“Rare as a white crow” is Abraham Kuyper’s description of how scarce discipline was in the church of his day. It was as rare as a white crow. I have seen a lot of crows in my life. We used to hunt crows once in a while in the orange groves outside of town. Waves of crows—“murders” of them, as they say—flew out of the foothills in the evenings to scavenge in the landfills at night. Never saw a white crow. And that was Kuyper’s point.
In the Netherlands of his day (1837-1920), Kuyper claimed, discipline was that rare. In the days we would consider to be some of the glory days of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, this fundamental third mark of the true church hardly showed itself. Is that how infrequently we observe discipline in the church of our day? In the Protestant Reformed Churches? In your congregation?
I thank God that, from my somewhat limited vantage point, this is not what I observe in the churches. In my own congregation the key is exercised. When I read reports of classis meetings, it is not infrequent to see that consistories sought classis’ advice to proceed to the erasure of a baptized member, or to the second public announcement of Christian discipline, in which the name of an impenitent sinner will be mentioned. There are even times, though they are rare, when the Form for Excommunication is read. By the mercies of God toward the PRC, we are able to say that the elders are not ignoring their God-given calling to manifest this third mark of the true church. Faithful elders are seeking the salvation of the sinner, the purity of the church, and the glory of God—the three commonly mentioned goals of discipline.
But could discipline become so rare among us? And what would explain that it could have been lost in the land and church of our spiritual forefathers in the Netherlands?
A common complaint
Perhaps surprisingly, lack of Christian discipline in Europe was the complaint more often during what is sometimes considered to be “the most flourishing periods of Reformed theology.” Abraham Kuyper ministered at the end of the nineteenth century; but even at the end of the seventeenth century discipline was scarce in the Netherlands.
This was the complaint of Wilhemus à Brakel (1635-1711), a well-known Reformed pastor who was born only 20 years after the Great Synod of Dordt—flourishing days indeed. In his systematic theology, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, first published in 1700, à Brakel laments:
…in general it seems as if the Lord Jesus did not give this key [of discipline] to His church. Not only are the small foxes which spoil the vine not caught, but great wolves have dominion there. How the wall has been broken down so that the vineyard is vulnerable to being trampled upon! The wild boar is rummaging in her, and the leaven is leavening the entire lump…. All this takes place because the ungodly have a place among His people.
Whether à Brakel was inclined to pessimism is a question, but he even judged that “there is no hope for improvement,” and he listed reasons for his bleak assessment: Everyone appeared to be sleeping the sleep of carelessness. The people no longer knew what behavior was considered to be offensive. Pastors were blind, he said, and many elders seemed as blind as the shepherds. The elders who did have discernment turned their heads so as not to see the blatant sins. Even if some elders did care, “there are so many situations where censure must be applied that they do not even know where to begin.” And if they would begin, they would “encounter so much opposition that (they) will become discouraged and leave the task undone.”
Surprising for such days. But the situation in Kuyper’s day, and 200 years earlier in à Brakel’s day, should not be surprising. Scripture teaches that the church has always been tempted to abandon discipline.
In I Corinthians 5, Paul admonished the church of Corinth for a scandalous cover-up of sexual sin. The new congregation was accepting of a man who had committed the debauchery of incest. Rather than mourn about what ought to have been the church’s great embarrassment, they were puffed up. Instead of excommunicating him, they embraced him. Over against (we imagine) a few voices of criticism, they probably defended his membership. The chapter is a brief but thorough summons to the Corinthians: “Exercise discipline!”
A similar story is told in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the opening chapters of Revelation. Two of the churches—Pergamos () and Thyatira ( )—were chastened for their slackness in discipline. Pergamos “held” the membership of false teachers, the Nicolaitans (14, 15). Thyatira suffered some so-called “Jezebel…to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication and to eat things sacrificed unto idols” (20). In the young fellowship of Christian churches—representative of New Testament Christianity—two must already be rebuked for negligence in discipline.
How could this happen in a faithful Reformed denomination today? What might lead to such in a congregation or Reformed denomination that seeks to be faithful?
These are important questions in every age, even when it does not appear that there is present neglect in my or your denomination. If the church loses this mark, she ceases to be church. She does not remain a true church, claiming to be “merely a without-the-third-mark true church.” She becomes a false church. A church without discipline has become the world. She so conforms herself to the world that she becomes “the world.”1
Our Reformed Confession of Faith is straightforward. From the Word of God we discern which is the true church (since all sects assume to themselves the name church) by the marks of the true church. The third mark is: “if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29). To the extent that a church lacks this third mark, to that extent she becomes false church. The slide soon becomes precipitous.
