Chapter 7: Church Discipline
THE REASONS FOR CHURCH DISCIPLINE
THE REACH OR EXTENT OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
THE RESULT OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
THE REACTION OF THE CHURCH TOWARD THE DISCIPLINED
discipline is actually of two radically different natures, and great misunderstanding can result from the failure to differentiate between the two, and to exercise both in a New Testament Church. J. M. Pendleton defines church discipline as follows:
If discipline is necessary in families, schools and armies, it must answer important purposes in the churches of Christ. It may be considered the process by which the spiritual improvement, usefulness, and efficiency of a church are promoted. In its comprehensive sense church discipline is both formative and corrective, though the phrase is generally used in the latter acceptation.óChurch Manual, p. 117.
A similar definition was given by Samuel Hopkins, who wrote in 1793:
The discipline of a church consists in their admitting or rejecting those who offer themselves to join with them; in the members watching over each other; in reproving and admonishing those who walk disorderly, and taking all proper methods to reform them; and in rejecting those who will not be reclaimed, but continue obstinate and unreformed, when all proper means have been previously used to bring them to repentance.óSystem of Doctrine, Vol. II, p. 407.
Formative church discipline consists of the teaching and training of believers relative to their responsibilities as Christians and church members, and this teaching and training might well be called preventive discipline in a great number of cases, for the teaching of the Word is an adequate antidote to all manner of sin. "Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word," Ps. 119:9. However, there are often instances where an individual has neglected or refused to be disciplined by the Word in a formative or preventive way, and so must be dealt with in a corrective way. This is sometimes called excisive discipline.
By excisive discipline is meant the cutting off or excluding of a member of the church for some wicked offense or for a persistent course of sin. No matter how well a church may acquit herself in the use of both formative and corrective discipline, she will find the necessity now and then of withdrawing from some person the hand of church fellowship.óT. P. Simmons, Systematic Study of Bible Doctrine, p. 334.
This is doubtless one of the most unwelcome subjects that can come up before a church business meeting, and, consequently, it is a responsibility that is easily shirked. In every segment of organized society, from the federal government down to the smallest and most insignificant club, one expects to find good order and discipline maintained. Not so, in many churches of our day! Where one would be quickly drummed out of a lodge or club for any action that reflected back upon that organization, it is too often considered extremism or Pharisaic self-righteousness for a church to exercise excisive discipline upon its members, though the crime may be the worst infidelity or immorality.
One cause of this condition, at least in Protestant churches, is to be found in their practice of accepting infants as members of the church. These come to adulthood without having experienced any spiritual change, and, consequently they have no spiritual conceptions of their duties, and no spiritual concern to do those duties. Under such circumstances, to attempt to exercise excisive discipline would be to virtually empty the church of members, for all are in the same state. For this reason, many Pedobaptist churches dare not take any action against ungodly members.
But what is the cause of this attitude of indulgence in Baptist churches, where there must be the credible profession . of faith in Christ before one can become a member of the church? In some instances, this is due to an ignorance of the Scriptural commands to exercise this discipline. In others, it is due to a false "charity" or "broadmindedness." But that there is a sad lack of, and a great need for, scriptural church discipline in many churches, is obvious to all when it is a common thing for church members to frequent bars and cocktail lounges, which are often owned and operated by fellow church members. When the morals of many church members are little above those of the skid row derelict. When some are not above cheating in business. And many other such breaches scriptural duty and of the church covenant.
Not only has a church the right to exercise discipline, in the milder forms of fraternal labor, for the removal of evils, but to the extreme of excision it is the imperative duty of every church to administer this needed and salutary part of government. That church is unfaithful to itself, to its members and to its living Head, that neglects it. Not that it should seek opportunity to find faults, or to deal with the weak and the wandering, but it should be faithful to do this when occasion calls for it.óE. T. Hiscox, New Directory For Baptist Churches, pp: 169-170.
Strangely enough, it is those who are the first to speak of the "hypocrites in the churches," who often are the most outspoken critics of the practice of disciplinary exclusion of those who give cause for this accusation. It would seem that such are desirous of ways to excuse their own neglect of duty to God, and think to find excuses either in the ungodliness of those who are church members, or else in the "severity" of the church in seeking to correct this ungodliness.
