Anyone who obstinately rejects the admonition by the consistory or who has committed a public sin shall be suspended from the Lord’s Supper. If he continues to harden himself in sin, the consistory shall so inform the congregation by means of public announcements, in order that the congregation may be engaged in prayer and admonition, and the excommunication may not take place without its cooperation.
In the first public announcement the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned.
In the second public announcement, which shall be made only after the advice of classis has been obtained, the name and address of the sinner shall be mentioned.
In the third public announcement a date shall be set at which the excommunication of the sinner shall take place.
In case a non-communicant member hardens himself in sin, the consistory shall in the same manner inform the congregation by means of public announcements.
In the first public announcement the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned.
In the second public announcement, which shall be made only after the advice of classis has been obtained, the name and address of the sinner shall be mentioned and a date shall be set at which the excommunication of the sinner shall take place.
The time between the various announcements shall be determined by the consistory.
From what has been discussed thus far it is evident that the discipline starts with the congregation, even though no visible consequences result from the brotherly admonitions except when they are heeded and repentance follows. However, we are not to judge the gravity of the congregational admonitions by their obvious lack of visible effect. The Lord uses these admonitions and will judge accordingly. No one should ever be able to state in truth: “But, Lord, no one ever approached me and no one ever warned me.”
Art. 68 shows that the discipline also ends with the congregation. By means of the “public announcements” the congregation is involved in the whole process, also all who originally may not have been aware of the sins or of the admonitions taking place. There comes a time when also the “private,” non-public sins have to be revealed to the congregation, although this is not the purpose; it is a “side-effect,” so to speak, of the announcement that there is a hardening in a specific sin.
Once the consistory has been informed by two or three witnesses that
their admonitions have remained without the desired fruit of repentance, the moment is not yet there that an announcement may be made to the congregation. A consistory would not even be allowed to act immediately upon the testimony of two or three witnesses. In the Old Testament we are told that an inquiry is necessary. When “it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing…” Deut. 17: 4, 5.
From this it follows that a consistory has to start an investigation of its own, not only with reference to the hardening in sin but also with reference to the question whether the alleged transgression has indeed been committed. As in Israel the ultimate responsibility rested upon the shoulders of the judges, so it rests upon the shoulders of the consistory in our days. The testimony of the witnesses gave the consistory the reason to take the matter to hand, and their testimony is of extreme weight and importance, but no consistory is allowed to proceed solely on that testimony alone.
The First Step
What is the consistory to do when approached by two or three witnesses? Yes, it is to investigate and to see whether what the witnesses reported is true, but then what? Should the member be barred from the sacraments right away? No, things do not develop at such a fast pace.
The first action the consistory takes is that it visits the member repeatedly and continues the admonitions. Not only are the brothers not allowed to go by the testimony of the witnesses regarding the sin, they also have to convince themselves of the hardening in sin. It first must become very clear that the member does not want to listen even to the office-bearers. It might happen that the member refuses to confess his sin and repent because the person who admonishes him is acting in an injudicious or self-important manner, or because he is personally involved. Another possibility is that the member more readily accepts the admonitions of the office-bearers because of their authority, their tactful approach, or non-involvement. There may be numerous reasons why a member would sooner listen to the overseers than to others. The member realizes, of course, that continued refusal to heed the admonitions of the office-bearers will result in excommunication! And who would want to stand outside the communion upon which Christ bestows all His blessings and benefits?
Once the matter has been given into the hands of the consistory, this does not imply that the witnesses no longer have a task. On the contrary, they are not allowed to wash their hands off the case and to say: “Now it is the consistory’s responsibility, it is no longer ours.” When there is the sincere desire to bring the member back from the path that leads to ruin, the efforts to achieve this will continue unabated.
Admonitions by the consistory will continue for some time. That there is a hardening in the sin which was committed must become unmistakable. This hardening is there even when the sin itself is no longer committed, but no evidence of true repentance is seen.
