Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
“As Christian discipline is of a spiritual nature, and exempts no one from civil trial or punishment by the authorities, so also besides civil punishment there is need of ecclesiastical censures, to reconcile the sinner with the church and his neighbor and to remove the offense out of the church of Christ.”
Church Order, Article 71.
Article 71 introduces the fourth and last section of the Church Order. The section is entitled “Of Censure and Ecclesiastical Admonition.” The following overview of the articles in this section may be helpful.
Article 71: The necessity of Christian discipline.
Articles 72 & 73: Reconciliation of private sins.
Articles 74-78: Reconciliation of public sins.
Articles 79 & 80: Discipline of officebearers.
Article 81: Censura Morum.
Articles 82 & 83: Membership transfer.
Articles 84-86: Conclusion to the Church Order.
Article 84: Warns against hierarchy.
Article 85: Warns against division over non-essentials.
Article 86: Asserts the binding character of the Church Order.
Article 71 is introductory. Ittreats the necessity and character of Christian discipline. The article asserts the right of the church to exercise discipline over its members. And it points out the benefit of Christian discipline, both for the one being disciplined and the church called to exercise discipline.
It will become plain that the Church Order is primarily concerned in this section to establish the basic biblical principles which underlie Christian discipline. On the basis of these fundamental principles, the Church Order will set forth some basic rules as far as procedure is concerned, rules that will insure that discipline is carried out in decency and good order.
The Church Order is not and does not attempt to be a “rule book” for discipline, multiplying laws in an effort to cover every conceivable situation. That simply is not the purpose of the Church Order. Every “case” is different. And each consistory must be allowed the freedom to exercise Christian discipline according to the exigencies of each case.
The Nature of Christian Discipline
The article states that Christian discipline is “of a spiritual nature.” In order to establish clearly the nature of Christian discipline, the article distinguishes Christian discipline from “civil trial or punishment by the authorities.” There are several differences between Christian discipline and civil punishment. The following are some of the most important:
1. Object is the member of the church.
2. Aims at the purity of the church.
3. Standard is the Word of God.
4. Corrective and aims at the salvation of the sinner.
5. Carried out by the officebearers.
6. Key-power which concerns the opening and shutting of the kingdom of heaven.
1. Object is the citizen of the state.
2. Aims at good order in society.
3. Standard is the law of the land.
4. Punitive and aims at the satisfaction of justice.
5. Carried out by the magistrate.
6. Sword-power which concerns the outward deportment of the citizens of the land.
Article 71 clearly asserts the right of the church to exercise Christian discipline. The state may not interfere in this important calling of the church. One of the great achievements of the Reformation, under the grace of God, was that it wrested the key-power from the hands of civil magistrates who had usurped this prerogative of the church. This was at the heart of John Calvin’s struggle in Geneva.
At the same time, Article 71 is a word of warning to the church. For not only has it happened in the course of history that greedy rulers have robbed the church of her right to exercise discipline, but it has also happened that the church has lost sight of the “spiritual nature” of Christian discipline. This was true of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation. Well-documented are the cruelties perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Heretics were hunted, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Men and women were compelled to be members of the church, on threat of pain and punishment. Our Reformed Church Order repudiates this exercise of sword-power by the church. As Christian discipline is of a spiritual nature, so the means to carry out Christian discipline are of a spiritual nature.
This is not to say that a particular sin may not have both civil and ecclesiastical consequences. It may very well. The member of the church who is convicted of stealing or of public intoxication will face not only fines and imprisonment but also Christian discipline. For on the one hand he is dealt with as a citizen of the state, and on the other hand he is dealt with as a member of the church. The two spheres of authority, even then, must be kept clearly distinct.
The Object of Christian Discipline
But who are to be disciplined? Who is the object of Christian discipline?
Article 71 speaks of the object of Christian discipline as “the sinner.” It ought to be plain that the article does not have in mind all sinners. The church’s right to exercise discipline does not extend to all sinners everywhere. Paul makes that plain in I Corinthians 5:9-11, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” The object of Christian discipline is not the sinner outside of the church, but the sinner who is a member of the church. Article 71 makes that plain when it speaks of the purpose of discipline as reconciling the sinner with the church. That presupposes that the sinner is a member of the church. The following articles that spell out the steps of discipline also make this plain. The sinner under discipline is barred from the sacraments. That implies that he is a member of the church who otherwise would have the right to partake of the sacraments.
Even so, the object of Christian discipline is not every sinner in the church. In that case, we would all be subject to discipline, for we are all sinners. No, the sinner who is the object of Christian discipline is the impenitent sinner. He is the sinner who will not repent of his sin, although he has been admonished by the individual members of the church and by the elders. He nonetheless goes on hardened in his sin, living in his sin, openly practicing his sin. Such a sinner is the worthy object of Christian discipline and excommunication from the church.
