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Prof. Barrett Gritters, professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Hudsonville PRC

 

There are two maxims I try to emphasize in seminary and my students will not be surprised when I repeat them here: “Avoid extremes” (keep your balance!) and “remember history.” Both maxims are important when it comes to the exercise of Christian discipline in the church, especially to discipline of some gross sins.

The extremes to be avoided are improper leniency and undue severity. An attempt to reflect the grace and mercy of God may result in improper leniency. A desire to reflect the holiness and justice of God may result in undue severity. Good intentions notwithstanding, both are errors.

Improper leniency dangerously minimizes sin, espe­cially gross sin. It probably does not do justice either to the magnitude of the offence or to the severity of the damage inflicted by the sin. It is also likely naïve, both as to the difficulty of turning from some sins and to the deceptive skills of some who are caught up in it. On the other hand, undue severity loses the biblical character of discipline, which must patiently and graciously re­store sinners in love.

It is on the end of undue severity that church histo­ry helps. John Calvin warns against “undue severity” which he says, if we are not careful, will soon “slide down from discipline to butchery” (Institutes, 4.12.10). More from Calvin and history in a moment.

Because we confess that Christian discipline is one of the three marks of the true church (Belgic Confes­sion, Art. 29), we want to exercise utmost caution to do it right, keeping in view the goals of discipline: the salvation of the sinner, the purity of the church, and the glory of God.

Improper leniency in discipline

First, mercy must not become a license to leniency.

It has been common in past generations for elders to hear a confession of sin, for example, from a young man and his girlfriend whose sin resulted in her preg­nancy; or from a young man whose drunkenness led to a wreck and arrest, which soon became public. A consistory would hear such confessions with great joy, believe the sincerity of them, and (after appropriate ad­monition from Scripture) quickly reconcile the sinners with the church. The judgment that the sinners were sorry seemed relatively straightforward.

It would be wrong, however, to treat all sins in that way. Some gross sins of longstanding are quite different than sins ‘of weakness,’ what some in the early church called venial sins. But sins that go deep into a man’s history and become a part of his existence—addiction to alcohol, drugs, pornography, sexual abuse, or acts of violence against a wife—are enslavements to Satan, repentance for which is complex. Some devils do not come out as easily as others (see Matt. 17:21). When sin reigns in him (Rom. 6:12), cry and try as he might, he will likely go right back to it.

Looking back on the twenty years of my pastoral ministry, I see cases where I was probably more than a little bit naïve and perhaps improperly lenient.

That some would err on the side of leniency is not surprising. For one thing, as I said, the mercy and grace of God toward us—undeserving as we all are—ought to be reflected in our disciplinary actions toward others. In addition, the law of charity that suffers long, is kind, and hopes and believes all things, requires in us a dis­position to believe what a brother or sister says. Charity warns against putting a cynical question mark behind every confession. Besides, since love covers sin (I Pet. 4:8; Prov. 10:12), our tendency ought to be: believe and as quickly as possible be finished. This Scripture must govern our conduct. Which is why church order com­mentators will recommend what VanDellen and Mon­sma did in the 1930s: “as a rule the repentant sinner ought to be received upon his testimony in the spirit of Christian love which gladly forgives and is eager to believe.”1

But every rule has exceptions; this one, too. Scrip­ture also requires wisdom, and being naïve about some gross sins is not wise. Reconciling impenitent sinners endangers both the sinner (it does not save him) and the church (does not purify her).

It is a danger for the sinner because he is allowed to live in the church as though all is well between him and his God, even though he is not truly penitent and thus not determined to break with the sin. No pressure is put on him any longer to put away his sin, so he continues in it and, if he does not repent, will perish in the sin. Reconciling prematurely, what the elders inadvertently did was to snip off the top of the weed but not reckon with the root that produced it. The evil outcome then is not merely that the weed returns—bad enough, but that it returns with a vengeance—the root now deeper, stronger, and more difficult to remove.