That wickedness and infidelity exists in some churches is certain. That it could be remedied, at least in most cases, is probable. That it could be prevented by emphasizing doctrine and the requirements of the church covenant, is unquestionable: One of the chief reasons for the failure of so many churches to multiply, is that they have no testimony in the community. No church will gain many sound members if its present members are considered hypocrites. A holy walk is the duty of every member of a church, not just that of the pastor alone. And that church which forgets this soon stagnates. To separate life from belief, or to profess to believe what one does not practice will soon lead to the corruption of belief as well. To a church which had fallen into such a condition the Lord warned: "...repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (Rev. 2:5).
It is not enough to maintain a theoretical orthodoxy. There must be a practical observance of Christian precepts as well. If the reader would see how far Baptist churches have declined from the purity of church discipline as practiced only a little over one hundred years ago, let him read Francis Waylandís "Notes On The Principles and Practices of Baptists," which was written in 1856.
Some would argue that to exclude the immoral or ungodly members of the church is to exclude those who most need to be in church. We reply: the Bible no where commands any to become members of a church except those who have experienced an inward change, and who have been purified from the old way of life. If any comes into the membership of a church in any way except through salvation by faith in Christ, Who is, Himself, the Door, John 10:7-10, then he comes in as a thief, and has no right within anyhow. The individual who continues to practice immorality, or to believe heresy after he has had one or two admonitions, shows that he holds in contempt the teaching of the church to the contrary: Therefore to allow such an one to remain a member of the church would be to accomplish nothing good for him, and it would do much harm to the rest of the body by giving the distinct impression that it condoned the immorality or heresy. "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump" (1 Cor. 5:6-7).
Others argue that it is unjust to exclude a person for "one little mistake." We reply: such is never the case where scriptural church discipline is exercised. In cases of personal offences between individuals the church is to act only as a last resort. In such a case, a person is to be admonished and encouraged and taught to walk "in the way" (Isa. 30:21). But if, after repeated admonitions and reproofs, the individual will not be reconciled to his brother, then he must be excluded. However, such could hardly be considered "one little mistake." In cases where it is a matter of public immorality, it could certainly not be considered a "little" mistake, and consequently immediate exclusion is necessary to the vindication of the churchís righteousness.
The church is not a Mutual Insurance Company, whose object is to protect and shield its individual members. It is a society whose end is to represent Christ in the world, and to establish His truth and righteousness. Christ commits His honor to its keeping. The offender who is only anxious to escape judgment, and who pleads to be forgiven without delay, often shows that he cares nothing for the cause of Christ which he has injured, but that he has at heart only his own selfish comfort and reputation. The truly penitent man will rather beg the church to exclude him, in order that it may free itself from the charge of harboring iniquity. He will accept exclusion with humility, will love the church that excludes him, will continue to attend its worship, will in due time seek and receive restoration. There is always a way back into the church for those who repent. But the Scriptural method of ensuring repentance is the method of immediate exclusion.óA. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 925.
God is certainly longsuffering and merciful, and He expects His churches to be so also, but there is a limit beyond which neither God nor His churches can go. That is when a person is confirmed in his iniquity, so that he has no concern for anything but his own pride and pleasure (Ex. 34:6-7).
Yet a third group would have us believe that the church either has no right to exercise excisive discipline, or that it is a matter of little import. Such a view can only be taken because of ignorance of the Bible. Henry G. Weston says:
That the church is required to exercise a due discipline over its members, and that this discipline is entrusted to the members and not to the officers of a church, is seen from Matthew 18:15-18; 1 Corinthians 5:3, 4; 1 Timothy 1:19, 20; Titus 3:10; 2 Thessalonians 3:6. The two great branches of discipline, excision and restoration, are specifically directed to be performed by the church in 1 Corinthians 5:3-8 and 2 Corinthians 2:5-10. In the first of these, Paul, though an apostle, does not himself excommunicate the offender, but directs the church at its regular gathering to cut him off. And in the latter, when Paul is convinced that the ends of the discipline have been answered, he does not himself restore the offender, but directs the church to receive him again to its fellowship.óThe Constitution And Polity of the New Testament Church, p. 69. (Appended to E. H. Johnsonís Outline of Systematic Theology.)
One of the earliest teachings to the church after its establishment was concerned with this very subject (Matt. 18:15-17). The subject of church discipline runs through the whole of the New Testament, and is especially prominent in the epistles of Paul, a man chosen of God to make known the mysteries of the church to the Gentiles (Eph. 3:1-10).
