The Importance of Christian Discipline
As we might expect, also the Church Order speaks of Christian Discipline, and, in fact devotes several articles to this subject.
Thus in article 71:
“As Christian discipline is of a spiritual nature, and exempts no one from civil trial or punishment by the authorities, so also besides civil punishment there is need of ecclesiastical censures, to reconcile the sinner with the church and his neighbor and to remove the offense out of the church of Christ.”
This article speaks of the difference between the sword and the key power. And there is, indeed, a principal difference.
The sword power is given to the civil authorities and is effective for all the subjects over whom they rule; the key power is given from Christ to the apostles and through them to the church. The motive of the sword power is or should be justice and righteousness; the motive of the key power is or should be love, the love of God in Christ, the love of the church: and the love of the sinner. One can approach the sword power and say to them that exercise it: “Give me my right, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me, avenge me of my adversary”; but the motive of the key power is love and is, therefore, much more difficult to exercise. One cannot go to the church and say: “Give me my right, my money, my honor, avenge me.” All he can or ought to say is: “I am sorry for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, for the church’s sake, for my brother’s sake that he walks in sin.” Any individual member or any church that is not motivated by love is totally unfit to exercise discipline.
Just as there is a difference in motive between the sword power and the power of the keys, so there is also a difference in purpose. The sword power aims at nothing but justice and revenge, but the purpose of the key power is the glory of God in Christ, the well-being of the church and the salvation of the sinner. Hence, the article of the Church Order quoted above states that, by Christian Discipline, no one is exempted from civil trial or punishment. A clear example of this we have in the one murderer on the cross. He repented of his sins, as is evident from what he said to the other criminal that was crucified with him. And then he prayed to Jesus: “Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom.” And the Lord, as we know, answered him: “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Evidently, the penitent thief or murderer was not excused from bearing his just punishment, although he was saved.
There is also a difference between the sword power and the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven as far as the objects are concerned. The objects of the sword power are simply those that are or are supposed to be guilty according to the judgment of the worldly court. But the objects of the key power are believers and their children. To them the kingdom of heaven is opened, for they all receive the sacraments: the sacrament of baptism when they are still infants, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper when they come to years of discretion and are able to make confession of their faith. All others are excluded. All that do not belong to believers and their children have no place in the kingdom of heaven.
This does not mean, however, that all sinners are excluded from the kingdom of God, for then no one would be included. We all are sinners. But it does signify that all manifest unbelievers are excluded even though they belong to the church on earth. We may say, therefore, that there is only one sin that excludes anyone from the kingdom of heaven and that is the sin of impenitence. No matter how great a sin anyone commits, whether it be the sin of adultery or even murder; and even no matter how frequently anyone sins, if he repents, the keys of the kingdom of heaven open the doors of that kingdom of God for him. On the other hand, no matter how small a sin anyone may commit, if he does not show repentance, the keys of the kingdom shut the doors of the kingdom of heaven for him.
This is the reason why repeated admonition is, also according to the Church Order, the first and necessary step in church discipline.
Article 72 of the Church Order states: “In case anyone errs in doctrine or offends in conduct as long as the sin is of a private character, not giving public offense, the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.”
We are all well acquainted with the rule of Matthew 18. It requires first of all that the sin of the brother shall not be made public, but that it shall be kept as secret as, in its very nature, it is. If the offense is known to one person the latter must not tell others about it. Secondly, the one that knows the offense must tell the offender his fault between himself and the offender alone. He must, therefore, admonish him in love, which is the implication of the clause “tell him his fault.” He may do this very well repeatedly. And if the offender hear him, repents and confesses his sin, he “has gained his brother.” The offense still remains entirely secret. But if the offender does not hear him, does not repent and confess, he shall take along two or three witnesses. Also these witnesses must not make the offense public but admonish the offender and for the rest keep the matter secret. Only after all this has been done, the offended party may “tell it to the church” which is the consistory. All this shows clearly that, in the first place, the matter must be kept as secret as possible; secondly, that the nature of Christian discipline consists, primarily, in admonition; and, thirdly, that the motive is always love of God in Christ, love of the church, and love of the brother.
