Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: December 15, 2002, p. 136.
“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 advice of the classis.”
Church Order, Article 76.
History and Background
The previous articles in the Church Order have dealt with the reconciliation both of secret sins and public sins. Beginning with Article 76 the Church Order turns to the proper procedure in case the sinner does not repent, and thus is not reconciled to the church. These articles deal with the steps of Christian discipline, beginning in Article 76 with what is commonly referred to as “silent censure.” This is the first stage of official church discipline. The second stage of formal discipline, characterized by the three public announcements to the congregation and ending in excommunication, is covered in Article 77.
From the beginning of their history the Reformed churches conceived of suspension from the Lord’s Table as a part of formal church discipline. Under Calvin’s influence, this practice was introduced in Geneva, as is indicated in theEcclesiastical Ordinances of 1541.
Furthermore, those who mock at the specific admonitions of their neighbour shall be admonished afresh by the Church, and if they are willing neither to see reason nor to acknowledge their fault once they have been convicted of it, they shall be made to abstain from the supper until such time as they return to a better disposition.
As for those notorious and public vices which the Church cannot condone, if they are faults which deserve admonishment only, it shall be the duty of the elders or delegates (commis) to summon those who have offended, to remonstrate with them amicably to the end that they may mend their ways, and if amendment is apparent to trouble them no further. If they persist in their evil ways they shall be admonished anew. But if at length they fail to profit they shall be denounced as despisers of God and be made to abstain from the supper until such time as a change becomes apparent in their lives. (The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, pp. 48 and 49.)
The Dutch Reformed utilized this method of discipline early on. The Convent of Wesel, 1568, decided:
Furthermore as far as horrible crimes and misbehavior are concerned, those who are guilty shall, even if they will have given ear to the admonitions, be suspended from the communion for some specific period of time until they will have given clear evidence and proof of repentance.
Our present Article 76 is basically a combination of the regulations found in the Church Order of the Synod of Emden, 1571.
Article 30. Those who stubbornly reject the admonitions of the consistory shall be kept from the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, and, having once been barred, should he after many admonitions show no sign of penitence, steps shall be taken leading to excommunication.
Article 32. Those who have committed grievous sins and sins that are slanderous to God’s congregation, or such deeds that should be punished by the authority and power of the government, even though they verbally express penitence, shall nevertheless be barred from the Lord’s Supper. However, just how long this shall last shall be left to the judgment of the consistory.
From the time of Emden forward, the various Dutch Reformed church orders invariably included an article dealing with silent censure.
The first stage of formal church discipline is silent censure. It is called silent censure inasmuch as no public announcement is made to the congregation. Ordinarily, only the sinner himself and the elders are privy to the decision to bar the sinner from the Lord’s Supper. Silent censure is a temporary suspension from the sacrament, whereas the second stage of Christian discipline (Article 77) culminates in apermanent suspension from the sacrament. For this reason, silent censure is sometimes referred to as excommunicatio minor, in distinction from excommunicatio major.
Although this stage of Christian discipline is marked by suspension from the Lord’s Supper, silent censure includes more. Silent censure is really the temporary suspension of all the rights and privileges of church membership. Besides suspension from the sacrament, the member’s right to baptism for his children, the right to hold office, the right to participate in the congregational meetings, the right of protest and appeal (other than the cause of his own silent censure) are also suspended.
Besides the consistory’s barring from the Lord’s Supper, it is also possible that a member voluntarily abstain from partaking of the sacrament. There may be legitimate reasons for this. The elders ought to notice this. It belongs to their supervision over the sacrament that they monitor participation in the sacrament by the members of the congregation. If they notice that someone abstains, they ought to approach that member in order to discover, at least in a general sort of way, the reason for his not participating. At the very least, they ought to be assured that his abstaining is not a kind of protest against the consistory or the minister, as sometimes happens. Such an act would be neglect of the means of grace and itself worthy of admonition or even discipline.
Reasons for Silent Censure
Article 76 mentions two instances that call for silent censure. The first instance concerns those who have rejected the admonition of the consistory after a matter has been reported to the consistory according to the rule of Matthew 18. In this case, the consistory has thoroughly investigated the report of the sin of the member and has determined that the member is indeed guilty of the sin that has been alleged. Based on that determination, the elders have brought “repeated admonitions.” But those admonitions have fallen on deaf ears and the sinner has remained obstinate in his sin. When that obstinacy persists, the elders are duty bound to proceed to formal discipline, the first stage of which is placing the member under silent censure. This must take place by way of a formal motion that is adopted, with its grounds, and properly recorded in the minute book of the consistory. Of such a decision, the erring member ought to be informed personally and in writing, through a committee of the consistory.
A second instance that calls for silent censure involves those “who have committed a public or otherwise gross sin.” Those who have committed a public or gross sin ought to be immediately barred from the Lord’s Supper and placed under silent censure. If they repent, the silent censure ought to be lifted with an appropriate announcement of confession of sin made to the congregation. In certain cases, depending on the sin, even though confession is made to the consistory and publicly announced in the congregation, the consistory may still bar the repentant sinner from participation in the Lord’s Supper. This is exceptional, but it may happen. It may be because the sinner has fallen into the same sin in the past. Or it may be the gravity of the sin committed. Article 76 makes a distinction between “public” sin and “gross” sin. All sin is sin. But there are gross sins, sins extraordinarily grievous in their very nature. Such a sin, even though the sinner is repentant, warrants temporary suspension from the Lord’s Supper in order that the genuineness of the sinner’s repentance may be demonstrated. The Synod of Dordt, 1578 responded to a question relating to this matter as follows.
