Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Robert Murray M'Cheyne on Church Discipline

Robert Murray M'Cheyne was a 19th century Scottish minister who died at age 29, but not before seeing a great revival in his church located in Dundee. Of his Memoir and Remains, Charles Spurgeon wrote, "This is one of the best and most profitable volumes ever published. Every minister should read it often."

With all of the new and healthy discussion about church discipline we must take care that we do not regard it as a mere academic subject or mechanical procedure. It involves the eternal welfare of souls, the strength and health of the church, and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. I do not think that you will find any who have witnessed the proper exercise of correction discipline to its final step willing to joke about it or dismiss it with a cavalier attitude as some have done in their comments elsewhere on this blog. May the Lord deliver us from treating lightly His intructions in this area.

M'Cheyne's words express my own emotions and experience and are worth pondering.
"When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach. I saw your souls to be so precious, and the time so short, that I devoted all my time, and care, and strength, to labour in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from; and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry among you altogether. But it pleased God, who teaches his servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline. I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God--that two keys are committed to us by Christ, the one the key of doctrine, by means of which we unlock the treasures of the Bible, the other the key of discipline, by which we open or shut the way to the sealing ordinances of the faith. Both are Christ's gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin."

From Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M'Cheyne by Andrew Bonar, pp. 104-5.


Greg B said...

Excellent post! What many don't get, is that discipline is both a commandment of Jesus and the only compassionate way to deal with sin. The other options are merely ways to avoid getting dirty. Tedd Tripp calls counseling and discipline "sticking our fingers into each others putrid little hearts." My paraphrase. This is what the body is supposed to do for the members.
Greg from Powhatan

John Wootten said...

Yes, that was a timely post.

It's important to remember the goal is restoration and fellowship. Not "getting to kick people out" as some have characterized those who support the discipline.

In my own church, we have been blessed in that over numerous exercises of discipline, only one case has required the fullest application of the Lord's teaching.

Chris Bonts said...

I agree whole heartedly with your assessment of taking discipline seriously. I was also glad to see the admonishment against treating this subject as one of pure academics. Lives are at stake! It is both difficult and painful to approach a brother in Christ that is living in sin (knowingly or unknowingly) and confront him on that issue because it cannot be done properly unless you KNOW him. Relationships fractured by sin in the church are no laughing matter.

Pastors in churches that practice discipline properly don't joke about it any more than a loving father laughs when he is forced to discipline his son for disobedience. This blog reminds me of yet another reason why so few churches have disciplined membership: it is hard work.


Ivan said...

Church discipline can be a sticky wicket, but it is necessary at time. John is right when he says that the goal of church discipline is restoration and fellowship. I've never rejoiced at the stumblings of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Quite the contrary, I grieve for them. We have all fallen short of God's standard and we all need to help one another on the way to glorification. The church is a family

I think this is the first time I've posted on this blog, but I have followed it for some time, as well as the Founders Ministries website and I've been involved in the Founders Study Conference too. My good friend is Roger Ellsworth, whom I'm sure many of you know who frequent this blog.

I'm glad this resource is here. Fellowship with likeminded brethren is difficult here in Wisconsin, where I live. I look forward to spending time here for my edification and for fellowship.

May our Lord bless you all.

Greg B said...

Could this be Ivan Parke?

volfan007 said...

robert murray mccheyne was a great man of God. my heart has been blessed by his writings many, many times.

church discipline is hard work, and it should always be done in love and kindness and with lots of wisdom. it ought to be done the scriptural way as well. i agree. but, in the past it has turned into a mean spirited witchhunt many times. let's avoid the desire to want to kick out all those who disagree with the non essentials of the faith.

John said...

Good comments. I think if we can restore even just the concept of church discipline to our churches it will go some way into transforming them to understanding that a church isn't just a religiously oriented social club but, to paraphrase from 1 Timothy, a gymnasium of godliness, a place where we are trained to be more godly.

Aaron L. Turner said...

As a pastor who has, and does practice church discpline, I must say that I have never done so without a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is an agonizging thing for me, but one that I know is as neccessary to the health of the church, as praying and preaching.

I believe that the cultivating of Biblcal relationships, is neccessary if church discpline is going to be effective.

In this permissive age, it is also very neccessary that the subject be taught upon peridocically, lest our people forget it's Scriptural purpose.

Thanks for the good post.

John said...

Dear volfan007,

I agree with your post 100%!

