Barrett L. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
(In the past 2 articles we have seen the Confessional and Biblical basis for church discipline of unrepentant sinners. The step of silent censure and the first two public announcements have been treated. Now we proceed to the third.)
The Third Announcement.
After the second announcement of discipline has been made to the congregation, the elders continue to work with the unrepentant sinner. It is difficult to continue labor when there is no positive fruit, but the call is still to work with the sinner.
The length of time between the second and third announcements must be made by the elders involved, and will be determined by the individual circumstances in each case. And, although work must be persistent and unceasing, dragging feet before the third announcement is not necessary. This is true because there has already been months and months of work done, and an obviously callous attitude toward the elders only reveals the need to proceed. The only reason the third step might be postponed would be signs from the sinner that he is being softened by the words of Christ’s admonition. Then all steps should be taken to work with diligence and prayer.
But if there is no repentance yet, the third announcement is made to the congregation. This announcement only reinforces to the congregation that the consistory is doing all that it can with the brother or sister. The work has not softened, but rather hardened the sinner in his sin.
That means that this announcement is to inform the congregation that a date has been set for excommunication. If no repentance is found before that date, the last measure that the church can take will be taken—exclusion “from the fellowship of the church.” When the congregation hears this announcement, they have opportunity to present to the consistory an appeal why the member under discipline should not be excommunicated.
If this does not happen, the congregation gives its “tacit approval” to the work and decisions of the consistory. The extreme remedy can be exercised.
The Extreme Remedy: Excommunication
Notice that the form calls excommunication a remedy. The purpose even here is the repentance of the sinner. None in the church wants a brother cut off from the church. All want his repentance and return to the fellowship of the church. This is our constant prayer to our Father.
When the last remedy is used, the Form is read and the sinning member is excommunicated. This form, probably one of the least used of our forms, carries in it a sense of humility that one would never expect in a form that expels from the church of Christ. One would expect a fiery denunciation of the sinner. But what we have is directed solely to the congregation, the majority of which consists of admonitions to the members not to presume they cannot fall. (We need to be familiar with our church formulas. After-recess programs in societies could benefit by a study of these forms.)
Not very many, though, are ever excommunicated by the church. Why? Not because the consistory fails in its work; not because there are not very many unrepentant sinners in the church; but because the unrepentants usually ask for their papers from the church before the consistory can finish its work.
Some present a fairly good argument for not granting membership papers to members under discipline who ask for them (see, for example, Daniel Wray, Biblical Church Discipline, Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 1978, page 14). But the Reformed Churches almost always have taken the stand that they may not withhold them. In 1918 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church took an official position on this matter. It declared: “Synod, considering that the withdrawal from discipline, to which one has freely subjected himself . . . for reasons which cannot stand the test of God’s word, is a sin which should not be esteemed lightly . . . and (that) these should not be released hastily; but (considering) also that one’s affiliation with the church as an organization as well as one’s continuation in the organized church, should remain to be an act of each one’s own personal choice, (therefore ore Synod) judges that no one can continue to be an object of church discipline if he persists in resigning his membership.” Membership in the institute of the church for confessing members is voluntary. Papers belong to the individual.
There are important implications here, especially for the young members of the church. They hear the announcements about the discipline. They know the sinner who is running in his sin. They understand the seriousness of excommunication and hear the sad discussions of their parents. But when a bulletin announcement merely announces that this same member has asked for and been granted his papers, it almost looks like an easy way out. We may not fool ourselves. Church members must be instructed that he who runs to escape discipline is bound for hell if he continues in that way. The church ought to be just as shocked and numbed by the act of “ducking” discipline as they are by the official pronouncement of excommunication when the form is read. Parents ought to be careful, and consistories cautious, that this seriousness is recognized by the church.
A second important implication is for those who receive the discipline. When confession of faith was made, they made the promise that they would submit to church government if they became delinquent. By asking for membership papers they are not only running from discipline, but breaking a promise made in confession. More seriously, they are leaving the God-given means for repentance and salvation. When they ask for their papers because they want to escape discipline, they leave Christ. It is Christ admonishing them through discipline. Christ calls them to confess and be reconciled with Him. When the elders come with the Word, Christ speaks. Asking for papers, then, even if the excuse is given that another church will be joined, still means that Christ is shunned. And the member who leaves actually “excommunicates” himself. Pray that we all may be able to keep the promise made at confession, to submit to all discipline.
