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

“The reconciliation of all such sins as are of their nature of a public character, or have become public because the admonition of the church has been despised, shall take place (upon sufficient evidence of repentance) in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church. Whether in particular cases this shall take place in public shall, when there is difference of opinion about it in the consistory, be considered with the advice of two neighboring churches or of the classis.”

Church Order, Article 75.

Article 75 deals with the reconciliation of those church members who have fallen into public sin. In general, the article calls for the reconciliation of those who have repented of public sin in a public way, before the entire congregation. Public sins are those sins that in their very nature are public, sins that are and can be known by the congregation generally and in the community. These are sins that have created general offense and brought shame on the name of Christ before both the church and the world. Through public confession and restoration, the sinner is restored to the congregation and the blot on the name of the church is removed. This is both necessary and desirable. It is necessary because the Word of God requires that public sin be reconciled publicly. In I Timothy 5:20 the apostle Paul enjoins, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” And this is desirable, desirable from the sinner’s perspective. The repentant sinner who has been guilty of public sin ought to desire to have his name cleared and have it known publicly that he is repentant for the sin he has committed. A consistory ought not to have to coerce a repentant sinner into having a public announcement of his repentance read to the congregation. He ought to desire this and even insist on it. This in itself is an evidence that he is repentant, truly repentant for the sin he has committed.

 

Resolution of Differences over Public Reconciliation

 

Article 75 requires a unanimous decision by the consistory when reconciliation is to take place publicly. So serious a matter is public reconciliation that the consistory must be of one mind if reconciliation is going to take place publicly. If unanimity cannot be reached in the consistory, the matter must be submitted to two neighboring consistories or to the classis.

In case the matter is presented to two neighboring consistories for their advice, all three consistories meet together to discuss the case. The consistory seeking advice presents the facts of the case, including the sin that has been committed and the reasons on account of which it deems public reconciliation to be necessary. The neighboring consistories are provided the opportunity for any member to ask questions regarding the nature of the sin or the judgment of the consistory. After being apprised of the case, the two consistories then meet separately to discuss the matter and to vote on their support for the decision that has been taken by the consistory seeking their advice. If the two neighboring consistories support the decision of the majority of the consistory seeking their advice, that consistory can proceed with the public reconciliation of the sinner. However, in case of disagreement between the consistories, the advice of classis must be sought. As always, “advice” in the Church Order is more than brotherly opinion. It is advice with teeth. Advice of one or both of the neighboring consistories that opposes the decision of the consistory to proceed with public reconciliation halts the process until the classis can adjudicate the matter.

It is also possible that when there is disagreement in the consistory regarding public reconciliation, the consistory bring the matter directly to the classis for its consideration. Ordinarily, this would be done by way of the questions of Article 41: “Do you need the judgment and help of the classis for the proper government of your church?” The decision seeking the advice of the classis would then be attached to the classical credentials of the consistory. Classis would treat the matter in closed session, obtaining from the consistory the details of the case, including the grounds upon which the consistory feels obliged to proceed with public reconciliation. The classis would then take a decision either approving or disapproving the decision of the consistory. In either case, the judgment of the classis is decisive and must be submitted to by the consistory.

Although not mentioned in the article, a consistory would certainly retain the right of an appeal to the general synod. If a consistory still felt constrained to proceed with public reconciliation, even after the disapproval of the classis, the consistory could certainly present its case to the synod by way of protest against the decision of the classis. The decision of the synod would then be the final and binding decision in the case.

Public Sin by Non-Confessing Members

 

The immediate concern of Article 75 is with confessing members of the church who have fallen into public sin. This is plain from the statement in the article “…or have become public because the admonition of the church was despised….” The reference is to the admonitions of the church that have involved announcements to the congregation of the various steps of Christian censure. That Article 75 concerns confessing members is plain from what follows in Article 76: “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.” Only confessing members can be suspended from the Lord’s Supper.

