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Fifty Years Among the Baptists
By David Benedict

Appendix Miscellaneous Articles

Chapter 29

ON CHURCH DISCIPLINE

THE DISCIPLINE OF THE DUTCH ANABAPTISTS. MY EARLY ADVISERS. MY OWN MS. ON CHURCH DISCIPLINE. A. FULLER ON THE DISCIPLINE OF THE PRIMITIVE CHURCHES. FIVE WORKS COME OUT NEAR THE SAME TIME BY BAKER, WALKER, JOHNSON, HOWELL, AND CROWELL. REMARKS ON THE EIGHTEENTH OF MATTHEW, ON COUNCILS, THE DESPOTISM OF THE MAJORITY, AND ON BAPTIST USAGE.

THIS is a subject to which I have paid no small degree of attention for a long course of years, My first object was to ascertain just what precepts or examples I could find in the Scriptures pertaining to this business, and in the next place to examine the principal works of our own writers upon it. While this class of men, except Robinson, whose writings have been so freely quoted in the last two chapters, have published but little on preachers and preaching, they have devoted no small amount of labor in discussing the proper management of our churches.

The oldest comments I have found on church discipline, date back about three hundred years. They are contained in the old Dutch Martyrology or Martyr's Mirror. There I discovered that the people called Anabaptists, were very strenuous on two points,
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namely, against their members marrying out of the church, and having no intercourse with excommunicated members. The strictly non-intercourse system they called avoidance, by which they practiced to the literality, the apostles' doctrine, with such a one no not to eat. But as they were very faithful in their church discipline, and in the exclusion of unworthy members, in process of time complaints came from some quarters, that the rigid rule of separation interfered with the domestic relations of husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, masters and servants, and other social connections. These representations led to a church action which afforded relief to those who wished to embrace it.

In my early day we had no theological schools and tutors for young ministers in the business of preaching and pastoral duties, but they picked up their information by conversing and corresponding with their elder brethren and following their examples. My principal advisers were Gano, Pitman, Cornel,* Baldwin, Grafton, Stanford, J. Williams, Rogers, Staughton, O.B. Brown, Furman, Mercer, Dudly, Noel, J. M. Peck, of the West, J. Peck, of New York, and others. These men were spread all over the country,
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* From Elder C. I heard the story of hush, hush hush, which will appear in the chapter on a model church and a model pastor.
[p. 388]
but as I became a cosmopolite in early life, I was a neighbor to them all.

Our lay brotherhood, also, in the times now under consideration, more frequently probably than at present, took a deep interest in the rules and regulations of our churches. Of these I shall only name Deacons Loring and Lincoln of Boston, the last of whom, now an octogenarian, is the only one that survives of the above list of my familiar advisers, fifty years ago. He was in Dr. Baldwin's deaconship when I first knew him, and by the line of succession I have marked out he might retain the office to the utmost bound of human longevity.

My rules do not permit me to say much of able counselors among our living men.

At an early period I made diligent search among the writings of our British brethren, especially those in Wales, where Baptist sentiments, it is generally believed, have been nourished through all the dark ages, for information on the subject of church discipline. I examined the most ancient confessions of faith; but I found them almost wholly confined to what Morgan Edwards would term the credenda rather than the agenda, of the Baptists; that is, the things to be believed, more than the things to be done.

The oldest and most laborious article I have found on this subject was from the pen of Rev. Benjamin
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Griffith, of Pennsylvania. It was prepared at the request of the Philadelphia Association. It is a treatise of forty pages of small size, and is bound up with the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, as it is usually called, which is a reprint of that published in London more than a century before. It was printed by Benjamin Franklin while he was a Philadelphia printer. The document agrees very nearly with similar ones published by the ancient Baptists in Bohemia, Poland and Holland.

"Of Ruling Elders," is at the head of one of the sections of this treatise, the practice of having church officers of this kind then being common in that region.

