Ques. 85: How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?
Ans.: Thus; when according to the command of Christ, those who under the name of christians, maintain doctrines, or practices inconsistent therewith, and will not, after having been often brotherly admonished, renounce their errors and wicked course of life, are complained of to the church, or to those, who are thereunto appointed by the church; and if they despise their admonitions, are by them forbidden the use of the sacraments, whereby they are excluded from the Christian church, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ; and when they promise and show real amendment, are again received as members of Christ and of His church.
Lord’s Day 31
Sin brings untold misery into the church.
The sinner is miserable. He knows that he is depriving himself of his peace with God. He suffers untold agonies, especially as he tosses and turns throughout the long, sleepless hours of the night. His prayers choke in his throat. To silence the voice of conscience he continuously argues with himself, justifying the very actions that he would condemn in others. Admit it or not, he is enslaved in the bondage of sin, from which he knows no escape. Those three words: I have sinned, are so difficult to utter. Even more difficult it is for him to forsake his sin and make his peace with God.
The other person (or persons) who knows about this sin is also miserable. He is grieved, yet he bears his grief alone, rather than divulge his knowledge to anyone. He finds his refuge in prayer for the erring brother or sister who has fallen victim to the wiles of Satan. Impelled by the love of Christ, he wrestles in prayer day and night, and then proceeds to carry out the unpleasant, difficult task of one sinner admonishing another. Realizing more than ever the power of sin, he goes to his brother again and again. He knows that the more public this sin becomes, the more difficult becomes the reconciliation. Finally, he seeks out a proper witness, maybe two, in order to confirm that he is right in making the charges, and that he has dealt with the sinner in true humility and Christian love. By the word of two or three witnesses will every word be established.
At this point he may think that he has carried out his duty. Why involve himself in this painful task any longer? But Jesus says, “If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church.” Others have become involved. The witness has not merely served as a silent observer, but is also grieved by the sin that persists among the members of the church. Together they tell it to the church, that is, to the representative body of the church, the elders, We may ask, but what if the guilty party is a dear friend, a close relative, or even a member of the family, a wayward son? That question sends us to the Scriptures, to Deuteronomy 21:15-21, which instructs the parents of the old dispensation in regard to their calling over against a rebellious son. True, we live in a different dispensation, but the underlying principle of the duty of the parent determines our calling also today. Even if we are dealing with a member of the family, sin may never be ignored, much less condoned. We may ask, in turn, who is capable of carrying this out? To which the answer is, no one of himself, but we must pray for grace, rather than prove unfaithful to our God!
Our mutual responsibility toward one another as members of God’s church never ceases. If anyone has anything against me, it is my duty to go to him, according to Matthew 5:23, 24. I may never say, let him come to me. If I have anything against a brother, it is my duty to go to him. There is no escape from this duty. Never may we take the Cain attitude, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” No excuse may keep me from carrying out my duty. What a grief would be spared to God’s church, if the love of Christ always impelled us to hate sin to such a degree that we would oppose it whenever it lifts its vile head among us!
For we do have a communal responsibility toward one another. Jesus warns us of this when He says, “Take heed to yourselves; if thy brother trespass against thee . . .” (Luke 17:3). We know about a certain sin of a fellow saint. We ignore it. Or we gossip about it. How much easier it is to tell others than to face the guilty party! We ourselves become guilty. Especially because we ignore our communal responsibility.
We read of this communal responsibility more often in Scripture. One clear evidence of it appears when Israel has entered Canaan and has conquered Jericho. We read, “But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan . . . took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israel” (Joshua 7:1). Here is an instance where one of the people sinned, even without the knowledge of the others, yet the entire congregation is held responsible. The Lord would not give them the promised land until they had put away the evil by punishing Achan and his family with stoning (Joshua 7:26). Are we possibly inclined to think too lightly of sin in ourselves and in our fellow saints?
This communal responsibility weighed heavily on Daniel, who as a young man was taken captive into Babylon. In the 9th chapter of his prophecy he weeps and makes confession before the face of God for all Israel and Judah. “We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments. . . . O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day, to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel” (Daniel 9:5, 7). Does not Jesus teach us to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?
