Perhaps one reason why we Baptists have such trouble speaking both truth and grace when we assemble together in convention is that we are so negligent in our understanding and practice of church discipline. What I mean is that many of the biblical principles for how to admonish and exhort a fellow believer within the context of a local church should also be practiced when Christians associate together in conventions.
This important book by Greg Wills is a valuable contribution to our own practice of church discipline. By seeing examples from church history of pastors who were concerned about both the purity and growth of the church, perhaps we too can aspire to incorporate both passions into our own pastoral ministry. To be sure, some of the moral concerns from the 19th century seem like little more than petty legalism. Nobody today is advocating church discipline for playing backgammon or for the raising of hands during worship. However, we must not make a mockery of church discipline, nor must we ignore the practice of it in our own churches. This bird may be on the endangered species list, but we should desire its recovery, not aid in its extinction. (Scott Lamb pastors Providence Baptist Church, St. Louis, and is a regular book reviewer for The Pathway. To respond to this review or to read about other books, visit www.wisdomofthepages.com.)