It is imperative that the consistory’s considerations, decisions, actions and other activities are properly recorded in the minute book. This will, in the first place, compel the brothers to consider and formulate meticulously what the issue is, what the consistory did about it, and how the member reacted each time. This is of importance also for the future, for a member may have to be excommunicated. In that event the consistory will have to give the precise ground on which the excommunication rests. Perhaps the member will appeal to a classis; if so, the consistory is able to refute any inaccuracies on the basis of recorded particulars. Another possibility is that after many years the member may come to repentance and request to be readmitted to the church, either the same church or one in another place. Then it is a good idea to check the “past record” also with a view to determining how long a period will be needed to give the member the opportunity to prove the sincerity of the repentance. When the admonitions by the office-bearers result in repentance, the matter is finished. The following article deals with the confession of sin and for this reason we do not elaborate on it at this point.
Repentance means that the admonitions have achieved their purpose. Where it concerns a “private” sin no announcement of any kind is needed. The witnesses are not told either. If they fulfil their obligations, they will learn it from the member himself; for then they, too, will discover that no more admonitions are needed. They must learn this from their own observation and should not learn it from the consistory.
Here we are to stress that the whole matter of admonition by the consistory should remain “secret,” that is, known to the consistory and the member alone. No one outside the consistory should hear as much as a whisper about it. Even if the member concerned talks about it with others, the consistory should remain silent. Until such time when an announcement is made in which the name of the sinner is mentioned, the consistory is not even permitted to divulge whether or not a member is being admonished or barred from the sacraments.
At times it happens that others who are not involved in the matter itself mingle in it and, siding with the member, talk about it with the office-bearers, approach a consistory by means of letters, or even “appeal” to a classis when they do not get the satisfaction they want.
Consistories should never enter into a discussion on the admonitions with another member who is not personally affected. If asked whether a member is “under discipline” office-bearers are to reply that they do not recall that any public announcement to this effect has been made, and that they are not at liberty either to confirm or to deny it. “No comment” is the proper reply. When criticized because of alleged mishandling of the case, they are to react by stating that, as long as no public announcement with name and address has been made to the whole congregation they are not allowed to discuss it with any member in particular. Therefore they cannot say whether the consistory is dealing with the matter or not.
No specific period or time-limit can be given before the consistory should proceed to the next step: the barring from the holy supper or, more properly, the sacraments. Much will depend on the frequency of the visits, the reaction
of the member, whether any progress can be noted, whether there is unwillingness to listen, and so forth. No pattern can be suggested which may be applied to each and every case. We are dealing with living persons and not with robots.
When the consistory has come to the conclusion that there is no improvement but, on the contrary, a worsening of the situation, the decision will have to be made to bar the member from the sacraments. This means not only that the member is not allowed to partake of the holy supper but also that he cannot answer the questions at the baptism of a child, is not allowed to take part in voting, briefly, that all his rights as a member are suspended. The rights of membership are not yet taken away, for this happens only at the excommunication, but the right to use them is suspended, and this suspension will not be lifted either if there is no repentance.
For this reason consistories must realize what they are doing and must be aware that the suspension from the holy supper this article is referring to is the first step leading to the excommunication. What did happen in the past should never happen again, namely, that someone remained barred from the holy supper for years on end and that no step was taken either to proceed towards the excommunication or to lift the suspension. Once a consistory has set out on the road of suspending a member from the Lord's Supper there is no stopping; it is a path which can end only in the excommunication, unless there is repentance. The suspension of the right to use the membership privileges can only result in rescinding the privileges themselves in the Name of the Lord.
