“In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial, that those, who are rulers of the Church, institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church; yet they ought studiously to take care, that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted. And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws, which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord, and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, excommunication or church discipline is requisite, with the several circumstances belonging to it, according to the Word of God. ”
The Belgic Confession, Article XXXII
There is a woeful lack of church discipline among the churches of our day. Practically anyone, no matter what he believes and no matter how he lives, may be a member in good standing in most churches. Adulterers, homosexuals, heretics, desecraters of the Sabbath, those who neglect the means of grace, and more are not only not admonished for their sins but granted access to the Lord’s table and considered to be members of the church in good and regular standing. This same disregard for discipline is making deep inroads into the Reformed Churches both in this country and abroad. False teaching abounds; open attacks upon the Confessions are countenanced. Godly practices long observed by the Reformed tradition are now denied. Well nigh “anything goes.” The attitude toward discipline is that it is something negative and punitive. Discipline impedes the progress of the gospel and the growth of the church. To theological development and growth discipline is considered stifling. Precisely why this is the case we shall consider later. Suffice it to say at this point that this is certainly not the attitude reflected in ourConfession.
In view of this sad situation it is perhaps best to begin our discussion of the principles of church discipline as taught in this Article by examining the purpose of discipline in God’s Church. The Confession speaks of “useful” and “beneficial ordinances” as those “which tend to nourish and preserve concord, and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose excommunication or church discipline is requisite.” The purpose of church discipline is, therefore, to maintain the peace and unity of the church and to keep its members in obedience to God. Discipline is not something negative and it certainly is not punitive. It has as its aim the preservation of the church and the salvation (not punishment) of its members. So strongly did our Reformed fathers believe this that they went so far as to speak of excommunication itself as the ‘”extreme remedy.” (Cf. the Church Order, Article 76) Even that “last remedy” was viewed by the fathers as the means whereby God might make the sinner ashamed of his sins and give the church reason again to rejoice in him. (Cf. Form Of Excommunication) When the church disciplines an erring member it does so in order to bring that member to repentance. The church desires the salvation of the sinner. If that sinner remains impenitent and hardened then the “extreme remedy must be applied.
The reason for this latter is that the unity and peace of the church must be preserved. Sin causes a breach; it creates schism in the church. Sin is also like a cancer. If tolerated it will spread and pervade the church infecting the members. The purpose of discipline therefore is the preservation of the purity of the church. and its unity in the truth of God’s Word. In this connection and this is undoubtedly the deepest purpose of church discipline, the church exercises discipline in order that the name of Christ be not blasphemed but rather praised. The Church after all belongs to Christ. It was given to Christ by God through the election of grace before the foundations of the world. For that Church Christ laid down His life at the cross and took it again in the resurrection. The Church is loved and preserved by Christ and will be glorified by Christ in the new heaven and earth. All this means that when there is offence in the church, the offence of unrepented sin, Christ is offended. Festering sin, whether in doctrine or in life, brings shame and dishonor to the name of Christ. That offence must be removed in the way of the exercise of discipline according to the principles of the Word of God.
In sum, therefore, it may be said that the purpose of church discipline is this: 1) To keep in the Church of God the believers who are born there; 2) To take into the Church of God believers born outside of it; 3) To put out of the Church of God the wicked who are born there; and 4) To keep out of the Church of God the wicked who are outside but who try to get in. And, all this must be done for the sake of the glory of the name of Christ Who is the Savior and Head of the Church.
For this purpose certain ordinances or rules must be instituted and established by those who are the rulers in the Church, viz. the ‘ministers and the elders. (Cf. Articles XXX and XXXI) These ordinances, however, must not be mere human inventions which “bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.” This was written, no doubt, with the Roman Catholic Church in mind. The Church of Rome bound the conscience of the saint to the church by ad kinds of rules governing all of life; e.g., rules of penance, indulgence, contrition, etc. This must not be. Rather those who are charged by Christ with the rule of His Body must “studiously take care, that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted.” The ordinances by which the church is to be governed, therefore, must be based on what Christ has instituted in the Holy Scriptures. Only those ordinances which are directly founded upon the Word of God are valid rules for maintaining the Church of God. Whatever is not founded upon Scripture is mere human invention and has no place in the church. Always we ought to obey God rather than men! This is true of our Church Order of Dordt which implements the principles of theConfession. A study of the Church Order will indicate that it succinctly and in a very beautiful way sets forth the ordinances of the Church of Christ in harmony with the teachings of the Scriptures.
But what is church discipline? The answer is: the preaching of the Word. Preaching is the principle way in which the keys of the kingdom of heaven are exercised. The elders of the church bring the Word of admonition and call the erring to repentance. But the fundamental. means of discipline remains the preaching of the Word. Preaching is authoritative. Through preaching Christ speaks. That Word never returns void but always accomplishes God’s purpose in the saving of the elect and in the hardening of unbelievers. Discipline simply cannot exist where the preaching is corrupted. Likewise, for the same reason, weakness in discipline will inevitably lead to a corruption in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. This is precisely the trouble in many churches today—also in those of the Reformed tradition. The pulpits emit an uncertain sound; the Word is not preached in all its beauty and power. Consequently discipline wanes. False doctrines and disobedience to the law of God are the result. God’s people are ignorant of the truth and become confused and thus are easily led astray. In this kind of environment false teachers flourish.
It ought to be understood that the church disciplines only for one sin, that of impenitence. Where there is repentance that is the end of the matter. All the members of the church are sinners, but the impenitent must be disciplined. According to the Church Order (Cf. Articles 71-80) there are several steps which must be followed with an impenitent sinner. The first is suspension from the Lord’s table (sometimes called “silent censure.”) This not only involves barring the sinner from communion lest the Lord’s table be desecrated; but it also involves barring him from all membership privileges. Such a sinner has no right to vote at a congregational meeting, no right to the sacrament of baptism, no right to protest or appeal in matters other than his own case. This meaning of this suspension is that the sinner is barred from the means of grace. By his sin he is separated from the fellowship of the church and the means of grace which Christ has ordained only for the faithful.
If the sinner persists in his ungodly way, a series of three steps must follow. (Cf. Church Order, Article 77) In the first an announcement is made to the congregation informing the members of the obstinacy of the sinner and of the care which the consistory is bestowing upon him; and the congregation is exhorted to pray for him. In order that he be somewhat spared, the name of the sinner is withheld. Next a similar announcement is made in which the name of the sinner is given. Before making this announcement, however, the consistory must seek the advice of the Classis. Because of the seriousness of the situation and because it is tantamount to seeking approval for excommunication itself, the advice of the neighboring churches must be sought. It must be clear that sin has been committed, that the sinner is indeed impenitent, and that the consistory has labored faithfully in seeking the sinner’s repentance and reconciliation. Finally the congregation is informed that unless he repents, the sinner will be excommunicated on a certain date. The excommunication takes place, therefore, with the tacit approval of the congregation. The time interval between these announcements is left to the discretion of the consistory. During the entire process the consistory is busy working with the sinner, admonishing him from the Word of God and calling him to repentance.
By this means the church of God is maintained. Its unity in the truth is preserved, and its members are led in the way of obedience to the law of God. May God give us as churches grace to be faithful in the exercise of church discipline from the pulpit and through the office of elder. In this way and in this way only we shall stand in the truth and in the tradition of the Reformed fathers.