The Church Order of Dort - Articles 69-79
Principles and Practice of Reformed Church Polity
THE CHURCH ORDER OF DORT
IV. CHURCH DISCIPLINE
When the fathers in their wisdom sat down to write a Church Order they considered it beneficial to include a section on church discipline. It was considered beneficial that within a bond of churches discipline should be administered in a uniform manner. Rather than repeat what Scripture and Confession already teach about church discipline, Section 4 of the Church Order spells out how scriptural principles should be put into practice in the exercising of church discipline.
1.1 THE CHURCH IS HOLY
The church is not a society or a club belonging to the members. The church is the result of the Lord’s work through Jesus Christ, and so is His possession. Since the Lord is holy, His people are holy also. To His people of the Old Testament the Lord said in Exodus 22:31, "And you shall be holy men to Me ...", and in Leviticus 11:44, "For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy...." Peter echoes this in the New Testament with these words of 1 Peter 1:15, "but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct" and in 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people ...." The church, the people of the Lord, is to be identified with holiness.
This holiness of the Lord’s church is drawn out the more when Scripture speaks of God dwelling in the midst of His people. The Lord told Israel in Exodus 29:45 that, "I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God." The same thought is echoed in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 3:16. Paul says to the saints in Corinth, "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" The Lord identity as God dictates that His church be holy.
1.2 SIN MAY HAVE NO PLACE IN THE CHURCH
Satan, whom Peter compared to a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8), makes it his business to attack and devour God’s church. Satan does so under various guises. As Paul warns the Corinthians, "... Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). Though we belong to the Lord we remain vulnerable to sin and evil, prey to Satan’s attacks. Therefore the church, though it is and must be holy, can also be infiltrated with sin. In light of the holiness which holy God demands of His church, such infiltration of sin is not acceptable. God shall see to it that sin tolerated in His church shall receive His punishments. In the Old Testament God taught this principle with the words of Deuteronomy 28:15, "But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you." Verses 16-68 list God’s curses upon disobedience.
This principle has not changed in the New Testament. This is clear, for example, from what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:27ff. There the apostle stresses the need for self-examination prior to the celebration of the Lord’s supper. "For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself." To eat and drink judgment to oneself means to call God’s judgment upon oneself. It was because the Corinthians failed to judge themselves, failed to examine themselves for the presence of sin in their lives, that God judged them and hence they suffered weakness, sickness and many ‘slept’ (‘sleep’ is here a euphemism for death). There was unholiness amongst God’s flock in Corinth and God expressed His displeasure with this unholiness in a clear manner. This drove home to the church that they had to make a point of cutting sin out of the church.
1.3 THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH
How is one to cut sin out of the church of the Lord? The pattern of the Old Testament involved physically killing the sinner. In Deuteronomy one reads of several examples of sins that had to be punished, the punishment serving the purpose of removing sin, unholiness. Hence the repeated refrain, "so you shall put away the evil from among you." For example, Deuteronomy 13 speaks of the possibility of a false prophet arising within Israel saying, "Let us go after other gods ... and let us serve them" (vs 2). God’s response to such prophecy is, "... that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death …. So you shall put away the evil from your midst" (vs 5). A similar warning is given in the verses 6-11. If anyone sought to entice God’s people away from faithful service to Him, that sinner had to be cut out of Israel in order to remove the sin from Israel. Said God to Israel, "you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; ... And you shall stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. So all Israel shall hear and fear, and not again do such wickedness as this among you." The penalty of transgression against God’s commandments was death. The sinner had to be removed so that sin might be removed. Holy God could tolerate no unholiness amongst His holy people. So one reads again in Deuteronomy 17:2-7 that "any man or woman who has been wicked in the sight of the LORD ... shall be put to death.... So you shall put away the evil from among you." As for the man who would not accept the verdict of the priest or judge, he too had to be put to death. "So you shall put away the evil from Israel" (Deuteronomy 17:8-12). Again, in Deuteronomy 19:19 one reads that a false witness is to receive the punishment the accused man would have received, and "so you shall put away the evil from among you." Sin could not be ignored or tolerated amongst God’s people for it polluted them and called for God’s inevitable judgment.
