Polity on Church Discipline: A User’s Guide
As an intern at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, I read Polity, a collection of ten Baptist polities from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, together with three contemporary essays, pulled together by Mark Dever. And when I say I read Polity, I mean I read about five hundred dense, often-cryptic, clearly-belonging-to-another-era-of-history-and-English-usage pages. So I can tell you firsthand that if you’re a busy pastor, elder, seminary student, or anyone without a lot of time on your hands, reading through Polity cover to cover may be a long-term project.
But despite its length, density, and occasionally difficult prose, the book is worldview shifting. Wade into its pages, and, after a while, you’ll find that not only are you looking at a different world, but that that different world sometimes makes more sense than our own.
Further, Polity is a treasure trove of deeply biblical and rigorously practical thought on church life, especially on church discipline. I’m not sure there are many books out there that address church discipline with the biblical breadth and practical intensity that Polity does. So in an effort to bring the riches of Polity to the busy pastor’s doorstep, here’s a brief user’s guide to Polity on the topic of church discipline.
CONSULT THE MODERN TOUR GUIDES
The contemporary authors whose essays open the volume provide a logical place to begin. In their introductory essays, Mark Dever, Greg Wills, and Al Mohler help bridge the gap from our current church scene to the historic Baptist perspectives represented in these works.
Mark Dever argues that Baptists have historically viewed the pastor’s main responsibilities to be preaching the Word and administering the sacraments. He calls modern pastors back to those central, biblical tasks (3-18).
Greg Wills’ essay (19-42) provides a helpful key to unlocking the entire volume. He sketches out the basic doctrinal framework which the older authors held in common as they thought through various topics like congregational authority, church membership, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, and church officers. This theological framework, which many contemporary Baptists lack, helps the reader move into the rest of the volume. Wills also provides a brief biography of each author, sums up the unique contribution of each polity, and highlights points of dispute or disagreement between them, making the second half of his chapter a useful resource to refer to before digging into any individual essay.
In his essay (43-56), Al Mohler bemoans the contemporary neglect of church discipline and pleads with churches to recover this essential and biblically required practice.
Reading all three of these essays will give the reader a sense of the chasm that separates the contemporary Baptist worldview from that of our Baptist forefathers. It will provide a theological framework for understanding some of the more nuanced discussions in the volume. And it should impress upon the reader the crucial importance of the matters discussed in the collected polities.
GET TO KNOW MESSRS. BAKER, MELL, AND SAVAGE
Although many of the polities collected in Polity are called something like “A Treatise on Church Discipline,” the authors use the phrase “church discipline” to mean the whole government of the church, not merely what we typically call church discipline today. But there are three essays in Polity that are entirely devoted to church discipline in the narrower sense: Queries Considered, or, An Investigation of Various Subjects Involved in the Exercise of Church Discipline by Joseph Baker (249-292), Corrective Church Discipline by P.H. Mell (405-476), and Eleazer Savage’s Manual of Church Discipline (479-523). These three essays are worth reading in their entirety.
Baker’s Queries Considered (247-292) would be especially helpful for a church’s elders or other leaders to work through as a group. It proceeds through the topic of church discipline in a Q&A format, answering many questions that may arise. Also, Baker’s answers to these questions furnish a good model for how pastors can instruct their congregations on this sensitive topic.
Mell’s treatise (409-476) is hair-splittingly precise and wondrously elaborate. While you likely won’t agree with all of his distinctions or recommended procedures, you should be challenged to think clearly about the different disciplinary actions merited by different offenses and how your church can carry out those actions in a wise and orderly fashion.
Savage’s treatise (479-523) should serve modern readers, Greg Wills points out, because he includes procedural details of church discipline which other writers of his day took for granted. Therefore, it should be of special use to pastors who are looking for practical help in implementing church discipline. Wills also observes that Savage’s treatment of the spirit in which believers should carry out Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-20 is especially edifying.
SORT THROUGH THE DISPUTES
Another way to make the most out of Polity without reading it cover-to-cover is to jump into the fray of the various disagreements between the authors. This will help you hone in on disputed issues and will force you to take another close look at the biblical texts that bear on church discipline.
In his summary of the collected polities, Greg Wills notes a handful of disagreements among the collected authors pertaining to church discipline. I’ll mention two:
- What are the biblically warranted means of church discipline? The Charleston Association argues for three: admonition, suspension, and rebuke (127-131), as does Benjamin Griffith (105-110). Baker explicitly rejects suspension (283), while Jones accepts it but considers it merely a delay of excommunication (153).
- Are there any sins for which a church should discipline a member regardless of whether or not the person repents? The Charleston Association says “no” (129), butevery other author in Polity who treats the issue says “yes.”
DIG THROUGH THE SCRIPTURE AND SUBJECT INDECES
Finally, you can use Polity as a reference work on church discipline by consulting the Scripture and subject indices in the back of the book (571 ff. and 559 ff.). In the Scripture index you’ll find over fifty references to 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 alone. To get the most profit from the authors’ reflections on Scripture, look up all the references to the major New Testament texts on the subject: Matt. 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Galatians 6:1-5, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, and 1 Timothy 5:19-21.
As you read the various authors’ discussion of these passages you will repeatedly encounter careful interpretation and thoughtful application. To cite just one example: consider how the authors differently treat the process Jesus outlines in Matthew 18:15-20 and the action Paul requires in 1 Corinthians 5. The precedents set by these two texts for handling different types of offenses are a crucial component of a biblical understanding of church discipline, one that every pastor and church leader should be acquainted with.
The subject index is another useful tool, especially if you want to see what different authors said about a particular issue (559 ff.). Look up admonition, church discipline, church membership (“exclusion from” and “restoration to”), excommunication, expulsion or exclusion, gospel steps, ministers (“trial and excommunication of”), offences, offenders, repentance, unjust accusation or expulsion, and witnesses.
While not all these topics may interest you, the subject index provides quick access to relevant passages on whatever issue related to discipline you’re facing.
WORTH THE SLOG
While reading Polity can at times feel like trudging through knee-deep sludge, the payoff is immense. If you’re a pastor trying to obey Jesus by implementing church discipline, there are few books that will aid you in both understanding and applying the Bible’s teaching on the subject the way Polity will. Don’t let the dusty prose and the pictures of old, bearded, crotchety-looking men stop you. Both for the sake of gaining a larger, more biblical vision of the local church as well as for gaining a better understanding of church discipline, Polity is worth the slog.