Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2006, p. 468.
Although not specifically mentioned in the Church Order, Reformed churches from the beginning of their history exercised discipline over members by baptism. Also members of the church who had not yet made confession of faith were subject to the oversight of the consistory. And if such non-communicant members walked impenitently in sin, they were admonished and eventually excluded from the fellowship of the church.
Various Church Order authorities refer to the practice of the erasure of baptized members.
When baptized members, being guilty of the sins named above, have reached the years of discretion, and have shown themselves persistently averse to the paths of righteousness, refusing to listen to faithful and patient exhortation, then they must be excluded from the Church. The maintenance of the honor of Christ and of the holiness of the Church demands it, as well as the duty to apply this ‘extreme remedy’ for their salvation. (Prof. Wm. Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons, p. 253.)
Baptized members who have reached years of discretion and who willfully neglect to make profession of their faith also become objects of discipline. They must be instructed and admonished prayerfully. If they continue to be indifferent and unbelieving the Church finally declares that their relationship to the Church has been severed. Their names are stricken from the rolls of the Church. (VanDellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary, p. 295.)
In Reformed circles children have ever been regarded as members of the Church, and as members of it they are subject to its discipline. To be sure, discipline in their case must necessarily be only partial since they are not yet members in the full sense of the word. Because children do not have the right to vote or to attend the Lord’s Supper, these privileges of course cannot be taken from them. Discipline of children is limited to warning, exhortation, reproof, and erasure. (J.L. Shaver, The Polity of the Churches, vol. 1, p. 201.)
There ought to be a clear understanding, on the part of the members of the church, of the principles underlying the practice of erasure. Understanding these principles will insure that this important aspect of Christian discipline is preserved in the churches.
First, baptized members are indeed members of the church. They are not potential members of the church. They are not partial members of the church. They are members of the church. This is the ground for their baptism, according to theHeidelberg Catechism: “Q. 74. Are infants also to be baptized? A. Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God….” Our Reformed Baptism Form expresses the same thing in the first question that is asked of parents at the time that they present their children for baptism: “First. Whether you acknowledge that although our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself, yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as member of his church, ought to be baptized?” Since baptized members are members of the church, they are subject to the oversight and discipline of the church through the office of elder.
A second principle underlying erasure is that members of the church who walk publicly and impenitently in sin must be excluded from the church. Open sin on the part of any member of the church may not be tolerated. For the glory of God’s name, for the sake of the salvation of the erring member, for the sake of the example and influence on the other members of the church, and for the sake of the church’s witness in the world, sin must be dealt with. The impenitent sinner must be admonished, and if he continues stubbornly in his sin, he must be excluded from the fellowship of the congregation. “Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (I Cor. 5:13).
In the third place, erasure, although it concerns members by baptism, concerns members by baptism who have arrived at years of maturity. Neither the little children of the church nor even the younger teenagers are the objects of erasure. But the objects of erasure are those who are old enough to know and to be expected to carry out the responsibilities of mature members of the church, especially in confessing their faith and living in the world in obedience to God’s commandments. This is not to say that the elders may not work with and admonish younger children of the church who have fallen into sin. From time to time this is necessary, especially because of the seriousness of a particular sin. In this case, the elders would not labor apart from but with the consent of the parents and ordinarily in the presence of the parents. But this is exceptional. And in this case, the discipline of the elders is confined to admonition. Only those young people who have come to years are the objects of erasure. This would be the New Testament application of the Old Testament requirement found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. This passage sets forth God’s will for Old Testament parents whose son was living stubbornly and rebelliously in gluttony and drunkenness and who would not submit to the correction and instruction of his parents. The parents were to bring their impenitent son to the elders of Israel to be judged and stoned. The New Testament application would be erasure, by which erasure one is excluded from the church and kingdom of God.
In the fourth place, erasure is not to be carried out without the concurring advice of the classis. Although our Church Order does not require this, this is the standing practice in our denomination. This practice was the practice in the Christian Reformed Church at the time of the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches. This practice has a venerable history in the Dutch Reformed churches. The practice arises out of the responsibility for mutual supervision within the denomination, especially in a matter as serious as Christian discipline. No consistory may excommunicate a confessing member without the concurring advice of classis, according to the requirements of the Church Order, Articles 76 and 77. This safeguard also applies to erasure.
