Church Discipline – Its Importance
Anyone who will make a careful examination of the state of our churches will be astonished at the low degree of spirituality which they manifest. This is owing, among other causes, to the laxity which they display in church discipline, and the leniency with which they regard the errors of those who lay themselves open to the punitive power of the church.
It has been customary, among certain classes of Christians, to deny to the church the possession of this power. But such assertions are made in utter disregard of the language in which Christ authorized his disciples to bind and to loose, and in which he asserted that their action should be regarded as his, and should be so far sanctioned as to be accompanied by like action on his part, as well as in disregard of the recorded action of the apostolic churches. The causes which have led to this assertion, so contrary to Scripture, are the same, in reality, though carried to a greater extent, as those which have led to the laxity with regard to exercising it, by those by whom it is allowed, that it is possessed and should be exercised by the church. It arises chiefly from the too great worldly conformity of the church, and from a feeling of unwillingness to blame others when we are ourselves liable to error. The latter feeling is legitimate, but, if it be accompanied by the conduct previously mentioned, it is evident it must lead us to a too great indulgence of others and thus to an abandonment of discipline to the utter ruin of the church. And we cannot but think that it is because exactly this course of conduct prevails and produces its effect upon those possessing the feelings here indicated, that the churches generally are in so low a spiritual condition. Under these circumstances, we maybe excused for mentioned two or three of the reasons which make the exercise of this discipline important.
1. First, and most obviously, it is necessary for the purification of the visible church. The true church is subjected to a different kind of purification, that of the Spirit, which works within us both to will and to do, according to his good pleasure. And were the visible church confined to the true church, so would it be there. But such never has been, and never can be the case. Even in the days of the apostles men were baptized into the church who had to be excommunicated from it. And no one need be told that if excommunication be a rare thing in our day, it is not because the condition of the church forbids it. Now it is manifestly essential that, so far as we can judge, the purity of the church should be maintained; otherwise, she cannot glorify God. A church of inconsistent members is the laughing-stock of the world. It is composed of persons whose character is the very opposite of that which Christ has declared to be that of his disciples. They give no evidences of the transforming power of the Spirit. They give no exemplification of the blessedness of obedience to the precepts of Christ. And hence the need of its purification. All the purposes to be subserved by the existence of a church fail to be subserved by the existence of such a church, and hence the necessity for exercising such discipline as shall lead it to subserve those purposes.
2. Another reason equally true, though not so obvious, is that the exercise of discipline leads to the advancement of personal piety among the members of the church. Strange as it may seem it is not less true that the disciples of Christ need every inducement which can be brought to bear upon them for their increase in holiness. The many motives to be found in God’s Word, and in his providential dealings, are all necessary; and among these, church discipline stands prominent. In proportion to the strictness with which it is exercised, will ever be the want of worldly conformity on the part of the church. In proof of this, we need but look at different churches. Those who are most strict, are universally filled with the most vital piety. One reason for this is that thus the members are enabled to know their duty. The high standard of excellence which is placed before them is aimed at, and in aiming thus high, they are constantly advancing in piety. It is a well known peculiarity of our nature, that by every action we tend to form or destroy habits. By that course of conduct, therefore, by which we may destroy evil habits, and form good ones, we are constantly led to increased holiness; and the church discipline which prevents sin, in so doing tends to holiness. By furnishing a restraint from the one, it gives an assistant towards the other; and hence it is that in like manner as those persons make the greatest advancement in piety who keep a watch upon themselves, so will those churches make similar advance which keep the strictest watch over their members; exercising discipline to cut off the dead branches, or to prune, in order to produce greater vitality, those branches which need the knife.
3. Another reason for exercising church discipline is that thus only can the church be led to perform the glorious work of evangelizing the world. Not only is it true that to none but a holy church will the Holy Spirit be given as an assistant, and as a consequence of this, it could have no success; but the want of obedience to Christ’s will in minor matters, and of conformity to his example in ordinary life, will prevent obedience to him with respect to those commands which require the exercise of self-denial, and the putting forth of earnest and continued effort, and conformity to an example so far above that which man can attain, without divine assistance, as to give of itself sufficient proof of the discipleship of him who thus conforms.
Such are a few suggestions showing the importance of church discipline. Their object will be attained if, because of them, the churches in our State shall be led to remember and to meditate upon it. Could it be exercised throughout our church with the constancy and strictness that marked them in days gone by, we might look with assurance for similar spirituality in the church; and for additional efficiency in its present and future efforts for Christ.
James Petigru Boyce (1827-1888) studied at Princeton under Charles Hodge and was the first president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From the Southern Baptist February 18, 1852.
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