The Importance of Christian Discipline

We called your attention to the fact that, also according to our Church Order, Christian Discipline is important as is evident from the several articles it devotes to this subject. To five of these we already called your attention. But there are still others. Article 76 reads as follows: 

“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. And if he, having been suspended, after repeated admonitions, shows no signs of repentance, the consistory shall at last proceed to the extreme remedy, namely, excommunication, agreeably to the form adopted for that purpose according to the Word of God. But no one shall be excommunicated except with the advice of the classis.” 

Also this article emphatically speaks of especially two items: admonition and repentance. 

As I have said before, there is, ultimately, only one sin that may or can lead to excommunication and that is the sin of impenitence. One who does not repent before God and man cannot receive forgiveness. But, on the other hand, if the sinner repents he must be forgiven no matter how great his sin may be or how often he sins. This is very evident from the answer which the Lord Jesus gave to Peter. The latter, evidently, was of the opinion that there must be an end to compassion and forgiveness and, therefore, he asked the question: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” It is plain from this question that the apostle considered himself rather generous, and we might be of the same opinion. After all, if the brother repeatedly commits the same sin against us, must we not come to the conclusion that the case is hopeless and that, when we have forgiven him seven times and he again expresses repentance and asks for forgiveness, we may refuse? But the Lord answers Peter: “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” And then Jesus finishes His answer by the parable of the king and his servants, the meaning of which is clearly that, if God forgave us all our sins by blotting them out in the blood of the cross, there can be no end of our forgiving one another. 

Hence, there must be repeated admonition in order to bring the sinner to repentance, and only when the impenitence of the sinner has become clearly manifest can he be cast out as a heathen man and a publican. 

The same idea is expressed in Article 77 of the Church Order: 

“After suspension from the Lord’s table, and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication, the obstinacy of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation, the offense be explained, together with the care bestowed upon him, in reproof, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and repeated admonition, and the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him. There shall be three such admonitions. In the first, the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned that he may be somewhat spared. In the second, with the advice of the classis, his name shall be mentioned. In the third, the congregation shall be informed, that (unless he repent) he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, in case he remains obstinate, may take place with the tacit approbation of the church. The interval between the admonitions shall be left to the discretion of the consistory.” 

We may ask: why must this lengthy process be followed, and why must all these admonitions be bestowed upon the sinner? The answer is that, before any member may be excommunicated, it must become perfectly manifest that the sinner is obstinate and impenitent. And in the deeper sense, the answer is that the motive of Christian discipline is, unlike that of the sword-power, love, the love of God in Christ, the love of the church, and the love of the sinner. 

Yet, even after the impenitent member has been excommunicated and is, therefore, to be regarded as a heathen man and a publican, the admonitions may and ought to be still continued. For in the Form of Excommunication, the congregation is admonished as follows: “Further we exhort you, beloved Christians, to keep no company with him, that he may be ashamed; yet count him not as an enemy, but at all times admonish him as you would a brother.” 

This means, of course, that the members of the congregation do not invite him into their homes, have no social gatherings with him, and also that they do not shake hands with him. But, on the other hand, they must not treat him as a personal enemy, but by admonishing him treat him as they would treat a brother. 

This is also evident from the prayer that, in the Form of Excommunication, is sent up to God. We refer to the following passage: “grant us to avoid all pollution of the world, and those who are cut off from the communion of the church, that we may not make ourselves guilty of their sins; and that he who is excommunicated may become ashamed of his sins; and since thou desirest not the death of the sinner, but that he may repent and live, and the bosom of thy church is always open for those who turn away from their wickedness; we therefore humbly beseech thee, to kindle in our hearts a pious zeal, that we may labor with good Christian admonitions and examples, to bring again this excommunicated person on the right way, together with all those, who, through unbelief and dissoluteness of life, go astray. Give thy blessing to our admonitions, that we may have reason thereby to rejoice again in him, for whom we must now mourn . . .” 