Treatment of excommunicated persons
One very difficult problem raised by excommunication is the manner in which we treat the excommunicated brother, or the brother who has left because of impending excommunication. Though we don’t have room to deal with that problem in detail here, there are two points that need to be made.
First, we may not let our own feelings guide us on this point. It is very easy to reason like this: “You would think differently if it were your son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister.” Or, “How would you feel if you were excommunicated and no one spoke with you?” The point here is that we must be guided by the Scripture alone, or else be mired in all kinds of (understandable) opinions.
Second, then, there are two extremes that must be avoided. The one extreme is treating the excommunicated brother after expulsion from the church no differently than before. Scripture calls us to separate ourselves from the brother. Romans 16:17instructs us to avoid those who have caused divisions and offences in the church. In I Corinthians 5:11 Paul says the saints are not even to eat with one in the church who is called a brother but is living in grievous sins. And II Thessalonians 3:15 gives one important reason, from the viewpoint of the brother. “Have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.” Were we to continue as if nothing were wrong, the expelled brother would not be reminded of the urgency to repent from the sin that keeps him out. The King of the church calls us to treat him as “an heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:17). The disciples had no problem understanding that kind of language. That is, the only contact we may have with these persons, other than necessary contact (for example at work), is this: In the spirit of meekness (Gal. 6:1, 2) admonish them for their sins and call them to true repentance. This is difficult, but Scripturally necessary.
The other extreme is that we treat the brother as one would a leper: do not come close to him; ask him to cry out when he comes near; and turn the other way when he is met on the street. There is just as grave a danger in this extreme as in the other. When a brother or sister is excommunicated, the Form calls all God’s people to their duty. In the closing prayer we ask God to “grant . . . that he who is excommunicated may become ashamed of his sins . . . we therefore humbly beseech thee, to kindle in our hearts a pious zeal, that we may labor, with good Christian examples, to bring again this excommunicated person on the right way . . . .” This pious zeal and faithful labor is missing in most of our lives. God’s people ought to bend every effort to find opportunity for this kind of labor. Calvin says, “. . . though ecclesiastical discipline does not permit us to live familiarly or have intimate contact with excommunicated persons, we ought nevertheless to strive by whatever means we can in order that they may turn to a more virtuous life and may return to the society and unity of the church” (Institutes, IV, XII, 10). When that is missing, hypocrisy and Phariseeism are not far behind.
Pray God for the proper balance in this delicate matter.
So far we have assumed that the sins dealt with by the church were private sins that became the work of the church because of failure to repent. There is a different class of church discipline that is exercised over those whose sins are public. It happens, for example, that crimes are reported through the daily newspaper, a sin is seen by a large part of the church at a public gathering, or by the very nature of the sins themselves they become public. If these sins are not repented of, censure follows in the same manner as outlined above, except that it begins immediately at the second announcement. The knotty problem comes when the public sin is confessed before the consistory. (see the example at the beginning of the first article: Jan. 1, 1986) What to do? Leave it, or announce it publicly?
Reformed churches (until lately) have generally taken the stand that after confession is made to the consistory, it must be announced before the congregation. To this some object.
Let’s look at some principles involved to see that a public announcement is necessary.
First, a public act of disobedience diminishes or smears the glory of the holy God. It gives occasion for the enemy to blaspheme and ridicule the church. The glory of God demands that all be informed that confession has been made to the Lord, and that the sinner has found forgiveness at His throne.
The second is implied in the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, article 75, where it is said that reconciliation of public sins is done “in such a manner as the consistory shall deem conducive to the edification of each church.” The purpose of all public announcements is the good of the congregation and of the repentant sinner.
When confession of a public sin is announced publicly, the congregation is informed that the consistory is doing its work, and does not take sin lightly. The consistory is concerned about the erring brother.
Another principle has to do with the publicity of the sin. When a church member commits a sin that is known by most of the congregation, the natural (though sinful) result is talk. Everyone knows. Everyone talks. The result is that the story becomes worse and no one knows the truth. One purpose of the public announcement is to silence this talk. The announcement says, as it were, “The sin has been confessed. The sinner has been forgiven by God. Nothing more need be said by anyone.”
And that leads to the principle of reconciliation. Unconfessed sin causes a barrier between sinners and God, as well as between sinners and other church members. When confession before God is made known to the congregation, the barrier is removed. God’s people then also forgive and desire to deal with each other again with intimate fellowship of saints.
(to be concluded)