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Article 32 - The Order and Discipline of the Church

Article 32.doc  



We believe that, although it is useful and good for those who govern the church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church, they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded. Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way. We accept only what is proper to preserve and promote harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God. To that end, discipline and excommunication ought to be exercised in agreement with the Word of God.


Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church.  From His place in heaven on high, He governs His Church by means of office bearers (Articles 30 & 31).  Just how, though, are these office bearers to govern?  How can they, in their manner of governing, do justice to Christ’s headship?

DeBres and the people of his day had been raised in a church governed by human principles.  In the cities, towns and villages of Europe, the Roman Catholic churches were led by teams of men responsible to those above them – a hierarchy that climaxed in the Pope of Rome, the church’s de facto master.  Instead of genuine care for the members of the congregation, the system allowed those on top of the ladder to take (financial) advantage of the little people of the pew.  One may think of the sale of indulgences used to finance the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Through this papal system of church government, the people of the pew did not hear the Voice of the Shepherd.

DeBres taught his reformed congregation that office bearers in Christ’s church are not to use their positions to take advantage of the sheep, but are instead to govern according to principles “Christ, our only Master, has commanded.”  As Christ did not fleece His sheep but instead laid down His life for their benefit, so office bearers who govern under Christ are to seek what is good for the sheep without regard to self.  To achieve what is good for the sheep, “we reject all human inventions” as well as “laws introduced into the worship of God” which do not come from God Himself and so “bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  Instead, “we accept only what is proper to preserve and promote harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God.”


What does a form of church government agreeing with Christ’s headship look like?  Building on work done by the early church fathers (first, second and third centuries after Christ’s ascension), the reformers of the sixteenth century developed a form of church government built squarely on the Bible.  It is presbyterial church government, where the term ‘presbyterial’ catches the Scriptural notion that Christ governs through the presbyters, that is, the elders.  See Articles 30 & 31 for more detail about the elders.

Leaders of the churches of the Reformation labored to put to paper how, according to Scripture, the Lord wanted His church to be governed.  It took time for a consensus to develop, so that in DeBres’ day (1560s) the development was yet incomplete.  Yet that took nothing away from deBres’ conviction that “it is useful and good for those who govern the Church to establish a certain order to maintain the body of the Church,” and in establishing and carrying out that Order office bearers “must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded.”  Over the years consensus has grown and a Church Order has matured.  The great Synod of Dort 1618-19 finalized the Church Order of Dort, the ripe fruit of years of discussion about how the church of Jesus Christ ought to be governed.  It regulates church life in four areas:

  1. Offices and supervision of doctrine – about how one becomes an office bearer and carries out one’s task.
  2. Assemblies – about the work of consistory, classis and synod.
  3. Worship, sacraments and ceremonies – about what ought to happen in the worship services.
  4. Discipline – about how the church ought to deal with sin in her midst.

Faithful Reformed Churches around the world still gratefully use this Church Order of Dort to this day.  Both office bearers and church members do well to be familiar with this Church Order, and how it functions in church life.1

1 The Church Order as adopted by the Synod of Dort is available in my Spiritual Order for the Church (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 2000), together with two contemporary adaptations of this Church Order.  The book in question seeks to explain how the articles of this Church Order are drawn from the Word of God.  Rev vanOene, With Common Consent (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 1990) draws out the practical application of each article of this Church Order.


Faithful office bearers do not use the force of swords to direct their sheep in the way of the Lord.  They have one tool alone, and that tool is the Word of God.  Paul says that the Word is “mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).  The epistle to the Hebrews adds that the Word Christ gave His Church “is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).  As office bearers speak that Word of God from the pulpit, in the Catechism classes and in the homes, the congregation members are comforted, instructed, admonished, and corrected.  That Word drives the people to a choice in their specific circumstances, a choice to obey God or to disobey.  Where there is obedience and a desire to submit to the will of God in one’s circumstances, elders may comfort with the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of life eternal.  But where there is a refusal to obey God’s commands and a rebellion against what the Lord in wisdom has placed on the path of a church member, elders must instruct and admonish, and ultimately declare in God’s name that sins are not forgiven and life eternal is not granted to that church member as long as he does not repent and believe.  This is the church discipline deBres spoke of in this article, “We believe that … discipline and excommunication ought to be exercised in agreement with the Word of God.”  Just what, though, does the Word of God teach us about church discipline?  A discussion of the Keys of the Kingdom will lay out the matter.


