A Historical Survey of Church Discipline

Article
01.09.2018

Throughout church history the practice of church discipline has been largely affirmed, though at certain periods, only sporadically applied. [1] In looking at historical trajectories one can note the ways in which the church remained faithful to biblical teaching on the subject or veered sharply away from such principles. As such, while history is not ultimately determinative for understanding and applying discipline in our churches—Scripture possesses that role—history offers both helpful and harmful models from which to learn.

Patristic Era (AD 100–500)

While disciplinary action within the church had its controversial and contentious moments, it appears that for the first several centuries the church consistently sought to apply disciplinary measures according to the biblical witness. Indeed, the early church disciplined members both for the propagation of false doctrine and lack of moral purity. It was common practice in the early days of the church to announce disciplinary judgments on Sunday in the context of the church service. Tertullian, describing this event, states, “For judgment is passed, and it carries great weight, as it must among men certain that God sees them; and it is a notable foretaste of judgment to come, if any man has so sinned to be banished from all share in our prayer, our assembly, and all holy intercourse.” [2] Tertullian, as well as other church fathers,[3] recognized the seriousness of the disciplinary process.

Most churches recognized two kinds of repentance: a one-time repentance accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ for salvation and a continual repentance of sin throughout one’s life. [4] Christians who sinned had to confess their sin before the church if they wished to be restored to fellowship. Eventually, by the third and fourth centuries, restoration to the church became rather difficult. Undergoing “penitential discipline,” those seeking repentance were first required to come to the place where they met for church services, but not enter the place of worship. They were to beg for the prayers of those going inside, and after a period of time they were allowed inside to listen to the service in a designated area. The penitents would eventually be allowed to remain during the entire service, though without partaking of communion. Only after these steps were taken could an individual be restored to full membership. This kind of penitential action, along with the continued peace the church experienced after the reign of Constantine, contributed to a shift in ecclesial discipline.

Medieval Era (AD 500–1500)

Church discipline was a difficult practice to keep consistently due to the many challenges the church faced, but dedication to its implementation was strong at first. According to Greg Wills, however, the practice of church discipline eventually declined in the early centuries of the church. He claims,

After the fourth century, the system of public confession, exclusion, and penitential rigor fell into disuse. Nectarius, bishop of Constantinople from 381 to 398, apparently played an important role in the change. Since the third century Constantinople and other churches had adopted the practice of appointing a special presbyter in charge of administering the church’s penitential discipline. When the public discipline of a deacon at Constantinople for sexual immorality brought considerable public scandal upon the church, Nectarius abolished the office of the penitential presbyter and largely abandoned efforts to administer church discipline among the laity. Nectarius did not repudiate the strict public discipline in principle but he abandoned it in practice. . . . The process of strict public discipline withered in the Latin-speaking churches of the West just as it did in the churches of the Greek-speaking East. In its place emerged a system of private confession and individual penance. [5]

This eventual emphasis on penance transformed church discipline largely into a private affair between the priest and layperson, and as such the communal role of church discipline dissipated. Thus, church discipline was largely dispelled, and instead private confession and works of merit were common fare in the days leading up to the Reformation.

Reformation Era (AD 1500–1750)

Martin Luther, a key figure in the Reformation, is known in the early part of his career as one who had experienced the weight of the penitential system and thus questioned much of its validity, particularly in the issuing of indulgences. His criticism of these practices as substitutes for true repentance and contrition was a catalyst in precipitating the Reformation. This also allowed for a more biblical comprehension and application of church discipline by Luther, as well as others such as John Calvin, the Anabaptists, and later figures like Jonathan Edwards.

Luther wrote three key documents regarding the nature and practice of church discipline.[6] From these three documents one can observe his commitment to ecclesial discipline. Unlike the Catholic Church, Luther advocated for the keys of the kingdom to be exercised by the church, rather than by the Pope solely. While seeking to correct what he deemed as errors made by the Catholic Church, Luther maintained the seriousness of the ban and emphasized that those who come under discipline were warned of potential eschatological judgment should they not repent. Repentance, however, was the point for Luther, as he viewed church discipline as restorative in nature. He also intended for this measure of discipline to serve as a deterrent to sin for others, in hopes that they would persevere in their faith.

John Calvin also advocated for ecclesial discipline in Geneva. He asserted three aims in the use of discipline in his Institutes[7] First, discipline was necessary in local churches so that the high honor of God’s holy name would not be blasphemed, especially at the Lord’s Supper. Second, Calvin advocated for discipline in the church to preserve purity and holiness amongst God’s people. And finally, Calvin viewed discipline as a corrective so that those under discipline might come to a place of repentance. While much more detail regarding Calvin’s views could be elucidated, these are the main purposes for discipline, as he saw it.