Hence, it is evident that, even after someone has been excommunicated, admonitions may and ought to be continued. 

The Church Order also visualizes the possibility that an excommunicated person may repent and desire to return to the bosom of the church. The following provides for that possibility: 

“Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church in the way of repentance, it shall be announced to the congregation, either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time, in order that (in as far as no one can mention anything against him to the contrary) he may with profession of his conversion be publicly reinstated, according to the form for that purpose.” 

The possibility may be remote, but it must be provided for: all things are possible with God. And after all, it is not the admonitions by the church or by the members of the church that cause any sinner to repent, but only God, even through the admonitions by the church and its members, Who can convert the sinner and bring him to repentance.

We now come to the important subject of discipline over officebearers, ministers, elders, and deacons. To this the Church Order devotes three articles. 

Article 79 reads as follows: 

“When ministers of the Divine Word, elders or deacons, have committed any public, gross sin, which is a disgrace to the church, or worthy of punishment by the authorities, the elders and deacons shall immediately by preceding sentence of the consistory thereof and of the nearest church, be suspended or expelled from their office, but the ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office, shall be subject to the judgment of the classis, with the advice of the delegates of the (particular) synod mentioned in article 11.” 

Let us notice here, in the first place, that this article does not speak of Christian discipline as such; i.e., of discipline that leads to excommunication, but merely of suspension and deposition from office. It, however, stands to reason, especially in the light of the fact that the article speaks of public gross sins which are “a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities” that, even after suspension and deposition from office, Christian discipline must still be exercised upon those that have been suspended or deposed, from office. If those deposed officebearers do not repent they must finally be excommunicated. 

Here we must face the question: what gross sin did the officebearers that were deposed from office in 1924 commit? The answer is: none at all. They certainly did not commit the sin of preaching or teaching false doctrine or heresy which are mentioned in the Church Order, Article 80. It is true, the Synod of 1924 adopted the notorious Three Points and with these the above named officebearers did not and could not agree. But, in the first place, we must not forget that the Synod, no doubt intentionally, never decided to advise discipline in spite of the fact that the committee of pre-advice proposed so to Synod. And, secondly, the Synod of 1924 gave what I consider a beautiful testimony to the two accused ministers. This testimony reads as follows: “On the other hand, synod declares that these ministers in their writings, according to their own repeated declarations, do not intend or purpose anything else than to teach and maintain our Reformed doctrine, the doctrine of Scripture and the Confessions; and it cannot be denied that they are Reformed in respect to the fundamental truths as they are formulated in the Confessions even though it be with an inclination to one-sidedness.” 

Now, let it, for the sake of argument, be admitted that this “inclination to one-sidedness” is true (which it is not), then I ask: when was it ever heard of that ministers who “are Reformed in the fundamental truths as they are formulated in the Confessions” were deposed from their office? 

I never heard of such a thing. At any rate it ought to be evident that the officebearers that were deposed in 1924 did not commit the public or gross sin mentioned in Article 79 of the Church Order. 

Secondly, Article 79 clearly states that discipline over ministers, elders, and deacons, i.e., their suspension or/and deposition shall begin at the consistory with the presence of the consistory of the nearest church. Also this fundamental rule of Reformed Church Polity was violated in 1924 by both Classis Grand Rapids East and Classis West. It is true that Classis Grand Rapids East was not as bold in its thoroughly hierarchical decisions as was Classis Grand Rapids West, but there was no essential difference. Both certainly violated Article 79 of the Church Order which clearly states that suspension of officebearers belongs not to the jurisdiction of the classis but to that of the consistory in connection with the consistory of a neighboring church. This principle both classes entirely ignored. 

Both deposed ministers and their consistories. In fact, Classis West deposed ministers, not only without any formal complaint against them, but even without any formal suspension from office. They were immediately deposed and that, too, in a comparatively few days! 

Talk about hierarchy!