V. Christian Discipline
Nature and Purpose
Since Church discipline is of a spiritual nature and, as one of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, has been given to the Church to shut and to open that kingdom, the consistory shall ensure that it is used to punish sins against both the purity of doctrine and the piety of conduct, in order to reconcile the sinner with the Church and with his neighbour, and to remove all offense out of the Church of Christ — which can be done only when the rule given by our Lord in Matthew 18:15-17 is followed in obedience.
With Art. 66 we have arrived at the last section of our Church Order, as the parts were mentioned in Art. 1. Not all articles in this last section deal with discipline per se. Articles 74, 75, and 76 have a different character, but there is no need to make a special, separate section for them.
The first article dealing with church discipline speaks about its nature and purpose. When we speak of “church discipline,” we have in fact characterized it already. Article 66 states that the church discipline is of a spiritual nature, and to some extent this may be considered superfluous, for is not everything the church does spiritual?
By stressing that church discipline is of a spiritual nature we emphasize the difference between the discipline of the church and the prosecution and punishment of transgressions in civil life. In the first place, the church no longer works with fines and imprisonment. In the second place the civil authorities will still punish a transgressor even when the church discipline has ceased because its goal has been achieved.
It did happen in the past that the church used the sword of the civil authorities to compel heretics to give up their errors and to return to the fold, or that heretics were imprisoned, banished, or even put to death. The same measures were used to persecute those who wished to live a holy life according to the will of God and who rebuked the church because of its disobedience, avarice, and idolatry. This practice was totally reprehensible, for it violated the spiritual character of this discipline. It revealed at the same time a mark of the false church.
The only means which the church has at its disposal by which it can exercise discipline is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. The church has no authority to impose fines or banishment, for these are worldly means. The only thing the church can do is speak the Word of God. His Word is applied most personally in matters of discipline. “According to this testimony of the Gospel,” we confess in Lord’s Day 31, “God will judge both in this life and in
the life to come.” When the church has declared that someone has been excluded from the Christian congregation, he is excluded “by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ.”
This exclusion may seem quite harmless, much less dangerous and harmful than a heavy fine or years of imprisonment, but it is far more serious. Church discipline has its own, spiritual character. Continued discipline may result in excommunication even when someone has paid his fine or completed his jail sentence. The object is not the punishment of the sinner but the punishment of sin and the salvation of the sinner.
Discipline is one of the two keys of the kingdom of heaven. The Lord Jesus Christ has entrusted these keys to His church. Discipline is the second one, and we confess that hereby the kingdom of heaven is closed and opened. This is a different order than the one mentioned with the first key: the proclamation of the holy Gospel, by which the kingdom is opened and closed. The difference shows the primary function of the second key, namely, to close the kingdom so that the Name of the Lord may not be blasphemed, that the church may be cleansed from pollution, and that the sinner may be brought to repentance.
It is the task of the consistory to ensure that this discipline is used to punish the sins, to see to it that sin is condemned and not condoned or whitewashed. If the church desires to remain the church of the Lord, the consistory must see to it that two things are done. In the first place it must rebuke and condemn sin as such, for this is one of the marks of the church that it “exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins.” And in the second place the consistory is to ensure that the discipline is used only to correct and punish sins. It is not used against those “who live holy lives according to the Word of God.”
At this point we must voice some criticism of the terms which are used in this article. The sins which cause one to become subject to church discipline are called “sins against both the purity of doctrine and the piety of conduct.” Although it is not difficult to understand what is meant by these terms, we must say that the terms per se are both incorrect and unclear.
It should be remembered that sin can be committed only against the commandments of the Lord our God. Violation of these commandments constitutes sin against Him as well as against the neighbour. To say, however, that one can sin against “the purity of doctrine and the piety of conduct” is incorrect. One could speak of “sins that pertain to an ungodly walk of life and heresy,” or “sins that cause someone to go astray in both doctrine and conduct.” But we have to work with the terms as they occur in this article.
Should one demand room to deviate from the truth of God’s Word, from the sound doctrine as summarized in the confessions, one would be seeking to acquire a totally unacceptable and unjustifiable freedom. Deviation from the sound doctrine is detrimental to the purity of life as well. The life of God's children cannot be divided into two or more sections, for instance, one for doctrine and one for conduct. When the Word of God is violated, His covenant is violated.
