For Elders and Deacons (9): Elders – Shepherds of the Church (3)

In this ninth article in his series, For Elders and Deacons, Rev. Harry C. Arnold writes: “The discipline of the church is a painful but necessary task. No church can be healthy and strong without it. We must remember this especially today. The emphasis presently is on church growth. In the interests of church growth some are apt to lessen the requirements of sound doctrine and godly life among the members.”

In the last two articles the emphasis has fallen on the fact that the spiritual care of the church has been committed to the elders. Of course, these elders include both ruling and teaching elders or what we customarily call elders and ministers. Together this body of men must take the oversight of the church of Christ. Up to this point we have seen how they must perform their task with regard to public worship, catechetical instruction, family visiting and spiritual counsel.

It is hardly necessary to mention that there are many aspects of spiritual oversight which may be classified as “housekeeping details.” Such matters as membership transfers, recording of births, deaths, baptisms, etc. may be considered as part of good housekeeping. While these are important matters and should be done carefully for the efficient operation of any congregation, it is probably wiser to pass by them at this time.

Since we are still emphasizing the shepherding task of the elders, it is better that we now consider the task of the elders in the admonition and discipline of the church. Both of these relate to the spiritual care of the church.

The Different Kinds of Discipline – The term “discipline” has a wide variety of meanings. One of the meanings of discipline is: “Eccles. the system of government regulating the practice of a church as distinguished from its doctrine” (Random House Dictionary-Unabridged Edition, sub “discipline”). On the basis of that meaning some denominations have labeled their church order “The Book of Discipline.” This meaning of the term is broad and covers all activities of the church and may be called administrative discipline. This is not our concern just now.

Our Church Order speaks of “admonition and discipline” as one section of church regulations. In so doing it means to use the term “discipline” in the sense of judicial discipline, or that kind in which a judgment is made regarding a person’s confession or conduct. This kind of discipline is meant to reprove a persons erroneous confession or misconduct and to bring him back to the right way.

This formal discipline of the church makes use of various steps of censure which finally lead to the excommunication of the impenitent. Since the Church Order distinguishes “admonition” from “discipline” it must be that admonition refers to that reproof of one’s conduct or confession which is without formal censure. Admonition is also an aspect of discipline but it is pastoral rather than judicial. Admonition, then, may be regarded as that aspect of the church’s discipline which is pastoral and which comes to the erring by way of reproof and which precedes formal censure.

Admonition is one kind of discipline, however, since it—like discipline—aims at warning the sinner of the error of his way and of correcting his life according to the Word of God. On the one hand, therefore, all admonition whether by preaching, teaching, counselling, or warning against sin—is a form of discipline. It is intended to reprove and correct another’s doctrine or morals. Thus. the preaching of the Word—especially its admonitions—is often referred to as “the discipline of the Word.” On the other hand, when the Church Order speaks of “discipline” in distinction from “admonition,” it has in mind the steps of discipline which lead to excommunication. This kind of discipline is formal and judicial.

Formal discipline of members is always preceded by admonitory discipline. If the erring member responds “favorably to the admonitions of the consistory,” then he or she “shall be reconciled to the church upon sufficient evidence of repentance” (Article 84). In other words, when the admonitions of the consistory serve their purpose to correct the sinner, then formal discipline is not necessary. But when the admonitions to the erring member prove fruitless, then the consistory must proceed to the formal discipline.

The initial step in formal discipline is usually referred to as “silent censure.” It is a temporary suspension of all membership privileges such as “partaking of the Lord’s Supper, responding to the baptismal questions, and exercising any other rights of membership” (Article 85). During this period of suspension further admonitions are given by the consistory. When these fail, then the consistory must proceed to the steps of discipline which lead to “the extreme remedy” of excommunication.

Needless to say, the formal discipline of members is a serious matter and ought to be done with great care and forethought. For that reason the Church Order stipulates that “Disciplinary measures shall be applied only after an adequate investigation has been made and the member involved has had ample opportunity to present his case” (Article 82). The Church Order further requires that before anyone is excommunicated, several announcements must be made according to a certain order. This is spelled out in Article 86b as follows:

The consistory, before excommunicating anyone, shall make three announcements in which the nature of the offense and the obstinancy of the sinner are explained and the congregation is urged to pray for him and to admonish him. In the first announcement the name of the sinner shall ordinarily be withheld but may be mentioned at the discretion of the consistory. In the second, after the c1assis has given its approval to proceed with further discipline, his name shall be mentioned. In the third, the congregation shall be informed that unless the sinner repents he will be excommunicated on a specified date.

