Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
There are two questions of an introductory nature which must be answered before we discuss Articles 72, 73, and 74, which deal with the discipline of those who have committed secret sins. Those questions are: May non-communicant members (members by baptism) be disciplined? And, Is it possible for impenitent members to avoid being disciplined by leaving the fellowship of the church before discipline is applied? The latter question could be put this way: May a consistory refuse to grant a person who is under discipline his/her membership papers in order that discipline may be continued?
We answer the second question first. The Reformed churches have always taken the position that a man’s membership in the church is a matter of his own choice. This is correct. This means that if a member is placed under discipline and then decides to terminate his membership in the congregation, the consistory must honor this decision. The consistory may not refuse to grant a request for one’s membership papers. When this happens, and it all too often does, the consistory can and ought to attempt to persuade the man to change his mind and remain in the church in the way of confessing and leaving his sin. The consistory ought to remind such a person of the vows he made at the time he made confession of his faith. Confession of faith, after all, includes the vow to submit to church government in case one becomes delinquent in doctrine or walk of life. The consistory, if possible, ought to remind the person that one of the purposes of discipline is to save the sinner and that, as such, discipline is the rod of Christ’s chastisement. The consistory ought also to remind the impenitent that to leave the church of Jesus Christ is a very serious sin indeed. He ought to be reminded that his act of leaving the church is tantamount to his excommunicating himself from the church of Christ. If, after all this, the person persists in his desire to leave the church, the consistory has no option except to grant his request. This puts an end to discipline. In most of our Protestant Reformed Churches, when this happens the Dismissal Certificate is delivered to the person by a committee of elders.
There has been and probably still is difference of opinion in the Reformed churches on the question of the discipline of non-communicant members. There are those who argue that discipline cannot be applied to baptized members who have not yet made confession of faith. Others take the position that discipline can and must be applied to older non-communicant members. The latter position, we believe, is correct.
When the youth of the church arrive at years of discretion they must be pointed to their calling to make confession of their faith. They sin if they do not. If, after the elders have patiently worked with them, they persist in their refusal to confess their faith they must be erased as members of the church. Erasure applies to baptized members who walk in sin and are impenitent. The elders must patiently and in the love of Christ labor with such, calling them to faith in Christ and repentance towards God. They must bring to the impenitent repeated admonitions from the Word of God. When the Word of God is rejected and the sinner refuses to repent, and it becomes evident that he is hardened in his sin, the elders must take a decision to erase him from membership in the congregation. Before implementing the decision to erase a baptized member the consistory must seek the advice and approval of the classis. Upon securing classis’ approval, the decision to erase is carried out. The sinner ought to be warned that erasure is tantamount to excommunication.*
This brings us to Article 72 of the Church Order, which stipulates, “In case anyone 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.” This article obviously applies not just to the elders and their work, but to all of the people of God. The article speaks of two kinds of sin: errors in doctrine and offenses in conduct. The first is any doctrine which is contrary to the confessions of the church. There is room for differing interpretations of a given passage of Scripture. The confessions, however, contain what the church believes to be the truth of the Word of God. This truth is the basis for the unity of the church. This truth must be taught, known, and defended by the church’s members. One who teaches doctrine which contradicts the truth of the confession “errs in doctrine.” That error must be removed or it will cause schism in the church.
One who offends in conduct is one who lives in disobedience to the will of God as taught in Scripture and summed in God’s Law. Disobedience is offensive to one’s fellow saints and to the holy God. When one errs in conduct, he sins against the holiness of the church.
When these sins are “of a private character,” the article says, Matthew 18 must be followed. Sins of a private character are sins which are known only to very few in the church. Indeed, some might argue on the basis of Matthew 18 that a private sin is known only to the sinner and the one against whom he has sinned. In any case, a private sin is known only to a very few. It is not always so easy to determine when a sin ceases to be private and becomes public. Individual cases will have to be decided on their own merits.
If the sin is of a private character, “the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.” In verses 15-17 of Matthew 18 Christ lays down three steps to be followed. The first is, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” This does not preclude the possibility of the sinner going to seek forgiveness from the brother he has offended (cf. Matt. 5:23-24). But the article speaks of the responsibility of the one sinned against. He must seek out the one who sinned against him.
At least three important truths are implied in this. I) The one against whom the sin has been committed must make clear to his brother the nature of the sin and why, on the basis of God’s Word, his teaching or action is sin. 2) The purpose of going to the offending brother is to achieve reconciliation in the way of removing the offense. Jesus adds, “If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” 3) The one offended by the sin of the brother must be motivated by the desire to save the brother. He must go to him in humility and with the love of God in his heart and as one himself in need of the cross of Christ.
In the event the sinner refuses to repent, the second step is to be followed, “… take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” The purpose of taking witnesses is twofold. If the one who sinned denies that he has sinned as charged, the witnesses establish the fact that he has sinned. If he admits to the act as charged but denies that that act is sin, the witnesses must show him from Scripture that his act is indeed sinful.
This brings us to the rule of Article 73: “Secret sins of which the sinner repents, after being admonished by one person in private or in the presence of two or three witnesses, shall not be laid before the consistory.” If reconciliation is achieved in the way of the sinner’s repenting after either the first or second step prescribed by the Lord in Matthew 18, the matter is finished. It must not be reported to the consistory. In the way of the sinner’s repentance the offense is removed. There is no need of any further disciplinary action.
If the sinner refuses to repent after the first two steps of Matthew 18 are applied, then, says Christ to the one sinned against, “tell it to the church.” This last step is spoken of in Article 74: “If anyone, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed, or otherwise has committed a public sin, the matter shall be reported to the consistory.”
In the Reformed tradition the word “church” has always been understood to refer to the consistory, the body of elders. This is in harmony with the position of government which the elders occupy in the church of Christ. This is also the interpretation of the word “church” found in the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons: “And thus the ministers of the Word, together with the elders, form a body or assembly, being as a council of the church, representing the whole church; to which Christ alludes when he saith, ‘tell the church’—which can in no wise be understood of all and every member of the church in particular, but very properly of those who govern the church, out of which they are chosen.”
Concerning reports which come to the consistory, the elders must carefully observe several principles. 1) Never may the elders act on rumor or gossip. They must listen to the report only of the one against whom the sin was committed. 2) The elders must be certain that the steps of Matthew 18 have been followed and that the sinner remains impenitent. 3) They must give the one charged with sin the opportunity to defend himself. The elders may not apply discipline until they are certain that the one charged is indeed guilty as charged and impenitent. Failure to observe these principles will result in all kinds of trouble in the congregation, and, worse than that, “the Lord does not command his blessing there.”
* For a more detailed discussion of the discipline of non-communicants, we call the reader’s attention to an interesting article by the well known church historian, Dr. W. van’t Spijker, “Discipline of Members-by-Baptism,” which appears in the magazine, Diakonia, vol. 11, number 2, Sept. 1997 issue. This publication is available in the Protestant Reformed Seminary library or by writing Brookside Publishing, 3911 Mt. Lehman Road, Abbotsford, BC V4X2M9, Canada.