Barrett L. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
The following or similar events could happen in your church.
Because a man of the church falls into the sin of drunkenness, drives while intoxicated, and finally slams into a parked car, he is arrested, put in jail, and the story appears in the next day’s daily paper. The elders visit the man and find that he is sincerely penitent. He even appears before the consistory out of the desire to show the elders that his repentance is sincere. But the consistory makes a public announcement to the church . . . .
A young, confessing member of the church is caught by his parents in the sin of stealing. When confronted with the matter, he refuses to confess his wrong and repent. Finding all admonition fruitless, his parents decide to call the elders of the church. After much work, the young man is barred from the Lord’s Supper. Then, after more work, it is announced that the congregation pray for an unrepentant sinner in the church. Later, when he consistently refuses to repent of his sin, his name is announced and the congregation exhorted to pray for him and work with him. Finally, when no repentance comes, he is excommunicated . . . .
A young woman in the church commits fornication and becomes pregnant. Because she is truly sorry for her sin, she confesses it before God and to the consistory. Yet the consistory is adamant that a public announcement of her sin and confession be made in church . . . .
“Is there something wrong with the way the church of Jesus Christ handles sin in the church?” some murmur. “Why can’t the matter be left in the privacy of the consistory room? Isn’t there another, more loving, sensitive way to deal with sinners? Why does sin so often have to be brought to the attention of the entire congregation? Doesn’t that only make things worse?” These and more are some common, sometimes sincere, questions raised about the practice of Biblical church discipline. So that we can be clear on what the Lord commands us to do, let’s look at some of these questions and try to come to some conclusions about proper, Christian church discipline.
Proof is hardly needed that there are objections to the methods used by the church in discipline, described in some of the situations above. That the direction of the church today is away from the Biblical doctrine of church discipline is obvious. And this movement is no less than fatal for the church. Even though most Reformed Christians often hear instruction from the Heidelberg Catechism and the Scriptures about this vital aspect of the church’s work, there are still those who voice objections to church discipline when it is exercised in their church.
Just as obvious (and, in a way, more heartening) is the fact that when many of these objectors are confronted with the Biblical directives for discipline, they are amazed at the clarity and simplicity with which the Bible presents the Lord’s instructions. These articles are written for those who desire to know and return to the Biblical doctrine of church discipline. For those who have willfully departed from the plain directions of the Scripture, and desire to pursue expediency rather than rightness in the church, it is hoped that this will lead them back to the way in which the Lord commands His blessing.
Discipline is so important for the church of Christ that, to the extent the church fails to discipline, to that extent it forfeits the right to be called the true church (see Belgic Confession, Art. 29). John Calvin saw this urgency when he wrote, “Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place” (Institutes, IV, 12, 1). The church is impotent when it does not discipline its members. It is no surprise then that the Lord of the church severely warns the church that they risk destruction if they fail to exercise discipline (Rev. 2:14, 15, 16, 20).
There are those who believe that there should be no discipline at all by the church. But these are governed by what is easiest (expediency), and by what they like best (selfishness), more than by what the Bible tells us to do (Biblical propriety). It is assumed that all who read this desire to be governed by Biblical propriety. Others take the position that discipline is necessary, but should never be made public. These often ask the question, “Why make things worse than they already are?” A third party wants discipline—harsh, severe, and as stiff as possible. When a sinner is caught in his sin, he stands ready to sling the first stone, lest any get the impression that sin will go unpunished. This kind of radicalism we need to avoid at all costs.
Our (Biblical) position is that discipline—in a loving, caring, kind manner—must be practiced at all costs. It may never be neglected. The church indifferent to God’s holiness and displeasure with sin is a church in the quicksand of self concern. While ignoring sin within her own ranks, the church can never stand against her enemies (read about Achan in Joshua 7). We need to have proper, careful, consistent church discipline. There are a number of different ways that discipline is practiced. Everyone knows that God disciplines us when we sin. And He does that by putting us in difficult circumstances and by the agency of His convicting Spirit in our hearts. Who has not experienced the chastening hand of his Father in heaven when he has been pursuing an unhindered course of sin? (Read about this process in the Canons of Dort, Chapter 5, Articles 1-8). Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth (Hebrews 12).