The Church Order continues:
Article 73. “Secret sins of which the sinner repents, after having been admonished by one person in private or in the presence of two or three witnesses, shall not be laid before the consistory.”
This article too expresses two ideas. The first is that any sin must be kept as secret as possible. And the second is that admonition is always one of the chief elements in Christian discipline.
The same is expressed in Article 74:
“If anyone, after having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed, or otherwise has committed a public sin, the matter shall be reported to the consistory.”
Again, this mentions the same element of admonition, only now it adds to it that the admonition must be done in love. And as I said before, this element may never be ignored. No person or group of persons, not even a consistory is able to exercise discipline except in the spirit of love.
Article 75 reads as follows:
“The reconciliation of all sins as are of their nature of a public character, or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised, shall take place (after sufficient evidence of repentance) in such a manner as is conducive to the edification of each church. Whether in particular cases this shall take place. in public, shall, when there is a difference of opinion about it in the consistory, be considered with the advice of two neighboring consistories or of the classis.”
This article speaks of sins which are in their very nature public and which are, for that very reason known to the congregation. It also mentions sins that have become public “because the admonition of the church was despised.” To the first belong, for instance, the sin of adultery which, particularly in small congregations, may easily be known to most of the members of the church. To the second belong such sins as those that are not only known to the consistory, but have also already been made known because the sin together with the name of the offender has been announced. In no other way can the church know the sin that was committed or the name of the offender. The sin itself was secret and must be kept secret as far as possible. No consistory member may “talk out of the consistory,” even though this evil is not so very seldom practiced.
Furthermore, the article speaks of a sinner that, at first, despised the admonition of the consistory but later repented and confessed his sin to the consistory. What now must be done? Must the consistory keep the matter still secret? This is, of course, impossible, for the whole congregation knows of the sin and of him that committed it. Besides, the whole congregation rejoices because the sinner repents and therefore ought to be informed of that fact. There are various ways which the consistory can follow in such cases. Either it can demand a public confession, or it can simply announce from the pulpit that N.N. repented and confessed his sin before the consistory. But whether the one or the other method is to be followed is left to the discretion of the consistory. Only, in case there should be difference of opinion in the consistory on this matter, the consistory can seek the advice of two neighboring consistories or of the classis.
More on this matter next time, D.V.
Not Separated But Deposed
I wish to thank Dr. Jerome De Jong for sending me, in exchange of The Standard Bearer the Missionary Monthly.
In the last copy I received there occurs an article under the title: “How Long Must I Be Faithful To My Church” written by Dr. De Jong.
In this article he tries to answer several questions which I asked him publicly in our Standard Bearersome time ago.
In our present issue I do not intend to go into the answers he gives to these questions. I may, however, do so in a future issue. I will, however, ask another question. It is this: does not Dr. De Jong agree with me, and, in fact, with our Reformed Confessions, that the marks of the true church are the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline? And again, does not Dr. De Jong also agree with me when I say that if the exercise of Christian discipline is not maintained, not only in regard to individual members, but also in regard to officebearers, and in respect to the broader gatherings, classes and synods, the pure preaching of the Word cannot possibly be maintained? And in connection with these questions, I must also ask Dr. De Jong whether what happened and is still happening in the eastern part of the church to which Dr. De Jong belongs does not bear the mark of the false rather than of the true church?
In closing this editorial I must make one remark. Dr. De Jong leaves the impression that, in 1924, I became sectarian and established a new denomination. This is not true. I never left or separated myself from the Christian Reformed Church. On the contrary, I was deposed from my office of the ministry of the Word simply because I could not and would not sign the notorious “Three Points” or promise to keep still about them.