Last week I posted about preaching on the church during a series of “Revival” meetings, arguing that if we truly want to see revival we must begin with the church. I also commented on preaching on church discipline in one of the services. While in my experience it seems church discipline would be the least likely topic considered for such a setting, it seemed to me to be one of the most obvious topics once I thought about it. I remembered hearing that a return to discipline in churches in the past had at times been a precursor to revival. So I went back to Greg Wills’s excellent book Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900and found the quotes below. Before going to the quotes, however, let me earnestly recommend this book. It is very readable and provides many useful insights to our current church situation.
This first quote makes the point in and of itself:
“Pastor T.H. Stout took the occasion of a revival to inculcate the doctrine [of church discipline]. The members of Bethel Baptist Church became zealous for discipline and excluded two offenders. Stout recounted the result:
Very soon, a perceptible improvement was seen in the church. Brethren began to take up their crosses. They met and conversed on the condition of Zion, confessing and bewailing their coldness. Brethren, discipline is the life of our churches. We have no right to look for the blessing of our precious Savior unless we ‘come out from the world.’ Be ‘ye separate,’ says God. . . . May not many of our churches be incurring the displeasure of the ‘Great Head of the Church’ by laxity of discipline? During July… the church was greatly revived. . . . Quite a number of brethren prayed [publicly] who had never done so before. . . . Twenty-four were added to the church; 12 by experience and baptism, and 12 by letter…
Discipline brought revival.” (p. 36)
Then, these other quotes I also found helpful:
“Through discipline, they would, moreover, sweep the nation, for they believed that God rewarded faithful pruning by raining down revival.” (p. 8)
“After the Civil War, Baptist observers began to lament that church discipline was foundering, and it was. It declined partly because it became more burdensome in larger churches…. Urban churches, pressed by the need for large buildings and the desire for refined music and preaching, subordinated church discipline to the task of keeping the church solvent. Many Baptists shared a new vision of the church, replacing the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency. They lost the resolve to purge their churches of straying members.” (p. 9)
“Baptists saw discipline as a source of spiritual revival. A church with no discipline was no church. ‘When discipline leaves a church,’ Baptist theologian John L. Dagg contended, ‘Christ goes with it.'” (p. 33)
“Mississippi Baptist Elias Hibbard, who worried about excessive discipline, conceded its benefits: ‘I am aware that discipline when exercised in a proper manner is the life of our churches, and often precedes the blessings of the Almighty.'” (p. 34)
“Even with ‘the elegant preaching and eloquent prayers and the splendid appearances,’ Baptists reasoned, ‘no church can prosper spiritually if there is no discipline. . . nothing is more essential to church prosperity than the maintenance of faithful discipline.'” (p. 35)
“one of the churches that [Jesse] Mercer planted continued to intone that ‘correct discipline is the life of the Church, without it the Church is despised by the world, shorn of its power & will soon fall to pieces.'” (p. 35)
“Mercer believed that ‘most of our church difficulties grow out of neglected church discipline’ or discipline improperly administered.” (p. 35)
These are useful words for our day. Let us affirm the great desire to see renewal in the church in our day. We do indeed long to see God move mightily among His people renewing the church and converting the lost. However, all the talk about this is surely futile (to the point of being silly) if we are not willing to conform ourselves to His word, to take one of the clear steps he has provided us for the pursuit of holiness. The call for a return to church discipline does not (or ought not) arise merely from historic nostalgia, legalism, exclusivism or rash youth but for a desire for the salvation of souls and a renewal of the church- those things which will bring glory to God.