“Secret sins of which the sinner repents, after being admonished by one person in private or in the presence of two or three witnesses, shall not be laid before the consistory.” Art. 73, D.K.O.
“If any one, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed, or otherwise has committed a public sin, the matter shall be reported to the consistory.” Art. 74, D.K.O.
It will be evident that Articles 73 and 74 of the Church Order, quoted above, are closely related. They both deal with the manner in which the believer is to deal with or treat the secret sins committed by the brother in Christ and of which he is aware. Article 73 tells us that where repentance is gained the matter need not be laid before the consistory of the church while Article 74 explains that it is mandatory that this be done in the case of impenitence. Both of these articles are in effect a continuation of the 72nd article in which the principles of Matthew 18 are set forth. We must deal with the matter of sin according to the principles of the Word of God as explained in Matthew 18 and this necessarily involves following through with the instructions given in the two articles quoted above.
Underlying all three of these articles is a fundamental Scriptural principle. That principle is that Christian discipline must begin with believers as individuals and not with the consistory. This is very important and the neglect of this principle is very costly to the church. We see the evidences of this most glaringly today. It is, of course, always easier to leave the matter of sin to be dealt with by the consistory and to reason that if the consistory doesn’t concern itself with it, I shouldn’t or don’t need to either. However, this is wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because especially if the matter deals with secret sin, the consistory may not be aware of it and therefore unable to treat it even if it desired to do so. Such sin may not be left to develop until it reaches a proportion where it becomes obvious to the consistory if we have knowledge of it and are able to exercise a labor of love that may be corrective. We become guilty because of our neglect as we explained in our last article. But in the second place, if the matter is left unattended, it may very well be that by the time it comes to the attention of the consistory the matter may be so far developed that it is beyond correction.
“The Church Order Commentary” states that “when church members refuse to do their Christian duty toward each other and no longer admonish each other, but desire to leave it all to the consistory, then the backbone of church discipline is severely injured.” (Italics is mine, G.V.) Likewise Dr. F.L. Rutgers writes: “The decay of discipline, which began already in the beginning of the 17th century, should certainly be attributed to a large extent to the fact that in the convictions of the church members this principle of our Church Order has been weakened.”
Now this is all very obvious for such neglect is not the mere violation of an order prescribed by man but it is a refusal to walk in the order and decency of the Word of God. This is very serious indeed. To show this we will quote just a few of the many passages of the Word that direct us to our calling as individual believers with respect to sin concerning which we have personal knowledge.
I Thessalonians 5:11 states: “Wherefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as ye also do.”
Hebrews 3:12, 13 reads: “Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called Today . . .”
“Brethren,” we read in Galatians 6:1 “if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”
And finally, in James 5:19, 20, “My brethren, if any among you err from the truth and one convert him, let him know, that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall cover a multitude of sins.”
How different from these plain directives of the Word of God is the spirit that is manifest in the church today. It is a spirit of rash individualism. It assumes the attitude that the life and conduct of each individaul is solely a private concern and it resents any attempt or interference by another even though this other is motivated only by the desire to correct faults and lead in the way of righteousness wherein alone the blessings of life can be enjoyed. It is based on an entirely faulty conception of liberty and appeals to the perverted slogan that “conscience is the only guide in all moral conduct.” And this attitude reflects itself not only toward fellow members in the church who may still attempt to carry out their responsibilities in the matter of the exercise of Christian discipline but, as was stated, it breaks the backbone of Christian discipline with the result that the same evil rebuff is met by the officebearers of the church. Does this perhaps explain why the church in general today has ceased to exercise the power of discipline? Each member is permitted to do and to believe what is right in their own eyes so that within the church you find all kinds of conflicting practices. Some say it is permissible to belong to worldly societies while others, members of the same church, affirm that they don’t believe that. Some say they have the right to divorce and re-marry while others admit this is contrary to God’s word. Some allow theatre attendance while others disapprove. Some say the Bible is not literally the infallibly inspired Word of God while others then insist that it is. So we might continue, but the point is that none concern themselves with their calling to correct the evils existing, for the church itself is more concerned about numbers than truth. This is fatal for the church. Scripture says, “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” Sin condoned, left uncorrected, works its way through till the whole is spoiled.
Each member of the church, therefore, must know and realize their calling to “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12) This warfare begins with the proper treatment of those sins which are called “secret.”
It is rather difficult to differentiate strictly between a secret sin and a public sin. Usually the distinction is made that a secret sin is one that is known to only a few while a public sin is on that has been committed openly and is generally known. But the difficulty with this distinction lies in the fact that in a large church a sin might be known to a half dozen persons and still be regarded as a secret sin while the same trespass in a small church and known to the same number of individuals would be regarded as a public sin.
Perhaps we could say that a sin is private or secret as long as it does not cause or create a general, public offense. A sin, for example, committed against another member of the church and which in itself does not form an offense to the entire church may be considered secret even though it becomes generally known. The matter must be treated according to Matthew 18 and in such a case those responsible for making this secret offense generally known ought likewise to be treated for sin. Similarly a sin that is known only to a very few might be considered public by the very nature of the sin. For example, we might mention such sins as stealing and murder or, for that matter, any crime punishable by the civil magistrates. These are public sins even though they may not be generally known.
Back in 1571 the Synod of Emden ruled that secret sins, though repented of, which constitute great danger to State or Church, such as reason, or the misleading of souls, should be reported to the Minister of the Church, so that, his advice having been gained, one might know what to do. Seven years later the Synod of Dordt, 1578, dropped this second provision of the 73rd. Article of the Church Order and maintained only the first provision. Monsma and Van Dellen, however, state: “Common sense still tells us that in case a brother or sister has committed a very grievous and dangerous sin, that then it may be to his own best interest and safety of others, that at least his minister be informed. In such extreme cases the patter should be reported confidentially, and in some cases if possible with the transgressor’s consent.”
The point of Articles 73 and 74 of the Church Order is very simple. It is simply this. If we know of a secret sin, committed by a brother or sister, it is our Christian duty to lead the offender to repentance. This must be done along the way prescribed inMatthew 18 as we wrote in our last article. If all such attempts fail to gain the desired result, we are to report the matter to the consistory so that the office-bearers of the church may labor to save the soul of the erring one. If we, through private labor, succeed in making the transgressor see the error of his way so that he is brought to confession and repentance, the matter does need to go any farther. It then does not need to be reported to the consistory. The brother is forgiven and the matter is dropped.
There is one other matter implied in Article 74. That is contained in the phrase, “or otherwise has committed a public sin.” This implies that public sins are always to be reported to and treated by the consistory. The reason for this ought to be evident. A public sin gives public offense. The whole church is affected by such things and not just one or two against whom a sin may be committed privately. If then the public offense is to be removed, it can be done only through the consistory as representing the whole church. The consistory must then deal with the matter and decide what matter of reconciliation is to be effected where there is evidence of repentance. With this matter of de reconciliation of the sinner we will concern ourselves next time, D.V., in connection with Article 75.