Among my own papers, I find one "On Church Discipline," dated 1826. It appears to be the rough draft of an essay which was read before a Ministers' Meeting. Among the greatest defects of our churches at that time, according to the document under consideration, were,

1. The want of more strictness in the duties of personal and family religion, and of pious instruction to children and domestics;
2. Of more faithfulness in following the directions of the 18th of Matthew, relative to private offenses, whereby an abundance of extra trouble came upon the churches;
[p. 390]
3. Of plain dealing with erring church members;
4. Of procrastination and hurtful delays in instituting church dealings with such members, under the false plea of patience and charity;
5. Of more frequent, friendly, old-fashioned, Christian intercourse, and familiarity with each other, in consequence of which coldness and distance ensue;
6. Of liberality in contributing to the support of the gospel at home and abroad;
7. Of giving more explicit instructions to new members at first, and of enforcing obedience to them afterwards. Such were my views of the state of church discipline among the Baptists one third of a century since; and it is to be feared they have not made much improvement in the business since.

Fuller on Church Discipline
A number of years prior to the date of my short essay, there came over from England, a small treatise on The Discipline of the Primitive Churches, by Andrew Fuller, which was well received by the American Baptists, a few extracts from which I will here insert:

"When the apostles, by the preaching of the word, had gathered in many places, a sufficient number of individuals to the faith of Christ, it was their uniform practice, for the further promotion of his kingdom in
[p. 391]
that place, to form them into a religious society or Christian church. Being thus associated in the name of Christ, divine worship was carried on, Christian ordinances observed, holy discipline maintained, and the word of life, as the light by the golden candlesticks, exhibited. Among them, our Lord Jesus Christ, as the High Priest of our profession, is represented as walking; observing the good, and applauding it; pointing out the evil, and censuring it; and holding up life and immortality to those who should overcome the temptations of the present state.

"Let us suppose him to walk amongst our several churches, and to address us, as he addressed the seven churches in Asia. We trust he would find some things to approve; but we are also apprehensive that he would find many things to censure. Let us then look narrowly into the discipline of the primitive churches, and compare ours with it.

"By discipline, however, we do not mean to include the whole of the order of a Christian church; but shall, at this time, confine our attention to that part of the church government which consists in a mutual watch over one another, and the conduct we are directed to pursue in cases of disorder.

"There is often a party found in a community, who, under the name of tenderness, are for neglecting all wholesome discipline; or, if this can not be
[p. 392]
accomplished, for delaying it to the utmost. Such persons are commonly called the advocates for disorderly walkers, especially if they be their particular friends or relations. Their language is, 'He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.' 'My brother hath fallen to-day, and I may fall to-morrow.'

This spirit, though it exists only in individuals, provided they be persons of any weight or influence, is frequently known to impede the due execution of the laws of Christ; and if it pervade the community, will soon reduce it to the lowest state of degeneracy.

"In opposing the extreme of false tenderness, others are in danger of falling into unfeeling severity. This spirit will make the worst of every thing, and lead men to convert the censures of the church into weapons of private revenge. Persons of this description know not of what manner of spirit they are. They lose sight of the good of the offender. It is not love that operates in them; for love worketh no evil. The true medium between these extremes, is a union of mercy and truth. Genuine mercy is combined with faithfulness, and genuine faithfulness with mercy; and this is the only spirit that is likely to purge iniquity.*

"Connivance will produce indifference, and undue
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* Proverbs 16:6.
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severity will arm the offender with prejudice, and so harden him in sin. But the love of God, and of our brother's soul, are adapted to answer every good end.

"And if we love the soul of our brother, we shall say, 'He is fallen to-day, and I will reprove him for his good. I may fall to-morrow, and then let him deal the same with me.' LOVE is the grand secret of church discipline, and will do more than all other things put together, towards ensuring success.

