Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.

In case any one 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. 

Church Order, Article 72.


Articles 72 and 73 concern private sins.* Article 72 prescribes how private sins are to be handled. Article 73 forbids the members of the church informing the consistory about private sins. Our Church Order and Reformed church polity makes an important distinction between private and public sins. In either case, the sin may be in doctrine or in life. But a private sin, so long as it remains private, is to be treated quite differently than a public sin. A private sin is to be dealt with exclusively by the one against whom the sin is committed, apart from the involvement of the consistory.

An article like our present Article 72 was incorporated into all of the church orders that preceded the Church Order drafted by the synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19. The very first Dutch Reformed synod, the synod of Wesel, 1568, adopted the following:

As far as censure and punishment concerning a person’s way of life is concerned, the institution of Christ ought to be observed in everything so that in the case of secret sins, which are not accompanied by public offense, no one be hauled before the tribunal of the consistory, unless he has with a stubborn heart despised and re-

jected the frequently repeated admonitions. After having been accused before the consistory, he will however be seriously admonished, and if he will not repent, 

he shall be cut off as a corrupt member.

The synod of Embden, 1571, decided:

Therefore if anyone has gone astray in purity of doctrine or has sinned in regards to uprightness of life: insofar as it has happened secretly without open offense, the 

rule shall be maintained which Christ expressly prescribes in

Matthew 18.

Our present Article 72 is substantially the same as that of Dordrecht, 1618-’19:

When someone sins against the purity of doctrine or godly conduct, insofar as it is secret and has given no public offense, the rule which Christ clearly prescribes in

Matthew 18

shall be maintained.

The Nature of Private Sins

Article 72 prescribes the manner in which private sins are to be dealt with in the church. Private sins are to be dealt with according to the rule laid down by Christ inMatthew 18.

What is a private sin? When is a sin a private sin? And when is a sin not a private but a public sin?

The article itself gives the answer. A sin is a private sin if it does “not give public offense.” In other words, if the sin is not known generally, but only by one or by a very few, the sin is to be considered a private sin. This means that the sin is not known generally in the world, so that there is no danger that reproach is brought against the church and the name of Christ. And it means that the sin is not known generally in the church, thus causing offense among the members.

A question was put to the synod of Dordrecht, 1578, regarding what constitutes a public sin. The synod’s response is worth noting.

A public sin is one which is committed publicly before everyone, or which is committed in a place that by its nature is public (as the lawyers say) even though there are few people, or which through the stubbornness of the sinner from being private becomes public, or lastly because of its grossness is deemed worthy of public punishment. Thus the sins of David against Uriah, of Ananias and Sapphira against the Holy Spirit were made public and punished as public sins.

It is not always easy to determine whether a sin is private or public. Prof. H. Hanko comments on this in his Notes on the Church Order.

The question has often been asked: How many have to know of a sin before it is public in character? The answer to this question cannot be given by setting definite figures. The circumstances must determine this question. A sin committed in a large congregation may remain private, while in a small congregation it is soon public though the number of those who know of the sin is the same. This must, in individual cases, be decided with wisdom and discretion on the basis of the general principle: a private offense gives no offense to the congregation as a whole (Notes on the Church Order, p. 141).

The Way of

Matthew 18

Sins of a private nature are to be dealt with according to the rule laid down by Christ in Matthew 18. The specific reference is to Matthew 18:15-17. It is worthwhile quoting this passage in its entirety.

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

It is significant that Christian discipline begins with brotherly admonition. The first responsibility for upholding the true doctrine and godly living is not with the consistory. But the first responsibility is with the individual members of the congregation. Private admonition is the bedrock of Christian discipline. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches this same truth in Q.A. 85.

How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline? Thus: when according to the command of Christ, those who under the name of Christians maintain doctrines, or practices inconsistent therewith, and will not, after having been often brotherly admonished, renounce their errors and wicked course of life, are complained of to the church…

Other Scripture passages besides Matthew 18 refer to private admonition. In Leviticus 19:17, Moses exhorts the children of Israel, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.” Solomon says in Proverbs 27:5, 6: “Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Jesus says in Luke 17:3, “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” In Galatians 6:1 Paul exhorts, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” And James writes in James 5:19, 20: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; lethim know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”

The way of Matthew 18 includes three distinct steps. Every church member ought to be familiar with these three steps. Consistories ought to be sure that young people who make confession of faith are familiar with the steps outlined by Jesus for dealing with private sins in the church. What are those steps?