The Anabaptists, contemporaries to Luther and Calvin, also protested the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding penance and indulgences, but went further in seeking to implement what they believed to be biblical reforms. They believed the church, not the state, should handle matters of ecclesial discipline, and they tightly tied their view of discipline to their convictions regarding the ordinances and regenerate church membership. With their clear ecclesiology, it could be argued that Anabaptists most successfully and consistently upheld discipline in the church and saw the greatest degree of application by their followers. Balthasar Hubmaier, a well-known Anabaptist, wrote several key works on this matter.[8]

One final figure to consider from this era is Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth-century pastor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dealing with one particular case in his own church, Edwards detailed the purposes of church discipline.

First . That the church may be kept pure and God’s ordinances not defiled. This end is mentioned in the context: that the other members themselves may not be defiled. ‘Tis necessary that they thus bear a testimony against sin. Second. That others may be deterred from wickedness. That others may fear. Third. That they may be reclaimed, [that their] souls may be saved. [After] other, more gentle, means have been used in vain, then we are to use severe means to bring ‘em to conviction and shame and humiliation, by being rejected and avoided by the church, treated with disrespect, disowned by God, delivered to Satan, his being made the instrument of chastising them. This is the last means, with concomitant admonitions, that the church is to use for the reclaiming those members of the church that become visibly wicked; which, if it be’nt effectual, what is next to be expected is destruction without remedy. [9]

Thus, Edwards has the good of the church and of the one under discipline in mind when he considers and practices excommunication. He notes the themes of purity, warning, and reclamation of the erring individual. Edwards’s hope in this difficult practice of church discipline is that sinners would be turned from the error of their ways while under judgment and repent, and that others may be deterred from sin and persevere in their faith.

Modern Era (1750–present)

One can note the trajectory of a strong commitment to discipline in the patristic era, giving way to a lax view that dealt more in terms of individual penance. The Reformation brought the biblical teaching of church discipline back to its rightful place. In the early modern era, a strong emphasis on discipline continued. However, in many denominations, as Enlightenment convictions ascended, including a keen sense of individualism and the inherent goodness of humanity, the practice of discipline generally slipped into decline.[10] Decline in the practice of church discipline can also be directly tied to a lax attitude in the realm of regenerate church membership. With neither the desire nor the process to identify church members, maintain current rolls, and closely guard the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it’s no surprise this decline happened. While seemingly mundane, these labors all relate directly to church membership and discipline, and thus are essential to the health of the church. There were exceptions to this general trend in the decline of discipline, but in comparison to the rest of church history, the last two centuries showed a significant decrease.

However, this trend of the decline of church discipline has turned around significantly in recent years. A number of factors can be attributed to this resurgence, but there has been a definite renaissance in teaching about and practicing church discipline (as well as regenerate church membership). It must be noted that the ministry of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and 9Marks has played a significant role in this resurgence. [11] Also, a number of well-written works on ecclesiology have been penned in recent years, pointing believers back to the importance of this doctrine for the Christian life.[12] It is because of such a recovery we can be hope-filled as we look to the future of the church. History has much to teach us, and we will do well to follow the New Testament pattern of taking church discipline seriously for the health of our local churches and the glory of God in our midst.


[1] Portions of this article come from Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline(Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 167-72.

[2] Tertullian, Apology, 39.4, ed. Gerald Henry Rendall and Walter Charles Alan Kerr, trans. T. R. Glover, Loeb Classical Library 250 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 175.

[3] See, for example, Augustine, “Letter 185.3.13, The Correction of the Donatists,” in Augustine, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century , ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill (Brooklyn: New City, 1990), 187; Clement of Rome,First Epistle to the Corinthians, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 1:20; Justin Martyr, The First Apology, in ibid., 1:185.

[4] See Gregory A. Wills, “A Historical Analysis of Church Discipline,” in Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline , ed. John S. Hammett and Benjamin L. Merkle (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012), 132–39.

[5] Wills, “A Historical Analysis of Church Discipline,” 140. See also Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, 5.19, inNicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Second Series, vol. 2 (New York: Christian Publishing Company, 1886), 128; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, 7.16, in ibid., 386–387.

[6] Martin Luther, “A Sermon on the Ban,” in Church and Ministry ILW 39, ed. Eric W. Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 3–22; idem, “The Keys,” in Church and Ministry II, LW 40, ed. Helmut H. Lehman (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958), 321–77; idem, “On the Councils and the Church,” in Church and Ministry III, LW 41, ed. Eric W. Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 3–178.

[7] For an overview of the details of Calvin’s views of discipline, see especially John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.12.1–28.

[8] See, for example, Balthasar Hubmaier, “On Fraternal Admonition,” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John Howard Yoder, Classics of the Radical Reformation 5 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 372–85; idem, “On the Christian Ban,” in ibid., 409–25.

[9] Jonathan Edwards, “The Means and Ends of Excommunication,” in Sermons and Discourses, 1739–1742, ed. Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch, WJE 22 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 78–79.

[10] For a specific portrayal of the decline of discipline among Southern Baptist Churches, for example, see Stephen M. Haines, “Southern Baptist Church Discipline, 1880–1939,” Baptist History and Heritage 20, no. 2 (1985): 14–27; Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785–1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[11] See especially Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).

[12] Many could be named, but see for example, Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundation in Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005).