"Finally, a watchful eye upon the state of the church, and of particular members, with a seasonable interposition, may do more towards the preservation of good order, than all other things put together. Discourage whisperings, backbitings and jealousies. Frown on tale-bearers, and give no ear to their tales. Nip contentions in the bud. Adjust differences in civil matters among yourselves. Bring together, at an early period, those in whom misconception and distrust have begun to operate, ere an ill opinion ripen into settled dislike. By a frank and timely explanation, in the presence of a common friend, that may be healed in an hour, which, if permitted to proceed, a series of years can not eradicate.

"The free circulation of the blood, and the proper discharge of all the animal functions, are not more necessary to the health of the body, than good discipline is to the prosperity of a community, If it were
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duly considered how much the general interests of religion, and even the salvation of men, may be affected by the purity and harmony of Christian churches, we should tremble at the idea of their being interrupted by us."

In this country, in the course of five years, from 1842 to 1847, there came out as many works on the proper management of our church concerns. The authors of them are still alive. Their names are J. BAKER, W. WALKER, W. B. JOHNSON, R. B. C. HOWELL and W. CROWELL. All these men, except Mr. WALKER, have the title of D. D. affixed to their names. BAKER, then in Georgia, and JOHNSON, in South Carolina, are both now in Florida; WALKER, then in Homer, New York, is now in Elgin, Illinois; HOWELL was in Nashville, Tennessee; and CROWELL, then in Boston, is now in St. Louis, Missouri.*

All these works are now before me. HOWELL'S book, to which reference has already been had, is wholly devoted to the deaconship. The others treat of the matters of church discipline, generally, in a more or less copious manner. Each one has suggested some new ideas, and given some new directions as to the best manner of performing this important business. There are some diversities in the rules and regulations
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* I am not aware that any other of our men have written on this subject of late years, except in our papers, and other periodical works.


[p. 395]
which they prescribe; but they all unite in representing a Baptist church as a very plain affair; that it is a self-acting, independent, religious body, which owes no allegiance to either prince or prelate; and that it is very easily managed, when right principles are adopted and proper measures are pursued. They all agree with our famous English divine, lately quoted, that "the free circulation of the blood," etc., "is not more necessary to the health of the body, than a good discipline to the prosperity of a Christian church."

Our men, above named, have pointed out very clearly the importance of nipping difficulties in the bud, and that, where this is done, corrective measures will less frequently be needful. Also, that churches, like armies and families, may be said to be well disciplined, not when punishments are often inflicted, but when, by due care and faithfulness, they are seldom required.

The rule laid down in the 18th of Matthew, for the treatment of private offenses, has always been strongly insisted upon by all our writers on church discipline. To this rule my own attention was called at an early period of my pastoral charge, which was gathered under my youthful ministry, by seeing how prone many of my people were to introduce their troubles with each other, in an informal manner; and,
[p. 396]
also, from witnessing the embarrassments which followed this unscriptural practice.

And now, late in life, my conviction is very strong, that by far the greatest portion of cases of discipline in our churches, grow out of the complaints of church members against each other, partly by offensive words, but mostly on account of disagreements in their secular concerns. And, furthermore, I am most fully persuaded that these churches, as a general thing, experience more embarrassment and perplexity in their discipline, and suffer more alienations and divisions, by permitting their members to introduce their complaints in an informal and unscriptural manner, than from all other causes put together.

"No personal offense," says Fuller, "ought to be admitted before a church, till the precept of Christ has been first complied with by the party or parties concerned."

In former times, if, by inattention or mismanagement, a case of this kind got into a church wrong-end foremost, instead of attempting to manage it in that position, our best disciplinarians among the ministers and laymen would enter a nol. pros., as lawyers would say, that is, a stay of proceedings, and insist on the complaining party following the gospel rule. "Let him come to me and confess," is the common language
[p. 397]
of offended members. "Your Master has told you to go to him, says CROWELL.

In some cases we are obliged to spell out our duty by inference and construction. Here, we have plain directions from the Head of the church himself. He could foresee, for all time, the liabilities of his people to trespass against each other, either by indiscretions of speech, or in their various worldly transactions. And he has left an explicit rule for them to go by. One of his chief apostles has recorded it in his own code of laws, and there it stands, for the guidance of his churches in all parts, and in all ages of the world.

