The Rise of Efficiency and the Decline of Discipline

Professor Greg Wills has researched and documented extensively the subject of Church Discipline in Baptist churches and the decline of the practice in the 1900s. In a recent publication on the importance of biblical practice in Baptist churches Wills contributed a chapter on Church Discipline in which he noted the rise of efficiency and the decline of discipline. He wrote:

Before the 1870s, when conversions were few or spirituality waned, leaders attributed it to either soft preaching or soft discipline. The Sunbury Baptist Association expressed it well in 1868: “[The] only way to secure the strength and efficiency of the churches is to keep them pure.” By the 1880s, however, it became common to blame denominational problems on lack of system, order, and plan. The church’s greatest defect was lack of organization. Efficiency, not purity, was the answer to the church’s fundamental problems.

Church leaders promoted efficiency with striking regularity during the period in which church discipline withered. They made efficiency the practical test of faithfulness to the Great Commission. Efficiency consisted not in purity or obedience, but in system, organization, and rationality in all areas of church activity. Indeed, pastors saw their role increasingly as organizing the activity of the members. Formally, pastors received high praise for ably leading their churches to maintain pure morals and doctrine through faithful preaching and church discipline. By the 1880s, pastors increasingly won praise instead for reducing their churches to efficient systems of finance, missions giving, training, and labor.

In conclusion, Wills remarked:

In theory, Southern Baptist pastors still believed in the necessity of church discipline. But commitment to the efficient church overcame the Christ-ordained order.

Wills is making the point that this was the beginning of a decline in the practice of Church Discipline…a decline from which we have yet to recover.

About Pastor Matt

Matt Baker is the Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church.
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