Nevertheless, the principle that public sin ought to be reconciled publicly applies to non-confessing members as well as to confessing members. Baptized members of the church are members of the church. By virtue of their baptism they are members of the church and bear the name of Christ. Public sins by baptized members of the church also create public offense and bring a blot on the name of Christ. Consistories must not overlook the sins of baptized members simply because they are only baptized members. Their sins must also be dealt with by the elders, and ordinarily public sins of baptized members too must be reconciled publicly. It happens from time to time, for example, that baptized members of the church fall into public sin against the seventh commandment. In this case, the public nature of the sin must be taken seriously, and public reconciliation is required.

Although the general principle that public sin must be reconciled publicly applies also to baptized members, consistories ought to take into consideration that baptized members are, for the most part, immature members of the church. This is not to minimize the seriousness of public sin on their part. But it is to recognize the difference between confessing and non-confessing members of the church. Taking this into consideration, along with the nature of the sin committed, a consistory may deem it most “conducive to the edification” of the church and the erring baptized member that reconciliation take place only before the consistory. A consistory may certainly make this judgment. In such a case, the elders will undoubtedly work closely with the young person’s parents, as well as with the young person himself. If the consistory is confident that there is genuine repentance, it may be satisfied that the sin is confessed before the consistory, with no announcement being made publicly before the congregation.

Again, this does not minimize the seriousness of public sin on the part of baptized members of the church. But it does recognize the difference that our Church Order itself recognizes between mature and immature members of the church.

The Restoration of Repentant Sinners

 

The consistory and congregation have an obligation to deal properly with public sin on the part of members. But consistory and congregation also have an obligation to restore those sinners who have publicly confessed their sins. This is the purpose of public reconciliation.

There is a real danger in this regard. The danger is that those who have fallen into public sin, but have been reconciled to the church, are regarded as second-class members of the church. The danger is that although formally they have been reconciled to the church, they are not actually received again by the members of the church. They are held at arm’s length. They are not accorded the friendship of the members, but are avoided or even shunned. Rather than to extend to them the right hand of fellowship, they are ostracized. This ought not to be.

The apostle Paul addresses this concern in his second epistle to the Corinthians: “So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (II Cor. 2:7). The apostle is concerned about the attitude of the members of the Corinthian congregation towards a repentant sinner in their fellowship. In his first epistle he had called for the Christian discipline of this wayward member (I Cor. 5). This member had been walking openly in the sin of fornication. In regard to this member, the apostle had written: “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (I Cor. 5:3-5). The Corinthians had heeded the apostle’s advice and had disciplined this public sinner. The effect of that discipline had been the sinner’s repentance. This had been reported to the apostle. Now in his second epistle, the apostle calls the Corinthians to receive the repentant sinner back into their fellowship. He urges this upon them, adding the concern that if this is not done the sinner may be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.”

This is a legitimate concern. In receiving the repentant sinner, let the members of the consistory, let the pastor, and let the members of the congregation assure him of his forgiveness. Let them comfort and encourage him, assuring him of their prayerful support. In the announcement that is read to the congregation, it is appropriate that an exhortation to this effect be included. The joy of the father in receiving again his prodigal son (Luke 15:20ff.) ought to be the joy of the church in the restoration of the penitent sinner.

The repentant sinner ought to be restored to all the rights and privileges of church membership. He ought to be encouraged to resume full involvement in the life of the congregation. Those who have confessed public sin and been properly restored may even serve in the special offices in the church. This may not happen immediately. But over time, having proved the genuineness of their confession and not having fallen back into the same sin, they are certainly eligible to serve as officebearers in the church. This has been the case with a number of men in our churches who have very honorably served in the special offices after having fallen into public sin.

Article 75 calls for the proper handling of public sin in the congregation. When the church deals with public sin as it ought to be dealt with, according to biblical principles, God’s blessing rests on the church. When the church ignores the directives of God’s Word, and public sin is tolerated in the congregation, God’s wrath is aroused. This was the case in the congregation at Corinth (I Cor. 11:28ff.) and the congregation at Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17). In harmony with Article 75 of our Church Order, may public sin continue to be dealt with properly in our churches. And may the outcome be the glory of God, the honor of the church, and the salvation of repentant sinners.