On Councils generally, and among the Baptists
Cart loads of books have been written on the history of these bodies, from the early ages up to the Council of Trent, which was held about three centuries since, and was the last great convocation of the kind. For many ages the popes were fond of great councils, and were pleased to have them convene, as they found them good auxiliaries to the support of the power of the papacy, especially in their persecuting measures against the Waldenses and other reputed heretics. The members of these bodies, of old, generally talked one language; but at length, and especially in that of Trent, there was a good deal of sharp-shooting among the delegates from different quarters;
[p. 398]
and the reformation of THE church, in its head, and in its members, was too strongly insisted on to be pleasing to his Holiness. I think there is no probability of another general council ever being called.

I have examined as many ponderous volumes as a strong man would want to carry, on the history of all councils, but mostly those of Constance and Trent, of which I shall give some account in my ecclesiastical compendium.

For a few centuries after the apostolic age, they had councils twice a year, in the spring and in the fall; but so contentious did they at length become, that one of the Fathers resolved that he would never attend another.

The main business attended to in these semi-annual gatherings, was to settle the difficulties of bishops and churches with each other.*

In my early experience among the Baptists, small councils, for the settlement of church difficulties, were much more common than at the present time. In
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* When the first general council met at Nice, in Bythinia, 325, composed of more than three hundred bishops, bundles of documents of the kind above referred to, were handed in to Constantine, then newly converted to Christianity, and who acted a conspicuous part in this great Convocation. But the emperor, instead of examining them, threw them all into the fire, and advised the complaining bishops to go about the main business of the meeting, which was to settle the Arian controversy, then a very troublesome thing.
[p. 399}
some cases they were called to canvass very small affairs.

To call a council was then the first idea, when feeble churches found knotty questions, or impracticable members among them. I find from Backus' old papers that he was often called upon to take part, and commonly to preside in the small local councils which were convened on account of individual members, ministers, or churches.

I approve of councils for all the different purposes for which the Baptists have been accustomed to convene them, if they are not clothed with undue power, but are held to their advisory character, according to the old Baptist doctrine on this subject. But when these self-constituted tribunals assume a controlling influence, and, most of all, when they continue their sessions, by adjournment, at pleasure, they become ecclesiastical institutions, which are at variance with Baptist usage.

We have no regular custom of appealing from the decisions of our individual churches to any higher power, as the Presbyterians have; but the doctrine of absolute church independence has always been a favorite one with our people. Under it they have greatly flourished, and very few have complained of its operation. In some cases, however, in times of high excitement, there is danger of so far running
[p. 400]
this principle up to seed, as to go over to what some have termed, the despotism of the majority. And here an aggrieved member, to whom a mutual council is denied, has no remedy, but in an ex parte one. If he fails in this, he must remain without church fellowship, or else unite with some other party, where he will generally find a welcome home.

For our own churches to receive members who have been excommunicated from sister communities, while remaining as such, has been considered hitherto contrary to Baptist usage. But for some time past, my apprehensions have been very strong, that amidst the many excitements of the times, and the post facto laws of many of our churches, this custom will more and more prevail, unless our people show more favor to ex parte councils, for advice in hard cases of excommunication, than they have hitherto done.

There is one kind of councils, namely, for the dismission of pastors, which are seldom, if ever, held by the Baptists; while they are very precise to this practice, when they settle them. Amidst the great instability of our pastors of late years, I have sometimes thought whether, we had not better follow the practice of some of our neighbors in this business. We should, in this way, learn more of the whys and the wherefores of ministerial changes, if we could not prevent them.
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Again, if a change of this kind is about to be made, on account of a very few members, it is a serious question with me, whether this few had not better change their church relation, and let the pastor remain. Some more explicit views of church discipline will appear in the chapter on a model church and a model pastor.
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[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 386-401. -- jrd]



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