This same principle is carried through in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 5:1 one reads of a man in the church living illicitly with his stepmother. The church in Corinth had failed to deal with this brother’s sin and so there was evil in their midst. Paul therefore urges the saints at Corinth in verses 4 and 5 to ‘deliver this man to Satan.’ This terminology, ‘delivering to Satan,’ Paul explains in verse 13 by a quote from the Old Testament. He writes, "Therefore put away from yourselves the evil person." He was, therefore, to be cut off from the flock, excommunicated. For in the church of Jesus Christ there is no room for evil. Again, in his letter to Timothy Paul records what he did to two brothers who suffered shipwreck concerning the faith. Paul says that he has "delivered to Satan" these two brothers "that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:19f). The concept of excommunicating a sinner from the church arises also in 2 Thessalonians 3:14, where Paul addresses the church of the Thessalonians with this instruction, "And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him…." John instructs his readers about the person who, though he presents himself as a Christian, brings a false teaching. "If anyone come to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him" (2 John 10).
The church discipline of the Old Testament, then, reaches through into the New Testament. The reader notices, though, a difference in the way this discipline is administered. The Old Testament spoke of death; the New Testament of putting away, of distance. One is inclined to think that New Testament discipline is far more gentle, much less radical than Old Testament discipline. That perception, however, is incorrect. God has moved forward in His plan of salvation. So the saints addressed in the letter to the Hebrews are told (12:18-29) that they, unlike their brethren of the Old Testament gathered around Mt Sinai, "have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire…." Instead, these New Testament saints "have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel (vs 22-24). The implication of these words is to be found in the verses 25-29, "See then that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth (the reference is to the Israelites gathered around Mt Sinai, who saw so much of God’s holiness), much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven.... Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire." Much has happened since Mt Sinai for God has sent His Son to earth to die for sin. In the events of Calvary, we have seen more of God’s holiness than the Israelites around Mt Sinai. That makes our responsibility the greater. If we give ourselves to sin, the penalty is worse for us than it ever was in the Old Testament dispensation.
One might ask how the penalty for us, excommunication, could possibly be worse than the death penalty of the Old Testament. Wasn’t the death penalty the ultimate punishment for sin? The point is that the death penalty is not the equivalent of going to hell. Rather, for the child of God death is the gateway to Heaven. Although condemned to die as punishment for sin, such a penalty did not imply an automatic sentence to hell. Where there was faith, the guilty person could still receive forgiveness of sins and inherit the crown of righteousness. Excommunication on the other hand has eternal repercussions; it is not simply something that is valid for this life only. Jesus, when addressing His disciples about how to exercise discipline against wayward members said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). Excommunication serves as a message to a wayward member that he is spiritually dead, is on his way to hell. This makes excommunication far worse than the death penalty of the Old Testament. At the same time, there is mercy here, for the excommunicated is not directly sent to hell. He receives opportunity yet to repent (see below). This opportunity, though, takes nothing away from the radical seriousness of excommunication.
The church of Christ, then, holy that it is, may never minimise or neglect church discipline. We live in the New Dispensation and so have seen more of God’s justice displayed in Christ Jesus. That means consequently that we have a greater responsibility to tolerate no love for sin in the church of Christ. To remain a true church, the church must remain faithful in exercising church discipline.
2. THE PURPOSE OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
The Church Order begins its discussion on church discipline with a brief description of discipline’s aim.
ARTICLE 69 - Aim of discipline
Church discipline shall be exercised in accordance with the Word of God and to His honour. Its aim is to reconcile the sinner with God and the neighbour, and to remove the offence from the church of Christ.
Church discipline to serve its intended aims only if it is conducted according to God’s Word. Calvin saw church discipline as serving the following three aims, all three of which can be found back in Article 69:
1 "... that they who lead a filthy and infamous life may not be called Christians, to the dishonour of God, as if his holy church [cf. Eph. 5:25-26] were a conspiracy of wicked and abandoned men."
Calvin’s argument here is that because the church is God’s and God is holy, the moment sin is honoured in the congregation the name of the Lord is dishonoured. Article 69 echoes this in the words, "Church discipline shall be exercised ... to (God’s) honour."
