Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.
1 Corinthians 5:6 & 7
Reformation is to many of us, as the Messiah was to the Jews. Before he came, they looked and longed for him, and boasted of him and rejoiced in hope of him; but when he came they could not abide him, but hated him, and would not believe that he was indeed the person, and therefore persecuted and put him to death…So it is with too many about reformation.They hoped for a reformation, that would bring them more wealth and honour with the people, and power to force men to do what they would have them: and now they see a reformation, that must put them to more condescension and pains than they were ever at before.
When a pastor is truly “reformed” and when he has submitted to the discipline of the Lord, then he can begin the work of reforming and restoring discipline to the Body of Christ. The important first step taken by the Worcestershire Association was the institution of an agreeable policy of discipline which would be practiced throughout the county.
Church discipline was rare prior to Baxter’s time. However, the early Christians were careful to “rebuke before all” the impenitent, “till selfishness and formality caused them to be remiss..,” Baxter reminded his fellow pastors. “All Christians value God’s ordinances, and think them not vain things; and, therefore, are unwilling to live without them.”2
Baxter was not infected with the pragmatism and unbelief so prevalent today. To him, turning a brother from sin was more urgent than maintaining popularity and numbers. Answering the common objection that the rebellious won’t repent, he asked, “Will you give them up as hopeless?”3
While Baxter relied upon the Spirit to convict hard-hearted sinners, he would not stand by while they were lulled into a false security:
The neglect of discipline hath a strong tendency to delude immortal souls, by making those think they are Christians that are not, while they are permitted to live with the character of such, and are not separated from the rest by God’s ordinance: and it may make the scandalous think their sin a tolerable thing, which is so tolerated by the pastors of the church.4
Baxter wrote much on the subject, but he was no mere theorist. At Kidderminster the Christians were careful to solemnly warn habitual sinners. Baxter would speak privately to those whose sin was not public. If they would not repent, he would admonish them before the monthly meeting of the elders and deacons. The final step before excommunication was to call the offender to repentance before the entire congregation and ask them to join in prayer. “This I do once or twice or thrice as prudence shall direct…If yet he hear not the church, I do, from certain texts recited, require them to avoid him…”5
Only a handful were actually excommunicated and usually for drunkenness. In his reflection upon those cases of discipline, Baxter sadly recorded:
But those that were cast out of our Communion were enraged, and made much more Enemies of Godliness than before… When private Intreaties and vehement Exhortations… and all that we could say or do… would not make most of them so much as say, We are sorry for our sin; nor any of them leave their common Drunkenness; how should Excommunication do them any good?6
Baxter’s doubts were answered with the conviction that discipline is “an Ordinance of Christ, and greatly conducing to the Honour of the Church…” Baxter’s open rebuke of the habitual sinners was “For the sake of the rest more than for them…”7
the Exercise of Church-Discipline was no small furtherance of the Peoples Good: For I found plainly that without it I could not have kept the Religious sort from Separations and Divisions. There is something generally in their Dispositions, which inclineth them to dissociate from ungodly Sinners… and if they had not seen me do something reasonable for a Regular Separation of the notorious obstinate Sinners from the rest, they would irregularly have withdrawn themselves…8
One case which surely caused Baxter much grief was that of his personal friend, John Pearsall. Charged with slander and divisiveness, he refused to make public confession of his offenses. Baxter implored him to repent, in a four page letter written on “Saturday night at eleven o’clock with an aching head and heart and weeping eyes…” Pearsall eventually made the confession, but over time he did not change his ways. He had a deep problem which caused confusion and division in the local body and Baxter sensed the real danger that Pearsall might even be eternally lost. Baxter’s final appeal is permeated with the Good Shepherd’s love for a lamb gone astray:
Ah, John Pearsall, sin is not worthy all this friendship. It must be up by the roots or you are a lost man. Have you so little sense of what hath bin so long preached to you from Proverbs v. 11, 12? Must those be your own complaints? And is there no remedy against deep – rooted selfishness and unreasonable wilfullness? Think not that these lines are written to you without tears. To conclude, by God’s assistance I resolve to morrow, if you refuse a free and downright Humiliation and Confession, to desire ye congregation to pray for you, and ye next day, if you do it not, to warne them to reject and avoid you.
The letter is signed “Your faithful and truly loving Pastor.”9 It appears that Pearsall did not heed this tender appeal and Baxter instructed the believers to avoid him. It must have been painful for Baxter to walk silently by Pearsall on the streets of Kidderminster and grieve for his absence at St. Mary’s chapel on the Lord’s Day.
Imagine, however, Baxter’s joy in London after three years absence from Kidderminster, when he received an affectionate and moving letter from many friends and neighbors, including the signature of John Pearsall, received back into fellowship.
As difficult and sorrowful a task as it is, discipline “is as essential a part of the pastor’s office as preaching.”10 And it, along with all other pastoral duties, is to be done voluntarily and with eagerness. Baxter made no attempt to soften his intolerance for unwilling pastors, who imagine that their job is simply to “preach the Word,” while shrugging off unpleasant, yet necessary duties:
I confess, if I had my will, that man should be ejected as a negligent pastor, that will not rule his people by discipline, as well as he is ejected as negligent preacher that will not preach…11
We modern Christians have grown so cold in our love of the brethren that we tolerate all but the grossest sin and allow many in the family of God to suffer needlessly because of our unwillingness to discipline them. Worse yet, because of our timidity and downright lack of active, Biblical love for one another, some may continue in a course leading to eternal punishment. Perhaps if we were more diligent in seeking the repentance and restoration of habitual sinners, as Baxter did, fewer believers would feel constrained to separate themselves and we would not see the Body of Christ divided into so many factions.
For I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy. Leviticus 11:45
But actually I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one. 1 Corinthians 5:11
And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church: and if he refuses, to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Matthew 18;15-17
Now either Discipline is to be exercised according to Christ’s rule, or not. If not, then the Church is no purer a Society, as to its Orders, than those of Infidels and pagans, but Christ must be disobeyed, and his House of Prayer made a Den of Thieves. Richard Baxter12
For if the holy and unholy are all permitted to be sheep of the same fold, without any means being used to separate them, we defame the Redeemer, as if he were guilty of it, and as if this were the nature of his precepts. Richard Baxter13
If the angel of Thyatira was reproved for suffering seducers in the church, we may be reproved, on the same ground, for suffering open, scandalous, impenitent sinners. Richard Baxter14
I will be a Pastor to none that will not be under Discipline: That were to be half Pastor, and indulge Men in an unruliness and contempt of the Ordinance of Christ…. Richard Baxter15
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 191 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 166 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 105 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 168 [↩]
- Nuttall Richard Baxter 60 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 92 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 92 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 91 [↩]
- Powicke A Life of Baxter 110 & 111 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 171 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 93 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 168 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 169 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 2, 161 [↩]