The Old Testament
Church discipline is not specifically a characteristic of the New Testament church. How could it be since it is the same church today it was in the days of Isaiah, David, Joshua, and Abraham? Certainly, today we live in the New Testament dispensation, but the church is still the same. For this reason we must go back to the Old Testament when we discuss the point of discipline. Did not the Lord Jesus appeal to the Scriptures on several occasions? When we study the words which our Saviour spoke during His life on earth, we discover time and again that His words were derived from the Old Testament Scriptures, or even quoted verbatim from them, though these quotations are not specifically indicated in our Bibles. The apostles, following in the footsteps of their Master, likewise appealed frequently to the Old Testament.
Old Testament discipline was applied in a different form than the New Testament discipline, but it makes very clear to us what excommunication means. When, for instance, the apostle Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 5: 13: “Drive out the wicked person from among you,” he follows the command of the Lord which we find in Deut. 17: 7 and other places, where the Lord tells His church: “So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you,” referring to those who went and served other gods. We find exactly the same words in Deut. 19: 9; 22: 24; and 24: 7.
Everyone among us knows of the command of the Lord Jesus to take one or two witnesses along if one’s private admonitions do not yield the desired fruit. As Deut. 19: 15 ff. shows, herein, too, our Lord continued in the line of the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament one was removed from the communion of the church on earth by being put to death. This shows what is implied when one is excommunicated: excluded from the communion of saints, alien to all the treasures Christ bestows upon His Bride.
It is again the Old Testament which teaches us very clearly what the holiness stands for which the Lord demands and expects from His people. Had He not set them apart from all the other nations and did He not warn them repeatedly that they should preserve their own character as His people, as the people of the covenant? To this end they had to exterminate the inhabitants of the land and break down their places of worship, thus removing thereby everything that could pose any threat to their specific status and their faithfulness to their Lord. They should keep themselves free from the pollution of Canaanite idolatry.
At this point we cannot elaborate further on the importance of the Old Testament for the understanding of the New Testament. The above will have to suffice for the moment. Later on we will come back to specific places in the Old Testament which form the background of the New Testament practice.
What is the purpose of church discipline? Is it to remove someone from the church, from the communion of saints? Could those affected by church discipline rightfully deride it and scoff that the church apparently wants to get
rid of them? If there is no repentance and return from the evil path, exclusion from the church will most certainly be the end, but no one may say that the purpose of the discipline is “to get rid of people.” On the contrary, what the church desires and seeks to achieve by its admonitions and rebukes is that the sinner shall be reconciled with the church and with his neighbour.
We speak here of the sinner. What do we mean by this and when can a person be qualified as a sinner? Are we not all sinners before the Lord? Do we not pray: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors?” This we explain as follows: “For the sake of Christ’s blood, do not impute to us, wretched sinners, any of our transgressions.”
“Sinner,” as it is used in this article typifies a person as someone who lets himself be dominated by sin, whose course of life is determined by sin. It is a person who so lets himself be influenced and directed by sin that he puts himself on a level and identifies himself with the sinful world. It is someone who commits an “abomination in Israel.” We know this expression from the Old Testament, for instance, from Deut. 17: 4. It means something which is completely alien to Israel as the people of the covenant, the people of the Lord. It is something which obliterates the difference between Israel and the heathen nations. One who commits an abominable thing in fact denies the special character of Israel and the antithesis between God’s people and the nations or, to say it in New Testament terms, between the church and the world.
A sinner in the sense in which it is used here in this article is therefore one who by his doctrine or conduct shows that not the Word and Spirit of God rule and dominate his thinking and actions but that he lets himself be guided by sinful desires or the spirits from the abyss, the spirits which dominate this world.
When one lets oneself be guided and directed by the spirit of darkness, one breaks thereby the unity of the body or rather, breaks in principle away from the body. One also becomes a source of infection which, unless it is removed, will have a destructive influence upon the congregation. Sin never remains inactive. On the contrary, it is an active power which continues to work like leaven. Deviation either in doctrine or in conduct renders the congregation subject to infection and death. For when someone is tolerated who erases the difference between the church and the world, the whole church will be dragged down to the level of the world, and what the end of this is can be seen with Israel: they were expelled from the land of rest, from the inheritance given by God in faithfulness to His promises given to the fathers.