On the road to Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked His disciples who He, in their judgment, actually was.  Peter was the first to reply: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus, in turn, said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  And I also say to you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19).

Jesus’ imagery of the keys was lifted from the words of the prophet Isaiah.  In Isaiah 22:20-22 we read of the steward who controlled access to Israel’s king; no Israelite could approach the king for a judgment in a dispute unless the steward permitted him access (lest the king be burdened with too many bogus complaints).  So it was said of the steward that he possessed the key to the king; when he gave permission the door to the king was open (and no one could shut it), and when he denied that access the door was closed – with finality.  In Isaiah’s day, however, the steward (Shebna) was corrupt and so gave the wrong people access to the king.  So the Lord told Isaiah to declare, “The key of the house of David I will lay on [Eliakim’s] shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut and no one shall open.”

The keys of which Jesus spoke did not give access to the Old Testamentic house of David, but to its New Testament fulfillment, the kingdom of heaven itself.  The authority to grant access to the kingdom of heaven was given to Peter not as an isolated individual, but to Peter as the first one to verbalize Jesus’ true identity.  God alone can forgive sins (and therefore permit sinners into His presence), but for some months now God’s Son on earth has forgiven sin (Matthew 9:6; Luke 7:48,49) and so granted life and righteousness to all who believe in Him.  But Jesus was not to remain on earth.  In preparation for His departure He gave to particular persons the authority to do what rightly only God can do, namely, determine who can access the King of heaven, enter the kingdom of God.  That is the redemptive-historical significance of Matthew 16:19.  Peter –the word means ‘rock’– becomes the foundation upon which the triumphant and ascended Christ shall build His Church.


After Christ’s triumph on the cross Jesus told Peter and all His disciples to preach the gospel to the entire world (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15).  On the day of Pentecost the same Peter whom Jesus addressed in Matthew 16 took the initiative in obeying that command (Acts 2:14).  His Pentecost sermon impressed upon his hearers the confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God (Acts 2:36).  This preaching threw open the doors of the kingdom of heaven to all who believed – and 3000 answered the call (vs 41).  These believers received forgiveness of sins, and therefore the right to access the King of heaven.  Over the days and years that followed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Peter continued to preach, and so permit sinners access to the kingdom of heaven (cf Acts 3:12-18; 4:10-12; 5:17-25; etc).

Yet it was not Peter alone who used the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  The authority Jesus gave to Peter in Matthew 16 is granted to all the disciples, and so all the disciples preached the word in the Pentecost church.  Similarly, when the apostles could preach no more, the authority to open and close the kingdom of heaven was passed on to those who continue to preach the gospel of Jesus’ work and identity.  Today still the kingdom of heaven is opened by the preaching of the gospel “when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ’s merits as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel.”  The opposite is true also; today still “the kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent” (Lord’s Day 31.84).  Unbelief manifests itself by its fruits (Matthew 7:17-19).  Such fruits include the works of the flesh, and “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).


What, then, is to happen to the person who has joined the assembly of the redeemed (the Church, according to Article 27), but later refuses to abide by the preaching of the gospel and gives himself to a life of unbelief?  The Holy Spirit moved Paul to give the following instruction to the Galatian believers: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).  This echoes Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18:15: “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15).  These two verses give a general instruction to all Christians to be the brother’s keeper.

What is to happen, though, if a brother will not heed your admonitions?  Sin destroys one’s relation with God; you cannot have peace with God and at the same time live in sin.  There is no access for such a person to the kingdom of heaven, and love for an erring brother dictates that this terrible fact must be impressed upon him before it is too late.  So Jesus gave further instruction: “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.   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.  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 18:16-19).  Here is the same notion of binding and loosing as we encountered in Matthew 16, but this time it is the Church (through the elders) that does the binding and the loosing (see also John 20:22,23). 