This is not to say that every suspension is the first step towards the excommunication. Incidentally a consistory may forbid a member to partake of the first-coming holy supper as a safety-measure, so to speak. This can happen when a member has committed a “public sin,” which blasphemed the Name of the Lord and greatly disturbed the congregation. Although the consistory may be convinced of the sincerity of the member’s repentance, yet in order to show that sin is not taken lightly and in order to prevent any wrong impression upon the congregation or even unrest in the congregation, the consistory would act wisely when it tells the member that he is not allowed to take part in the forthcoming celebration. This is not discipline in the strict sense of the word but one of the consequences of the sin committed. The member concerned will fully understand the consistory’s decision and acquiesce in it if his repentance is sincere.
Another possibility is that a consistory tells a member to abstain from the forthcoming celebration because a matter has recently arisen and the consistory has not yet been able to come to a well-founded conclusion. To prevent possible profanation of the table of the Lord a member or some members may be told that, pending an investigation, they are to abstain. Neither is this discipline in the strict sense of the word.
Perhaps a consistory does not dare to go so far as to forbid a member to partake in the celebration and yet does not feel justified not doing anything. In that event the brothers might point out to the member how serious it is to go to the table without being entitled to it, because there is serious
doubt in the mind of the consistory about the brother’s doctrine or conduct. Yet, in the circumstances, the consistory does not have sufficient grounds to forbid participation. With a view to the whole situation, however, the consistory urges the member not to partake, leaving it in this case to the member’s own responsibility, but not without warning about the consequences of eating and drinking judgment upon oneself.
When a public sin is involved suspension from the Lord’s Supper may follow sooner upon initiating the admonitions than if some witnesses approached the consistory about a private sin. What should be kept in view most of all in such a case is the honour of the Name of the Lord. Especially when it concerns a public sin it must be manifest that the church does not condone sin but condemns it. The church should not out of misplaced concern for the sinner neglect to be watchful for the honour of God’s Name or the reputation of the church in this world.
The Second Step
The second step is an announcement to the congregation so that the congregation may become involved. Again we have to say that this is not a matter of a couple of weeks after the suspension from the holy supper. Some time will have elapsed from that moment and in the meantime the admonitions will have continued. If the consistory has to come to the conclusion that in spite of many admonitions by the office-bearers no improvement can be noticed but, on the contrary, a hardening in sin is evident, a decision will have to be taken to make an announcement to the congregation in order that the congregation may become involved.
At this stage this involves prayer only. When everything has been conducted properly, the announcement will be the first occasion the congregation hears of the case, unless it concerns a public sin. But even then the congregation should not be aware that it concerns brother A. or sister B., since repentance from that sin may have been noticed and accepted long ago and the present announcement may refer to another member.
In the first public announcement no name is mentioned. For the time being only the prayers of the congregation are solicited, not an actual participation in the process of admonishing. What is mentioned is the character, or the nature of the sin. “The consistory informs you with sorrow that a brother (sister) of the congregation has become guilty of sin against the... commandment.”
Holy Scripture teaches us that if one transgresses one commandment, he is guilty of all, James 2: 10. It will happen very seldom, if ever, that a consistory can say with certainty: “This is the only commandment we can mention which the brother has transgressed.” Since all the words of the covenant are intertwined and all are covered by the one declaration: “I am the Lord your God who has freed you from the house of bondage,” it is impossible not to violate them all when transgressing one, although the sin against one or two of them may be the clearest and most prominent. They have to be mentioned concretely, for a consistory would not be allowed to say only: “that a brother has become guilty of sin.” The admonitions will have been directed
against hardening in specific sin or sins, and the congregation must be informed accordingly.
Also in the public prayers in the midst of the congregation it should be remembered that one or more members of the congregation have been suspended from the Lord’s table. The congregation will be exhorted to pray for them. This keeps the congregation aware of the need to make intercession for them in their own prayers at home as well. If the public prayers during the worship services never make mention of these suspensions or even excommunications, we cannot expect the members to be faithful in this respect in their personal and family prayers either.
