Previous article in this series: December 1, 2013, p. 101.
The terrible failure of many churches to exercise discipline is putting them on the path to becoming the false church. Scarce are the churches today that are willing to engage in this “disagreeable necessity”1 of Christian discipline for the honor of God. The few who do carry out this biblical calling are criticized as unloving and harsh.
As with most matters of obedience to God, the obedience of carrying out discipline is costly. Besides the slander, the cost also often involves the heartbreaking putting out of members who may be family or close friends. The costs are heavy when others object to the discipline and assault the faithful elders who carry it out, and probably assault the members who stand with them in it. So it is not surprising that churches fail to give diligence to this duty. It is surprising, and a matter for which we should thank God, when men and women are willing to pay the price.
In December 1’s editorial I quoted Abraham Kuyper, who already in the late 1800s described discipline as “rare as a white crow.” Two hundred years before Kuyper, discipline was already scarce in the days of à Brakel, who was so discouraged by the state of affairs that he admitted no hope of discipline being restored in the churches. à Brakel’s description of matters in his day parallels a description of the situation today.
If some are concerned about sin, they may wring their hands and even complain loudly, but they almost always come short of the decisive action of discipline. Thus, the sin’s leaven is spreading through the entire lump ().
So if the church or churches of which I am member retain discipline, my response must be grateful thanks. “For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” ().
Our duty in discipline
One of the lessons we learn from history is that churches can lose discipline, and lose it very quickly. If discipline could be almost nonexistent in the days of Abraham Kuyper and even so soon after Dordt in à Brakel’s day, all Christians ought to be on notice that unless we seek the grace of God to work powerfully among us—for naturally, no one loves discipline—we may see white crows more often than Christian discipline. To maintain discipline in a church or denomination takes work. It takes the active participation and fervent prayers of all, laboring together in the cause of God and truth.
I start here because it is very common for people to choose a church precisely because no discipline is exercised there. The very absence of discipline explains the “success” of some churches, especially some mega-churches. People may attend these churches (official membership is often not even considered) without supervision of their doctrine or life.
Young married couples must make decisions about church membership. Which church they join will have profound results for them. It is not too strong to say that their personal spiritual safety and the safety of their marriage depend on whether the church will take supervision of them. Church membership may never be taken lightly.
So anyone considering a change in church membership will want to ask hard questions of all prospective churches, including how discipline takes place in the church. They will want to know whether the discipline is Christian discipline, because the false church has exercised discipline in the past, too, which did not honor God. Is the process of discipline spelled out in a sound church order, because also discipline must be carried out “decently and in order.” Among the many questions they ask will be whether the discipline is more than mere “termination of membership,” because Christian discipline must be a clear declaration that the impenitent sinner (if he remains impenitent) is cut off from the kingdom of Christ “by God Himself” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31).
Our children and grandchildren must grow up with a keen sense that the church’s walls are a significant part of the church’s glory. Without walls, the city cannot protect her citizens.
Sermons from our pastors on Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism spell out what that faithfulness and fearlessness are. Here, let me remind us that an acceptance of a nomination to serve as elder implies a willingness to engage in this “painful necessity.” Would it be helpful for a letter of nomination for elder to be “standardized,” a letter that has a careful description of the fundamental duties of the office? Included could be a reminder to re-read the Form for Installation of Elders and Deacons, to be prepared to sign with sincerity the crucial Formula of Subscription, and to read, understand, and agree to the manner in which discipline will be exercised according to the Church Order in Articles 71-80. When the council nominates men for the office of elder, they will then be sure that every nominee shows a willingness to be faithful and fearless in exercising discipline.
Elders are one of the crucial links of the chain. And every chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
This active engagement begins with recognizing that it is the church, and not merely the elders, that exercises discipline, and we are part of that church.
Reformed church government does not give discipline to the elders only. Part of its biblical wisdom is its teaching that discipline is the work of the entire church and all her members. Although the elders are at the forefront of discipline, they do not engage in it apart from all the members. The members must not allow them to do so. All the members in a church must see themselves to be an important link in the chain.
In I Corinthians 5 Paul calls the church to put out an impenitent incestuous member by the act of excommunication. In Paul’s follow-up letter he indicates that their “punishment” must have had its desired effect, because he called the church to forgive the member (). This punishment, Paul says, was inflicted by “many.” That word “many” indicates two important truths about the act of discipline. First, “many” is not a reference to many in the consistory, but to the many that comprised the congregation—the church did the discipline. The members of the church exercised discipline. Second, that it was “many” and not “all” indicates that there were some hold-outs in the congregational. Literally, Paul says “the majority,” indicating that a minority was opposed to the discipline. This was wrong on their part of course, but knowing this helps us to realize that our day is not so different: even in the apostolic age, discipline was not universally liked.
