Barrett L. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
Our children need to be disciplined when they sin. As children of God and members of the church, we need in our life the discipline of Christ directly with His chastening rod and heavy hand, making us repent from our deviant ways and return to the right relation with Him and our fellow believers. But He also gives the church the responsibility to discipline its members. That is, Christ uses at least two methods to bring us to our senses when we are pursuing an unhindered course of destruction—His convicting Spirit and the officers in His church. There are others, but these are what we are concerned with in church discipline.
The church which compasses land and sea to make converts, but fails to discipline its members, is a church that will self-destruct. The strength of a church is not determined by the number of people that it can retain within its walls, but rather by her ability to enforce the spiritual discipline of Christ, and to cast out of her fellowship those who refuse to walk according to the plain declaration and ordinances of God (see the Belgic Confession, Articles 29, 30).
That this is work humanly impossible to perform, none would deny. That it is sometimes unpleasant for all involved is certain. But I would rather have a surgeon cut me open and make me know pain, so that I could be healed, than that he mislead me into thinking that all is well by giving me a pain killer. The difference here is that our Surgeon is divine, and the sometimes painful and unpleasant remedy brings eternal life for those under His knife. Pray God that the church may use the tools of the divine Surgeon in love for the sinner, always with the desire that our brothers and sisters be healed.
Motives. Discipline must always be motivated by love for the sinner (an unrepentant sinner goes to hell and the repentant to heaven), love for the church (a little leaven leavens the whole lump: I Cor. 5:6), and love for Christ’s name (untouched sin in the body of Christ dishonors the Head as well). There are no carnal motives, nothing to gain for disciplining an erring member, no ulterior motives. This may even be an admonition to officebearers (and all of us) who might desire to “get rid of” a member who is one they would like “out of” the church. Discipline must be motivated by obedience to Christ and love for the church.
The purpose. Motive is similar to purpose. According to the Church Order of the The Protestant Reformed, Churches, article 71, the purpose of discipline is both positive and negative. Positively, discipline is always to save the sinner in the way of repentance. If the sinner repents, angels and elders rejoice. Let it be our prayer that none ever forget that purpose in discipline as it is exercised upon them or others in their church. Negatively, discipline is performed so that offence is removed from the church of Christ. If that is done by the sinner leaving his sins, we shout for joy. If that must be done by excluding the sinner, it is cause for great mourning (see I Corinthians 5:2), for then he reveals that he is not a true member of the body of Christ. These two purposes as given in Article 71 will come out more clearly as we look at the individual steps of discipline.
The ground. That is, “‘Why is discipline ever exercised in the church?” There is only one ground for discipline—ever. Often it is asked why an adulterer is disciplined, but not a liar or backbiter. “Isn’t the one worse?” But that question misses the point.Impenitence is the only reason anyone is ever disciplined. If a man murders, but is sorry for that sin, he will not be disciplined. But if a man gossips about his neighbor and does not repent, that “relatively light” sin can lead to excommunication from the church. The point is that only unrepentant sin—sin that is continued before God and the neighbor (no matter how seemingly slight it might be)—warrants discipline. Or, to be more specific, the only reason anyone is ever disciplined is the sin of failing to repent.
There are really two kinds of sins that could be dealt with here. Later, sins that have become public knowledge will be looked at. For now we will discussprivate sins that proceed the way of Matthew 18.
Matthew 18 gives us a basic outline for the different steps in church discipline; there the Lord tells us what to do when there is sin in His church. We will assume that all are agreed that in private sins the way of Matthew 18must be followed. That is, when a brother sins against you, you must go to him first alone to try to “win” him (in ideal circumstances, you and the brother ought to bump into each other on the way to one another’s homes. See Matt. 5:23, 24 along with Matt. 18). If no repentance comes, you take another or two with you. If the brother or sister still does not repent with these private admonitions, that compels you to “tell it unto the church” (vs. 18). By that command, Christ brings His discipline into the consistory room.
Do we understand this clearly? This means that we keep sin as private as possible. If no repentance is realized in private admonitions, we take it to the consistory—to no one else. There is probably a temptation to ask advice from others: friends, neighbors, other saints in the church. Christ forbids that. Out of love for the sinner, we must proceed immediately to the “church.” The consistory has been commissioned by Christ to take over at this point.
First Measure Taken. When the consistory is informed of the sin, and works long with the sinner who still refuses to repent, he must first be barred from the Lord’s Supper, lest it be desecrated and judgment fall on the entire congregation (see I Corinthians 10:21, 11:28-31, 34). This is called “silent censure” (and is not the “first step” of the three announcements made in the congregation: see box).