The purpose of church discipline is to bring the sinner back from that disastrous path, to make him see that the way he chose must lead to everlasting ruin, and thus to free him from the hands of Satan. Once he has been convinced of this, he will be reconciled with the church, and will confess the damage he did to the church and ask for forgiveness. At the same time, if his aberration began with a sin against a particular member, he will be reconciled with his neighbour. When all this has been achieved, this is the end of the discipline for the member. He has been healed and so has the church.
Sin affects the whole church and endangers its character as the Bride
of Christ, the people of the covenant. We must be holy, the Scripture admonishes us, as our God is holy. The Lord our God has set us apart and made us His own, His special people, and this must be evident, Lev. 11: 44, 45; 19: 2. The apostle Peter impresses this upon the New Testament church in 1 Peter 1: 15, 16; 2: 9.
This shows that God’s own holiness is involved when His people preserve the special status He has given to them. It also means that the holiness of God’s Name is at stake when His people violate their own holiness. Then the Name of God is blasphemed, and this cannot be tolerated. Whenever Israel did not sanctify the Name of the Lord, He judged them Himself, and punished His people. The Name of the Lord is bound up with the name which His church has in this world.
For this reason the object of church discipline is that the holiness of God’s church be preserved and thus the honour of God’s Name be held high. To this end the sinner must be removed if there is no repentance. Achan, who identified himself with what lay under the curse by taking from Jericho’s spoil had to be removed from the midst of God's people so that the Lord’s favour and blessing might again be enjoyed.
From the above it is evident that the church discipline reaches only as far as the boundaries of the church. The apostle Paul shows this clearly when he tells-the church at Corinth: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you,” 1 Cor. 5: 12-13. The authority of the church does not reach beyond its boundaries. All that lies outside those boundaries lies outside the consistory’s authority.
This applies not only to those who never were a member of the church but also to those who were a member but have broken with it. Those who were being disciplined but broke with the church have thereby also placed themselves outside the reach of the office-bearers.
According to some the discipline should be continued in spite of the fact that a person has notified the consistory that he no longer wants to be a member of the church. It is the consistory, thus they reason, that has the ultimate say whether one does or does not belong to the church and for this reason the disciplinary procedure must be continued.
Membership of the church is a voluntary thing. One is not forced to become a member, neither is one compelled to remain a member. It is contrary to the Lord’s will if one breaks with the church, but if he wants to, he is free to do so. When one has broken with the church, he has thereby also withdrawn himself from the authority of the consistory, and the consistory cannot do anything but acknowledge the fact. Those (who have placed themselves) outside the church God will judge. The consistory as such cannot in these circumstances continue the disciplinary process.
The Word of God is the ultimate rule and judge. If a church does not exercise discipline according to God's Word, its whole action is powerless and without effect. For this reason the discipline of the false church has no effect
whatever in heaven. Exercising discipline is a very responsible and difficult task. Every step and every word should be regulated after the Word of God.
A specific rule from the Word of God mentioned in Art. 66 is what our Saviour commanded in Matthew 18: 15-17. When giving this rule, the Lord reached back to the Old Testament, and for this reason we are to examine what God commanded there, what the position and task of the witnesses is. First, however, we have to pay attention to another point, and this is the task of each member of the congregation.
From the Lord’s words it is evident that the first responsibility lies with the members. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” There must be no talking about it with others, no approaching the consistory with a complaint, no ignoring the brother, or letting him continue in the wrong attitude and path. Instead one should visit the brother and try to bring him back. This is the proper course of action to be taken. Also in this point the Old Testament shows the way: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Lev. 18: 17, 18.
The purpose of going to the brother is not to tell him off or to threaten him or to make him experience the consequences of what he did or to get even with him, but to win him, to bring him back from his ruinous path. “If he listens, you have gained your brother.” Then an offense has been removed from the church and a source of infection cleared up. This goal will also determine and dominate the manner in which the brother is approached and is “told of his fault.”
It will not have been the Lord's intention to limit this visit to just one time, after which one additional visit with witnesses would pave the way towards the consistory. The church correctly formulated it in Lord’s Day 31 as follows: “are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders.” No one will contend that it is an easy thing to go and admonish a brother about a sin committed, and this not just once but repeatedly, but this will be less difficult when the Lord’s command is remembered: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” and when the purpose is kept in view: to gain the brother, to bring him back from a path which must lead to everlasting ruin if there is no repentance.
In the event the brother does not listen or denies the fact or implications, one or two witnesses should be taken along so that the brother is admonished by two or three persons.