And, I'd assume you'd agree that it is scripture (not tradition) that determines what issues are worth disciplining over and which are legitimate areas of "liberty". Now, can't you see that drinking is not an issue to be disciplined over? It was, after all, the same generation that gave us prohibition that also saw the rapid decline of discipline in our churches.

I want to be held accountable by brothers who are seriously concerned for helping me train to be more godly. But I don't want some "conservative" trying to force me to comply with extra-Biblical requirements.

GUNNY said...

I'm fully on board with church discipline, but I think it would be easier to sell if examples were more readily available of it being done properly, with the right motives, and with visible care and concern for the disciplinee.

I know every church has them, but there are folks who live to find a reason to discipline others, not because they love them, but because it feels good to handle up on someone else's business.

Of course, the irony is that those people need to be disciplined for such!

Ivan said...

No, I'm not Ivan Parke. I'm Ivan Schoen. If you have any questions email me at

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Dr. A,

How long have you been at this, little-by-little teaching the SBC people? I admire your faithfulness.

Your resolution at the convention was not considered, officially, but it is getting LOTS of unofficial consideration.

Love in Christ,


GeneMBridges said...

let's avoid the desire to want to kick out all those who disagree with the non essentials of the faith.

Let's be careful here, because this an sometimes undermine a church. It leaves room for division over second order doctrines, and in the thread below here, you argue against divisiveness.

I'd argue that this is the reason we have confessions and the reason that churches need to write them carefully and well. If a church holds to the 1646 or 1689 shouldn't they require their members, or at least the elders and deacons hold to the whole shebang? If the church has one of this confessions, shouldn't members, who joined knowing the confession of this church, be held accountable if they openly oppose the confession of the church?

Now, the BFM 2000 and even the other iterations of the BFM going back to the New Hampshire Confession are much more inclusive, so there is more breathing room. The point here is that if you're going to bring doctrinal issues into the mix, then they need to be the issues about which the church's chosen confession is concerned and the level of assent required of members, deacons, and pastors/elders respectively, not merely "essentials" unless that is the level of assent in the church covenant expected of a particular class of members in that church.

scripturesearcher said...

I am in total agreement with Spurgeon's evaluation with which you begin your fine article.

Whoever believes a long earthly life is necessary to make a difference in this world for the glory, honor and praise of God must read this book!!

Tom said...


Well, I have been teaching the Southern Baptists in the churches I have served for 27 years. Through Founders Ministries, I have been more broadly involved with other brothers and sisters for 23 years. It is a great privilege, as I am sure you no doubt agree, to serve people through the ministry of the Gospel.

Scripture Searcher (aka Charles):

It is sobering to think of M'Cheyne and Brainerd, both of whom died young, and what they accomplished for the kingdom. Most of the good that both of them did came after their deaths and was made possible by the quality of their lives. May the Lord grant us what they had.

Micah said...

"let's avoid the desire to want to kick out all those who disagree with the non essentials of the faith."

The PCUSA said something similar recently when discussing the possibility of a different nomenclature for the Trinity...

Jeffro said...

Great post Tom.

I just finished "The Deliberate Church" by Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, and there is some excellent advice in that little book about Church Discipline (CD). They say, "Healthy member relationships must be recovered before corrective discipline can be carried out realistically." And, "The church needs to be a web of meaningful spiritual relationships in which people are engaging each other in casual conversation, spiritual conversation, mutually encouraging and sanctifying discipling relationships, mutual accountablility, and small groups." And my favorite, "Without this context of deeply interpenetrating spiritual relationships, corrective discipline will be like walking up to a child whom you see only once a month and spanking him in the street."

Basically, in order to do CD effectively we may have to change the entire culture of our church. I worked in a church in the mountains of NC, and to my surprise many of the churches in that area practice CD. They call it "churchin'." They will kick you out, but their church culture is nothing like what Dever has described. Their discipline often does not have restoration or repentance in mind. So we must be careful to practice CD without a vengeful or indignant attitude, but rather as a parent disciplines a child.

I think we also need to make sure that we see CD as essential to the glory of God in our church. We as the church are to reflect the glory of God, and when we have willful unrepentant sin in our midst we cannot reflect the glory of God as we should.

centuri0n said...

Micah: You're a troublemaker.

Gene: I think I struggle with raising any confession to the place where eldership is keyed lock-step to it. I think there is also a difference between active dissent from a confessional issue and disagreement.

