“Such as obstinately reject the admonition of the consistory, and likewise those who have committed a public or otherwise gross sin, shall be suspended from the Lord’s Supper. And if he, having been suspended, after repeated admonitions, shows no signs of repentance, the consistory shall at last proceed to the extreme remedy, namely, excommunication, agreeably to the form adopted for that purpose according to the Word of God. But no one shall be excommunicated except with the advice of the classis.”
—Article 76, D.K.O.
“After the suspension from the Lord’s table, and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication, the obstinacy of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation, the offense explained, together with the care bestowed upon him, in reproof, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and repeated admonition, and the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him. There shall be three such admonitions. In the first, the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned that he be somewhat spared. In the second, with the advice of the classis, his name shall be mentioned. In the third, the congregation shall be informed that (unless he repent) he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, in case he remains obstinate, may take place with the tacit approbation of the church. The interval between the admonitions shall be left to the discretion of the consistory.”
—Article 77, D.K.O.
Although the steps followed in the exercise of Christian discipline in Reformed Churches are not involved and difficult to comprehend, there is in general a lack of understanding this process. Even office bearers, when confronted with a concrete case in which disciplinary measures must be used, are sometimes confused as to how to go about to do this. This is not due to ignorance of the church order and the procedure of discipline outlined in it, but it stems from the practical fact and difficulty that especially in small churches it is a virtual impossibility to follow these steps consecutively. The point is that in small churches the act of suspending from the Lord’s Supper (Art. 76) which precedes the three steps of discipline proper, is tantamount to the second step mentioned in Article 77. When a member of the church is suspended from the Lord’s Supper, the entire congregation not only soon knows about this but also knows the name of the member and the sin for which this suspension had been imposed. This is almost unavoidable where a small church lives in close unity and fellowship and then if the first two steps of Article 77 have to follow, the whole process is reduced to a mere formality. How to avoid this and how to keep the identity of the person involved from the congregation until the proper time are the practical difficulties that confront the consistory. And when you consider that the whole structure of Christian discipline is so designed as to spare the brother as much as possible and to bring him to, repentance with the least amount of public exposure, this problem becomes a rather serious one. It is not just a matter of knowing what constitutes the right procedure but it is the difficulty of following through this procedure step by step in such a way that the order and decency of the discipline process is not disrupted. To this problem we have no immediate solution.
Article 76 speaks of “suspension from the Lord’s Supper.” Although this is certainly a disciplinary measure, it is not part of the excommunication process which consists of three distinct steps and is described in Article 77. From. the very beginning Reformed Churches have used suspension from the Lord’s Supper as a disciplinary measure. In his Church Order Calvin already provided for this. Its aim is to bring the sinner to the consciousness of the serious consequences of his impenitence in order that he may realize that continuance in sin will debar him from the fellowship of Christ and His church. No announcement of this is made to the church for this is what is referred to as “silent censure.”
The phrase in Article 76 and 77, “suspended from the Lord’s Supper” is not entirely correct. It does not fully express the force of this silent censure. It stands to reason that one who is suspended from the Lord’s Supper is also forbidden the use of the sacrament of baptism. Those two cannot be separated. We could speak here of one being denied the use of the sacraments. However, even this is not all for suppose that while one was silently censured a congregational meeting was called by the consistory for the purpose of electing office bearers. Such a person could not participate in the voting, His membership privileges are temporarily suspended and he must be made to feel that his walk of sin places him outside of the communion of the, body of Christ.
This initial step in the discipline process is therefore a very serious one. Although it does not strictly belong to what is referred to as the first, second and third steps of censure, it may not be taken lightly. Sometimes a distinction is made between these two by referring to the former as a “temporary suspension” while the latter is then called a “definite suspension.” Then again the action of Article 76 of the church order is called “excommunicatio minor,” that is, a minor excommunication. This is “minor” only in the sense that it can be lifted at any time there is evidence of repentance while the “excommunicatio major” permanently deprives the impenitent of his membership privileges and such a one can receive these again only by the form for the re-admittance of excommunicated persons which we hope to consider later.
This final excommunication does not occur very often in the churches. This is not because there are no deflections or that the church has but few members who by their sins and refusal to repent make themselves worthy of excommunication. But the reason is to be found in the fact that usually those members who are under discipline and refuse to repent break with the church to avoid their excommunication. In effect such members excommunicate themselves. This is a serious thing against which the most solemn warning must be sounded. In these matters we deal not with men but with the living God and His Christ. His word of admonition comes to us through His church and from this we cannot run away with impunity. In 1918 the Synod expressed itself in regard to this as follows:
“Synod, considering that the withdrawal from discipline, to which one has freely subjected himself, and the breaking off of the fellowship with the church to which one belongs, for reasons which cannot stand the test of God’s Word, is a sin which should not be esteemed lightly, and that those who do so should be supplicated continuously and earnestly that they return from their erroneous way, and that these should not be released hastily; but (considering) also that one’s affiliation with the church as an organization as well as one’s continuation in the organized church, should remain to be, according to church governmental principles, an act of each one’s own personal choice, (therefore Synod) judges that no one can continue to be an object of church discipline if he persists in resigning his membership.”
Now there are two things that must be noted in connection with Article 76. In the first place, it makes plain that the right to exercise discipline resides in each church. Although it is true that final excommunication cannot take place except with the advice of Classis, this does not abrogate the fact that intrinsically every church has the right to govern itself. This advice and consent of the other churches is designed to give assurance that there has been no partiality or ill-will in a given case but that the treatment of the matter by the consistory involved has been proper in every respect.
In the second place, this article speaks of two instances for which members are to be suspended from the Lord’s Supper. Both of these are properly described by the word “impenitence” but there is a difference. In the first instance the article refers to those who “obstinately reject the admonition of the consistory.” The supposition is, of course, that they have been found guilty and that the sin has been clearly pointed out by the consistory. The sinner has been oft and repeatedly admonished and urged to repent. All this the sinner obstinately rejects. He might do that in several ways. He might refuse to listen tithe pleadings of the office bearers and simply refuse to consider that his walk is evil. Or again he may even acknowledge that he has guilt but fail to show any amendment of life and by continuing in the sin he manifests this obstinate rejection of admonition. Then again he may show only temporary amendment and thereby reveal that his professed repentance is not sincere. For the sin, whatever that may be, he is not debarred but for his impenitence.
The second instance mentioned in this article refers to those who have committed some public or gross sin. This calls for immediate suspension from the Lord’s Supper and even if there is an immediate confession of guilt it is not said that the consistory can at once restore to such a person his membership privileges. It may be that it is advisable, if the sin is committed shortly before the time of de celebration of the Lord’s Supper, that such a person be told to abstain at least from that celebration so that within a reasonable time the matter may be completely straightened away. This may be the best for the congregation lest there be an offense at the table of the Lord.
Then there may be instances where there is trouble between two or three brethren of the church and the consistory may deem it best to advise all concerned to abstain from the Lord’s Supper until the guilt will be determined or the matter resolved. And where such things might even affect the whole church or a large part of it so that there is a wide-spread disturbance, it may be necessary to postpone temporarily the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This should not be done except for weighty reasons and when it is done it must be remembered that this is not a disciplinary act but only a means to prevent the desecration of the sacrament by which dishonor is brought upon the name of God.