The first step.

If a member of the congregation has been sinned against or has knowledge that another member of the congregation is walking in sin, he must go to the offending member privately. Out of the Word of God, he must show the erring brother his sin and the seriousness of the sin. And he must admonish the brother to repent of his sin. This private admonition may be brought more than once before the matter proceeds to the next step.

The second step.

If the erring brother will not repent after having been admonished privately for his sin, but goes on impenitent in his sin, the offended brother must visit him again, this time taking with him one or two witnesses. Jesus’ teaching here is based on the principle set forth in Deuteronomy 19:15, “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.” If the erring brother admits to the fact of his sin, but refuses to repent, then also these witnesses ought to join in urgently calling him to repentance.

The third step.

If the erring brother still does not repent of his sin, the offended brother must go with his witnesses and tell the matter to the church, that is, the elders of the church. At this point the elders must take up the matter and begin officially to work with the erring brother.

These are the steps of Matthew 18. Nothing too difficult to understand. Pretty straight forward. Article 72 refers to the steps of Matthew 18 as the rule “clearly prescribed” by our Lord Jesus Christ.

All too frequently, however, the members of the church do not follow Matthew 18. Rather than to go to the erring brother, church members find it easier to look the other way—not to become involved. Or, rather than talking to the brother, they talk to everyone else in the church about the brother, detailing his horrible sin and blackening his good name. Or, rather than to go to the brother and meet with him face to face, they take the cowardly approach and send an anonymous letter.

But the reason for this failure to follow the way of Matthew 18 is not that the steps laid down by our Lord are so convoluted that it takes a theologian to figure them out. Not so! The reason is willful disobedience to the will of Christ. The reason is that, knowing how Christ requires us to deal with private sins, we all too often deal with them—and with the brother—our own way.

The Witnesses

A word, yet, about the witnesses referred to in Matthew 18. Some have taken the position that these witnesses are witnesses of the sin alleged to have been committed by the erring brother. The Canadian Reformed Church Order commentator W.W.J. Van Oene is of this opinion. He writes:

The witness taken along is not just a silent partner who sits in and listens, but he admonishes the sinner together with the one whom he accompanies. He can do this only when he witnessed the sin itself…. (With Common Consent, p. 305.)

To take the position that the witnesses are witnesses of the sin is untenable. For one thing, if the sin is a private sin, in the strictest sense of the word there are no witnesses. The very fact that Jesus is speaking inMatthew 18 about private sins (“…if thy brother shall trespass against thee….”) precludes the idea that the witnesses are witnesses of the sin. In addition, that Jesus goes on to speak of the purpose of the witnesses “that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” indicates that the witnesses are to be witnesses of what transpires at the meeting with the erring brother. The sin is not to be established, but every word is to be established. The obvious reference is to every word spoken at the meeting between the brothers.

A couple of practical suggestions with regard to one’s choice of witnesses are in order. First, they ought to be members of one’s own congregation or at least the denomination. Second, they ought ordinarily not to be one’s own relatives. In the interests of impartiality, this is a matter of common sense. And third, they ought, if at all possible, not to be members of the consistory. Consistory members ought not to be involved prior to the time that the matter is officially laid before the consistory.

The way of Matthew 18 is the way of love. Following Matthew 18 is the brotherly thing to do. It is with good reason that Jesus begins His instruction in Matthew 18 by saying, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee….” We are brothers and sisters in the church. The bond of love unites us. That love must motivate us to go the way of Matthew 18 when another member of the church sins against us.

For the sake of the brother’s restoration!

For the sake of the peace of the congregation!

* Article 72 speaks of “private” sins. Article 73 speaks of “secret” sins. There is no difference between these two. In the Dutch, the same word, heimelijk, is used.