Can Baptists Learn Something About Church Discipline From Medieval Church?

Each Wednesday I publish one of my old columns that I hope will be informative, instructive, and maybe inspiring. Sometimes they are infuriating! This column was published in 2007.


All major church denominations teach church discipline when members go astray or, more correctly, live ungodly lives. Roman Catholics have always taught that concept but have been very reluctant to practice it as seen by their permitting mass killers such as Hitler to die in the church as well as major South American dictators and Mafia dons.

Baptists aren’t much better, especially large churches. After all, they don’t want to make waves, embarrass the innocent family members, destroy the ministry, disrupt the work, and other excuses for disobeying clear scriptural directives.

Frankly, the issues have been the same down through the ages. It has been common for members to sin then refuse to confess and forsake their sins and church leaders have used the same lame excuses listed above. However, there have been times when courageous leaders demanded church discipline, sometimes going to extremes as a case during the Middle Ages shows.

It seems a drunken baron stole an expensive chalice from a parish church, and was seen riding away with it. The following Sunday, the bishop draped the church in black and rang the bells as they did for major funerals. The congregation gathered and the bishop and the area priests who surrounded him, all held a lit candle. To a hushed crowd the bishop stood at the altar and called out the name of the thief and said, “Let him be cursed in the city and cursed in the field; cursed in his granary, his harvest, and his children; as Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the gaming earth, so may hell swallow him. And even as today we quench these torches in our hands, so may the light of his life be quenched for all eternity, unless he do repent!”

Each priest then threw his candle to the floor and stamped out the light. The thief was now an outlaw, worse than a leper or Jew! The thieving baron heard about his judgment and it brought him to a place of repentance!

His first step was to give his entire fortune to the bishop! Then he appeared at the altar barefoot, and lay prostrate praying for 24 hours. The next step was for him to kneel while 60 monks and priests beat him with clubs! (Is this where we get the idea of “beating the devil” out of a person?) Every time a blow would fall, the victim yelled, “Just are thy judgments, O Lord!” (Of course, those were not the Lord’s judgments!)

Then, with bones broken, lying on the floor bleeding, the bishop absolved him for his thievery and kissed him with a kiss of peace. He was now back in the graces of the Roman Church; however, they did not get their “church discipline” from the Bible.

If modern-day Baptists do anything, it does not compare with the above discipline as proved by the case of Dr. Bob Gray, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, a megachurch in Jacksonville, Florida. He was considered one of the major leaders of this generation among independent Baptist preachers. He built a large church, Christian school, college, camp, and other ministries and was one of the top orators of any church group. However, he liked to French kiss little girls (according to his arrest report) in his church and school office.

Now the little girls are big girls and have come out of the closest and told their stories. Gray resigned and fled to Germany as a missionary and his assistant, Dr. Tom Messer, became the senior pastor. Before Gray left the country, the church felt a need to exercise church discipline so Gray admitted to “an indiscretion that was not sexual or moral.” He was given a standing ovation, a $220,000 home, monthly support of $500.00 and a going away party before he sailed for Germany! Just a little less severe than what the baron got from his Roman Catholic Church!

When Gray’s victims started talking, the city started acting, and Gray was arrested while in the states for a visit. His trial was scheduled for December; however he died today of a heart attack. Since his arrest in May, he has been living well in his expensive home where he entertained visiting friends declaring that he did nothing wrong. Furthermore, Trinity’s present pastor declares that the church did nothing wrong. I don’t think they did anything right! They declare that they did not mishandle the church discipline. There was no cover-up.

The legal case is totally irrelevant to the biblical responsibility of a church. Gray admitted to French kissing little girls. The church was responsible to act upon that confession. They botched it and covered it up for whatever reason.

The victims should not have to go to court to get an acknowledgement of wrong done and an apology, or financial support for all they have gone through since they were small children.

Compare how the church in the Middle Ages reacted to a thief and how Trinity (and many other Baptist churches) reacted to Gray. Maybe we moderns can learn something from the early church discipline. Pastors, maybe the Medieval discipline would be worth trying because what you are doing now is sure not working! (Written with tongue placed firmly in cheek.)

Come to think about it, maybe we should try the biblical method!

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