The elders of the church have received great responsibility.  The church is the assembly of the redeemed (Article 27), the gathering of people who look forward to seeing the face of God in heaven.  In the church are hypocrites, as well as covenant children who refuse to embrace in faith the promises God extended to them in their baptism.  Such people may assume that they enjoy the forgiveness of their sins and that they will receive the crown of glory, but as long as they do not live by faith they are self-deceived.  It is the task of the congregation to show this self-deception to those brothers and sisters who show themselves in doctrine or life to be unbelieving.  Where the congregation’s efforts do not produce the desired results, the elders (with the continued cooperation of the congregation) need to complete the task by cutting such persons off from the assembly of the redeemed, the church of Jesus Christ.


Cutting a person off from the church of Jesus Christ comes across to us as a harsh and cruel thing to do.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes clear that excommunication is no crueler than radiation treatment for cancer; it’s a necessary trauma to bring about improved spiritual health.  Three foci may be mentioned.

1.  Save the Sinner

Paul relates that in the Church at Corinth a member was living in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother – explicitly contrary to God’s ordinance in Leviticus 18:6-8.  So Paul gave instruction what the church was to do.  “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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” (1 Corinthians 5:4,5).  Note here that Paul is addressing the congregation as a whole, not just the elders.  Yes, the elders have the authority and they take the initiative when it comes to excommunication, but church discipline is the responsibility of the entire congregation.  More importantly, note that Paul’s motivation for demanding this course of action is “that his spirit may be saved.”  Paul does not want this person to go to hell, to have to live eternally under the dominion of Satan.  Out of love for the brother, Paul instructs the congregation to deliver him to Satan so that he may reconsider what he’s doing and repent.  See also 1 Timothy 1:18-20.  This is the first purpose of church discipline and excommunication: to bring the sinner to repentance.

2.  Prevent Spreading

Paul adds a second reason why this brother needed to be excommunicated. 1 Corinthians 5:6, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”  Sin acts like leaven; in time it permeates the whole batch of dough.  Perhaps more graphic in our modern times is a comparison with cancer; sin, like cancer, will spread and eventually kill the whole body, and must therefore be cut out.  In fact, as one needs to act immediately upon a diagnosis of cancer, so congregation and office bearers need to act immediately on evidence of sin in the congregation and cut it out – lest the sin spread to other members of the body and destroy others for whom Christ died.  Excommunication, then, is an act of kindness not just for the sinning brother, but also for his friends, family and contacts in the congregation.

3.  Glory of God

In the chapter in question Paul hints at a third reason for excommunication.  Said Paul concerning the sexual immorality of the brother tolerated in the Church at Corinth, “... such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles – that a man has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1).  Corinth was well known for its sexual immorality, but such a sin as was tolerated in the Church was unheard of outside of it amongst the heathen.  So it potentially brought disdain upon the church and the name of the God the church preaches.  Allowing the sinner concerned to remain part of the congregation would give the heathen cause to blaspheme God.  For the sake of God’s honor, then, the sinner must be distanced from the church of holy God.


Wherein lies the sting in excommunication?  Is it simply in the fact that you are told –first privately and then publicly that your beliefs and/or lifestyle is offensive to God so that He will not welcome you into His kingdom?  Anyone with a conscience will certainly feel the sting of such a message!  But given our depravity and the dullness of a sinful conscience, those who have embraced sin have hardened themselves to such a message.  That is why more is required.  Excommunication breaks friendships and puts distance between brothers.  This is the command of the Lord Jesus Christ concerning the sinner you admonished and eventually reported to the church: “If he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).  The Jews of Jesus’ day kept their distance from the heathen and the tax collectors, and refused to associate with them (see Luke 15:1,2).  In like manner the godly were to put distance between oneself and a “brother” (Matthew 18:15) who gives himself to sin and refuses to heed admonition.  The isolation the sinning brother experiences gives a small taste of what isolation from God in hell is like – and is intended to drive him to reconsideration.

