Barrett L. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
Love is the ingredient required in all church discipline. Church discipline must be loving church discipline. Whether it be discipline of sins that are public, sins known only by the consistory, or sins dealt with on a private basis, all discipline must be done out of true love for the sinner. And that love must be shown to the sinner. Parents who discipline children without a generous portion of love both as their motive and in their administration are in serious error. So the church. Discipline that is not loving church discipline, done with a sincere desire to see the sinner made right with God, is not worthy of the name discipline.
When it is understood that discipline is done out of love for the sinner, most objections that are raised against the Reformed and Biblical practice of church censures will be answered. But because there always are sincere questions and objections, we will try to answer some here.
“Doesn’t the Bible teach us that we are not supposed to judge others?
‘Judge not that ye be not judged . . . .’ It seems that discipline is judging.”
The passage quoted is very important for us to understand. It condemns severely those who disobey. The kind of judging is important though. Does Jesus mean that no opinions about anyone may be formed? Is it the case that we may never form a judgment about someone’s actions? From the context in verse 6, John 7:24, and many other passages, it is clear this is not the case. If that were the case, parents would not even be able to teach their children how to judge which persons they ought to have as close, personal friends.
Judging from the context (see verse 2), the text fromMatthew 7 means that men ought not judgehypocritically. A man with a beam in his eye cannot “see through” or see clearly to perform the delicate act of removing a sliver from a brother’s eye. The significant point, then, is that not all judgment is condemned, merely the wrong kind of judgment. Christ clearly tells the church to judge sinners, and He condemns the church which does not (I Cor. 5:1, 2; Rev. 2:20). But required is a “righteous” judgment (John 7:24).
Second question: “If judgment must be made on sinners, then how is it possible for men who are sinful to make that judgment?”
There is no doubt that all the men in the church are sinful, no less the consistory members. They must be and are painfully aware of that. Christ calls sinful men to exercise His authority in the church. Thus it cannot be avoided that sinful men carry out what Christ calls the church to perform.
Since all officebearers are sinful, the possibility of partiality is real. Thus there are a number of safeguards that the church uses to protect against hypocritical or unfair judgment. 1) First, and foremost, much prayer is raised to the Lord for wisdom in dealing with sin. Without this the Lord does not bless the work of the consistory. 2) After this the church carefully follows the Biblical and ecclesiastical (Church Order) guidelines to insure that they proceed properly. 3) Another most useful precaution is that not only the consistory involved, but all the consistories in the classis, must give approval to proceed with the step of discipline in which the name is announced. Careful analysis of the consistory’s work is made at this classical meeting to make sure the consistory has remained objective in its work. (See previous article on the second announcement). 4) If one of the consistory members disagrees with the process taken, he can protest the decision and postpone action until classis meets or until further advice can be sought. 5) Also honored in the process of discipline is the prophetic office of all the believers. If a confessing church member sees that the consistory has used wrong judgment in a particular case, he has opportunity to present it and possibly convince the consistory to change its course. If not, and the member. still feels the consistory should reconsider, the classis can help adjudicate the matter. Understanding the danger of “sinners teaching sinners,” the Lord provides many ways to prevent partiality.
Third question: “Why are only a select few people ever disciplined? Should not all the members of the church be disciplined?”
All God’s people are disciplined. God disciplines all His children by convicting them in their hearts. No child has ever gone through the tempestuous years of youth without knowing what the rod feels like. So no child of God has gone through the stormy years fighting his own sinful flesh without knowing Gods “rod and staff,” which “comfort” him.
But more important, and at the heart of this question, is this truth that must never be forgotten: The only sins that are ever disciplined in the church are unrepentant sins. Why isn’t every sin disciplined? Because they are confessed. In my closet I confess my sins to the Lord. At an early age children must learn to confess their sins to God. When my neighbor confronts me with my sins, to him I confess them. But if one refuses to repent of his sin—no matter how small—he must be an object of discipline and eventually excommunicated. On the other hand, the most heinous sins (if they are confessed to God) are never the object of discipline. In other words, the boundary that divides disciplined sins and non-disciplined sins is the clear line between impenitence and repentance. The determination of discipline or no discipline is made by one judgment—repentance.