Let me give an example -- I think the 1689 demand for immersion is excessive. I think I'm on-record all over the place that I think it is an overburdened demand. The sabbatarianism of the 1689 is also questionable in my view. So at least on those two counts I disagree with the confession.

Is that the same as demanding that the confession be changed or that people protest the articles through active rejection of them? I don't think so -- and this is not a slippery slope down to the PCUSA changing the definition of Trinity to "Three of your favorite things".

And rather than monologue here, I'll see what this salvo yields.

John said...

It appears to me that all the posts here, without exception, are wise, insightful, pastoral, and in a good spirit.

What about the role of a "church covenant" in guiding discipline. Most Baptist churches had (or used to have) a covenant that members were supposed to subscribe to. The church's statement of faith may guide the church's doctrinal expectations, so they had an objective standard by which to say that such-and-such teaching was out of line. Doesn't the church covenant provide the same kind of guidance for behavioral issues?

Brian R. Giaquinto said...


Before members' meetings, we silently read the church covenant which we then publicly re-affirm. In Deliberate Church, Dever says that he uses it before Communion. I tried that once during the "examination time" - with the qualifier that the covenant was only a guide.

volfan007 said...

yall have a great life...bye. i will not be coming back.

thank You, Lord, for keeping me out of this extreme system of theology. help those who are caught up into it.

i am going to obey the commands of the bible in 2 tim. 2:23 and 3:9. so, bye.

John said...

Dear Brian,

I was using the covenant as part of the preparation for the Lord's Supper too. I believe that was formerly a common practice. However, I ran into one problem right away: the covenant, which is probably the same one most Baptist churches have, has "the alcohol" phrase -- a prohibition against the use of "alcohol as a beverage." (Thus excluding the Lord Jesus and the Apostles from membership!) I used it any way and even commented that we who don't believe every part of it, like the alcohol prohibition, is Biblical should submit to it for the sake of unity. I had a member join who thought it was so troubling that he lead a campaign, with my blessing, to revise the covenant and omit the alcohol prohibition. We worked slowly, using petitions and a Wednesday night Bible study to examine the subject. The vote on the change to the covenant was unanimous (except that one man came, I believe, wanting to vote against the change but didn't have the courage to be the lone dissenter; significantly, he hadn't attended the Bible study on alcohol the week before.) But you made a comment that raised a red flag with me: A covenant by its very nature is not just a "guide". A covenant is binding (or else it is not a covenant). Our modern individualism rebels at the idea that we should be bound to something, have to submit to any authority. But such is an important part of being a Christian. That's why I made a commitment to not drink as long as that was a provision of our church's covenant. It bound me as a member of the church to abstain. So I did. Not because drinking alcohol is wrong but because submitting is right.

Darel said...

Good on you John.

A commitment doesn't mean anything if you are constantly breaking it.

A person who is ready to break the covenant of a church that he willingly joined as a member would not be, in my own personal estimation, trustworthy for other heavy commitments, i.e. marriage, church leadership, etc.

Chris Bonts said...

In our New Members Class (which is a prerequisite to being received by the church) we teach our members that the our confession of faith provides a boundary for belief on issues we deem major. Likewise, the covenant provides a boundary for behavior on issues we deem major. Both are developed in light of biblical study.

This has helped us tremendously because it allows us to help young Christians realize what types of behaviors are out of bounds for members of our church. Additionally, the elders meet with every member of our church every year for spiritual inventory. We ask them if they are growing in their understanding and obedience in the areas discussed by both documents. If they are not we lovingly admonish them to take advantage of discipleship opportunities within our church. It also provides a barometer for the elders to measure our effectiveness in building disciples as well as helping us grasp issues that need to be addressed in future weeks/months (doctrine, evangelism, gossip, etc).

It is hard to discipline members if they have no idea what kinds of offense would warrant such action.

A covenant is by nature binding so it should be produced with areas of Christian liberty addressed carefully.


John said...


Sounds like you have a good church!

pastorleap said...

I wrote on a very basic, common-sense aspect of this "membership maintenance" debate that many of us overlook as we discuss "integrity in reporting." Find in on my relatively new, lame, peon, blog... I'd love for y'all to check it out.

This is my reflection on a process we are just beginning at the church God allows me to pastor.

Niftyatfifty2 said...

Have just joined this blog and found this discussion but maybe it's closed as the last posting seems to have been almost a year ago.

I whole-heartedly agree with the need for and biblical basis of church discipline. I wonder however whether anyone has been the subject of discipline and found it inappropriate for the charge made against them or badly handled in any way?