Paul repeated Jesus’ instruction.  “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who leads a disorderly life and not according to the tradition which he received from us....  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” (2 Thessalonians 3:14,15).  Elsewhere:  “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people” (1 Corinthians 5:9).  The Corinthians had apparently understood Paul to mean that one was not to rub shoulders with any one who was immoral.  Yet that would mean that one would need to go out of the world – since the world is full of immoral people.  So Paul clarifies, “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner – not even to eat with such a person” (1 Corinthians 5:11).  The point here is this: if a person such as described in 1 Corinthians 5 is living in blatant sin, can I possibly act towards him in a way that might indicate to him that all is well?  That would be deception.  As long as he persists in his sin, his future is the agony of hell; he will not be present with all the saints at the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb.  To drive that point home to the sinner, friendships need to be broken and social habits changed.  That is bold love.

Conversely, one is not to treat the excommunicated like an enemy.  Jesus Himself sought out the heathens and tax collectors in an effort to show them the gospel of God’s grace (Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 15:1,2).  That is why Paul told the Thessalonians not only to “not keep company” with the erring brother, but also to “not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:14,15).  The contact that remains needs to keep the heat on the brother so that he comes to repentance.


There is no difference between the way one is to deal with a person who has withdrawn himself from the church, and a person who has been excommunicated from the church.  It may seem to us that as church discipline progresses toward excommunication, it may be advisable simply to withdraw from the church – and save oneself and one’s family the trauma of being excommunicated.  One will not be cured of cancer, though, if one flees the radiation program.  One will not enter the kingdom of heaven either if one flees the admonitions intended to produce repentance.  Short-circuiting the church discipline process is harmful primarily to oneself.  When, therefore, a brother or sister opts to withdraw, he needs the same ‘treatment’ as Jesus prescribed in Matthew 18: “if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). 


None in the congregation of Jesus Christ is above the need for possible admonition on account of sin.  Noah “found grace in the eyes of the LORD,” but after the flood gave himself to sins of drunkenness (Genesis 6:8; 9:21).  Abraham “believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness,” but allowed a third party to come into his marriage with Sarah (Genesis 15:6; 16:1-4).  Moses was “very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth,” but at Kadesh he disobeyed God’s command and took matters in his own hands (Numbers 12:3; 20:10-11).  David was “a man after [God’s] own heart,” but he gave himself to sins of adultery and murder (1 Samuel 13:14; 2 Samuel 11:4,15).  Job “was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil,” but he had to repent in dust and ashes for his rash challenge of God’s dealings with him (Job 1:1; 13:3; 42:6).  If such ‘giants’ of the faith could fall so tragically, who of us is above sin?  “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).  Never, then, should I be surprised when a brother approaches me with an admonition on account of something he’s seen in my life.  One can only respond with humility and a desire to hear the brother out – and engage in careful self-examination and, perhaps, repentance.

In fact, I’ve promised to consider all admonition seriously and humbly.  The Form for Public Profession of Faith includes this question: “Do you promise to submit willingly to the admonition and discipline of the Church, if it should happen, and may God graciously prevent it, that you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in conduct?” (Book of Praise, p. 593).  I promised I would submit.  As a child of God renewed by His Spirit, it is for me to keep my word – for my own salvation’s sake.

Points for Discussion:

  1. Is a Church Order actually necessary?  To what degree are the churches bound to the stipulations of the Church Order?
  2. What are the keys of the kingdom?  Explain how these keys function.
  3. Who exercises these keys?  Explain.
  4. Is being placed under church discipline a bad thing or not?  Explain.
  5. People under church discipline habitually complain of being wronged.  Evaluate this response.  What implication follows for the complaints you might hear concerning the consistory?  See 1 Timothy 5:19.
  6. What is the task of the congregation in relation to church discipline?
  7. What are the three purposes for excommunication?
  8. How ought we to relate to those who have been excommunicated? 
  9. How ought we to relate to those who have withdrawn from the church?
  10. Discuss the promise made in the last question of the Form for Public Profession of Faith.