The Elders and Discipline

Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

In previous articles we have discussed the elders’ calling to shepherd the flock of God. In this and succeeding articles we will consider the more specific calling of the elders to exercise church discipline with respect to those in the congregation who impenitently walk in sin.

The seriousness of this matter of Christian discipline is obvious from the emphasis placed upon it in Scripture, the Reformed confessions, and the Church Order. We have in previous articles repeatedly called attention to the various Scripture passages which speak of the elders’ calling to exercise Christian discipline in the church. We will not repeat these.*

We do wish to remind the reader, however, that this is a confessional matter. The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the preaching of the Word and Christian discipline as the two keys of the kingdom of heaven by which the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers. The elders are called to exercise Christian discipline by brotherly admonishing those who maintain doctrines or practices inconsistent with the command of Christ. They must also forbid the impenitent the use of the sacraments, and by this the impenitent are excluded from the Christian church, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ (Q. 83, 85). The Belgic Confession speaks of Christian discipline as the third mark, by which “the true church may certainly be known, from which no man has the right to separate himself” (Art. 29). The Confession also stipulates that the elders must punish transgressors, be called by Christ through the church, and exercise good order among themselves and in God’s church (Articles 30 -32).

The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches likewise carefully presents the calling of the elders to exercise discipline in the church. The elders and ministers of the Word are “to exercise church discipline and to see to it that everything is done decently and in good order” (Art. 16). The elders are called to apply the various steps of censure which culminate in the “last remedy,” excommunication, and they are to supervise the reconciliation of repentant sinners (Arts. 71 – 78).

Articles 71-78 lay down the general and fundamental rules of discipline as these are rooted in the principles of discipline revealed in Holy Scripture. The Church Order does not give a detailed list of rules to be followed rigidly in every case of discipline. Such would be impossible, for each case is unique. This means, therefore, that consistories must determine how to apply the basic rules in each instance. While each case is unique, and while the rules may, for that reason, be applied differently in each case, the rules or principles remain the same. Those rules, furthermore, do apply in each case. The fundamental, basic rules set forth in this section of the Church Order are: 1) Every attempt must be made to save the erring member; 2) The sin must be confessed and left by the erring member; 3) There must be, in the way of the confession of the sin, reconciliation with God and with his church; and 4) The church of Jesus Christ must be kept pure by way of the removal of the offense which sin causes.

Article 71 distinguishes Christian discipline from civil punishments. Christian discipline, the article maintains, is “of a spiritual nature.” This means Christian discipline has to do with one’s place in the church and kingdom of God. Civil punishment has to do with one’s conduct as a citizen of the state and with maintaining good order in society. These two spheres must always be kept distinct. Even if the individual, guilty of but one sin, falls under the jurisdiction of both the civil magistrate and the elders of the church, the two spheres of authority must be kept separate. The sinner may be reconciled with God and his church in the way of repentance of his sin, but he is not by this exempt from the penalties the state is obligated to impose on him. A person may have committed the sin of stealing. He may have confessed that sin and been in this way restored to good standing in the church. But this does not mean that he is exempt from serving time in prison.

Article 71 also speaks of the twofold purpose of Christian discipline. One purpose of Christian discipline, and this purpose has been lost sight of in our day, is “to remove offense out of the church of Christ.” The church of Christ is a manifestation of the body of Christ. Christ is her Head. Where sin is allowed to remain in the church there is offense. It becomes the occasion for the world to speak evil of Christ and His church. The offense must be removed. Not only so, but when sin appears in the body of Christ, reproach, confusion, separation, offense, evil speaking disrupt the communion and fellowship of the people of God. The offense must be removed both for the sake of the church as a whole and for the sake of the individual members of the church. The sin is removed and fellowship is restored when the sinner is brought to repentance and is reconciled with God and his church by means of Christian discipline. Sometimes it is necessary to remove the offense by excluding the impenitent sinner. By one’s refusal to repent after being repeatedly admonished by the elders and the people of God, the sinner reveals that he is not a member of Christ’s body. This sinner must be cut off lest the whole body become infected with his evil. The table of the Lord must not be profaned by an impenitent sinner. This, then, is the negative aspect of the purpose of Christian discipline. Offense must be removed from the church of Christ.

The other purpose of Christian discipline is the salvation of the sinner. This is the purpose of the preaching of the Word as the chief key of the kingdom. Preaching aims at preserving the purity of the church by removing offense and by saving the sinner in the way of repentance. This is the purpose of the individual application of Christian discipline by the elders of the church as well. This is true in the objective sense, but it must also be true subjectively. The elders must, in the exercise of censure, be motivated exclusively by the desire to save the sinner. Never must their motive be to “get rid of” an undesirable member of the church. The salvation of the sinner must be their aim. Only when it becomes clear that the Word of God which the elders are bringing is hardening the sinner must they apply the “last remedy,” excommunication itself. Even when that last step is taken, it is taken with the prayer that God will use excommunication to bring the sinner to repentance and reconciliation.

In this connection it is extremely important to be reminded that the power of the keys of the kingdom and the authority of the elders of the church lie in the Word of God. The elders have no authority of their own to exercise the keys of the kingdom. When God binds in heaven what is bound on earth, this is not because God is concurring in the decisions of men. It is because the Word of God has had its effect either in saving or in hardening the sinner. The elders must be men who are steeped in Scripture. They must be men who have the ability, the gift from God, which enables them to bring the appropriate Word of God to the sinner. The elders must always, in all the exercise of Christian discipline, come with nothing more or less than the Word of God. And when the elders do this, they may be confident that God’s Word will never return void. It will always accomplish God’s purpose. The Word of God will work repentance in the godly and it will harden the ungodly. In both, God’s church will be kept holy and God’s name will be praised.

The Church Order speaks of two types of sins for which discipline is applied, error in doctrine and offense in conduct (Article 72). The idea of the Church Order certainly is not that all sins become the object of ecclesiastical discipline. God’s people have daily to put off the old man and put on the new. God’s people sin constantly according to the flesh. But the saints confess these sins both to God and to one another. And in the church where the love of God flourishes the saints assume of one another that each is confessing his or her sins and fighting against them (cf. James 5:16 and I Peter 4:8). These sins do not, in themselves, create offense in the church.

The Church Order is speaking of sins which cause offense in the church because the sinner refuses to repent of them. These sins are either sins in which the truth of the Word of God is denied or sins which transgress God’s holy law. They would, if allowed to remain in the church, destroy the communion of the saints and mar the holiness of the church. They might very well become the occasion for the unbelieving world to blaspheme the name of God and his Christ (cf. II Sam. 12:14).

But in the last analysis there is only one sin worthy of censure and excommunication, and that one sin is the sin of impenitence. All sins are equally serious and offensive to our holy, righteous God. All sin must be confessed and left. All sins may be forgiven in the way of the sinner’s repenting. This, after all, is the wonderful assurance of God’s Word, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10). It is only when the sinner refuses to repent of an error in doctrine or of an offense in conduct that Christian discipline is applied.

*Among the Scripture passages which form the basis for Christian discipline and which we have examined in some detail in previous articles are: Matthew 16:16-19; 18:15-20; John 20:23; Romans 16:17; I Thessalonians 5:12-15; II Thessalonians 3:6, 14; I Timothy 5:17-20; Hebrews 13:7, 8, 17.