It is a danger for the church because the sin’s infec­tion will spread, the impenitent may further damage his family, and the judgment of God will fall on the congre­gation that allows him to the Lord’s table.

I plan to return to this naïve and improper leniency in the next article.

Undue severity in discipline

On the other end of the spectrum is an overly rigorous discipline that defends itself as honoring the holiness of God—as taking sin seriously, as it ought to be taken.

In Calvin’s commentary on II Corinthians 2 (the pas­sage where Paul exhorted the church to forgive the peni­tent sinner and confirm their love for him) Calvin speaks very critically of the ancient church fathers who were, in his words, “unduly severe” in their discipline. The an­cient fathers, he says, made the same mistake as the Co­rinthian church, which balked at restoring the penitent sinner. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul warned against leniency: “Discipline him!” Now the pendulum had swung the other way in their treatment of the same sinner, and Paul needed to warn against an improper rigor: “Restore him!”

Calvin saw a similar “lack of wisdom in the ancient bishops,” and wanted to warn against it in Geneva. They “ought not to be excused…but we ought rather to mark their error that we may learn to avoid it.” In his Insti­tutes, Calvin explained this “excessive severity of the ancients,” which both “completely departed from the Lord’s injunction and was also terribly dangerous.” He was referring to the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), which gave us the Nicene Creed. These ancients required that some penitent sinners be barred from the Lord’s Sup­per for three years, some for seven, some for as many as thirteen years, and some even until the day of their death. What can be the result of this butchery, Calvin asks, except “either great hypocrisy or utter despair?”2 Calvin says that Augustine agrees with his assessment of the early fathers. Augustine was born only 29 years after Nicaea and witnessed firsthand the discipline that became “harmful” and “ceased to be medicine.”

The system worked like this. The outwardly repen­tant offenders were labeled the penitent. These peni­tents needed to express their penitence by penance, in varying degrees, and none were restored to communion of the saints or to Christ in the supper until the penance was complete. There were four categories of penitents. The “Weepers” were to lay prostrate outside the church doors, begging to be restored. The “Hearers” were allowed to come inside the building to hear instruc­tion but not allowed to partake of the sacrament. The “Kneelers” were also allowed inside to hear the instruc­tion, but only in a kneeling posture. Finally, “Stand­ers” could participate in the whole worship, but always standing, not sitting with the other members. How long each ‘penitent’ was required to remain in a particular station depended on the severity of the sin and the judg­ments of the bishops, or elders. The minimum was three years; some were not restored for thirteen years; others, never. This is what Calvin and Augustine judged as un­biblical severity. Calvin even called it “butchery.”

As in the ancient church, so today, to allow discipline to slide into butchery is a temptation.

Understandably. When atrocious sins are committed in the church, the consequences of which are indescrib­ably awful, proper desires may lead to improper atti­tudes and practices.

When I first entered the ministry about forty years ago, there was a strong sentiment in some conservative circles that no repentance of any homosexual could ever be believed. That is, if someone was caught in this sin, the church should never believe him if he expressed sor­row for it. Likely, their reasoning would have been that, in judgment upon such a sin, God would not “grant re­pentance” to them (II Tim. 2:25). In effect, they were recommending the same severity as Nicaea—perhaps allowing them to attend church but cutting them off from the sacrament (and thus, from Christ) for their lifetime, even though they had confessed.

The same tendency may appear among us when faced with the sins of sexual or spousal abuse. I have heard more than once the view that those who criminally mis­treat their spouse will never repent—thus they cannot be believed; and that those who sexually abuse children will never truly turn from the sin. Thus, they propose the kind of probationary periods not unlike those the ancient church required. Maybe for life. If those who held this view were elders, they would put the penitent into the category of “Weepers” and ask them to remain outside for thirteen years.

If the failure to receive a repentant sinner is not for­mal, it may be practical: the member is held at arm’s length for the rest of his or her life, suspicion always hanging over him, a cold shoulder turned towards him. Officially reconciled, she is practically shunned, a scar­let letter permanently affixed to her bosom.