2 " ... that the good be not corrupted by the constant company of the wicked."
Here Calvin summarises the lesson of 1 Corinthians 5:6,7, where the apostle speaks of leaven, "... Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened...." Yeast in a batch of dough permeates the whole batch; it is the same with the presence of sin in the congregation. For that reason the sinner needs to be removed. As Article 69 states, the aim of church discipline is "to remove the offence from the church of Christ."
3 "... that those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent."
This is in line with what Paul commanded the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 5:5 namely, to "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Church discipline aims to move the sinner to repentance; it seeks the sinner’s salvation. To use the words of Article 69, "Its aim is to reconcile the sinner with God and the neighbour."
3. WHO MUST EXERCISE CHURCH DISCIPLINE?
Church discipline tends to be considered as the exclusive responsibility of the consistory. That can be explained by the fact that it is the consistory which plays the most visible role in seeing to it that sin is cut out from the congregation. It is the consistory which has the authority to withhold someone from the Lord’s table and it is the consistory which makes the public announcements which culminate in excommunication. However, Scripture teaches that the exercising of church discipline is not primarily the consistory’s responsibility. Rather, it is first and foremost the responsibility of the church membership at large. The heart of church discipline is love for the neighbour. As it is written in Leviticus 19:17,18, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbour, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as your self: I am the LORD."
By giving himself to sin, a brother places a barrier between himself and God, and so prevents God’s blessings from coming upon him. In that circumstance, the Lord’s instruction was that my love for the erring brother means I do what I can to help him remove the barrier he placed between himself and God. It makes no difference whether or not I was the object of his sinful act; I am to seek no vengeance (as in, letting God’s wrath rest on my brother because of what he did to me), nor bear any grudge or harbour hatred against the one who hurt me. Instead, the Lord would have me rebuke my erring brother and seek his repentance – lest I sin on account of him.
It is no different in the New Testament. All the saints around the world are equipped to admonish each other. What Paul urged the Galatians (and us) to do is not too difficult, namely, "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). The fruits of such mutual discipline are this: "Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19,20). Paul saw need to address the church at Corinth about the sinful relationship between a brother in the church and his stepmother, and gave the instruction to drive out the sinner. But note that Paul’s instruction is not given to the elders of the church in Corinth. From 1 Corinthians 1:2 we learn that Paul addressed his letter "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints ...." Paul considers the saints at Corinth responsible to drive out the wicked person from among them.
This principle returns in Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18. There Jesus spoke the following well-known words: "... if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone" (Matthew 18:15). One must bear in mind that the brother is guilty of sin. By sinning against you he has also sinned against God and ruined the good relationship that exists between him and God. Jesus instruction is that you, even though you may have been offended by him, perhaps hurt by him, you take the initiative and approach him, telling him his fault. Whether or not this is an easy thing for you to do is irrelevant, for the Lord has given us His Spirit so that we can do His will. Our motivation will not be to tell the wayward brother about the hurt he did to me. Rather, the point of the admonition must be to tell the brother that what he did affects his relationship with God and that he needs to repent of that sin lest God’s wrath be poured out upon him. Says Jesus, "If he hears you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15). What makes him a brother is the shared bond with God. The goal of mutual discipline is the sinner’s restored relationship with God of which a restored relationship between brothers is a blessed fruit.
The question arises whether the obligation to admonish a brother applies only if one has been personally offended by that brother? It would seem so, since Jesus’ discourse about mutual discipline in Matthew 18:15-18 commences with, "... if your brother sins against you ...." It must be borne in mind that although in Matthew 18 Jesus was speaking to the disciples in the specific context of sin against the self, the principle that applied in that context also has a broader application. Leviticus 19:18 does not say to rebuke your neighbour if he has sinned against you but simply, "You shall surely rebuke your neighbour." In his epistle (chapter 5:19,20), James also speaks in general terms about the person to be admonished. "… If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way ...." Paul writes in Galatians 6:1, "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass ...." Whether one is personally affected by the brother’s sin or not, it is love both for the brother and for God Who gave His Son to save this brother that motivates one to remove the sin that stands between him and God.