Whether rapists, murderers, traitors, and those who have committed similar gross deeds, although they repent, nevertheless should be excommunicated because of the grossness of the deeds. Answer: No penitent shall be excommunicated but shall for a time be barred from the Lord’s Supper to indicate the grossness of the sin, remove the offense, bring fear to others, and test his penitence.
Although these are the two instances referred to in Article 76 in which silent censure is in order, there may be other times when a consistory bars members from partaking of the Lord’s Supper. It may happen, for example, that a consistory receives a report of sin or the report of a serious disagreement between members of the church shortly before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The consistory simply does not have the time carefully to investigate the matter before the administration of the sacrament. In this case, the consistory may bar the member(s) from the Lord’s Supper until it has sufficient time to conduct a thorough investigation. The principle here is that the elders must not merely keep unworthy partakers away from the table, but must do all in their power to insure that those who come to the table are worthy partakers. The concern of the consistory is to prevent the possibility of the desecration of the sacrament.
The question is sometimes raised whether a consistory has the right to postpone the administration of the Lord’s Supper because of turmoil or disunity in the congregation. This has been done by Reformed churches in the past, and has been done in a few instances in the history of our own churches. Again, the concern of the consistory would be the possibility that under the present circumstances the Lord’s Table might be desecrated. But this is rare and ought to be a measure undertaken by a consistory with extreme reluctance, and for as short a time as possible. The comments of Van Dellen and Monsma in The Church Order Commentary are worth quoting:
Sometimes Consistories find it advisable to postpone the celebration of the Lord’s Supper because of disturbed relationship (sic) in the Congregation. Trouble may arise which involves several members in transgressions. No Consistory should determine to postpone the celebration of the Lord’s Supper except for weighty reasons. But if conditions are much disturbed it is permissible and wise to do so. Such a postponement is not a disciplinary measure but simply a means to prevent desecration of the Lord’s Supper and the slandering of God’s name (p. 313).
The Extreme Remedy
Although the main subject of Article 76 is silent censure, the article does make reference to excommunication. Article 77 will deal more fully with this matter and will outline the proper procedure for excommunication. Nevertheless, already in Article 76 several noteworthy matters relating to excommunication are raised.
It is noteworthy, to begin with, that the article dealing with silent censure makes mention of excommunication. It does so because apart from the intervening grace of God, silent censure ends in excommunication. Silent censure is the beginning of the process. Excommunication is the end of the process. The sinner who is placed under silent censure must be warned of this. The consistory who places the sinner under silent censure must realize this. Ordinarily, a consistory ought not to place someone under silent censure if is not already at that point willing to proceed all the way to excommunication for impenitence in the sin for which it is placing the sinner under silent censure.
In this part of Article 76 it is already made plain that the sin for which the sinner is excommunicated from the church is the sin of impenitence. It is only “after repeated admonitions” and when the sinner “shows no signs of repentance” that the consistory proceeds to the last remedy, excommunication. No sin all by itself, but impenitence in any sin makes one worthy of excommunication from the church of Christ.
Such excommunication is to take place “agreeably to the form adopted for that purpose according to the Word of God.” The adopted form must be used, the “Form Of Excommunication” that is found in the back of the Psalter. This form has its origin in the form that was adopted by the Synod of Middelburg, 1581. More about this form in connection with Article 77. In anticipation of our treatment of that article, it would be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with that form, as well as the “Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons.”
Article 76 states that excommunication is not to take place “except with the advice of the classis.” The “Preface” to The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches notes that one of the changes to the Church Order adopted by the Synod of 1946 was the change of the word “consent” to “advice” in Articles 76 and 77. The ground for this change is that in the judgment of the synod the word “consent” reveals a hierarchical church polity. Additionally, it is pointed out that the original Dutch word isadvise, which is properly translated “advice.” Whether or not “consent” actually reveals a hierarchical church polity as opposed to the use of the word “advice,” the fact is that the advice of the classis in cases of excommunication is binding advice. This is plain from the use of the same term in other of the articles of the Church Order. (Cf. its use in Articles 5, 14, 38, 47, 75, and 79.) What Article 76 stipulates is that no church may proceed to the excommunication of a member until the case has been heard by the broader assembly and a decision has been taken by the classis authorizing the consistory to proceed.
Significantly, Article 76 refers to excommunication as “the extreme remedy.” That is the viewpoint that a consistory must have in proceeding with discipline and ultimately in excommunicating an impenitent sinner. The purpose is not that the sinner be punished. The purpose is certainly not to get rid of the unruly church member. But the purpose, and that for which the consistory and the congregation must earnestly pray, is that the discipline and excommunication will be a remedy, albeit the extreme remedy, by means of which the sinner will see the error of his way, repent, and be restored to his place in the church of Christ.