Southern Baptists and Church Discipline -- By: Gregory A. Wills

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 04:4 (Winter 2000)
Article: Southern Baptists and Church Discipline
Author: Gregory A. Wills


Southern Baptists and Church Discipline

Gregory A. Wills

Gregory A. Wills is Assistant Professor of Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of the highly acclaimed Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority and Church Discipline in the Baptist South, 1785–1900 (Oxford University Press, 1996).

For more than twenty years voting majorities at the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention have endorsed a “conservative” platform based on a commitment to the inerrancy of the scriptures. They have rejected the “moderate” platform based on freedom and toleration. The argument was not theoretical. The question at stake was whether the convention had authority to establish doctrinal boundaries—to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy as a condition of service as a trustee or employee of the convention’s boards and seminaries. When convention majorities voted in favor of inerrancy, they asserted that the convention had authority to judge religious beliefs in its appointments.

In our churches, however, we demonstrate considerable ambivalence toward asserting such authority. We want to make certain that our missionaries and seminary professors are orthodox in faith and pure in behavior, but we tolerate much lower standards in our churches. Pastors, missionaries, and teachers are rightly held to higher standards. But our churches falter in enforcing New Testament standards of church membership. Once persons have prayed the sinner’s prayer and submitted to immersion, their membership is secure in most churches for as long as they wish to remain a member—usually longer.

Most of our churches do not wish to tolerate sin and heresy. In many churches immoral members receive attention from the pastor and other leaders. The leaders put them through counseling and remove them from committees and public roles. But immorality and heresy rarely jeopardize membership. Churches in practice deny their authority to judge the belief and behavior of individual members. This was not always the case. Before the twentieth century Baptist churches in the South exercised strict authority over the behavior and belief of their individual members. They expressed this authority primarily in the practice of church discipline.

Baptist Church Discipline in the Nineteenth-Century South

In 1806 William Barnes became estranged from some of the members of the Savannah First Baptist Church and requested letters of dismission in order that he and his family might join another church. The church believed that Barnes had neglected his religious duties and charged him with “continued absence from the church, and from the Table of the Lord, at our communion.” Pastor Henry Holcombe advised the church to deal wit...

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