Should the admonition of one person prove to be ineffective, Jesus stipulates that the wayward brother must be visited together with two or three witnesses. "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’" (Matthew 18:16). Here the Lord echoes the principle of the Old Testament: "One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established" (Deuteronomy 19:15). In the presence of these witnesses one is to tell the brother what his sin is and why it is sin, and urge him in God’s Name to repent. Should he then still persist in his sins the other witnesses, motivated by the same love you have for the erring brother, should also urge him to repent. Should he still refuse to repent at this stage, then "tell it to the church" (Matthew 18:17), and if the admonitions of the church are ineffective, "let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:17).
These principles of Scripture receive are worked out concretely in two articles of the Church Order.
Article 70 - Mutual responsibility
If anyone departs from the pure doctrine or is delinquent in conduct and this is a secret matter which does not give rise to public offence, the rule which Christ clearly prescribes in Matthew 18 shall be observed.
That is to say: the individual congregation members are to act according to bear in mind the responsibility God has laid at the feet of each individual church member toward wayward members, as taught by Christ in Matthew 18. Never may the membership consider discipline to be strictly a matter for the consistory. This truth of Scripture is driven home the more with the following article:
Article 71 - Consistory Involvement
The consistory shall not deal with any report of sin unless it has first ascertained that both private admonitions and admonitions in the presence of one or two witnesses have remained fruitless, or the sin committed is of a public character.
Church discipline is considered in our age to be an outdated concept. So the danger is real that churches fail to exercise church discipline. However, when church discipline is not exercised in a church, we may not lay the blame first of all at the consistory’s feet. Granted, the consistory has an important responsibility in exercising church discipline (see below). But it needs to be fixed in our minds that church discipline is first and foremost the responsibility of the church membership.
4. AGAINST WHOM MUST CHURCH DISCIPLINE BE ADMINISTERED?
It holds true for every individual in this life, Christian or no Christian, that sin ruins one’s relationship with God. However, can a congregation member bring the misconduct of his unbelieving neighbour to the attention of consistory? No! As Article 20 stipulates, the consistory has been given the task of looking after the congregation. "The elders shall together with the ministers of the Word govern the congregation with pastoral care and discipline." Office-bearers have authority only in the church in which they have been ordained, and hence have no authority over a member of another church (not even within a bond of churches), let alone over the unbelieving neighbour across the road. The objects of church discipline are the members of the church.
This was so in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 17:7 God commanded, "So you shall put away the evil from among you." ‘Among you’ was not a reference to what was happening amongst the Moabites in their land; it was rather a reference to what was happening within Israel. The same idea can be found in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 5:12,13. There Paul writes, "For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’" Church discipline can be administered only within the church. Therefore, if someone decides to withdraw from the church whilst undergoing church discipline, consistory’s authority over him ceases at the moment of his withdrawal. He is then no longer under the jurisdiction of consistory and he can no longer be under church discipline. Those who withdraw try to short-circuit church discipline one the grounds that it is just an issue between people. In reality, though, church discipline is a matter between the sinner and God. Even though a sinner under church discipline may withdraw from the church, the fact remains that he still has an unresolved problem with God. Withdrawal from church, therefore, is never a legitimate escape from church discipline. One day the sinner has to meet his Maker. Then he cannot afford to have sins on his hands from which he has not repented.
5. WHAT SINS ARE WORTHY OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE?
Everyone sins. We all can identify with Paul’s lament, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.... O wretched man that I am!" (Romans 7:18-24). No matter how great our respect for Paul might be, he was the first to admit how much of a sinner he was and continued to be. Said Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." Notice how the regenerated apostle used the present tense. Therefore let no-one be surprised to find the worst of sins, even in the church of the Lord. One may think here also of the sins of an Abram (Genesis 16:3), a Moses (Exodus 2:12; Numbers 20:11), an Eli (1 Samuel 3:13), a David (2 Samuel 11), an Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16), a Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:13), a Peter (Matthew 26:69-74; Galatians 2:12), and so on.