There is also a discipline exercised by individual members of the church. Parents carry this out with their children (the most common and urgent discipline in this category), husbands and wives with each other, friends with friends. God calls us all to admonish and discipline each other (Col. 3:16, etc.). In fact, we might even be able to say that the backbone of church discipline is the exercise of Christian censure among members of the church. When a fellow member fails to admonish another whom he knows is walking in sin, he asks for grief in the church. But when he brings a brother or sister’s sin to their attention, and the sinner is brought to repentance, he has been used as a means in God’s hand to save a soul from death and hide a multitude of sins (James 5:20). The revised Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (1965) makes a special point of this in article 78b: “The exercise of admonition and discipline by the consistory does not preclude the responsibility of the believers to watch over and to admonish one another in love.” Properchurch discipline cannot function unless individualdiscipline is active.
But the discipline with which most have the greatest problem, and about which the most questions are asked, is discipline performed by the ruling body of the church, either in the privacy of the consistory room and home, or the publicity of the congregation.
This discipline by the church is Biblical.
As we saw above, the Lord threatens with destruction the church that is lax in discipline (Rev. 2). The Lord told His disciples in Matthew 16 that to them was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. As representatives of the church of all ages, they were given the authority to open and close the gates of the kingdom of heaven (discipline) in the name of Christ Himself. In Matthew 18 Christ gave more explicit instructions on how that discipline should be carried out. The point in this text is that Christ gave to thechurch the calling to deal with unrepentant sinners. (The procedure is outlined in the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches in Articles 71-78; before going on, please read these articles carefully, and note how the proper, Biblical method was followed in the illustrations above.) In Titus, where the apostle Paul instructs Titus how to “set in order the things that are wanting” in the churches of Crete (Titus 1:5), he told Titus that the church should reject “a man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition” (Titus 3:10). And in the book on “how to behave . . . in the house of God” (I Timothy 3:15), we are told that those who sin are to be rebuked before the entire congregation (I Tim. 5:20). Further texts for our instruction are I Thessalonians 5:14, II Thessalonians 3:14 the church is called to discipline its members who walk in sin.
And that we are not wrong in interpreting these texts to teach discipline by the church is supported by the fact that the church of all ages disciplined in basically the way that is done by faithful Reformed congregations today, as given in The Church Order mentioned above.
That is, discipline by the church is also confessional.
A careful study of the confessions of Reformed churches attests to that. There is not room here to quote from all these confessions, but a check of these references will help make the point (for those not in the Psalter, see Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3). Belgic Confession (1561) Article 29; The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Questions and Answers 82-85; The Church Order of Dort (1618, 1619) as revised and adopted by the Protestant Reformed Churches, Articles 71-78; The Westminster Confession (Presbyterian churches, 1647) Chapter XXX, Paragraphs 1-4; The Cambridge Platform (Congregationalists in the USA, 1648); The Savoy Declaration (1658) Chapter 27, Paragraphs 18, 19; Calvin’s Institutes, Bk IV, Chapter 12; and the forms for Confession of Faith, Excommunication, and Readmittance found in the back of the Psalter.
The significance of these references is that the confessions are not merely men’s opinions, but the fruit of the Spirit’s influence in the church. Christ promised to lead the church into all truth by His Spirit (John 15, 16) and the confessions of the church are the fruit of that leading. And if anyone does not agree with the church discipline exercised in Reformed churches, he should first answer the question of history. What did the church in the past do? That is, where did the Spirit of truth lead the church of our fathers? And unless one can show clearly that they were wrong in disciplining as we do now, he ought to be very cautious in making radical changes in how and whether we discipline.
God grant us grace to be faithful in maintaining the marks of the true church, according to the commandments of His word.
(In next issue: The Steps of Discipline, The Purpose of Discipline, The Reason for Public Exposure in Discipline, and Answers to Some Common Objections.)