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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever


Church Discipline Question

I'm very excited to read your forthcoming book on church discipline and membeship.  Can you tell me some of the most common mistakes that pastors make in regards to church discipline?
Thanks for sharing with us your wisdom.
Deepak Reju

The unintentional yet damaging institutional sin of infant baptism.

A fascinating article
put out by the BBC (no, that's not Bethlehem Baptist Church) shows that the lack of church discipline in some churches is seen as
ludicrous to unbelievers. And its all tied to infant baptism.John Hunt was baptised in the parish church of St Jude with St Aidan
in Thornton Heath in south-east London. But 50 years later he stands
outside and regards its brick facade without much affection....
Now Mr Hunt has become the pioneer in a rejuvenated campaign for a
way of cancelling baptisms given to children too young to decide for
themselves whether they wanted this formal initiation into
However, baptism is proving a difficult thing to undo....A letter from the the Archbishops' Council said that the Church of
England did not regard baptism as a sign of membership, so any
amendment to the record would be unnecessary.

The problems are multiple: 1) baptism is seen as having nothing to do
with church membership. And when there is no church membership, church
discipline becomes impossible. 2) infant baptism itself tends to separate baptism from church membership and discipline. One doesn't want to publicly disicpline a 2 year old for poking his sister in the eye and showing no signs of repentance. All paedobaptists I know rightly recognise that such matters are better dealt with within the family. But, what do you then do with those who have received the sign of baptism, never come into church membership and therefore never come under church discipline. How is to be made clear that this person should by no means see the sign of the covenant as a sign that they are a Christian?Thankfully some people, like John Hunt, recognise themselves that they are not Christians. My fear is that in the last UK census 71% of people still identified themselves as being Christian, yet less than 10% would be in church on any given Sunday. Very few of these are asking to be "de-baptised".Is infant baptism a serious sin, even though unintentional? I'm totally with Mark that it is done in good faith, and perhaps the damage done to genuine Christians is limited by inconsistency. However, institutionally throughout Anglican Britain, and even more so throughout Roman Catholic Europe it has, in my opinion been one of the most damaging institutional sins in giving people a sense of assurance, even as they are walking towards hell.HT: Dean and Kris Dryden for showing me the article.

Church Discipline in the News

Did you guys see this story about a Florida woman who is freaking out because her church is threatening her with public discipline?

My thoughts:

-- It's a good reminder to teach clearly on church discipline. It's something that seems bizarre and laughable to our culture, and the people in our pews won't understand it unless we teach it.

-- It's also a good reminder that gossip is a real danger in these situations.

-- It seems to me that the letter from the elders of the church is kind and biblical.

-- Darrell Bock's comments toward the end of the article seem so strange that I wonder if the reporter didn't misunderstand him. Three things about what Dr. Bock (allegedly) said:

1. It seems like the church leaders did approach her on a private basis, though obviously any gossip is wrong. Church discipline ala Matthew 18 is ultimately a public matter if there is no repentance.

2. Church discipline is not meant to be applied only to leaders. That doesn't make any sense.

3. A church should most definitely not allow someone to avoid church discipline simply by resigning their membership. Part of the purpose of church discipline is to warn the sinner so that they might repent.

It's funny to be reminded of how counter-intuitive a Biblical church is to the world. Things that seem normal to you (like church discipline) seem like insanity to the eyes of the world. Oh well, I think Jesus said that would happen.

Signs of the End

Mike, a similar story appears in the Times.  Isn't the evangelical move left to support Obama mentioned somewhere as a sign of the end of all things and the coming of the anti-Christ?  Oh, I'm sorry.  Maybe that was the Left Behind novels.

To eat or not to eat

First, let me say it's good to be here...finally. (I'm talking about the new house.)

Second, I want to suggest, from Scripture, that Paul's instructions in 1 Cor. 5:11 are not necessarily intended to rupture relations within the biological family, though that is precisely what they are intended to do within the spiritual family. Two scriptural lines of thought are relevant.