That does not mean that we are all the objects of church discipline. For church discipline addresses not each person who sins, but each person who hardens in sin, who refuses to repent from sin. In every man there is sin, but from Psalm 32:1,2 we learn that God declares blessed the person who repents of sin. "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit." Who is the object of church discipline? The sinner who refuses to repent of sin. Which sin is censorable? Any sin can lead to church discipline if there is no repentance.
6. THE ‘HOW’ OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
6.1 Determination of Repentance
It is intriguing that the Church Order precedes the two articles concerning church discipline procedures with an article on repentance. In so doing the Church Order gives expression to the aim and hope of church discipline. The aim is not to get rid of a person from the congregation, to get him into hell. The aim is to save the sinner. See Article 69. As soon as possible, a disciplinary procedure is to cease. This hope and aim receives early formulation in the Church Order like this:
Article 72 - Repentance
When someone repents of a public sin or of a sin which had to be reported to the consistory, the latter shall not accept his confession of sin unless the member concerned has shown real amendment. The consistory shall determine whether the congregation shall be informed afterwards.
Note that true amendment is sought: not tears, but deeds.
6.2 Discipline of Communicant Members
In the church all are baptised. That is to say: God has made His covenant of grace with all members of the congregation, old and young alike. Some of the members have responded to God’s covenant of grace by professing the faith and so taken upon themselves the responsibilities that God has built into His covenant; these persons are termed "communicant members". Others of the members (the younger) have not (yet) responded to God’s covenant of grace, and so have not yet taken upon themselves the responsibilities that come with that covenant; these are termed "non-communicant members". With respect to discipline, the two groups cannot be treated fully alike. Hence two articles appear in the Church Order detailing the steps of church discipline to communicant and non-communicant members respectively.
ARTICLE 73 - Discipline in respect of communicant members
A communicant member who obstinately rejects the admonition by the consistory or who has committed a public or some other serious sin shall be suspended from the Lord’s Supper. If he continues to harden himself in sin, the consistory shall publicly announce this to the congregation so that the congregation may be engaged in prayer and admonition and the excommunication may not take place without its cooperation.
It is the responsibility of each, before he attends the supper of the Lord, to "examine himself" (1 Corinthians 11:28). The elders, however, also have a responsibility (see Article 57). The table of the Lord should not be profaned by a person who refuses to acknowledge sin and repent of it. For the sake of the Lord’s holiness and the sanctity of His table, then, the elders shall close the table to the sinner. By so doing, the message is impressed on the sinner that he may think that he will join in the supper of the Lord of the Last Day (Revelation 19:9,10), but, if he continues in his sin, in fact he will not join in that supper. His being withheld from the table on this earth, then, is intended to spell out to him the seriousness of his situation.
If the brother still refuses to repent, the consistory and congregation can appeal to the promises he made at his profession of faith. He said at this public profession that he believed the doctrine of the Word of God and promised to continue in this doctrine always, he embraced God’s covenant promises as true for himself, he declared that he loved the Lord and desired to serve him, and promised also "to submit willingly to the admonition and discipline of the Church, if it should happen ... that you become delinquent either in doctrine or conduct." Because the sinner made these declarations "before God and His holy Church" at some point in the past, appeal can be put on the sinner, on the basis of his own statements, to repent of his sins and return to his promises. For that reason no less than three public announcements are made.
6.3 Congregational Involvement
How must the consistory deal with the sinner who refuses to repent? Discipline, we noted above, is first and foremost a congregational responsibility. When, therefore, there is a hardening in sin, the consistory involves the congregation by way of public announcements.
The first announcement omits the name, but the second announcement mentions the person’s name, thereby encouraging the congregation members to speak to the person concerned. The churches have agreed to the following procedure:
Article 74 - Announcements during the procedure
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 accordance with the adopted Form. The time interval between the various announcements shall be determined by the consistory.
By means of the various public announcements a consistory enlists the involvement of the congregation. Not only does church discipline begin with the congregation; it also ends with the congregation. The first public announcement urges the congregation to pray for the wayward member. If this does not lead to repentance, a second announcement provides the name of the member so that in addition to praying for the member, the congregation may also take up contact with the member, be it by way of correspondence or a visit. Again, where there is a continuing hardening in sin a third announcement informs the congregation of the date the member will be excommunicated, together with the urge once more to try to impress on the erring brother the need to repent. Excommunication is done in a church service in the presence of the congregation, for it is the congregation which excommunicates under the leadership of the consistory.
