Saturday, March 03, 2007

Church Discipline in Jamestown

My family and I, along with our homeschool group, spent this past Friday in Jamestown, VA, the first permanent American colony, settled in 1607. Our tour guides were outstanding though I did feel the Powahatan Indian culture was treated a bit too stereotypical, but it was an elementary school-age tour. Going aboard the replica of the Susan Constant was a highlight of the trip and it was very difficult to see how 71 men and boys made it across the Atlantic without going insane.

In the Jamestown village was one interesting feature, at least to me, and that was the meeting house. Church services were required every day of the early settlers' lives. They were to attend twice a day every day and three times on Sunday. If you were to miss a church service, you lost your food ration for the day. If you were to miss a second service, you lost your food ration plus you were whipped with a cat of nine tails. Miss a third service and you were executed.

One in the tour group asked the burning question, "Was anyone executed for not going to church?" The guide answered that historical records did not show that anyone was. Such punishments, or at least the threatening of them, were not uncommon for that era's churches, but it raised a question in my mind. Has the pendulum swung in the opposite direction? The moral laxity and unregenerancy of the church of this era calls for a reclamation of a robust understanding of church discipline, a teaching practically abandoned by most modern, and especially Baptist, churches. Perhaps we should not return to execution or scourging, or even threatening it, but at least practice what the Scripture says about church discipline.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tony- actually I have left a comment before. I mostly just lurk! I noticed that church discipline isn't talked about much or taught. We went to a baptist church for 11 years and I know I had never heard about it there. When I saw christian families get divorced I wondered if anyone (pastors/there were no elders) tried to talk with the couple. I guess I feel like if there was more accountability that more of us would live genuine christian lives, living out the word. Concepts like confessing our sins to one another are not talked about-we saw people in the church live just as worldly lives as a non christian. It was discouraging, as the Lord continues to grow and change us we felt like we were alone in the process,and then looked upon as strange. We have three daughters (9, 8, 5). I homeschool them and have since the beginning and will continue to graduation. Yes, I agree with the no makeup thing and our dress ups consist of aprons and Little House clothing! Keep us posted on how the pregnancy is going!

Streak said...

Two questions: What did they tour or the site say about the Jamestown settlers relationship with those local Indians?

Second: Is forcing people to attend church the same as church discipline?

Those questions are probably more related than I anticipated.

Tony said...


Thanks for delurking! You are welcome to comment and participate here anytime and I hope you do.

One of the reasons I think the church has lost the doctrine of church discipline is the focus on individuality and a lack of (true, scriptural) corporate identity.

There is such a focus on overcoming sin or obstacles to growth on one's own that the benefit and simple beauty of transparency with other believers is virtually nonexistent.

Thanks for sharing about your family. I will keep you posted about our pregnancy.


Tony said...


Two responses: The lectures on the Powhatan was typical Native American fare. They were hunters and gatherers, were very close to the environment, traded skins, had no metal, used stone tools, fired clay to make pots, wore animal skins, children ran around naked.

There was an undertone however that the Powhatan were "unwelcome" for lack of a better word. Relations were amiable at first but quickly degenerated. They traded skins and furs, were easily duped with beads, and taught the settlers how to farm.

The young man giving the musket demonstration I got really annoyed with. For one, he was dressed period style, but had a tongue ring that he kept flicking at.

He portrayed the Powhatan as ruthless monsters, who would stop at nothing to overtake the Jamestown fort. "Imagine gazillions (yes, he used the term gazillions) of Powhatan trying to get into your fort. You have to learn how to use your weapon quite proficiently."

A movie clip in the gift shop showed three men panning for gold at the water's edge of the James River. This line: "The threat from local Powhatan was growing."

A Powhatan brave emerges from the grasses and shoots one of the miners in the back.

So, the overall view of the Powhatan was not very positive. And this ridiculous, romantic, idyllic picture of Jamestown was painted.

Second: No.

Streak said...

Interesting. You know I had to ask. Hunters and gatherers? Not planting corn and living in settled housing? Why is it that every portrayal of Indians is nomadic plains warriors?

Jamestown is a really interesting historical experience, but not generally noted for its religious content. The issue of control was probably more an issue of community control or discipline rather than anything spiritual. Jamestown settlers are famous for their unwillingness to work in the fields to actually grow corn because, yes, they preferred to look for gold.

