Ecclesiastical Censures

The content of Article 71 of our Church Order is contained in two separate articles in the 1956 proposed revision of the Church Order by the Christian Reformed Church. These articles read:

“Art. 71—Christian discipline is spiritual discipline and exempts no one from civil trial and punishment; nor does action by the civil authorities exempt one from discipline by the church.

“Art. 72—The purpose of Christian discipline is the maintenance of God’s honor, the restoration of the sinner, and the removal of offence from the church of Christ.”

Substantially these two articles are the same as Article 71 of our Church Order. In the first of the above articles the words “by the authorities” have been omitted after the word “punishment” and the statement that action by civil authorities does not exempt one from the discipline of the church has been added. In Article 72 above there is added as the purpose of discipline the maintenance of God’s honor. The essence of this article, therefore, is left unchanged.

The right to exercise Christian discipline is inherent in the government of the church. Christ has given this authority to His church when He instituted the offices of the church “for the perfecting of the saints and the edification of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). This government of the church is not revolutionistic toward the government of the state. The latter, too, is instituted by God for the punishment of evil doers and the protection of them that do well. Although these two governments may function over the same subjects, there is no conflict between them because they are, as to their very institution, different in character. The one is set up by God to function in things natural and civil. To it is given the sword-power, i.e., the right and power to inflict physical punishment upon offenders. The other is strictly spiritual in character and functions only in the sphere of the church. It has no sword power but is vested by God with a spiritual authority to discipline its members. Essentially this is the power of the Word.

The opening words of Article 71 which state that “Christian discipline is of a spiritual nature” enunciate a principle which the Reformed Churches have always been eager to maintain. They did not believe that the church should dominate the state as Rome taught. Neither did they hold that the state should rule the church as the Erastian and original Lutheran error maintained. With Calvin they vigorously contended for the independence of the church in its own sphere. The church is a spiritual body with a spiritual government and exercising a spiritual discipline.

Concerning this R.D. Eagleson says:

“There is a strange perversion in these modern days in the practice of the Church. We are exhorted! to preach the Gospel urgently to the lost outside the church, to be greatly burdened for souls, to be instant in season and out of season; yet when we have those souls inside our four walls we can apparently neglect them or exercise no constraining influence over them. They may embrace every wind of heresy and blasphemy, harbor every shadow of false idea, but we are totally unconcerned with their spiritual state, because we refuse to employ discipline. There is no real thought that those who have been brought in should grow in the truth, and that they should be shepherded and guarded. And it is strange that those most insistent in this attitude are loudest in the protestations of their adherence to the Word of God. It is sad that those who today want to be known as evangelicals all too often decry or shrink from exercising discipline. Yet there is very little variation in this attitude from the modernists who act no differently when they reject a chapter here and a verse there to suit themselves. If Christ has given to the church a government and this implies discipline—then it is our duty to execute that government; and if further He has explicitly instituted discipline, we must undertake this solemn task. The modernist in days past had no love of discipline when it might be used against him to restrict his baleful influence and preserve the orthodox position of the church. It is tragic in these days that numerous evangelicals have similarly deserted censures, articulating a sentimental love in the face of the unequivocal teaching of Scripture. They have gone further even than the most extreme Erastians, who at least allowed some discipline to be exerted in ecclesiastical affairs, even though by the civil magistrate,

“It is interesting to observe that the Erastian heresy started over this very matter of church censures. According to Gillespie the heresy seems to have arisen in 1568 in a public debate at Heidelberg upon certain theses concerning the necessity of church government and the power of the presbyteries to excommunicate. The theses had been exhibited by George Withers who had left England because of the ceremonies. Erastus had once believed that excommunication was commanded by the Word of God, but had changed. While, quite inconsistently, he never became entirely opposed to excommunication in all circumstances, at the time of the debate with George Withers, he desired to take the power of excommunication from the presbyteries and vest it finally in the civil magistrate. It was Gillespie who gave the term a wider connotation, applying it to all who opposed the distinct and sovereign government of the church, for he realized that in essence Esastianism was nothing but an attack on a separate church government and that if the church gave away its right to censures, it surrendered all its rights to spiritual independence under the Lord Jesus Christ as Mediator.”

