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Bill Clinton and the Discipline of our Churches

Tom Ascol

He is guilty. By his own, sworn (albeit reluctant) testimony the President of the United States has admitted being dishonest and sexually immoral. Regardless of what legal consequences ultimately follow, this whole sad episode is proving to be an indictment on the nation.

In the words of 1996 presidential candidate, Bob Dole, "Where is the outrage?" Poll after poll indicates that Mr. Clinton continues to receive high marks from the American people. As long as the economy is good and the mortgage rate is low, what difference does it make if the President is an admitted adulterer and bold-faced liar? As a nation, we have forgotten how to blush.

When a people loose their sense of shame, everything becomes acceptable. Decency vanishes and, consequently, nothing can be considered indecent. Conscience, Calvin said, is "the fountain of modesty."[1] And the foundation of a good conscience is a proper fear of God. What our cultural immodesty and public acceptance of presidential infidelity clearly reveal is that, as a society, we have fallen under the biblical charge that "there is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:18).

This is not a new thought for most conservative evangelicals. Our nation's moral mudslide has been increasingly apparent for the last three decades. What is not so apparent but even more serious is the moral failure of evangelical churches at this crucial stage of our nation's history.

That a nation which has been built on the rule of law would wink when its highest elected official violates his own marriage covenant is a shame and tragedy. But when an evangelical church which is founded on the Word of God allows one of its members to do so without correction, it is scandalous. At least it ought to be. Yet, in the unfolding saga of Mr. Clinton's sexual immorality and deceit, both nation and church stand guilty.

Mr. Clinton is a member in good standing of a Southern Baptist church back in his home state of Arkansas. The pastor of that church has publicly stated that no formal steps of rebuke or correction will be taken with respect to the exposed conduct of the church's most famous member.

Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, has called that church to exercise biblically mandated discipline over Mr. Clinton. Charges of violating "the separation of church and state" and "the autonomy of the local church" have been leveled against Dr. Mohler in the wake of his proper encouragement of the Arkansas church to obey Christ's clear teaching.

Mark Wingfield, editor of the Kentucky Baptist Western Recorder, speaks for many on the left wing of Baptist life when he ignorantly accuses Mohler's call with being "not only arrogant" but also "against the Baptist doctrine of the autonomy of the local church." Further, Wingfield charges, such a call "crosses the line from a free church tradition to a hyper-hierarchical church tradition."

It is a good thing that Wingfield is not teaching Baptist history anywhere (though one suspects that his revisionistic, reductionstic views on that subject are little more than a reflection of what has been widely taught on that subject for much of this century). Even a cursory reading of old Baptist associational minutes would reveal that the giving and receiving of exhortations were common practice among the churches. Circular letters by various ministers often addressed pressing issues of the day and called on churches to take specific actions. It was not uncommon for associations of churches to call on other associations to take what was judged to be a beneficial course of action.

One example of this is found in 1807 on the occasion of the republication of John Gill's commentary. The Philadelphia Association called on each church to purchase a copy of this work for its minister and encouraged other "sister Associations" to do the same. The Charleston Association did just that and advised each of its churches to provide a copy of this commentary for its minister.[2] No one screamed "violation of local church autonomy" or made wild charges of an encroaching "hyper-hierarchical church tradition" because they understood far better then than we commonly do now the true nature of Baptist polity.

It is quite proper for Baptists to call on one another to take steps which will result in greater godliness and which will enable their churches to follow Christ more closely. This is all that Al Mohler has done.

The executive board of the Pulaski Baptist Association evidently misunderstands this in light of a resolution which they have recently passed. According to an ABP report, the resolution declares its support of Mr. Clinton's church and pastor "in allowing to conduct their ministry as they see fit under the direction of God's Holy Spirit." It further states that "no one outside that congregation has the right, nor the privilege, of trying to coerce" the church to do otherwise.

But Al Mohler has not stood as a pope nor pretended to speak ex cathedra. There were no threats, no assertion of any sort of ecclesiastical authority. He simply called on one church to do what every church which bears the name of Christ is obligated to do, namely, to obey our Lord's teachings which are spelled out step-by-step in the Holy Bible which God's Holy Spirit inspired. Jesus said:

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:15-18, NKJV).