6.3.2 Time Frame
All of this takes time. Why is the consistory not to excommunicate immediately? The Church Order seems to allow a considerable time-frame between the consistory being informed and the step of excommunication. The Form for the Excommunication of Communicant Members as printed in the Book of Praise speaks of "many" or "several earnest admonitions" which the unrepentant sinner has received; repeated admonitions require time. It is quite apparent that church discipline according to the Church Order is not something that is done quickly. Why this time element, one may ask? After all, one could point to Matthew 18:17 and argue that Jesus did not seem to allow for much time to lapse between ‘telling it to the church’ and excommunication. Said Jesus, "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector." Paul does not seem to have much patience either: "Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition" (Titus 3:10).
On the one hand one could argue against a long delay before excommunication. Isn’t the church holy? For the sake of the holiness of Christ’s church, if a member refuses to confess and repent of sin, isn’t it a matter of urgency to cut him out of the congregation? For that reason Article 73 stipulates that such a member "shall be suspended from the Lord’s Supper." It is the task of the elders to guard the purity and holiness of the table of the Lord. It is clear from Article 73 that the fathers worked with the material of 1 Corinthians 11. Because the table of the Lord had not been guarded in Corinth, i.e. church discipline was not exercised, many in Corinth were sick or had died.
On the other hand, one needs to recognise that a certain measure of patience is required when dealing with unrepentant sinners. The road to repentance requires time and so one needs to be wary of excommunicating too hastily. Take David, for example. How long did it take for him to admit to his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah? Even after he found out that Bathsheba was pregnant (certainly a period of weeks), he added to his sin by having Uriah killed. It wasn’t until after the widow Bathsheba had been taken into his house that, through Nathan’s prompting, David confessed his sin. In Psalm 32 David himself admitted that God’s heavy hand had to press on him for some time before he acknowledged his sin. David said,
"When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer" (vss 3,4).
This certainly cannot be read to assume a quick repentance. In the brokenness of this life, repentance amongst God’s elect does not necessarily happen over night.
The steps of withholding someone from the communion of the table of the Lord, the first, second and third announcements before excommunication, and the involvement of classes, all take time. The three announcements are not to be made in consecutive weeks, but rather, in recognition of the patience required in order for a sinner to come to repentance, Article 74 stipulates, "The time interval between the various announcements shall be determined by the consistory." That the advice of classis is sought by a church prior to proceeding with a second announcement acts as a safeguard to ensure that a church, rather than trying to get rid of a stubborn member, is truly seeking to gain the member.
In due time, excommunication becomes necessary. Excommunication, however, is still not the end of church discipline. The aim of church discipline included the sinner’s repentance (Article 69). In Matthew 18:17 Jesus instructed his disciples, "... But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector." What did Jesus mean by having to treat the excommunicated member as a heathen and a tax collector? Was it Jesus’ point that the unrepentant were to be avoided like the plague? The answer is No. Recall how Jesus Himself treated heathens and tax collectors. He did not leave them alone or avoid them. On the contrary, He sought them out. Take Zacchaeus, for example, "who was a chief tax collector.... and (Jesus) said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste ... for today I must stay at your house" (Luke 19:2-5).
In Matthew 18:17 Jesus does not give instruction to close the door on the excommunicated. Rather, His wish is that the wayward covenant child remains the object of one’s interest, love, and admonition. This attitude of Christ is what the Form for Excommunication urge us to imitate. After a member has been excommunicated, the Consistory addresses the congregation with these words, "We exhort you, beloved Christians, not to look on him (her) as an enemy. On the contrary, try to warn him (her) as a brother (sister). But do not associate with him (her), that he (she) may be ashamed and come to repentance." This is a scriptural exhortation derived from 2 Thessalonians 3:14,15, where Paul writes to the Thessalonians, "And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." Though there is to be distance between ourselves and the excommunicated member, he must remain the object of our loving admonition. The purpose of excommunication is and remains the repentance of the sinner.