The Third Step
The third step is the second public announcement to the congregation. It is an announcement which informs the congregations that the admonitions were continued but that no repentance could be noticed. On the contrary, there was a hardening in sin and this made it necessary to continue with the process of excommunication. Now also the name and address of the sinner are mentioned.
One condition had to be met before the second announcement could be made, namely, that the advice of classis was obtained. After everything we have said in connection with previous articles it will not be necessary to elaborate on the obligation of a consistory to abide by the classical advice. This, and it is necessary to repeat it, is not because “classis acts in a supervisory capacity,” as has been alleged, but it is because the churches have accepted this precaution, lest they act too hastily and thus unjustly to a member. It is a safety-measure that the churches have promised not to make known the name of the sinner before they have submitted the case to the judgment of the sister churches at a classis.
It is not just a formality to ask the advice of classis when a consistory has come to the conclusion that it must proceed with the excommunication. Usually the members of a classis ask all sorts of questions such as how long ago the first announcement was made, how many visits were made since that first announcement, what exactly the reaction of the member was, and so on. Only after the brothers have satisfied themselves that the consistory’s decision to proceed is the right one will they give the advice to proceed. More than once a consistory was advised to bring more visits and not to proceed as yet. Then the consistory had to come to the next classis with the same question, for without the advice of classis they cannot proceed with the excommunication, only with the admonitions.
A consistory would be amiss if it came to a classis without being convinced that it is mandatory to proceed. If a consistory should state: “Brothers, we have not come that far yet but if it appears in a month or two that there is no repentance, could you advise us then to proceed?” Classis would act completely incorrectly if it gave what would amount to a speculative advice. A consistory certainly has bound itself not to proceed without the advice of classis, but it is the consistory that bears the ultimate responsibility and must
have reached a definite conclusion before approaching the sister churches for the required advice.
Having obtained the classical advice the consistory makes the second announcement. The involvement of the congregation becomes more extensive. Now the brothers and sister are in a position not only to remember the sinner in their prayers, but also to approach him in person. They are exhorted to do so in love.
The Fourth Step
Should the continuing admonitions of the consistory as well as of the congregation remain fruitless, the fourth step follows, the third public announcement. In this announcement the congregation is reminded of the previous announcements and told that no sign of true repentance could be noticed. For the last time the congregation is called upon to be involved and to admonish the member lest the final step has to be taken, namely, the actual excommunication.
No stipulation is made that also this step requires classical advice. In the third step the consistory gave the brothers sufficient information to obtain their advice, and since the consistory was advised to proceed and the situation has not changed for the better but has worsened, there is no need to involve the sister churches again by bringing the matter to classis.
As everyone can see, with this third public announcement a date is set on which the member will be excommunicated, that is, be placed outside the communion and be declared deprived of all the privileges of membership in Christ’s church, having “no part any more in the spiritual blessings and benefits which Christ bestows upon His church.”
What length of time should expire between this third announcement and the actual excommunication? Again we must state that no hard and fast rule has been made about it. Usually a period of two or three weeks is chosen, although it also happened that “the next Lord’s day” was set as a target date. It should not become a drawn-out process, for then the impact upon the congregation is weakened. Besides, when matters have proceeded that far and the admonitions of many months and perhaps even years have not borne the desired fruit, the process should be concluded and the “ultimate remedy” applied.
