Buzzwords are commonly employed by Christian conference organizers to generate interest and excitement. Passion, thrive, exponential, ignite and catalyst are just a few that one might find emblazoned across banners, T-shirts and promotional materials. There is one phrase, however, that doesn’t often headline such events: church discipline. That unpopular idea is what the 9Marks at Southeastern conference featured as its theme Sept. 25-26 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest, N.C.
“Flattery is unloving, but accurate rebuke is a treasure to be sought,” said Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He delivered the opening message of the two-day conference to nearly 750 attenders in SEBTS’s Binkley Chapel. Dever described church discipline as a loving part of the Christian life. It is both formative and corrective, he added. “Formative discipline is positive, direct teaching where we’re setting out biblical truth. It’s your sermons; it’s your Sunday School classes, it’s the mentoring.”
Dever went on to say, “Corrective discipline would include somebody contradicting, or challenging, or confronting or rebuking.” He appealed to Matthew 18:15-20 to set the foundation for the practice of discipline within a local church. “Our churches should be marked by genuine concern, care and love. Part of that means we want people to repent of their sins,” Dever said.
A line forms to check-in at the 9Marks at Southeastern conference in Wake Forest.
Many Southern Baptist churches do not actively engage in discipline, according to Dever, but he urged pastors not to rush into the practice too hastily if they become convinced of its importance. Instead, he encouraged “patience in shepherding,” offering teaching tips for leading congregations into the biblical practice of church discipline, like encouraging humility and making sure the church understands the significance of membership.
Garrett Kell, lead pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., led the second session, explaining what it means to “create culture of church discipline.” He emphasized God’s intent to save and care for his people, “wishing that none should perish.” Kell then connected God’s love to how church members should care for one another. “The love that Christ has shown you and has shown me is intended to warm our hearts toward wandering sheep,” he said. “We are intended to be little reflections of the Father.”
Kell, like Dever and other conference speakers, referenced Matthew 18:15-20 as the guiding biblical text for the process of church discipline. He explained the three steps of the process: approaching the wayward Christian privately, then with partners and finally confronting them before the whole congregation. Kell added, “A healthy church recognizes that discipline is both normal and necessary.”
SEBTS President Danny Akin opened the third session with a quote from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to sin.” He noted that church discipline is addressed throughout the New Testament, and it is a vital part of ministry, quoting from an American Baptist named John Dagg: “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” Akin explained each verse from 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, noting how unchecked sin cripples a church and how godly correction is rooted in the redemptive work of Christ.
Pastor of the newly planted Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., Thabiti Anyabwile, delivered the fourth message on how to know when church discipline works. He answered the implied question in the two points of his talk: Discipline works when a church (1) feels and when it (2) forgives.
The passage Anyabwile called upon was 2 Corinthians 2:1-11, which is a word of temperance to the Corinthian church after the scandalous case of church discipline against a man committing sexual immorality with his step-mother recorded in 1 Corinthians 5. The congregation allegedly responded too harshly to the sinful practice and failed to forgive the man after he repented. “It’s possible that cases of discipline present the power-hungry or the power-drunk an opportunity to lord it over the church,” said Anyabwile.
He continued, “If we feel like we are against the sinner, if we feel like we are opposed to the brother or sister, that’s reason for us to stop or slow down, and begin a concert of prayer, tarrying in prayer so the Lord would help us to understand that the ones He purchased with His own blood are not be conquered, but to be worked with, to be shepherded, to be nursed along.”
Mez McConnell, director of a church planting ministry in Scotland called 20 Schemes, addressed the topic of dealing with false teachers.
“Wolves,” as the Bible calls them, should be dealt with severely, according to McConnell.
However, he emphasized the need to tell the difference between a new Christian who happens to hold an errant belief – “doctrinal immaturity” – and a false teacher who intentionally seeks to divide a church. “You must discern the difference between ill-informed sheep and ravaging wolves,” said McConnell. “If I disciplined everybody who said anything dumb or unbiblical in my church, I’d have nobody left,” he said, referring to Romans 16:17-18. “But we must act when we come into a knowledge of sinful practice.”
Closing out the conference was Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary and former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss.
Duncan’s self-admitted goal of the talk was threefold: to convince attenders that “the Lord Jesus uses church discipline to cultivate respect, godliness and peace in a congregation.”
Panel discussions accompanied each of the main sessions, reviewing the relevant content and considering in greater detail the topic of each session. Jim Shaddix, who holds the W.A. Criswell Chair of Preaching at SEBTS, moderated a breakfast panel Sept. 26 between Akin and Duncan that featured an in-depth discussion of preaching in the life of a local church.
Conference videos are available online at iamgoi.ng/10p. Next year’s 9Marks at Southeastern conference is scheduled for Sept. 30-Oct. 1 and the theme will be Christian discipleship.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Seth Brown is the content editor for the Biblical Recorder.)