It must be understood that between these announcements many more admonitions are given by the consistory. Also many prayers are offered in behalf of the erring one by the congregation. The intent of the announcements is· not only to impress upon the sinner the seriousness of his sin, but also to allow the membership to exercise its general office of believer by admonishing the erring one. Unfortunately, it is my observation that few people in the congregation take this aspect of their office seriously. For the most part, there is silent acquiescence in the consistory’s announcements, but no effort on the part of the congregation‘s membership to reclaim the sinner on a one-to-one basis.

It was this particular concern for mutual discipline on the part of believers that motivated Classis Quinte to overture last synod for some changes in the Church Order which would have emphasized this responsibility. While synod did not adopt the overture with its recommended changes in the Church Order, it did have this to say to the churches:

That synod acknowledge the concerns expressed by Classis Quinte and urge the churches faithfully to teach and preach the importance of self discipline, mutual discipline, and ecclesiastical discipline taught in God’s Word.

Ground: The substance of the report of Classis Quinte is of such a nature that it deserves the special attention of the churches. Adopted.

(Acts of Synod 1976, Art. 51, III, p. 53).

The above advice of synod is wholly in accord with what is already stated in Article 78b of the Church Order:

The exercise of admonition and discipline by the consistory does not preclude the responsibility of the believers to watch over and to admonish one another in love.

It would be fruitful for our elders to discuss such matters as mutual discipline and ecclesiastical discipline either at their meetings or at elders’ conferences.

The Purpose of Discipline – In view of some incidents in past history when physical means were used to enforce conformity to church doctrine, it is well to remind ourselves, first of all, that “the admonition and discipline of the church are spiritual in character and therefore require the use of spiritual means” (Article 78a). The church bears “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17), and not the sword of civil punishment which belongs to the state. Therefore, the church must use the Bible in its admonition and discipline. The church may censure those who offend “in doctrine and life” but it may not punish them in any physical manner.

Discipline is necessary to the health of the body of Christ. Discipline always serves a good purpose in life and it does the same in the church as Article 79 of the Church Order states it:

The purpose of the admonition and discipline of the church is to maintain the honor of God, to restore the sinner, and to remove the offense from the church of Christ.

It should be noted. that in mutual discipline and pastoral admonitions, the welfare of the individual sinner receives the priority. However, in the judicial discipline of the church the honor of God comes first. The honor of Christ, the Head of the church, must be upheld in the midst of the congregation. It is out of concern for Christ’s honor that the sinner must be brought to repent in the body of Christ. Likewise, it is out of concern for Christ’s honor that the purity of the church must be maintained over against the offending member, who will not repent of sin, and therefore, must be excommunicated from the body of believers. It is true, of course, that the sinner remains the focus of attention in the disciplinary process. Nevertheless, he always remains the focus of attention in respect to the Lord, whose law he has broken, and in respect to the church which is the body of Christ.

Only when we see discipline in its fulness of purpose can we be rightly motivated to exercise it in the church. There is no doubt that the rank individualism of our age has had a detrimental effect on the faithful exercise of church discipline. Besides, admonition and discipline is unpleasant work and we all like to avoid doing it. Faithful elders, however, will have to be motivated to do it for Christ’s sake, as well as for the purity of the church, while seeking to reclaim the sinner.

The discipline of the church is a painful but necessary task. No church can be healthy and strong without it. We must remember this especially today. The emphasis presently is on church growth. In the interests of church growth some are apt to lessen the requirements of sound doctrine and godly life among the members. The Church Order begins with the confession that Christ is the Head of His church. We may, therefore, assume that if we are faithful to His directions, He will add to the church those who will be saved. Our emphasis must remain on obedience to the will of Christ in the church, which is His body.

The church that is faithful to the will of Christ in exercising admonition and discipline will grow, and it will be healthy and strong in the Lord. Our Church Order assumes that the Spirit of God will use the key of discipline to bring sinners to repent and to reclaim those who have been excommunicated. That is why provision is made in Article 87 for the readmission of those who have been excommunicated. Ministers and elders should be alert to opportunities to reclaim the excommunicated for Christ. God’s providence often softens those who were previously hard of heart. Sometimes sickness, economic reverses, or family problems become doors of opportunity for Christ’s servants to walk through and minister to those who have been excommunicated from the people of God. Every member of the church—including the shepherds of the church—should take seriously the instruction of the Form for Excommunication which says, regarding the excommunicated:

. . . yet count him not as an enemy, but at times admonish him as you would a brother.