6.4 Purpose Achieved
The Church Order reckons with the gracious reality of such repentance, and so Article 75 stipulates the procedure to be followed when a sinner (who was a communicant member) does repent and seeks to be reinstated as a member of the church.
ARTICLE 75 - Re-admission
When someone who has been excommunicated repents and desires to be again received into the communion of the church, the congregation shall be informed of this desire in order to see whether there are any lawful objections. The time between the public announcement and the re-admission of the sinner shall be not less than one month. If no lawful objection is raised the re- admission shall take place, with the use of the adopted Form.
The congregation is to be given a minimum of one month’s notice to raise any lawful objections to the sinner’s readmission. This is not to make it difficult for the sinner, but to ensure that the sinner’s repentance is indeed genuine. See Article 72. The announcement made to the congregation acknowledges repentance as a fruit of excommunication: "Beloved in the Lord: In the year ... brother (sister) _______ was excommunicated from the Church of Christ. The consistory may now inform you with gratitude that this remedy has borne fruit." Notice that here, again, the congregation is involved by way of consistory announcing the sinner’s repentance to the congregation.
6.5 Discipline of Non-communicant Members
Non-communicant members, like communicant members, are included in God’s covenant, and therefore have all the riches of Christ promised to them. Given what God has done for them and to them, it follows that they must in due time respond to their baptism with faith in Jesus Christ. By the grace of God, many do and so also live a life of service to God. Some, however, do not. By their conduct or their lack of faith they show themselves to be unbelieving and ungodly. Can such persons continue indefinitely to belong to Christ’s body?
The answer is negative. Christ’s body is holy, and therefore must be holy. The aims of church discipline are valid for the non-communicant sinner too. Granted, he has not made profession of the faith, and so cannot be approached in a manner identical to those who have voiced the vow of faith. The churches have agreed on the following procedure:
ARTICLE 79 - Discipline in respect of non-communicant members
A baptised member shall be admonished by the consistory when he as an adult fails to make public profession of faith or where in other respects he is not loyal to the calling to new obedience in God’s covenant. If he obstinately rejects the admonition of the consistory and thereby clearly demonstrates that he is indifferent and averse to the covenant or is even hostile to the service of the Lord, the matter shall be made known to the congregation without mentioning the name of the sinner; and the congregation shall be urged to pray for him. If the member continues in sin and is unwilling to listen to the admonitions, then with the advice of the classis the consistory shall make a second public announcement, mentioning the name of the sinner and the term after which the excommunication shall take place. If he does not in the said term show any real repentance, the consistory shall in a church service exclude him from the communion of the church, using the adopted Form. If he, after this excommunication, comes to repentance and desires to rejoin the communion of the church, he shall be admitted by way of his public profession of faith after the consistory has made his repentance known to the congregation.
As stated above, a non-communicant member can be admonished by the consistory for failing to make public profession of faith or if he fails to live as an obedient covenant child. However, since he has not promised allegiance to God through public profession of faith, the second announcement as pertains to communicant members has been omitted. Instead, the church proceeds directly (of course, after an interval of time) to the sinner’s excommunication. Here, too, though, excommunication is not the end of the matter. The aim remains the repentance of this wayward covenant child. For the non-communicant member readmission is by way of public profession of faith.
7. SIN AMONGST OFFICE-BEARERS
The men whom God calls to office in His church have need of God’s saving work as much as anyone else. They are as inclined to evil and are as inclined to refuse to repent from sin as anyone else. The Bible gives ample evidence of office-bearers who fell into sin. There was King David who refused to repent of his sin of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11,12); the disciple Peter who denied his Lord three times (Matthew 26:69-75); the apostle Peter who erred in doctrine (Galatians 2:11ff); the sons of Aaron who burnt unholy fire (Leviticus 10:1-3); the many kings of Israel and Judah of whom it is written, "and he did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done."