First, throughout the New Testament, Jesus' call to a family-transcending loyalty notwithstanding, the overarching concern is to preserve the integrity and peace of the natural family for the sake of the gospel. To take just one example: the believing spouse is urged to remain with the unbelieving spouse if possible, for the sake of the unbeliever's salvation. (1 Cor 7:12-14; 1 Pet 3:1-2). The context of 1 Corinthians 7 makes clear that this "living with" includes sexual intimacy, which by anyone's standards surpasses the intimacy of a shared meal. Typically we read these verses assuming the unbeliever has never professed faith, but there's nothing in the text that demands that assumption. Paul's instruction is equally applicable to the believer who's spouse has apostasized. It just doesn't make sense to read Paul to teach in that situation that they can have sex, but not a meal.

We could look at other examples, like Paul's condemnation of those who don't provide for their families, regardless of their status as believers, or the enduring obligation of children to honor their parents, regardless of their status as believers. The point remains the same. In the context of the biological family, such actions of love commend the gospel.

The second line of thought concerns the distinction the New Testament makes between the biological family and the spiritual family. Here, Jesus' question about who is my mother and brother and sister is supremely relevant (Mk 3:33-35). In the Old Covenant, the biological and spiritual families were one and the same, at least to external observation. In the New Covenant, as Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:29-34), the automatic, generational link between the biological and spiritual families is severed. Now, as Jesus points out, inclusion in the spiritual family of God is based on spiritual regeneration that produces repentance and faith. This produced all sorts of changes within the administration of the covenant that I don't need to explain to my fellow Baptist Church Matters bloggers.

But one area that perhaps we have not considered fully is the biological family and discipline. In the Old Covenant, if a spouse or child sought to entice you to idolatry, not only were they to be stoned, but you were to cast the first one (Deut. 13:6-12). Originally, it was the father who circumcised his sons (Gen. 17). But in the New Covenant, it is not the biological family that baptizes or exercises church discipline, it's the spiritual family, because spiritual relations are in view.

What does this mean for the wife who's husband has been excommunicated? Unlike most everyone else in their church, sharing a meal with him is not primarily an expression of Christian fellowship, but of familial love and duty. She should certainly not treat him as if he were a Christian. But neither of them ever thought toast and coffee in the morning was about that anyway. On the other hand, she should now pray for him, not with him, and she should focus her concern and conversation on his repentance. But surely even that looks different when you're with someone every day than it would for the pastor who bumps into him on the street. Isn't this precisely what Paul and Peter were both getting at? Far from invalidating your marriage or requiring you to engage in 24/7 evangelistic conversation, unbelief in the home and marriage is a unique opportunity for the patient display of love and grace up close and personal.

If I were a particular kind of Presbyterian, who held to a highly objective structure for the covenant family, I could see arguing against table fellowship with an excommunicate inside the family. But as a Baptist and congregationalist, that sort of overlay is precisely what I want to avoid. Not so that I can keep the church out of my living room. But rather to make clear that my living room is not the church. I have obligations to both my biological family and my spiritual family. Sometimes, the same person will be a member of both families, sometimes not. But the obligations endure, and in both cases, they do so for the sake of the gospel.

Two questions

I have two questions to ask this morning. I'd love to hear your thoughts on either, either "out there" or "in here":

(1) A pastor recently called asking about how the immediate family members of a disciplined individual should treat that family member in light of Paul's command in 1 Corinthians  5:10, "With such a man do not even eat."

What do you think? The person, disciplined for gross unrepentant sin, continues to call him/herself a Christian and has never apologized to the family members. Should the members of the immediate family (also members of the church who voted in favor of the act of discipline) refuse to share the dinner table with the individual? Why or why not? Any further advice for handling this type of situation pastorally?