Probably no single cause leads to the abandonment of proper Christian discipline. It is probably also true that none of the many causes began as a clear determination to leave off this scriptural duty. Instead, gradually and almost imperceptibly, a church begins to lose sight of the importance of the work, until one day one of her members finds, by studying history, that his church has turned into something that would be unrecognizable to her founding fathers.
What might some of these causes be?
Recently we celebrated God’s blessing of 450 years of Heidelberg Catechism preaching. If we abandon the practice of systematic preaching of the Catechism, Lord’s Day 31’s instruction to use the key power of discipline will likely not be heard regularly. Soon, the new generation will forget about the importance of the duty.
If we elect elders who have no strong commitment to discipline, these weak men will not lead us in the duty, and soon everyone’s natural aversion to this disagreeable practice will result in abandoning it.
If the angry response of the member being disciplined backs us off, or the fear of repercussions turns us off, or the love for peace at any cost drives us, discipline will be lost. If we officebearers would rather turn the other way because the sinning member has important connections in the church, maybe in the consistory, or if we are hesitant because we imagine that discipline is not loving, the mark will disappear.
A covenantal perspective
There are many reasons why discipline may be lost.
But there is one reason that may stand above them all. It is a failure to recognize that one of the deepest purposes for discipline is to defend God’s covenant.
One purpose of discipline is to save sinners, asand teach. Another purpose is to keep the church pure, as teaches. The figure Paul uses here (leaven) shows that discipline prevents sin from spreading. The Church Order of the PRC mentions these two purposes in Article 71: “to reconcile the sinner with the church and his neighbor and to remove the offense out of the church of Christ.” Often a third purpose or goal of discipline is given as the glory of God, although this is not explicit in the article. Calvin’s way of expressing this was negative: “that the name of God be not blasphemed before the world.”
God’s precious covenant
But the deepest purpose of discipline, which in my estimation may well combine all these purposes, is that the covenant of God be honored. God’s beloved fellowship with His people must be protected. Not the doctrine of the covenant. But the covenant life itself of fellowship with God.
Discipline serves God’s covenant.
The covenant, as God’s holy fellowship with His beloved, may not be defiled. Discipline is God’s instrument—painful and difficult as it always is—to preserve from pollution the covenant. God’s precious covenant!
Let me explain: One of the most beautiful ways in which God lives with (has covenant fellowship with) His people is our assembly for public worship on the Lord’s Day. Then and there God meets for intimate fellowship with His beloved family. That sacred covenant meeting must be kept pure. It may not be defiled, for example, by a man speaking the lie about God. Preachers who do not speak truth in these public meetings are the grossest defilement of the covenant. Words fail me to describe this horror with sufficient sense of abhorrence. These heretics are the greatest offense to God. Discipline is the means to remove this horrible offense. Discipline puts the heretic out of the pulpit and, if he is not repentant, out of the church. We hardly need an illustration to make this truth clear, but maybe an illustration will be helpful to emphasize it. Imagine a large and happy anniversary or birthday dinner where one of your prominent guests—whose duty is to respect you—begins to tell lies about you. Your shock and dismay could hardly be greater, and you would do what you could as soon as you could to rid yourself of this intruder. Public worship of the congregation is such a meeting of God and His people, a covenant meeting.
Likewise, members who resist the preaching of truth, believing and confessing false doctrine, dishonor God. Also they spoil the meeting of God with His people and thus may not be allowed to continue as members.
The Lord’s Supper celebrated in public worship is another intimate expression of covenant fellowship. In this sacred covenant meal, God’s believing children sit with Him to partake by faith of His own Son’s life. As our Form for administering the Lord’s Supper indicates, this is a meal reserved for guests who confess the truth and live godly lives. Those whom God invites to this supper are humbled by their sins, believe the promises of God, and “purpose…to walk uprightly before him….” That is, God’s hallowed supper is reserved for guests who walk daily in repentance and faith. Those who do not are warned to keep themselves from the table. And if necessary, they must be kept away from the table by the elders through Christian discipline. The very first step of discipline is silent censure, which by definition is a barring of the impenitent from the Supper.
God’s covenant is holy.
The church may not allow the covenant to be broken and profaned by impenitent intruders on it.
The elders and church that do not take this seriously should reread the warnings of Leviticus 26: “If ye despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that ye will not do all my commandments, but that ye break my covenant: I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague…. I will set my face against you…. I will walk contrary unto you, and will punish you seven times [covenant number!] for your sins.”
Christian discipline serves God’s covenant.
Let us not make it a rarity.
1 Gordon Keddie put it this way in “Moral Failure and the Church,” Reformed Presbyterian Witness, May 2013, 16.