The Village Church, a Southern Baptist mega-church in the Dallas area, recently disciplined a woman who had her marriage annulled when she found out that her husband had been looking at child porn. Why would the church do that? Isn’t she the wronged party?
Jonathan Merritt attempts to make sense of church discipline in his two-part piece, “Shepherds, Shamers, and Shunners: The Rise of Church Discipline in America.” It would be nice for those unacquainted with church discipline to understand the renewed interest that some Southern Baptist churches have for the practice, but unfortunately, Merritt never fulfills the promise of his title. He doesn’t explain the rise of anything.
Merritt notes that the 9Marks movement has helped promote church discipline, and he mentions the book written by 9Marks editorial director Jonathan Leeman.
Jonathan Leeman is author of “Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus” and editorial director of 9 Marks, a Washington D.C.-based ministry that believes rigorous church discipline is one of the nine central components that comprise a “biblical church.” He says that if a church member is found to be participating in unrepentant, outward, and significant sins, the congregation should enact discipline. This may include excommunication or public disclosure of their situation, but usually it only requires personally confronting the sinner.
Nice use of scare quotes around “biblical church,” by the way.
If one isn’t familiar with the topic, Merritt’s piece might lead you to believe that Leeman and 9Marks invented the idea of church discipline. Yes, 9Marks has done much to promote the idea of church discipline in America, but they root their definition in Jesus’s teachings.
In Matthew 18, Jesus says:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Why didn’t Merritt cite these verses? I can only assume that they don’t fit the narrative that he’s trying to craft. These few verses out of Matthew go a long way toward explaining what churches like The Village Church are attempting to do. I say “attempting” because sometimes churches do a poor job—which is Merritt’s next point.
He claims that proponents of church discipline often end up abusing and shaming people in the congregation. He mentions Mark Driscoll’s recent woes and then jumps to the Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition—a most unhelpful historical summary of the rise of church discipline in America.
Let me point out that the Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition were actually state-sponsored tragedies. They are not actually church discipline at all. Religious persecution, sure. Church discipline, no. You get the Spanish Inquisition when the state uses the Church for political benefit. The fact that Merritt brings up these two examples shows that he doesn’t understand what’s going on.
Baptists were the original separation-of-church-and-state people in America. They resisted state coercion, and they loved that “wall of separation” that would keep the government out of their affairs. They tended to manage those affairs in a democratic fashion.
Merritt is concerned that church leaders are abusing their authority in many cases of church discipline, but in the traditional Baptist understanding of discipline, the leaders don’t have that much authority. If one wants to understand the 9Marks model of church discipline, then one needs to understand the Baptist traditions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Authority rested with the congregation, and the congregation operated in a democratic fashion. I commend Gregory Wills’s Democratic Religion to anyone who might be interested in how nineteenth-century Baptists organized themselves.
This democratic bent wasn’t merely expressed in church discipline. It was expressed in Baptists’ conception of membership as a whole. One isn’t born into a Baptist church, and someone can’t join without the church’s consent. The congregation must vote to let the member in. This vote has become a formality in some Baptist churches, but 9Marks encourages congregations to take it seriously. In the same way, a member of a Baptist church doesn’t just leave. Traditionally there were only two ways out of a Baptist church—death or the congregation votes you out. This discharge could be either honorable or dishonorable. One’s membership in a Baptist church isn’t voluntary.
These Baptist features make their form of church discipline different in character from other Christian groups. Those groups who baptize infants think about membership in a decidedly different manner. Those groups who invest authority into some form of hierarchy will wield authority in a very different manner. When Merritt compares Baptist discipline to the Spanish Inquisition, he fails to acknowledge these features, which Baptists claim are the things that keep discipline from becoming abusive.
Of course, oftentimes Baptist churches don’t practice discipline well. Sometimes discipline does become abusive, and sometimes leaders aren’t ready for the problems that crop up in their congregations. Unfortunately, Baptist leaders in democratic churches sometimes slip into lording over their congregations, rather than recognizing that the congregation wields authority in the name of Jesus.
The pastors of The Village Church publicly apologized for mishandling their latest instance of church discipline. They were dealing with a sensitive and difficult situation, and though their actions might have made things more difficult, they ultimately hoped for restoration. Merritt and many other voices want to know why they did what they did. It’s not a mystery really. They were trying to follow Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18 as interpreted by their Baptist forebears.
Collin Garbarino is assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University.