2) I had lunch with a brother recently who is working through his call to the ministry. Now, I suspect this particular brother is called to the ministry. But the two of us got to thinking, how would you confront an individual attempting to enter vocational ministry (meaning the church would set aside its offering plate dollars to support him) whom you didn't think should, especially if that individual is invoking language of "God's calling me"? And I'm not so much referring here to matters of character qualification, i.e. he lacks integrity. I'm talking about the individual whose heart seems to be in the right place, but he appears to lack of the requisite giftedness or evidence of fruit-bearing. Should we presume to discourage such people when God could in fact plan to use them?

Avoiding Discipline?

The brother who commented on "nuancing these scenarios to death" is correct.  Please take what I'm about to write as a general response to a general question.  Here are a couple things we've done at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington (a body of believers that understands and embraces church discipline as a means for our own good):

  1. We would almost certianly NOT allow a man to resign his membership in a preemptive fashion in order to avoid discipline if the case involved public, heinous sin. 
  2. We have had some scenarios where we allowed a person to resign his/her membership...with comment.  In other words, the elders encouraged the congragation to accept the resignation, but warned the congregation that the former member was in sin or almost certainly going that direction. 
  3. If the member is resigning because the leaders of that local church have talked to him about non-attendance, then by all means let the member resign; they are responding to the challenge.
  4. If the member is resigning because the leaders of that local church have talked to the person about the lack of evidence of salvation in the person's life, then let the member resign; it is clarifying for the community to see a distinct, holy church that is set apart from the world around it.

We often say that church discipline is practiced for the benefit of three groups:  1) Those in unrepentant sin; 2) The younger believers in the church who would be confused if unrepentant sin went unchallenged and 3) The unbelieving community around the local church looking in. 

When done well, the unrepentant person is biblically called back to a right relationship with Christ and his church, the young believers are rightly taught about the dangers and deceptiveness of sin and the unbelieving community looking in sees a difference between those in the church and those out.

Hope this helps.

re: avoiding discipline

Accountability is—or should—be one of the great advantages
of church membership. This usually
takes place in one-on-one relationships. I had a great lunch, today, with a brother in Christ. We asked about each other’s lives, wrestled
with Scripture, and generally sharpened each other. This is positive church discipline. But there is another kind of discipline, a corporate discipline,
which Christians should recognize and practice.

The individual who resigns his membership to avoid being
held accountable by the congregation is cutting himself off from the very means
God ordained for his own sanctification and, possibly, his salvation (see 1
Cor. 5). This is why I think it is
unwise for a church to accept that resignation. Instead, a church ought to lovingly refuse the resignation,
proceed with the discipline, and hope that the formal action has its intended
effect. The public condemnation of sin
(where the leaders give the church the necessary information—no more) plus the
action of removing the individual from the membership of the church may be what
the Lord uses to save that individual if that lack of repentance points
to an unregenerate heart. It may not
be, but it may be, which is why the church must act.

There is a silver lining in this trend of people trying to leave
churches to avoid discipline. Praise God, it serves as a wonderful reminder for all of us of the importance of making the beauty of membership and the reality of discipline as clear as we can when individuals join our churches.   

Broad principle vs. application


Thank you for the helpful point. I don't mean to suggest that a pastor must do step 1, then step 2, then step 3, and so forth. I'm simply trying to enunciate the broad principle that church discipline only makes sense within the context of a right understanding of the gospel and conversion. How a pastor or elders go about applying that principle will differ--to some measure--from case to case.

I suspect there could be occasions of egregious 1 Cor. 5 type sin that an elder may feel he must act upon, knowing that he will use the opportunity to lead the church through discipline in order to clarify the congregation's understanding of the gospel and conversion. Having said that, he will have a much harder go at it if the church doesn't already understand these things in the first place.

9Marks speaks to a number of pastors who want our advice on how to lead their churches into practicing church discipline. Yet as they describe their churches to us, it sometimes becomes clear that their congregations don't understand basic things like repentance. If your (plural) church doesn't understand repentance, you can expect church discipline will be a reeeal tough sell.

I don't think I'm responding precisely to your question about "how to strike the balance," Thabiti. Maybe the other brothers will jump in. Striking a balance is tough. What do you think?