There are a couple of things that need to be said at this point. First, the consistory must continue to work with the unrepentant sinner until their knuckles are sore from knocking at his door. Unwearyingly they labor in love for the salvation of one of the wandering sheep. Continuously they pray that God will “afflict” the sinner so he might “learn His statutes” and confess, “It was good for me. . . ” With singleness of mind and heart they persevere in their labors to bring him back to Christ. Because we are all human, it is almost impossible to know the heart in one or two visits. And although an end must be determined by the prayerful decision of the consistory, never may it be laid to their charge that there was not enough labor performed.
Second, those taking heed to the wandering sinner must always use God’s Word. This is so critical that it cannot be gainsaid or left unsaid. No other sound will the sheep hear, but the voices of Christ through His Word. A sheep wandering can be brought back in no other way than by the voice of the Shepherd. They risk the Chief Shepherds severe reprimand who leave one of the sheep to the wolves because they refused to use Christ’s powerful Word. It alone can reach out to the hard heart, soften it, and retrieve the sinner. On the other hand, woe to any who, by using his own words, brings back into the flock a goat who might have been hardened had Christ’s Words been used properly. The exclusive tool to be used throughout discipline is the Divine Surgeon’s Knife.
After much labor in love and with the Word, if the fruit of that labor is not repentance, the consistory formulates a first announcement to the congregation.
The First Announcement. This is considered the beginning of the second measure. It is called the first step, because it is the first announcement to the congregation (see box). In this announcement, 1) the name of the sinner is not announced, “that he be somewhat spared” (Church Order, Art 77); 2) the patient care taken with the sinner is explained; 3) the congregation is notified that he has been often admonished and is now barred from the Lord’s Supper; and 4) the congregation is asked to pray that the sin be removed. There is both Scriptural and practical warrant for this step.
Titus 3:10 tells us that a man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition must be rejected. This at least gives us indication that a series of admonitions must be used with the sinner. That his name is not announced is based on the principle of Galatians 6:1 (we restore the brother in the spirit of meekness) and the principle that we must always labor in love with the sinner. The church does all that it possibly can to keep the sinner’s name private. That the problem is announced is to request the congregation’s prayers, but also to show the erring brother or sister that sin cannot be taken lightly. Let us never take it lightly either, but pray, pray, pray.
Always the desire is that the sinner be brought to repentance. And if that happens, the matter is always ended and announced as such to the congregation. Then is time for great rejoicing with the angels and the returned sinner. But in some cases there is still no repentance; and God’s word instructs to continue with discipline.
The Second Announcement. After receiving the approval of the Classis so that others can determine that the consistory has done its work properly (all names are kept confidential), the consistory makes an announcement similar to the first, but now includes the name of the sinner. Here is where so much misunderstanding comes, so we will be careful to explain the reasons for this action. (See also “objections answered” in the next article.)
From the viewpoint of the sinner, this is another step to show him (or her) the gravity of excommunication. It is another means to exhibit the horrible reality of being excluded by Christ from the kingdom of heaven—from Christ Himself. Their failure to repent is leading them on the path to eternal damnation. That is utterly serious.
From the viewpoint of the congregation, they must be involved in the process of discipline. All Christians are responsible to a certain extent for a sinner’s sins (see last article). And by making the name public, the church (consistory) is giving the congregation opportunity not only to pray for the impenitent, but also to visit, admonish, and pray with him.
Biblical support is found in II Thessalonians 3:14. This passage tells us that “if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” Two things are apparent and especially important in this text. First, the church is to “note that man,” that is, consider and mark who the impenitent one is. Second, the church does that before the impenitent is excommunicated (he is still considered a “brother”) so that the congregation has opportunity to “admonish him as a brother.” Reformed churches have determined that this is the orderly, obedient, and God glorifying way to exercise church discipline.
(Next: The Third Announcement; Excommunication; Why public announcements of repentant sinners who have committed public sins?)
Summary of the Steps of Discipline
FIRST MEASURE: Silent Censure (withheld from the Lord’s Supper)
SECOND MEASURE: The three announcements to the church (usually considered The Three Steps of discipline)
1.Announcement of sin with name withheld.
2. Announcement of sin and name (with Classis approval)
3.Announcement that excommunication will take place if no repentance is seen.
THIRD MEASURE: Excommunication itself (the last remedy)