And why, might someone ask, was the local indian threat growing? Well, one reason was that the Jamestown settlers, including John Smith (who installed order at the settlement) were fond of taking corn or other foods from local Indian tribes instead of actually doing their own work. Not only that, but they were fond of razing the Indian villages, sometimes even burning the Indian corn rather than stealing it. I imagine that unwelcome was a good way of putting it, but not for the reasons that the tour guide implied.

It is very interesting how images of Indians as duplicitious, theiving, backstabbing (and shooting) is so commonplace. Not that there aren't examples, but the examples to the contrary are quite ample. Just about every expedition into the Western country survived due to Indian largesse. Lewis and Clark would have died that first year had Indians not helped them out. Wagon trains of settlers moving west mostly dealt with Indians as helpers, guides, trading partners. But when they settled in Oregon or California, they then wrote memoirs that talked about the attacks on the wagon trains--events missing from their diaries. By the 1850s, Americans were taught to hate Indians.

Anyway. Sorry for the lecture.

Cameron Cloud said...

Isn't it interesting that the tendency of the church (human nature) is to go to extremes of Biblical truth. Either no discipline whatsoever, or a legalistic coerced participation.
Neither of these are Scriptural.
(Besides, most pastors today can't even find the absentees at home for a visit, much less an execution!)

A return to Scripture is a return to balance.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

That's very interesting about the settlers...I hadn't heard that before.

Susan had a great comment, and your response is dead-on. I especially like this that you said: There is such a focus on overcoming sin or obstacles to growth on one's own that the benefit and simple beauty of transparency with other believers is virtually nonexistent. This alone is an obstacle I'm trying to overcome...on my own, of course! I'm often thinking about how nice it would be to get over that hump in order to have a more open relationship with our new church family. And, naturally, I want it to happen overnight with little effort or discomfort on my part.

I suppose since so many mainstream Protestant churches already feel the need to water-down the Gospel to appeal to the masses, why not throw church doctrine and discipline out the window as well? We wouldn't want to scare anyone off, offend anyone, seem intolerant, etc...(sorry for the sarcasm).

Growing up in the LCMS, I saw my fair share of church discipline in action, and unfortunately a lot in my own family (my siblings--divorce, living together before marriage, adultery... heavy sigh). Abstaining from the Lord's Supper until you've repented--or until the divorce was final--was the usual "sentence". In my brother's case, though, the pastor told him that he would not marry my brother and sister-in-law because they were living together unless they were repentent and married right away or separated for a while. Sad to say they didn't see anything wrong with what they were doing (they were both 30-somethings), cursed the pastor and left the church. And good for them--they're now happy to have found a church that isn't so intolerant and backward (again--sorry for the sarcasm).

Anyway, sorry the rant. It tears me up when I start wishing my older siblings were better role models for their little sis.

Great exchange between you and Streak. I've always wanted to bum around the mid-Atlantic area to visit all the history. One of these days...

Have a good week!

Tony said...


No sense apologizing--facts are facts. I knew most of what you shared, so no surprises there.

It seems that anytime another group's ideologies clash with your own the first thing to do is sow seeds of discord and then attack and smear their character, whether true or not, so as to support your own positions.

Plus use any means (ie., God sanctioned it) to accomplish your ends, as long as it justifies your own perceived end then it must be perfectly acceptable.

Then you make them look like truly horrible people. Its nice to see how civilization has progressed beyond using such tactics.


So the joke goes about mice in the church...the Methodists put out traps, caught a few, but never really got rid of them. The Presbyterians called the exterminator, but they were back next season. The Baptists baptized them all and they haven't been back since.


Transparency is difficult to cultivate. James says that we are to confess our sins to one another (5:16) but this calls for much maturity, which is absent from most congregations; well...Christians for that matter.

It is rare to find a genuinely loving group of people (who won't gossip, play favorites, take advantage of you, use you) willing to mentor-disciple one another in such a way that fosters true spiritual growth.

Sadly we enjoy reveling in another's sin instead of doing the exact opposite, which is what Scripture tells us to do.

Also, how to carry out church discipline is a thorny issue. When you "tell it to the church," how should that play out? At a business meeting? At the Lord's Supper, as you indicated occurred once at your church, which I am not convinced that is where it should take place because the Lord's Supper table is meant to be a table of unity; at a worship service?

I am still pondering that. I hope you do make it out to the east coast sometime. Jamestown, Monticello, Washington, the Smithsonian and not to mention the National Zoo!

