The last time we emphasized the necessity of Christian discipline. In every institution founded within the society of mankind there must not only be laws by which that institution is governed, but there must be proper maintenance and enforcement of those laws. This enforcement constitutes the indispensable discipline upon society through which order is maintained, transgression is punished and without which society is destroyed by lawlessness. The latter is characteristic of our age and is a root factor in the massive disruptions of civil, industrial, social and even ecclesiastical life. Discipline is the backbone of a well-ordered society.
We have a few more comments to make yet with respect to the discipline of the church before we enter into a discussion of the Form for Excommunication. Our next observation deals with the idea or nature of the censures of the church. It must be remembered that Christian discipline is one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and by this is meant the power to open and to shut that kingdom to believers and penitent and to unbelievers and impenitent respectively. The church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this present world has this power. It is given to her by Christ Himself according toMatthew 18:15-18. The importance of this must not be minimized, nor must this power of the church be confused with a certain right to exclude one from the fellowship of a particular church or denomination of churches. In effect this is what happens when one is excommunicated from the church, but the matter is far more serious than that. The discipline of the church closes the doors of heaven to unbelievers and impenitent. It also opens these same doors to those who believe and are penitent. This is reality, and in the function of this disciplinary power order is maintained in the Kingdom of God.
This must be further clarified so that an answer may be given to the objection that is frequently raised against this position. It is argued that by the “church” is meant the consistory, the ruling body, and that the consistory is composed of men. These men are sinful men who are very capable of erring in their judgment and because of the human element involved the very real possibility may not be ruled out that in their using this authority to discipline members of the church, injustice is perpetrated. Therefore, it is claimed that when a member is excommunicated from the fellowship of the church, we may not say that he is excluded from the kingdom of heaven.
In answering this objection there are several considerations that must be kept in mind. In the first place, it may be conceded that there is a measure of validity in this argument. Without reference to any particular instance, I would say that it is not only possible that a consistory unjustly excommunicates a person from the church but that historically this has also happened more than a few times. But, in the second place, let us remember also that it is not our position that the church in herself possesses the power to open and shut the kingdom of heaven, but she has this in dependence upon the Word of Christ and through the operation of His Spirit. Christ, and Christ alone, can have this power. He is “the one that is holy, that is true, that hath the key of David, that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.” (Revelation 3:7) Thirdly, then, we must conclude that when the church exercises this disciplinary power unjustly, that is, in a manner that is contrary to the Word of Christ, she, in reality, is not exercising the key power at all. She is not using but misusing this authority. She is corrupting the holy ordinances of God, and through such corruption the Spirit of Christ does not work. But this does not alter the fact or change the reality in any way that where the church maintains Christian discipline according to the Word of God, Christ, through that function, opens and shuts the doors of His Kingdom, so that what is bound on earth according to the Word of God is also bound in heaven, and whatsoever is loosed on earth according to that same Word is unalterably loosed in heaven. From this two significant admonitions ensue. Consistory members are enjoined to exercise extreme caution and engage in incessant prayer in these matters, so that everything done may be in harmony with the Divine will and carry away His blessing. And members who are, for whatever cause, made the object of discipline, must never attempt to justify their sin or escape the judgment of God under the invalid and flimsy excuse that the consistory has fault in the matter too. Even if this is the case, two evils never make one right. Let the sinner confess his sin and then if there be sin in the consistory too, labor in love, that this also may be confessed, for in this way alone the purpose of Christian discipline is attained. This is not reached when the sinner, because of some error or wrong by the consistory, refuses to confess and thus compels the consistory to proceed with ultimate excommunication.
