Was Dagg Right?
One hundred fifty years ago John Dagg suggested that “when discipline leaves a church, Christ leaves with it.” At that time, Baptists and most other evangelicals practiced a thorough church discipline. Over the next fifty years most evangelicals abandoned the practice. For at least three generations now, evangelical churches in the West have neglected it. Yet during this period, the Lord has blessed many of these churches in spiritual and material ways. So was Dagg right?
WE FEEL THAT DAGG SHOULD BE RIGHT, BUT…
We no doubt feel that Dagg should be right. To neglect church discipline is to disobey to Jesus Christ. The Lord commands churches to exercise church discipline in Matthew 18:15-17, as well as in many other passages in the New Testament. Yet Christ evidently has not yet abandoned our evangelical churches, despite the fact that our churches have abandoned discipline. This fact reminds us that there is no simple correlation between a church’s disobedience on the one hand and spiritual blight and abandonment by Christ on the other. Our Lord judges our disobedience in the time and measure of his wisdom.
One factor which may have delayed God’s judgment is that our churches are faithful in significant areas of gospel service. Indeed, our ambition to spread the gospel has been an obstacle to obeying Christ in the matter of discipline. Many pastors and church members fear that disciplining wayward members will result in more harm than good for the advance of the gospel. It will drive “good” families away in shame and anger, and it will render us an object of ridicule and disgust among unbelievers, who view discipline as barbaric and contrary to common sense and compassion. Our churches neglect discipline out of fear that the practice will harm the cause of Christ.
But even with virtuous motives, disobedience is still disobedience, and we will be called to account. The fact that the Lord has shown great mercy and patience toward disobedient churches is no excuse for their disobedience. We are presuming upon the Lord’s mercy and do not fear his judgment.
The neglect of church discipline, however, imperils the church in other fundamental ways. The loss of church discipline undermines the church’s very foundations.
UNDERMINING THE CHURCH’S FOUNDATIONS
Churches which fail to practice discipline undermine their regenerate character. By omitting it, they tolerate sinful behavior in their membership and make themselves comfortable places for the unregenerate.
Churches which fail to practice discipline undermine also the church’s holiness, since it weakens believers in their struggle against sin. Jesus provided discipline as one of his gospel remedies for sin, without which our sanctification will lag. Applying church discipline to our sinful diseases will strengthen Christians in our lifelong battle with Satan, the world, and the flesh.
Churches which fail to practice discipline further undermine their spirituality, zeal, and devotion to the Savior. Discipline teaches the church to obey the Lord in an area that it is distasteful, unpleasant, and contrary to the broader culture’s sensibilities. In exercising discipline, we commit ourselves to Christ’s spiritual way, even when reason, compassion, and civility seem to argue that we should not obey. Christians thus learn to trust the wisdom of Christ rather than the wisdom of the world. They learn to obey Christ regardless of the uncomfortable consequences.
In neglecting discipline, we train ourselves not to take up our cross, not to fear God, not to suffer willingly for Christ’s sake, and not to oppose the world. And once well-trained by the neglect of church discipline, the churches will lose their commitment to the gospel itself.
WHEN A CHURCH ABANDONS DISCIPLINE, IT ABANDONS CHRIST
This is why Dagg said that when discipline leaves a church, Christ leaves with it. However, it is perhaps more accurate to say that when a church abandons discipline, it abandons Christ. Churches do not intend to abandon Christ, and they may not do so entirely. But by neglecting discipline they begin to drive a wedge between themselves and Jesus.
In addition the principle upon which they have abandoned discipline works like leaven, working more broadly to weaken a church’s commitment to Christ and its ability to take up its cross and follow him. They conform increasingly to the world. It is only a matter of time before Christ abandons them.
In the New Testament, the Lord judged churches that tolerated offenses against God’s law. The church at Corinth observed the Lord’s Supper in a sinful manner by tolerating immorality, divisions, and partiality and contempt among the members. Therefore, God visited some of them with sickness and others with death (1 Cor. 11:30). Both the Greek text and the context suggest that their failure was not so much a failure to recognize Christ’s presence, to “discern the body,” as it was a failure of discipline, to “judge the body” (1 Cor. 11:29). In any case, there is a direct connection between the Corinthian church’s toleration of sinful behavior and God’s judgment upon them.
Jesus rebuked churches that disobeyed his command to exercise church discipline faithfully. He admonished the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira because they neglected church discipline (Rev. 2:14-15, 20). The Pergamum church tolerated those who held the “teaching of Balaam” and others who held the “teaching of the Nicolaitans.” The Thyatira church tolerated a false prophetess. He commanded them to repent, which could only be accomplished by church discipline. We do not know to what extent they repented of these sins of failure to discipline. However, we do know that Jesus did ultimately judge these churches by abandoning them.
IF WE REFUSE TO REPENT…
If our churches refuse to repent of tolerating unrepentant sin among our members, we can expect judgment. Therefore, let us presume no longer upon the Lord’s mercy. Let us consider well what the Lord’s reproof of the Sardis church in Revelations 3:1-3 means for our churches:
I know your works. You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Wake up and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
At that hour we will discover that Dagg was right.