A modern version of this Erastian error has infiltrated into many churches today. The church has abrogated its right to determine what constitutes sin in its members. Ecclesiastical discipline or censure is not applied any more today except in a few instances in which a member has committed a crime punishable by law. Regardless of walk and confession, one’s membership in the church is not jeopardized unless he commits an offense for which he will be prosecuted under law. This in effect is leaving the determination of what constitutes censurable sin to the judgment of the civil authorities. If a man commits murder or theft he will be censured by the church because the civil law also regards these as heinous offenses. However, a man can join himself unto the world, divorce his wife, violate sacred vows and promises, etc. and still be regarded as a good member of the church and given access to the sacraments because the civil law does not regard these things as punishable sins.

This attitude on the part of the church is not only very wrong but it is a sad reflection upon her spiritual condition. She has a form of government but lacks the power thereof. She lacks the spiritual strength to enforce upon her members the rules of Christian living as expressed in her confessions and the Word of God. Her conduct betrays her professed agreement with the truth expressed by Eagleson who said, “The church has the right and duty not only to declare the whole counsel and will of God with respect to the Gospel, but also to pronounce whether a man is living according to that will and that Gospel. The ‘keys of the kingdom’ comprehend both these ideas of doctrine and of corrective discipline against individual members.”

Now the church cannot afford to disregard or ignore the lessons of Scripture on this point. We refer particularly to Revelation 2. Here we have Christ instructing and setting the government of His church in order. The church at Ephesus receives praise and commendation for it had exercised discipline (vs. 2); but Pergamos and Thyatira came under His rebuke for they had neglected this duty. We should pay particular attention to the warning which attends this failure, lest we also incur the wrath of our Lord. The strength of the church is not determined by the number of people that can be retained within a certain organization but rather by her ability to enforce the spiritual discipline of Christ and to cast out of her fellowship those who refuse to walk according to the plain declaration and ordinances of God’s Word.

In connection with this last statement it must be borne in mind that the purpose of this spiritual censure is not to destroy but to save. It does not aim to rid the church of her members but to bring them into conformity to the will of Christ so that the blessing of God can rest upon the church and be enjoyed in the consciousness and experience of her members. The latter is impossible if these are permitted to walk in the way of sin in the church without correction.

Our Church Order does not prescribe in detail the many things that are involved in the processes of spiritual discipline. It simply sets forth certain principles by which the church is to be guided in the performance of this duty. This is different than in the state or civil sphere. There a penal code is maintained and any violation of it is punishable according to established regulations. The church has no penal code and does not aim to administer external punishment. It requires its members to conform in confession and walk to the standard of God’s Word as expressed in the Confession of the church and any disciplinary measures taken are designed as corrective measures. Each instance of discipline must therefore be dealt with according to its peculiar circumstances. Dr. Rutgers said, “No penal code can be constructed for ecclesiastical discipline. The purpose of discipline demands a maximum of variability in its application, not a set of rules for constant application. Just so the principles are established, and just so these are applied in every particular case, for only then will ecclesiastical discipline function correctly.”

If we keep this in mind we will also see that there may be instances in which the letter of the law is coerced to give way to spiritual principle. In Numbers 9we have a record of the complaint of certain members of Israel who had become defiled by the dead body of a man so that they could not partake of the Passover, and yet were desirous of eating and, on God’s admission, were in their hearts worthy of being admitted. These men approached Moses with their complaint, and when he enquired of the Lord, God decreed that such men should be allowed to keep the Passover on the fourteenth day of the second month. Spiritual principle has greater weight than legal ceremony and this must be kept in mind if the discipline of the church is to retain its spiritual character.