Other passages, of course, also instruct churches in handling wayward members (Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-8, Titus 3:10-11, etc.). But this is only one side of the kind of discipline which the Bible spells out for disciples of Christ. Before there can be any ground for correction, there must first be positive formation.

Formative discipline must be recovered before corrective discipline can be legitimately practiced in a church. The first type involves a careful use of all of the God-ordained means in promoting genuine godliness among every church member. Thus, churches must insist that the Word of God is preached with simplicity and application. Members are to be taught--and should be expected to practice--the principles of holy living. Where this takes place the members will become increasingly "formed" by the Word of God and healthy spiritual growth will become the norm in a congregation. In such situations, corrective discipline (at least in its final form of removing a member from the church) will rarely be necessary.

Those who do not demonstrate a real, saving relationship with Christ and who show no interest in growing spiritually have no business being received into a church's membership. This is not a false idealism nor an argument for perfection in Christians. Rather, it is a simple recognition that where there is life, there will be at least some demonstration of it. The church is made up of living stones. As Baptists have long argued on the basis of the New Testament, an essential qualification for church membership is regeneration. Spiritual fruit cannot be cultivated where there is no spiritual life. What does not exist cannot be "formed" or shaped.

Thus, before corrective discipline can ever be restored to our churches formative discipline must begin. Most fundamentally, a church must begin to exercise care in how it receives members. Where such care has long been neglected, there must be instruction on the biblical standards for church membership.

John Dagg, a prominent nineteenth-century Southern Baptist theologian emphasized this point in his Treatise on Church Order. He wrote,

The churches are not infallible judges, being unable to search the heart; but they owe it to the cause of Christ, and to the candidate himself, to exercise the best judgment of which they are capable. To receive any one on a mere profession of words, without any effort to ascertain whether he understands and feels what he professes, is unfaithfulness to his interests, and the interests of religion.[3]

When the unregenerate are not only allowed but encouraged to join the church simply on the basis of a recited prayer, raised hand, firm handshake, completed decision card, or any other superficial method of spurious evangelism, they themselves are spiritually misled, the church is seriously weakened, and the cause of Christ generally in undermined. Yet this is precisely what has happened for more than a generation in thousands of our churches.

The results, as measured repeatedly by various statistical analyses, are grievous. In the Southern Baptist Convention over one-half of the members in our churches never even attend one of our stated services of prayer or worship. The 1996 North American Mission Board research report entitled, A Large Convention of Small Churches, discovered that in the typical Southern Baptist Church only 30 percent of the total membership actually show up for worship on Sunday morning. Imagine going to war and having only 30 percent of your troops show up! Where the number of members exceeds the number of attenders the church is spiritually sick. There is great need of formative discipline.

This provides an important context for the actions of the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention which met in Salt Lake City, Utah. A resolution was brought to the floor calling on Congress to nullify a pro-homosexual executive order by President Clinton. A motion to amend the resolution by adding a call to Mr. Clinton's church to "prayerfully consider" disciplining him barely failed by a vote of 1,071 to 1005.

Certainly, the spirit of the amendment was right and proper. Even its essence was appropriate. But how can 1,071 messengers vote to call on one church to exercise discipline when every indication is that the overwhelming majority of their own churches do not practice it? Just as Bill Clinton has no moral authority to call for honesty and integrity in our land, neither does the Southern Baptist Convention (and evangelicals as a whole) have any ground to call upon any single church to do what the great majority of its churches refuse to do.

The failure of Mr. Clinton's church to lovingly help him by confronting his sin in the way that Jesus has prescribed is certainly an indictment on that congregation and its leaders. But it is also an indictment on every Bible believing church which, for whatever reason, fails to practice biblical church discipline.

The national events of the past several months should serve as a wake-up call to every evangelical church in the nation. Each one is a part of a church culture which has come to tolerate sin--even open and flagrant sin--and ignore clear teachings of Scripture. What is needed is genuine repentance on the part of pastors and church members--repentance over lowering the biblical standards of church membership; over turning a blind eye to open sin in the church; over not loving the brethren enough to confront and correct; and over simple disobedience to our Lord's commands to His church.

What difference does it make if we have an inerrant Bible but blatantly refuse to put into practice its teachings? Christ is not honored when our affirmations of orthodoxy are not matched by actions of orthopraxy. May He have mercy on us all and enable us to repent and to recover His forgotten instructions on church discipline.

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