Who are these witnesses, what are they witnesses of, and what is their task and position? To answer these questions we again refer to the Old Testament. It speaks of witnesses in several places.
A witness is someone who can testify firsthand that something was said or done. If a fact is denied by a person, a witness can refute this denial by
saying: “I heard you say this,” or “I saw that you did it.” Moses used it when he reminded the Israelites of all that the Lord had done and spoken to them. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you are going over the Jordan to posses.” Deut. 4: 26. When Israel deviates from the path of the covenant, the punishment will come and they will be expelled from the land, but they will never be able to say: “We did not know that this would be the result, we were never told.” The same heaven and earth of Moses’ days will still be there, and they can testify that these words were spoken indeed.
Let us turn to Deut. 17: 2-8. It is clear that Moses uses here an extreme case, the case of idolatry, from which we may draw conclusions for all other cases as well. There is the sin of idolatry, and “You are told.” The result of this being told is that the people hear about it and thus are aware of it. But how are they told? Does Moses say: “Whenever you hear a rumour of such a thing being committed, you are to do your best to find out whether the rumour is true, so that you can bring the sinner to trial?” Not at all. Moses speaks of “the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses.” Nowhere does the Holy Scripture teach or even allow that people go by rumours.
From Moses’ words it is clear that it is the witnesses who must initiate the trial and must be the first ones to take part in the execution. It is impossible to find out who started a rumour. Rumours should be left for what they are. Since first of all the hand of the witnesses must be against the transgressor it is evident that these are the witnesses who brought the matter to the attention of the congregation. Thus when the elders of a city “hear” of a case, when they “are told,” this information must come from the witnesses, for their testimony is the basis on which conviction and subsequent execution rest.
The first witness is also the accuser, the one who, together with another or others, witnessed the sin being committed. If he is the only one who witnessed the sin, there is little else he can do but admonish the sinner. No one may be convicted on the testimony of one witness. There must be at least two, and the second one must be just as much a witness of the sin as the first one. As first of all their own hand must be against the perpetrator of the sin (cf. Deut. 17: 7), they must be very certain of their case, for they carry a heavy responsibility.
Even when two people come with the same testimony, the matter is still to be investigated so that it may be beyond doubt that such an abomination has been committed in Israel. It must be “such a thing which is not done in Israel,” that is, such a thing as is in direct and blatant conflict with the character of Israel as the people of the covenant.
Turning to the words of our Saviour in Matthew 18, we note that the Lord speaks of one going by himself to admonish a brother. Usually we speak here of a “secret” sin, but the Lord does not use this qualification. By “secret sin” we understand a sin that is known only to one other person or a sin upon which the other person happened to stumble. It is customary to envision the course of events among us as follows: There is a secret sin, the sinner is admonished but refuses to repent, the brother takes one or two with him who
then can testify that the sinner refused to listen, and the matter is then given into the hands of the consistory to continue the admonitions and, should they remain fruitless, to excommunicate the sinner.
For all this, if we follow this generally accepted procedure, we would still condemn a man on the testimony of just one person, and this is totally in conflict with what the Lord commanded through Moses. We are not permitted to do this. From Deut. 17 it is evident that the witness(es) whom the “accuser” brings along must be witnesses of the sin and not just of the fruitlessness of the admonitions. Even if someone brought ten or a hundred witnesses along who can testify that he admonished the alleged sinner in vain, the condemnation would still be based on the testimony of one person, and this is impermissible.
Our Lord also said: “If he refuses to listen to them.” The witness taken along is not just a silent partner who sits in and listens, but he admonishes the sinner together with the one whom he accompanies. He can do this only when he witnessed the sin itself, and not on the basis of what the original witness told him, for neither he is allowed to condemn a brother on the testimony of one person. The hand of the witnesses must be against the sinner first of all, they all must be absolutely certain of their case and may not go by what others say. (See above. Deut. 17: 7!)
If there is no second witness of the sin itself, all the one can do is try to bring the sinner back and, if he refuses to listen, give it into the hands of the Lord. Some early ecclesiastical assemblies considered the question too. They came to the conclusion that the matter should be “left to his conscience with reference to the judgment of God, without pressuring him any further.” If one “cannot be brought to admit a fact, leave it to God who knows the hearts,” another assembly concluded.
What was found above is important for the exercise of discipline by the consistory, but we will come back to it in connection with the following article.