Error in doctrine and offensive conduct are set forth in Article 72 of the Church Order as the two evils that necessitate ecclesiastical discipline. This has been the Reformed position since the days of the Reformation. Various synodical decisions of the past bear this out. The Wezelian Convention of Reformed Churches in 1568 decided “that one who advocated strange teachings and heresies, secretly or publicly, should be disciplined (Chap. VIII, 7), and also that one who led an evil life should be censured (Chap. VIII, 9).” The first regular Synod, Emden, 1571, maintained these two causes for discipline (Art. 26). Following synods also maintained this position which is succinctly expressed in the answer to question 85 of our Heidelberg Catechism:
“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 admonition, 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 his church.”
By “errors in doctrine” is meant any teaching that is in conflict with the truth of the Word of God. “Offensive conduct” denotes practices that are inconsistent with the profession of the Christian faith and are therefore in conflict with the revealed will of God. Though we may distinguish between doctrinal and practical error, the two can hardly be separated because of the fact that doctrine is life. As one thinks in his heart, so is he and so he manifests himself. It is impossible to profess the truth and live the lie and so also one cannot believe the lie and live a sanctified life. Doctrine and life are inseparable because all of our doctrine concerns fundamentally our relation to God and our entire life is expressive of this relation. This forms the very basis on which God shall judge every man according to his works. Man’s thinking, willing, speaking and doing shall be unveiled and then his life’s profession will be justly evaluated and judged. Sound doctrine will not be condemned but every evil work shall be punished.
This necessitates that the church administer discipline for the purpose of saving every brother who walks disorderly or professes doctrines contrary to the Scriptures. This is not done by choice but by the command of Christ. Woe unto the Church then that neglects this calling and for the sake of external unity, worldly prestige, numerical growth and other carnal considerations condones sin and tolerates within her fellowship doctrines and practices that are in conflict with the Word of God. She has lost her glory. Her savor is gone. The light on the candlestick cannot continue to glow. Although she may gain massive recognition in the world as a man-formed institution, she is devoid of the distinguishing mark that identifies her as a manifestation of the body of Jesus Christ.
But Article 72 of the Church Order speaks of a duty of believers that is equally serious and must be performed prior to the disciplinary work of the church. The rule clearly prescribed by Christ inMatthew 18 must be followed. And that rule is familiar to us for the passage alluded to is well known. It reads:
“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church . . .” (vs. 1517a).
Again the choice of following this prescribed rule of Christ is not optional. Even though we could think of a number of reasons that would constrain us to either keep silence or openly publish the matter when one offends us in doctrine or life, we cannot disobey the command of Christ without suffering hurt. Such is the testimony of Scripture.
“Son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shah hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity, but thou hast delivered thy soul.” Ezekiel 33:7-9.
The point of the 72nd Article of the Church Order in citing the rule of Matt. 18 is to prescribe the proper manner in which offense that is private in character is to be removed from the church. If the sin is public in character and creates general offense, the private treatment of it in the way ofMatthew 18 is impossible and the church (consistory ) must make it a matter of their concern. “As long as the sin is of a private character, not giving public offense, the rule prescribed by Christ inMatthew 18 shall be followed.” Now this is no mere technicality that may be by-passed at random. It is a fundamental, spiritual law of the Kingdom. An offended party may not evade this rule by publishing and making public an offense that in itself is private in character and then expect that the church will treat the matter. The latter may of necessity follow but in that case the offended party himself must be treated for the sin that is obvious.
Such things do happen when the fundamental thought and purpose of Matthew 18 is not kept in mind. This purpose is a very exalted one. It aims at saving or gaining the brother who has sinned. Sin, whether taken in general or specific sins, is a vicious monster or beast that crouches at our door awaiting the opportunity to destroy us. He beats us down with his vile paw and clutches us in a deadly grasp. The only escape is through repentance, confession and forgiveness of sin by the blood of the cross. When then one sins . . . against us . . . we must go to such a one to try to deliver the offender from the power of that sin by directing him unto repentance. Then only can he have the peace of forgiveness and know the blessedness of God’s favor. And it stands to reason that the one against whom the sin is committed must go to the offending party because to him the confession of sin must be made. Oh, it is true that the offending party is obligated to go to the one whom he has offended and voluntarily confess his wrong but the one offended must not wait for this to happen. He cannot wait. He must go to gain his brother.
This is not an easy thing to do. We all, sinners that we are, stand daily in need of the same correction, rebuke and admonition. To approach a brother who is snared in a particular sin requires a spirit of meekness and humility for without this the motive of approach will be revenge rather than salvation. A sinful war will then ensue rather than a conquest over and conviction of sin. This must be a work of love, purest love that flows from the heart of God through us unto the brother. Following Matthew 18 in a formal way is not observing the rule of Christ at all even though it may externally appear that we have done so. It must be our deep concern over our brother’s spiritual welfare that must lead us in our attempt to show him the error of his way. And in that same love we must stand ready to show him the error of his way. And in that same love we must stand ready to hear and be shown where we may have given occasion to the very sin by which we have been offended. Then we can talk with the brother about the matter of sin.
All of this must be done alone. Oh, how much easier it is to gather a company about us that will take sides with us and then go to the brother. How much more convincing a large number will be that can prove he is wrong. But this may not be. Go to him alone. That is the only way for the matter must remain between thee and him and, if possible, a reconciliation made in the presence of God alone. Then God forgives and you forgive and all is resolved. Thou hast gained thy brother. A soul is saved from death. A multitude of sins is hidden (James 5:20).
What if the offending brother will not hear? Then do not leave him in his sin but take with thee witnesses. In Standard Bearer, Vol. 37, page 204, Rev. Lubbers makes an interesting point on this passage.
“Then, too, there is an interesting feature here in the text which should not be overlooked. It is a matter of arithmetic. We are enjoined to take oneor two with us as witnesses in order that every word may be established by two or three. The point is that the one who takes the witness with him, be it one or two, is himself represented by Jesus as being the original witness. He cannot slip out from under the matter in which he has ‘risen up’ in judgment against the brother. He will needs have to cast the first stone. He is one witness. When he takes one witness with him there are a resultant two witnesses and when he takes two witnesses with him there are threewitnesses as a result. Two witnesses are sufficient and three are allowed.”
Make sure that these are witnesses! And that they remain witnesses! Witnesses take no part in the deliberations but only attest to what is seen and heard. Let them observe carefully, taking note of all that is said for the adamant sinner cannot hide his evil. His conduct and speech betray him always. But the text further indicates that the witnesses must also form and express a judgment concerning the matter. If what they see and hear is convincing, they must show this to the impenitent. If he refuses to hear also them, the matter must be brought to the attention of the church.
By the “church” the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons informs us “can in no wise be understood of all and every member of the church in particular, but very properly of those who govern the church, out of which they are chosen,” With them is vested the power “to bind on earth what is bound in heaven” and ‘to loose on earth what is loosed in heaven.” Painstaking labor is bestowed upon the sinner and where impenitence persists he is excommunicated and also by the command of Christ he is considered as “a heathen man and publican.”