Fourth question: “With public sins, it seems that the sinner should be able to have a say in the publicity of his own name. Would it be possible for the sinner himself to decide whether or not his name would be made public if the sin has already been confessed?”
Solomon said that a good name is to be desired above great riches and more than precious ointment (Proverbs 22:1; Ecclesiastes 7:1). The desire for preserving the honor of one’s name is not only real, but proper. A good name is to be treasured. Thus the question is a good one.
When one commits a public sin, he mars his own name. By his sin he has made a mark on his own reputation. The very purpose of publication of his name is to remove that mark. If nothing is done, the mark would become worse. An announcement is to clear the name of the repentant sinner, proclaiming that he stands right before God and men.
If we understand the other reasons for the publication of the name in discipline (see last article), there can be no question about whether or not it should be announced. For the glory of God’s name, for the good of the church, for the silencing of talk, and the reconciliation of the sinner to the rest of the church—all this demands that the name be announced.
Fifth question: “Would it be more loving to work patiently with sinners instead of placing them under discipline? Discipline seems to fail to show the love of God in Christ.”
There are really two questions involved here. First, discipline and patient working are not mutually exclusive. That is, one can both discipline and deal patiently, as has been shown in the last articles. If there is any evidence whatsoever that the sinner desires to turn, much patience and continued longsuffering is used. The Form for Excommunication speaks of “the least token of repentance . . . .” But second, the question also implies that discipline fails to show the love of Christ, which is a more serious matter. It is ironic that nowadays discipline is rejected in the name of love. “We must love one another.” John, the apostle of love, wrote that to love God is to walk after His commandments. And as we have seen, the exercise of discipline is one of God’s commandments to the church. Thus, whether discipline is seen as a display of love or not, it shows our love to God because Christ commands it.
But we can go further than that. When discipline is used properly it is a profound display of the love of Christ. The love of Christ to me confronts me in my sin every day. To say that leaving a sinner to continue unhindered is more loving than confronting him with church discipline is to say that leaving a child to walk freely into disaster is more loving than bringing an urgent warning. To discipline sinners is the only way to show the love of God in Christ.
Sixth question: “I don’t know if I understand how excommunication is a remedy, as was said earlier. Can you explain that further?”
A remedy is given with the hope of healing an ill. Excommunication is another measure performed in the hope that the sinner will be ashamed of his sin, see the eternal consequences of his sins, and turn from them. In that way a spiritual wound in the soul of the sinner, as well as in the church body, will be healed. Sometimes, according to God’s will, that does not happen. But the hope and prayers always must be that the remedy will bring healing.
Seventh question: “If the church does excommunicate a member, is there then any hope for him? I would like to keep working with him.”
Thankfully, there is hope. The Lord can soften the hardest of stubborn hearts – and has. In the early history of the church there was debate about whether or not to let back into the church those who had been excommunicated. (Although the question was not quite that simple.) And at times there was no return possible. But in the back of our Psalter we have a form drawn up specifically for that purpose. (Here again, this form would make a profitable study in an after-recess program of a society.)
Excommunication by the church simply declares that if the sinner continues to walk in his sins without confession and repentance, he is bound to die in those sins unforgiven. But if he confesses, he can and will be lovingly restored to church membership. A repentant sinner is granted reentrance into the “communion of the church” no less than the contrite prodigal son was mercifully taken into his father’s home. The Form emphasizes this first in the language of the excommunication. (See also the Form for Readmitting Excommunicated Persons). “N. is excommunicated . . . from the church of God, and from fellowship with Christ . . . so long as he obstinately and impenitently persists in his sins. . . .” And in the prayer: “since the bosom of the 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 . . .” (emphasis mine, BG).
And that brings up the last part of the question. You not only might like to continue working with the excommunicated sinner; you must. It is our duty—for the glory of God’s name and the salvation of the sinner.
Discipline never will be easy to receive or to exercise. Objections will always be raised. But until the Lord takes us to perfection where no vice will hold us, we will always be in the flesh, needing the nurture and admonition of the Lord. May God give the church the grace to continue faithful in its calling, and to us sinners the grace to submit, in case we should become delinquent (which may God graciously forbid), to church discipline. God grant it.