The members participate in many ways.
1) Matthew 18 teaches that discipline often begins outside the consistory or session, when the common members deal with each other before they “tell the church,” that is, the consistory.
2) After the elders are involved, they call the church to pray for the sinning member; and when his name is announced, the elders ask the members to visit and admonish the impenitent.
3) If the members find something amiss in the administration of the discipline, not only may they object, but objecting is their duty. All the members hold office—the office of believer. In that office, they have the right and duty to judge and, if necessary, to object by protest and appeal. The Church Order (Articles 77, 78) teaches that the congregation’s approval is required in both excommunication and readmittance.
4) Then (although our Church Order and Form for Excommunication do not teach this) the act of final excommunication should be considered a direct action of the whole congregation. According to, the excommunication was to take place when the congregation was “gathered together.” The elders act; so does the congregation. Besides, Paul’s rebuke in I Corinthians 5 for failure to discipline is not a rebuke of the elders but of the whole congregation. Thus, the exhortation for us: When final excommunication takes place, members may be tempted to absent themselves from the service, but they need to recognize that the as-yet “incurable member” is being put out of their body. Church membership itself carries with it the responsibility to be a part—an active part—of the painful putting out of the little leaven, lest our whole lump be leavened.
5) Finally, every member supports the discipline that has taken place by refraining from the sweet fellowship they formerly had with the now impenitent and cut-off member. Here is where members can very effectively, but wickedly, undermine the work of the church. They continue in fellowship with the impenitent. They forget or ignore the clear teaching of Jesus: “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (); and of Jesus’ apostle Paul: Do “not… keep company with” those who call themselves Christians but live in impenitence ( ); “note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” ( ).
Forty years ago when I made confession of faith before the congregation, part of my solemn and public oath was that I would submit to church government and to church discipline. I did not think of it then, but should have, that I was promising something that might require of me terrible pain—to submit to the process of discipline even if it meant greatest embarrassment and shame. We need to learn the confession of: “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not” (emphasis added).
Those under discipline must not short-circuit the work. One great danger is the temptation to ask for membership papers—some might call it “resign”—before discipline can be carried out, or carried through to the end. In fact, it was of the rarity of this final excommunication that Kuyper was really speaking when he referred to it as “rare as a white crow.” This is a problem. Members make vows to submit to discipline, but break those vows as soon as discipline is applied: they demand their membership papers. This is a breaking of the public vow made at the time of confession of faith. We may not do that.
When, perhaps, a member does that anyway, it is our calling to treat him just as though he had been excommunicated. Had the incestuous member in Corinth left to join a church of a different denomination on the other side of town before he could be excommunicated, Paul’s instruction as to how to treat this member would not have changed. He is to be treated as though excommunicated.
Added difficulty presents itself when the excommunicated person is a family member who lives in my home—a parent or a spouse. In that case, God Himself makes it nigh to impossible for us not to have close and regular contacts with them. Then, the believing spouse prays that God will use her (or his) “godly conversation” to bring him (back) to Christ. And the believing children bear the pain of seeing the parent in unbelief, and make the same prayer as their believing parent makes: “Father in heaven, use our witness to ‘win’ our earthly father. Preserve our family in spite of his unbelief. And do not allow his conduct to do damage in our home.” May God be merciful and give special grace to the members in these homes, not rare in the church of Christ.
Finally, we come back to our own duty as church members.
If I am easy on myself and do not engage daily in the painful work of conversion—daily mortifying my old man, crucifying my own desires, saying “no” to my sinful flesh—I will never have the strength of conviction to participate in the Christian discipline of others. “Putting my own house in order” is living in daily sorrow for and hatred of my own sin, fleeing from every temptation I face; and it is living in true joy in God through Christ, delighting in love to live according to the will of God in all good works (see Lord’s Day 33). I must discipline myself, remembering that the one who governs his own spirit is greater than one who can conquer a great city ().
Without self-discipline, I come to ruin personally. Without Christian discipline, we come to ruin as churches. Be strong. Discipline requires strength. Strength in Christ, whose church this is.
1 This wording is from the Form for Excommunication.