And last, as in the discipline and excommunication of communicant members, the congregation must play an active role in the erasure of baptized members. The Scriptures emphasize the role of the congregation in Christian discipline in such passages asMatthew 18:15-17, I Corinthians 5, Galatians 6:1, and Hebrews 3:13. In the case of the discipline of communicant members, the Church Order insures congregational participation by the requirement that the consistory make three separate announcements to the congregation. The announcements exhort the congregation to pray for and admonish the erring member. The process of erasure—and it should be a process—should do justice to this important principle of Christian discipline. The consistory ought not simply to announce to the congregation the fact that a certain baptized member has been erased, without providing the members the opportunity to carry out their responsibility in admonishing the member before erasure actually does take place.
From one point of view, erasure and excommunication are fundamentally the same. They are the same as far as their necessity is concerned: impenitence in public sin on the part of a member of the church. They are the same as far as the process is concerned. Both involve the admonition of the officebearers and of the members of the church, as well as the approval of the classis. They are the same in their outcome. The end of both erasure and excommunication is that the impenitent sinner is excluded from membership in the church and is shut out of the kingdom of Christ. Also, the members of the church treat one who has been erased and one who has been excommunicated fundamentally the same. They break off fellowship with them: “…with such an one no not to eat” (I Cor. 5:11).
Nevertheless, there is a distinction between erasure and excommunication. The distinction is an important and necessary distinction. It is a distinction that must be recognized and honored. It was the concern to maintain this distinction that fueled the lengthy debate in the Christian Reformed Church over the adoption of a form for erasure, as I pointed out in the previous article.
The distinction is not between immature and mature members of the church. Only mature members of the church may be erased or excommunicated from the church. Although both erasure and excommunication concern mature members, there is a distinction in membership between those who are erased and those who are excommunicated. From the point of view of this distinction, erasure is not excommunication. The two are not identical. The distinction between erasure and excommunication, first of all, concerns confession of faith and the vows of confession of faith. The individual who is erased is a non-confessing member of the church. The individual who is excommunicated is a confessing member of the church. This individual has publicly confessed his faith and has willingly assumed the vows of a confessing member of the church. Although both individuals are walking impenitently in sin, and both, on that account, are cut off from the fellowship of the church, the sin of the person who has been excommunicated is the greater. His sin is aggravated by the fact that he gives the lie to his public confession. His sin is aggravated by the fact that he breaks the vows of his public confession of faith. His judgment, apart from the intervening grace of God, will be the greater. The greater seriousness of the sin of a confessing member of the church is preserved in referencing his expulsion from the church as “excommunication.”
In close connection with this, the distinction between erasure and excommunication is also that the process of excommunication includes the revocation of communicant membership privileges, especially the privilege of participation in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The one who is excommunicated is barred, prior to his excommunication, from the Table of the Lord. Before this he partook of the elements of the Supper and freely used the sacrament along with the other members of the congregation. That the excommunicated person was one who previously partook of the sacrament aggravates his sin. His impenitence in sin is a desecration of the Lord’s Table. In the case of the person who is erased, there has been no such participation in the sacrament. For this reason also the distinction ought properly to be maintained between erasure and excommunication.
The distinction does not take away from the fact that one who is erased is set outside the church and kingdom of Christ. Neither does it take away from the seriousness of the outcome of erasure. One who is erased, who dies impenitent in the sins for which he was erased, dies outside of Christ and outside of salvation. The outcome is that he perishes everlastingly in hell. This is the utter seriousness of the erasure of baptized members.
At the same time, erasure itself may be the means of God to bring the impenitent sinner to repentance. This, in the end, is why the church proceeds to this extreme remedy in the case of her baptized members. This is what the church prays for as the outcome of the painful process of erasure. And this, under God’s grace, is the result when the members of the church honor the action of erasure. For this reason, as well as the greater reason of the glory of God, the churches must continue to take seriously their calling in the Christian discipline of baptized members.