Same to you; have a blessed week.

Streak said...

Still, your main point here wasn't the historical accuracy of Jamestown.

I confess I am still a little unclear on the meaning of church discipline. Perhaps because in my own church experience it was more about a form of conformity, rather than real accountability. Shame isn't always bad, but the use seemed problematic.

Add to that what appeared to me to be a self-selected spiritual leadership that was based more on that group's ability to speak the church language rather than anything genuinely spiritual, and you have the makings of a cynical Streak. :)

Send that Streak to graduate school and .....

Tony said...


Perhaps because in my own church experience it was more about a form of conformity, rather than real accountability.

That is the rub where church discipline is concerned. Like I commented to HM, transparency is nonexistent but necessary if Matthew 18 and all the other passages about church discipline are to work. But we are individualistic Christians and balk when anyone imposes upon our own spirituality (or lack thereof).

Send that Streak to graduate school and .....

And? :)

Streak said...

More cynicism. Nothing was more confronting to my American mythology than reading history in depth. Not to say there aren't good points--because there are, but the examples like Jamestown can be unsettling when one has been raised with a very positive romantic view of American history.

Andrea said...

Just thought I'd add a little to the comments in case anyone re-visits. I, too was at Jamestown and felt the obvious pride that the guides and other "cast" exhibited in the new and improved settlement. Yes there were the irritations that kept bringing you back to the 21st century like the tounge ring. The exhibit as a whole was very positive but there were the subtle contradictions. While they refered to the Powhatan as hunter gatherers, they did set up a "village" for the indians and walked us through (with little reference to that aspect.) The guide also spoke at length about what the settlers were sending back to England, among them, tobbacco - but they failed to stress it as THE crop that saved the colony and guaranteed the English a piece of the new world. Church life was portrayed as one of the hardships the colonists had to endure (though I speculate it was probably a relief for those silver-spoons to get out of the harsh sun/cold and go to church, escaping the work that they were unprepared and unwilling to do.)

My family will continue to read and learn more about this fascinating birth of our country (but not on Sunday morning!) and try to decipher the truth from the imense amount of "ramblings" (couldn't resist Tony!) to be found on the subject.

Regarding church discipline, (first some personal background- unchurched until early teens, then went to a liberal thinking UM church and joined a conservative SBC at thirty-ish,) I din't even know the church was suppose to dicipline (or even disciple) it's members until I was an adult. The whole concept of accountability is "new" and "radical" for many Chrisitians. The pendulum swings though and I think the church is begining to see the need to take back some of the authority it once possesed. Hopefully it will result in a full scale revival of solid biblical behavior on the part of the Christian community. And hopefully it won't result in the church having to threaten anyone with starvation or death for non-attendance!

Streak said...

Andrea, tobacco is not only THE crop that saves the colony, but it also begins the process of labor intensive industry that begins as indentured servants and then morphs into slavery. Jamestown is such a bad example, it seems to me, for the "America is great" type of history. But again, I am cynical. :)

One of the issues about church discipline also relate to American history. Soon after the constitution ratification, states began to disestablish churches--Anglican in the South and the Puritans in the north. At the same time, we saw a rise in what one historian has called "the democratization of American Christianity" where the ideas of the Declaration (egalitarianism, freedom, etc) were projected onto Christianity. As the second great awakening grew, so did the experimentation and growth of churches and denominations.

One unintended consequence of that was also the "market place" of churches and that is where I really doubt that church discipline has ever had a strong role in American churches. Instead of some established church, it was one that had to attract parishoners, or compete for a flock. I don't see how--beyond some small group of dedicated people--the mass of church goers would allow for church discipline when they could simply choose Benny Hinn or John Hagee instead. There is a church for everyone.

Anyway. I suspect your "rambling" comment was more directed at me than Tony. :) With good reason.

Tony said...


So glad you jumped in! I hope you continue to comment and participate.

Thanks for the added words of clarification. I did neglect to note the Powhatan village.

The whole concept of accountability is "new" and "radical" for many Christians. Affirmative there. Most seem to claim it as a biblical practice but no clue how to work it out practically in a corporate church setting.

As Streak has ably pointed out, the lack of commitment and market view of church render "discipline" impotent. If a church were to discipline a member for whatever reason, what is to stop them from "patronizing" another church?


Thanks for the cynical follow-up. :)