But our Lord says, of the worst of sinners: “Such were some of you,” and the reference is to homosexuals. In response to such an attitude in his day, Calvin said, “God, whenever it pleases him, changes the worst sin­ners into the best…” (Institutes 4.12.9).

Indeed, their genuine and full repentance may come with more difficulty, perhaps needs to be tested for a period of time, but the biblical caution of II Corinthians 2 is a necessary one: a truly repentant sinner is at great risk if the church does not restore him both formally, and very practically.

The needed instruction of II Corinthians 2

Very few forget the warning Paul gave in his first epistle: “discipline!” But very few remember what follows in his second: “restore!” When Paul writes II Corinthians, the congregation had finally excommunicated the man guilty of incest. But Titus has reported to Paul a good outcome to the discipline: he repented. In other words, God had blessed that cutting off by breaking the man’s hard heart. Now, however, the congregation was hesitant to receive him back!

Paul’s instruction in chapter 2 needs to be seen in its details.

1) The “punishment” of the sinner was “sufficient” (v. 6). In other words, it had accomplished God’s pur­pose. It had truly been medicine. Now the congregation must receive him back and do so carefully.

2) “Forgive” in verse 7 means both to speak pardon to the brother and do so not because he deserves it but graciously. That is, his repentance was the path to for­giveness, but not the reason.

3) “Comfort” refers to the practical words spoken to put his soul at ease; he must no longer fear their judg­ment or condemnation but know their full acceptance.

4) That the church must “confirm their love” for him likely is reference to an official and public declaration that he is absolved from the bonds of excommunication.3 The church loves him: they have determined good for him, con­sider him precious to them, and will do all they are able both to promote his wellbeing and embrace him as a broth­er—which is simply the definition of Christian agape.

5) Then Paul warns of the consequences of failure: “lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” “Sorrow” is the pain that an impen­itent sinner must feel.4 Discipline inflicts pain. But it is possible, says Paul, for the church to inflict too much pain. Thus, Paul warns of “overmuch” sorrow, sorrow that is excessive. And excessive pain will “swallow up” a man. What the roaring lion (the Devil) seeks to do to a man—swallow him up (I Pet. 5:8)—excessive discipline can do to a penitent sinner.

Paul does not specify how the man would be de­voured. Some guess suicide, but it is enough to imagine that the man simply sinks into despair. Calvin, remem­ber, suggests it will lead either to utter despair or hy­pocrisy. But the context soon gives direction. Verse 11 speaks of Satan getting an advantage; and “we are not ignorant of his devices.” In the case of leniency, the Evil One gives false assurance to the guilty. In the case of undue severity, he will inflict false guilt upon the true penitent. May we never cause that to happen.

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Brother elders, our responsibility as God’s judges is monumental. As God’s representatives, we are horrified at the possibility of undue severity. God gives strong cautions against that. We recognize that God’s precious sheep are under our care and cannot imagine that we would be guilty of allowing any of them to be swallowed up by excessive pain. God forbid we offend any of His own.

Be strong in the Lord, then, and in the power of Christ’s mighty Spirit. Be faithful in your calling to dis­cipline properly. May God, who loves the sheep more than we do, give you heavenly wisdom to discern the temptations on both sides.

Next time, God willing, the danger of improper le­niency.


1 Under article 74. Church Order Commentary, (Jenison, MI: RFPA, reprint 2018) 487. (Emphasis added.)
2 Find this in his Institutes, 4.12.8-11. For more information on this severity in the early church, the interested reader may look in Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, para¬graph 57; and H.J. Schroeder’s Disciplinary Decrees of the Gen¬eral Councils, pp. 8-58.
3 “Absolved” is the language of the “Form of Readmitting Ex¬communicated Persons,” (PRC Psalter). The Greek for “confirm” could be translated “validate officially.”
4 “Sorrow” in the Greek is the word from which we get the medi¬cal term “lupus,” a painful inflammatory disease.