The consistory shall not deal with any matter pertaining to purity of doctrine or piety of life that is reported to it unless it has first ascertained that both private admonitions and admonitions in the presence of one or two witnesses have remained fruitless, or that the sin committed is of a public character.
Church discipline is a matter of the church. It is true that the church is governed and also represented by the consistory, but this does not imply that now the consistory is responsible for all that is going on or should be involved in everything that must be done. A consistory is nothing without the congregation, and it is with the latter that the mutual supervision and taking heed of each other begins. With respect to the church discipline the first task of the consistory is not to admonish the sinner, but to exhort the whole congregation to fulfil their obligations in this connection.
When the members are not aware of their duty to take heed of each other and do not fulfil their obligations, the admonition and discipline by the consistory do not have a basis in the congregation and cannot work well. From the very beginning till the very last act the congregation is involved. As for the beginning, no one in the congregation is allowed to shirk his own responsibility and lay it all on the shoulders of the office-bearers. The consistory may become involved only when there is hardening in sin, and this hardening in sin must have become evident as a result of repeated private brotherly admonitions. No member may ever approach the consistory to inform the office-bearers of the sin of a brother or sister. A member may do so only when it has become apparent that there is no repentance, no return from the evil path. In that case the consistory must also be told what the specific sin is, but this is only the unavoidable consequence, not the purpose.
If, therefore, someone approaches the consistory with the information that a brother hardens himself in a specific sin, the first question that must be asked is how many times the accuser has admonished the brother, and where the witnesses are. In the event the accuser must admit that either he did not go and admonish the brother personally or that he visited him only once or twice, or that he never visited him with a witness, the consistory, instead of taking the matter to hand, is to rebuke the accuser and tell him that he is disobedient to the Lord and has to do his own duty first.
Any consistory that accepts one person’s word and does not admonish and rebuke him transgresses the specific command of our Saviour and forsakes its duty towards both the accuser and the accused and, in fact, towards the whole congregation. When from the very onset the lines are drawn crooked one cannot expect that things straighten out later on. The personal admonitions constitute the basis of the admonitions by the office-bearers.
Only in the event the sin is of a public character does the consistory have the right and then also the obligation to admonish the brother in their capacity as office-bearers. “Public” is the opposite of “private” and not of “secret” as was sometimes suggested. People spoke then of “secret sins” over against “public sins.” However, this is not a correct juxtaposition. The opposite of “secret” is “open,” the opposite of “public” is “private.” There are hidden sins as distinguished from those that are known to others, those that have been committed in the presence of others. There are sins committed in private over against those committed in public, or those that have become public.
Various explanations have been given of the term “of a public character,” but no one has come up with a definition that is satisfactory in every respect. This is not unexpected, since our Church Order is not a lawbook with precisely defined concepts or which lays claim to precise definitions. A sin definitely is not “of a public character” when someone cannot keep his mouth shut and discloses in thoughtless or deliberate talk what should have remained a private matter.
In general, we can accede to the description of “of a public character” as referring in the first place to sins that have been committed publicly, so that every one could see them. It is obvious that these sins must receive the attention of the consistory right away and that it should admonish the sinner without having to wait for someone accompanied by one or two witnesses. And in the second place they are such sins which by their very nature publicly dishonour the Name of the Lord. We think here of sins that become public knowledge by way of a court case. Something may have been done very privately, but should this result in public prosecution and trial, the consistory would be remiss in the fulfilment of its duty if it did not take action immediately.
This is not to say that in the case of sins of a public character the congregation should not act and leave everything up to the office-bearers. On the contrary, the discipline of office-bearers which lacks the active backing of the congregation cannot be expected to be effective, and if successful it will be in spite of the congregation’s slackness and neglect. The congregation should remain alert and active all the time.
Unless the consistory is convinced that a sin committed is of a public character, the office-bearers are not allowed to admonish the sinner upon information supplied by one single member who has not obeyed the command of the Lord as mentioned in Art. 66 and repeated in the present Article 67.