7.1 Manner of Discipline
How, though, ought the church to deal with office bearers who fell into grievous sin? The following is agreed:
ARTICLE 76 - Suspension and deposition of office-bearers
If a minister, elder or deacon has committed a public or otherwise gross sin, or refuses to heed the admonitions by the consistory, he shall be suspended from office by the judgment of his own consistory and of the consistory of a neighbouring congregation. In the case of a minister this neighbouring congregation shall be appointed by the classis. If he hardens himself in the sin, or if the sin committed is of such a nature that he can not continue in office, an elder or a deacon shall be deposed by the judgment of the above-mentioned consistories. Classis, with the advice of the deputies of synod, shall judge whether a minister is to be deposed.
Why must an office-bearer be suspended from office immediately? Why doesn’t a time element come into play here as in Articles 73 and 79? The holiness of the church of the Lord is one factor. That a known leader has given himself to gross sin gives cause to deride the good name of the Lord. More, by definition a leader is to be followed. If a leader in the congregation gives himself to sin and no consequence follows with respect to his leadership, the flock shall feel free to follow his bad example. For the sake of the holiness of the flock, then, the office bearer who has become delinquent in doctrine or conduct must be dealt with strictly and swiftly. Paul told the elders at Ephesus in Acts 20:28 to "take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." Why did Paul urge the elders at Ephesus to "take heed of themselves"? For the very reason that they must reckon with the reality that they, like any other person, are indeed capable of falling into sin. Should they fall into sin, what is to come of the flock? If the elders become wolves the flock will be scattered. Yet it was not for scattering that Christ laid down His life for the flock.
Where an office bearer has fallen to grievous sin, the consistory which appointed the brother to office also suspends him from office. In Article 76 one does not read of the congregation’s involvement as in Articles 73 and 79. However, a consistory may not suspend an office-bearer on its own accord. An office-bearer "shall be suspended from office by the judgment of his own consistory and of the consistory of a neighbouring congregation. In the case of a minister this neighbouring congregation shall be appointed by the classis." No consistory may act unilaterally; the judgment of a neighbouring church must be sought to safeguard against consistories getting rid of office-bearers for unlawful reasons, be they personality clashes or otherwise. Since a minister also plays a role within a bond of churches, classis plays a larger role in his suspension and deposition than for elders and deacons. Suspension from office gives the office-bearer the opportunity to repent, but if there is no repentance or the nature of the sin warrants it, an office-bearer must be deposed simply because the congregation needs to be protected.
7.2 Which Sins require Suspension
Article 77 mentions specific sins which are grounds for the suspension or deposition of office-bearers:
ARTICLE 77 - Serious and gross sins on the part of office-bearers
As serious and gross sins which are grounds for the suspension or deposition of office-bearers the following are to be mentioned particularly: False doctrine or heresy, public schisms, blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, unjustly enriching oneself; and further all such sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the church.
Also in cases of church discipline, be it in favour of or against the sinner, people’s emotions can stand in the way of determining correctly what is sin or not. That helps to explain why a list of sins is mentioned here. Regardless of one’s personal connections with the sinner (as was also the case in Deuteronomy 13:6), sin must be labelled as the sin it is, and judged accordingly.
7.3 Mutual Discipline
Office-bearers also need to engage in mutual discipline, speaking frankly with each other concerning the sins they see in each other’s work. That office-bearers have an obligation towards each other was already stated in Articles 16 and 20 which describe the tasks of ministers and elders respectively. "(Ministers) shall watch over their fellow office-bearers ...." and "(elders) shall watch that their fellow office-bearers are faithful in carrying out their duties ...." This is carried further in Article 78 as follows:
ARTICLE 78 - Christian censure
The ministers, elders, and deacons shall mutually exercise Christian censure and shall exhort and kindly admonish one another with regard to the execution of their office.
Office bearers are common, average people, quite able to be negligent in their God-given task of looking after the flock of the Lord. To ensure that the flock for which Christ shed His blood be tended as best as is humanly possible, every effort ought to be made to encourage one another to carry out the office to the best of one’s ability. Hence Christian censure is an item that appears regularly on consistory agendas. If necessary, office bearers admonish each other on points of doctrine or conduct to ensure that the offices are carried out in obedient and faithful service to God.