Our second observation deals with this purpose of Christian discipline. Concerning this there is either general misunderstanding or much ignorance. Another alternative is that the members of the church know very well what the purpose of Christian discipline is, but refuse or fail to take cognizance of it when involved in an actual disciplinary situation. The attitude frequently prevails that the consistory is picking on me, has it in for me, wants to get rid of me as a member of the church, etc. Discipline is then regarded as a humanly instituted device whereby those who hold office in the church can have things their way and can rid the church of all who would dare to manifest any dissent. Needless to say, this conception is both untrue and wicked. The sole purpose of Christian discipline in the church is three-fold. It aims first of all to honor and glorify God in Christ. It purposes, secondly, to purify and to maintain the purity of the church in the world. And, finally, its objective is the salvation of the sinner. We will not go into detail here, but we note that each aspect of this three-fold purpose is inseparably related to the others. It is when saved sinners, members of the church, walk in the way of their salvation that the church becomes manifest in the world as the gathering of saints (holy ones), the assembly of God’s elect, and in that sphere of holiness the honor and glory of God are positively manifest. Conversely, when sin and evil are found in the church, His honor and glory become obscured. Where the latter situation prevails there is a manifestation of Divine wrath, whereas in the former circumstance the blessings of His grace abound, and in these is manifest the excellency of His glory and honor.
In light of this our next observation should not be difficult to understand. It is this. The exercise of ecclesiastical censure is inseparably connected with the preaching of the Word. The principle key-power of the church lies precisely in the preached Word. That Word preached is not the proclamation of a general love of God to all men without distinction. Neither is it a well-meaning offer of salvation to all who hear it. Rather it is the savor of life unto life and of death unto death. It is like a sharp, two-edged sword, quick and powerful, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) Specifically, in the preaching of the Word, Christ proclaims the message given through the prophet Isaiah: “Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe unto the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him.” (Isaiah 3:10, 11) Is it not then obvious that through the preaching of His Word Christ opens and shuts the doors of His Kingdom? And this is just what He also does through the censures of the church. Christian discipline then is a subordinate and assistant form of the preaching of the Word. The former can never be exercised without the latter. The power of discipline is resident in the preached Word of God. It is God Himself who says to the impenitent sinner, Woe unto you, for unless you repent and forsake your evil way there is no place for you in My church or My Kingdom.
If it is necessary to distinguish these two we may say that the preaching of the Word is general, addressed to the whole congregation, not to any particular person and appeals to the consciences of men, while Christian discipline as exercised by the church is a personal labor dealing with specific individuals and with certain known sins. The preaching of the Word deals with sin in general, warns against all sin as displeasing to the Lord, while Christian discipline deals with specific, gross sins. In this connection it may also be noted that not every sin can be regarded as an object of Christian discipline, but only those sins which are dishonoring to the name of Christ and are a shame to the church. Of course, ultimately it may be said that all sin dishonors the name of Christ and all sin is a shame to the church but there are sins which, in their very nature, are such that the official function of ecclesiastical discipline cannot touch them. The sin must first come to manifestation. It must be open or public, and either it is that in its very nature, such as sins of adultery, theft, murder, etc., or it may become that in the way of Matthew 18. The sin of one, made known before witnesses, is ultimately reported to the church and, if guilt is established, the church then must proceed with disciplinary measures. We must remember, too, that in the final analysis allimpenitence is gross sin and that therefore the only sin for which a member is ex communicated from the Christian church is the sin of impenitence.
This is an interesting and significant point. If a member of the church falls into the sin of stealing or murder, is labored with by the consistory and after much prayer and many admonitions must finally be excommunicated from the church, that member is not .excommunicated because he is, a thief or murderer. If this would be the case, not only he, but all of us would have to be excommunicated. But the fact of the matter is that the excommunication takes place because of impenitence. If you ask the question: “For what sin was this person excommunicated from the church?” the answer must be and can only be, “For the sin of impenitence.”
Yet this is not all that is to be said here. Let us for a moment leave out of consideration the officialecclesiastical censure and consider the censure that each of us is obliged to place upon ourselves, particularly when we come to the table of the Lord. Also here there is but one sin that bars us from the communion and fellowship of Christ. It too is the sin of impenitence. The consistory may not know about it and we may not perhaps be told by the elders, of the church that we may not come to the table of the Lord but if there is sin remaining in us which we have not confessed, concerning which we have found no repentance and with respect to which we have no desire to flee, we are in our own consciousness barred from the table of the Lord. In our experience there can be no reception of the blessings of Christ as long as impenitence remains in our hearts. From a subjective point of view, impenitence obstructs spiritual communion, and although this may not be objectively discernable it is nevertheless just as real as with him who has been excommunicated from the fellowship of Christ through the Divinely appointed ecclesiastical censure.