Sin is transgression of God’s law, a violation of His love, an offence against His Most High Majesty. That is what makes sin such a serious matter. But sin also spreads like a contagious disease through the congregation, if it is not nipped in the bud. And who can put his hand in his own bosom and not find it leprous when he takes it out? The church becomes involved. Therefore the church must be told by reporting an unconfessed, persistent sin to the elders. Personally, we must still continue to storm the throne of grace, seeking mercy for the wandering sheep, if so be that God will still save; which, indeed, he will certainly do, unless this person is not a sheep of His fold. Therefore we always pray in submission to the divine will.
Church discipline differs when it is appplied to a confessing member. In both instances the faithful elders never weary of visiting the unfaithful member. In both instances the offender is spared as much publicity as possible. But the various steps of censure which are applied to a confessing member are not used in dealing with a baptized member. After repeated admonitions, in which the sinner becomes the more adamant and resentful, the consistory proceeds, upon the advice of classis, to “erase” him from their membership. The word “erase” leaves one with a bad taste. It gives the impression that the baptized member is only a member of the church in a purely formal sense, and that his removal is nothing more than applying the eraser to his name in the membership books. This is certainly not the case. He has been in the realm of the covenant, has the sign of baptism on his forehead, and will, therefore, receive greater condemnation for having known the way and not having walked in it.
In the case of a confessing member the discipline is much more protracted. There is, first of all, the “silent censure,” in which the erring brother is still not exposed, at least not any more than the case requires. At the same time, he is made aware of the consequences of his stubborn resistance to all admonition. He is withdrawing himself from the communion of saints, from God’s church, and from God Himself. Unless he repents, the outcome will only be disastrous.
If this person persists in his waywardness, even after repeated admonitions by the elders, a public announcement is made, informing the congregation officially that sin is present among them. But even now the name is withheld, still protecting him from public exposure. The objection has been raised, that if the name of the erring brother is withheld, it proves impossible for the congregation to pray for him. Or, if the name is not known, the wrong person may be brought under suspicion. To those objections must be answered, that the congregation should not busy itself at this point with the party involved, but rather with the sin that remains unconfessed among them; over that sin we grieve and raise our voices to heaven!
At this stage, sometimes earlier, the offender tries to escape further discipline by asking for his membership papers. Often relatives and friends will encourage him to do so, in order to avoid further disgrace. In this day of spiritual laxity there is some church that will accept him, regardless of the offence. Yet this is so very wrong! At that solemn moment when he made confession of his faith before God and the church he promised, if ever that should prove necessary, to submit to church discipline. Now he breaks that vow! He tries to run away from God, much as Jonah did when he refused to go to Nineveh, but that is impossible. It is Christ who exercises His discipline through the church. To turn against Christ is nothing less than exercising the keys of the kingdom, excommunication on one’s self.
After many visits and admonitions by the elders, without obtaining the desired results, the consistory is forced to proceed to the second step of censure. Before this is carried out, the advice of classis is sought, even as is done in the instance of a baptized member. At this point the name of the offender, as well as his offence, is announced to the congregation, for a twofold reason. First, the congregation must be aware of the fact that discipline involves all of us, so that we are urged to pray for the erring member of the church and to admonish him whenever possible. Second, emphasis falls on the fact, that discipline is intended, not to destroy, but to save. Often the guilty party complains of being harassed and takes on a leave-me-alone attitude. He still must be made aware that the church is compelled by the love of Christ to make him realize the seriousness of his sin and its terrible consequences.
Finally, and reluctantly, the consistory proceeds to the “final remedy.” The sinner is warned, and the congregation is informed, that, unless there is a sincere repentance even at this late date, the church, in the name of Christ, will proceed to the painful task of excommunication, declaring this person to be as a “heathen and publican,” outside of the kingdom. When the Form for excommunication is read there is aroused in the heart of every sincere child of God the consciousness of his own wretchedness and sinfulness, with the prayer for mercy and grace, for “let him who stands beware lest he fall.”
We can close on a more pleasant note. There is always the possibility that this person is a lost sheep that has wandered far from the fold, but whom God in mercy brings back with sincere repentance. There is joy in heaven over the lost that was found. Who of us would not welcome the prodigal son back into Father’s House?