We mentioned the possibility that the process could take years. Consistories were often hesitant to proceed to that last step and action. However understandable such hesitation may be, when the sin is so serious that one’s hardening must result in suspension from the holy supper, this first step must be followed by the other steps within a rather short time. Would we be saying too much when we suggest that the process should take no more than one year or one-and-a-half years at the most? Not only should sin not be permitted in the church of Christ, the members themselves must also be taught that such is the rule in the congregation of the Lord. Slackness in applying discipline creates the impression that sin is not all that bad after all and that one can get away with quite a bit. This should be prevented. In the New Testament we read that “great fear fell upon all.” (Acts 5: 11)
Once one has been excommunicated, “as long as he persists in sin, let him be to you as a Gentile and an outcast,” for he has been placed outside (“ex”) the communion. Yet the members are exhorted “not to look on him as an enemy. On the contrary, try to warn him as a brother. But do not associate with him, that he may be ashamed and come to repentance.” There should be no “shunning” as is frequently found with some sects, which practice forbids practically every contact, even speaking with an excommunicated member. On the other hand, no one should deal with the excommunicated person or treat him as if nothing had happened and as if no change had come about in the relationship. One who has been excommunicated, placed outside the communion of the church, should experience the seriousness of this fact also in the manner in which the former fellow-members behave towards him. A barrier has been erected and this affects the ecclesiastical as well as the social life. “With such a one do not even eat,” the apostle enjoins us, 1 Cor. 5: 11.
It does not need any further comment, we think, that the member has to be notified of each following step before it is taken. If no oral communication is possible, it will have to be done in writing.
Some were (and still are) of the opinion that discipline such as described above is not possible in the case of non-communicant members. Although they were accepted and regarded as members, yet they were “incomplete” members, having not yet been admitted to the public profession of faith and thus to the table of the Lord. “How could we ever suspend one from the Lord’s Supper who has not made profession of faith and has not been admitted to that table?” it was asked.
For this reason the practice was often followed just to delete the name of a non-communicant member from the membership register if such a member proved to be totally indifferent and unwilling to live as a member of the church. It was then made known to the congregation that So-and-So “has been removed from the membership list,” as if it simply was an administrative measure.
Was it correct to state that no discipline in the strict sense of the word was possible with non-communicant members? No, it was not. True, they cannot be suspended from the holy supper, for they were never admitted to it, but this is the only difference between them and the communicant members. The demands and obligations of the covenant are just as binding upon them as they are upon those who acknowledged these obligations by their profession of faith.
Public announcements are in place in case a non-communicant member hardens himself in sin. In his case there are only two announcements, the first one without the name being mentioned, while in the second one (announcing name and address) a date is given at which the excommunication will take place. The advice of classis must have been asked before this second public announcement may be made.
Since only two announcements are made and to give the congregation the opportunity to approach the sinner and admonish him, it is advisable to make the interval between the second announcement and the excommunication longer than in the case of communicant members. With the latter the second announcement was made perhaps several months before the third one, and the name and address of the sinner were known during all that time. The same opportunity should be there in the case of a non-communicant member, although no specific time-span can be given. Here, too, much will depend on the nature and seriousness of the sin and the attitude of the sinner.
In any case, it is the consistory that determines how long the interval between two announcements is to be, and the consistory will take every aspect into consideration.
One more point has to be discussed. What is to be done if someone appeals to a broader assembly? Should the consistory proceed pending the appeal or is the whole process to be stopped until all possibilities of appeal have been exhausted?
Admonitions can and should continue. They are not to be stopped by any appeal at any time. No appeal can or should prevent a consistory from trying to bring a member back from his sinful way. These admonitions can never be appealed. An appeal is possible only once the consistory has accepted the consequences of their rejection by barring the member from the table of the covenant. There must be a decision, as Art. 31 states.
It will not happen very often that a member appeals a classical decision supporting the consistory, but if the member appeals to a regional synod, this does not automatically preclude continuation on the part of the consistory. Much will depend on the nature of the sin and the whole course which the process of admonitions has taken. If it can be done without any harm or damage to the congregation, it will be wise to wait with the next step until a regional synod has decided on the appeal. If, on the other hand, a consistory has come to the conclusion that further delay is unwarranted, the brothers should proceed although, perhaps, not to the final step: excommunication. No firm rule can be given, and we are to remember that one appeal only should decide about a matter. What should be decisive ultimately is whether the honour of the Name of the Lord and the well-being of the congregation demand that the consistory shall proceed or may wait for the decision of the broader assemblies, including a general synod.