The idea that the local church is more than an organization which people join and for which there is little, if any, accountability is a foreign one to the twenty-first century American church. Tom Ascol commented on the high tolerance for sin in the fellowship with these observations: “The corporate discipline of the church has gone the way of the Mastodon in the thinking of most Southern Baptists. There was a time when church discipline was recognized by Protestants in general and Baptists in particular as one of the distinguishing marks of a true church. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 was not only regarded as inerrant, the steps which he outlined there were actually practiced by the churches. Today it is tragically common to have church members living in open immorality with absolutely no response from the congregation of which they are a part.
“Thus it hardly even shocks us to read Hollywood badgirl and former Playboy pinup Shannon Doherty describe herself in TV Guide as ‘just a nice, Southern Baptist, Republican girl.’ Of course she is! Why should shameless immorality stand in the way of being a church member? Somewhere along the line, Southern Baptists have lost their moral nerve. The world’s relativism (‘nothing is always right or wrong’) and sentimentalism (‘because I love you I will let you’) have displaced the Bible’s moral absolutism and genuine love that cares enough to correct.
“John Dagg, the first Southern Baptist theologian to produce a systematic theology textbook . . . , argued that ‘when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.’ If Dagg is correct, what does that say for the state of our churches today?” (Thomas Ascol, “Southern Baptists at the Crossroads: Returning to the Old Paths,” The Founders Journal, Winter/Spring 1995, 3).
Jesse Mercer was one of the most renowned of Georgia and Southern Baptists during the first four decades of the 1800’s. Historian Charles Mallary noted: “Mercer firmly held to the necessity of church discipline. He maintained that ‘all divisions are the fruit of contention and strife, originating in pride and ambition, the agitating of “unlearned questions,” or departures from the true faith and order.’ He continued: ‘I consider the causes of these divisions, which have rent our churches and spoiled our beauty, as a denomination, are to be found in the neglect of a godly discipline, and the consequent results’” (Memoirs of Elder Jesse Mercer, 248).
Avoiding church discipline has always been the easy way for churches. L. Fletcher, in the December 12, 1855, issue of Kentucky’s Western Recorder, recounted how believers are to “Let their light so shine before men as to exert a healthful and saving influence upon the community around them.” He reminded readers that Christians reveal their love for the Lord by their obedience. He noted pointedly that “as Baptists, we glory in proclaiming to the world that the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice. And yet, we fear that very few of our churches either believe or practice all the teachings and requirements of the Son of God!”
The cause of Fletcher’s concern was the failure of some churches to exercise church discipline. “Our principles and practice when legitimately carried out and rightly understood, commend themselves to the judgment and understanding of all honest and unprejudiced minds; but, when there is a glaring discrepancy between what we profess and practice, our doctrines become unsavory and our name a reproach.” Churches which refuse to discipline members of known sins greatly hinder their influence in the world for the cause of Christ: “Can we think it strange that, under such circumstances, we have so few revivals of religion, or that so many that profess conversion under the high pressure system of protracted meeting, return again to the beggerly elements of the world?”
Fletcher reminded his readers that discipline is not for revenge, but “with a view to the well-being of the offender, the purity of the church, and the honor of Christ.” His concluding remarks need to be broadcast to Baptist churches in our day, churches unfortunately more concerned with numerical success than with biblical faithfulness: “Let all our churches, instead of glorying in the number of their membership, go to work with the pruning knife of discipline, and disencumber themselves of their unfruitful branches, and thus purge out the old leaven of unrighteousness that has hitherto paralyzed their influence for good, and then they will become as beautiful as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, and as terrible to evil-doers as an army with banners.”