The object of Christian discipline is the sinner. Our Reformed Church Order rejects the foolish and unbiblical practice of the Roman Catholic Church that applies censure to buildings and lands. Christian discipline is to be applied to persons, not to inanimate objects. Individual persons. The Reformed also rejected as contrary to Scripture Rome’s practice of placing whole provinces and kingdoms under the interdict, suspending the means of grace for all living in a certain locality. Neither did our Reformed fathers approve of Rome’s practice of censuring those who were already dead.
The sinner who is the object of Christian discipline is the sinner who is a communicant member of the church. That is implied in Article 71 and becomes plain in the following articles. Included in the steps of discipline is that the impenitent sinner is suspended from partaking of the Lord’s Supper, according to Article 76. That presupposes that he or she is a communicant member of the congregation.
There is no article in the Church Order that deals with the discipline of baptized members. Our practice of the erasure of baptized members is not set forth anywhere in the Church Order. Some have taken the position that in the strict sense of the word baptized members of the church cannot be disciplined. K. DeGier takes this position.
How must discipline be applied to baptized members? Baptized members are minors who, while living an unchristian life, must be admonished as much as possible by their parents. Being immature members, discipline can consist only in admonition: a baptized member cannot be censured and cannot be excommunicated. (Explanation of the Church Order of Dordt, p. 106.)
This is a mistaken position. The adoption of this position has had serious consequences in the churches that have taken this position. It simply is not true that the church is limited to admonition in the case of baptized members who walk impenitently in sin. Baptized members, too, who refuse to heed the admonition of the elders must be put out of the church. They are members of the church. That is the significance of their baptism. And if they embrace false teaching or walk in a wicked way of life, they must be set outside of the church.
Our Protestant Reformed Churches follow the procedure that is usually referred to as “erasure of baptized membership.” As is the case with excommunication, a consistory obtains the approval of the classis to proceed with erasure, explaining to the classis the sin in which the baptized member is walking, as well as the labors that have been carried out by the elders. Having gained the approval of the classis to proceed to the erasure, the consistory announces to the congregation that the erasure of this baptized member (his name being mentioned) will take place on such-and-such a date. Usually this will be a month or so down the road. Thus the members of the congregation are provided the opportunity to admonish this wayward baptized member. This is important. A consistory ought not simply to announce the erasure as an accomplished fact. Then the members are unable to visit the member involved, in order to seek his repentance before he is put out of the church. Congregational involvement is always a critical component of Christian discipline.
It would be good for our churches to adopt a procedure for erasure of baptized members. As it stands now, the procedure is simply a matter of following past practice. And there have been different procedures at different times and in different churches. Nothing compels a consistory, for example, to bring a matter of erasure to the classis. For the sake of decency and good order in so significant a matter as the discipline of baptized members, it would be well that a uniform practice be established.
The Purpose of Christian Discipline
Article 71 sets forth both positively and negatively the purpose of Christian discipline.
Positively, the purpose is “to reconcile the sinner with the church.” Christian discipline aims at the recovery and restoration of the sinner. Discipline’s design is not primarily punitive. Its goal is not “getting rid” of a troublesome member. But the aim is reconciliation, the glad reception of the repentant sinner back into the fellowship of the congregation. The purpose is the sinner’s salvation. Paul expresses the purpose in I Corinthians 5:5, “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.”
Consciously this must be the purpose. The temptation for elders, and even for the congregation, is that although we pay lip service to the purpose of discipline in the sinner’s salvation, we become so weary in dealing with the obstinate member that we simply want him gone. And we heave a sigh of relief when finally he asks for his membership papers or is excommunicated. That is wrong. We cannot expect God’s blessing on our exercise of Christian discipline,if we do not consciously seek by means of the discipline the salvation of the brother. The brother — remember.
But Christian discipline also has the negative purpose of “removing offense out of the church of Christ.” The motivation for discipline is not only love for the wayward brother, but love for the church. Love for the church does not tolerate impenitent sin in the congregation. Scripture and history bear out the devastating consequences of that sort of neglect of discipline in the church. Scripture warns that sin unrepented of in the congregation works like yeast leavening the whole lump (I Cor. 5:6, 7) and like gangrene infecting and destroying the entire body (II Tim. 2:17). For the sake of the purity of the church, Christian discipline must be exercised.
In the end, however, the purpose of Christian discipline is the glory of God. Article 71 brings that out, too, when it speaks of the purpose of discipline as removing offense out of the church of Christ. The church is Christ’s church. Christ is the Head of the church. The church is Christ’s body, called to stand in the service of and for the glory of her Head. But Christ is glorified when the members of His body rightly confess His name and walk according to His will. That is the preeminent purpose of Christian discipline.