There can be but two reasons for rejecting the doctrine of church discipline, and neither of these are scriptural reasons. These are either ignorance of the duty to exercise it, which can be remedied by teaching, or, an obstinate refusal to recognize the scriptural command to exercise it because of oneís own ungodliness. This latter reason is grounded in personal and selfish fear, and block all hope of correction so long as it is persisted in. there are four things which need to be considered relative to church discipline. The first isó
THE REASONS FOR CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Let it be said, first of all, that a person may be excluded from a church without it being recognized and ratified by the Lord. Before a person can be scripturally excluded from a church, he must be dealt with for a scriptural reason, and in a scriptural way. There have been instances where persons have been unceremoniously "booted" out of a church by a pulpit despot, a high-handed church clique, or perhaps even a whole church, yet one which was ignorant and unspiritual. In such a case, the individual might be innocent of any real blame in the Lordís sight, and thus unworthy of such treatment. If so, then he need have no fear regarding the exclusion.
Matthew 18:15-17 is claimed by some, especially the Roman Catholics, to teach that regardless of the right or wrong of the matter, the church can authoritatively bind and loose, even to the point of binding or loosing the way of eternal life. However, in consideration of the context, it is clear that only if the foregoing directions have been followed will the binding and loosing be ratified in heaven. Indeed, the Greek verbs are such as to demand that the churchís actions conform only to what has already been revealed as settled in heaven. This has already been discussed at length in the chapter on the Nature of the Church. That this passage relates only to offences between members within the church, and the manner of dealing with them, is clear from the context. The power to open or close the gates of heaven belong to no mortal: It is the Lord Himself who has the "keys of hades and death" (Rev. 1:18), and the "key of David," with which He "openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth" (Rev. 3:7).
Now when the apostle received authority to bind and to loose, the meaning is, that he is able to execute the churchís excommunication upon a man, and therewith tie up his guilt, or retain it (John 20:23)...The same authority which the Apostle Peter here received, was subsequently imparted to all disciples with him (Matt. 18:18; John 20:23). This authority, however, maintains its reality in the church only so far as the ecclesiastical function keeps upon the apostolic elevation, in its identity with the Spirit of Christ. For at bottom it is evermore Christ Himself in His Spirit who receives into the true communion and executes the real excommunication, according to that word which we have in the Revelation of John, chapter 3:7. Thus, therefore, that authority stands under an eternal regulative power.óJ. P. Lange, The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ, Vol. II, pp. 314-315.
The first reason given in the New Testament for disciplinary action is that which deals with personal offenses between church members. This is the theme of Matt. 18:1517. However, there are several steps which must be taken before the church has authority to intervene and take action.
From this passage we note the following: 1. When one has been offended by a fellow church member, he is to: (1) Go to him privately and seek to reconcile that offense. (2) If the offender has the right attitude, he will want to get right with his brother."...if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." (3) The opposite may also be true. The offended party may not know of the offense. If not, and if the offense comes to the knowledge of the offender, he is to seek the reconciliation. "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matt. 5:23-24). Scripture puts the responsibility of reconciliation equally upon both parties. Neither is to proudly wait for the other to move, for the other may not know of the offense. There can be no acceptable worship of God where there are offenses between brethren. This is a family matter, and Godís family must not be divided by carnal feelings. If the first overture is rejected then: 2. He is to take one or two more with him and make a second attempt at reconciliation. (1) It is indeed strange how often when two parties seek reconciliation, they do so, either with a chip on the shoulder, and take everything belligerently, or else with their feelings exposed so that they are offended at every word. This is why, at the second attempt at reconciliation, there are to be disinterested parties taken along. (2) These witnesses are to be members of the church also. Outsiders are not to be brought into the matter (1 Cor. 6:1-2). (3) These witnesses are to be taken in order that the truth of every word from both sides of the matter may be established.
If the offender is adjudged guilty of the offense by the disinterested parties (It is sometimes the case that the supposedly offended brother is actually the one who is at fault) and he refuses to make it right with his brother, then, and only then: 3. The matter is to be taken before the church for consideration. Even here, there is still opportunity for reconciliation and righting of the wrong. The church is to: (1) Hear the matter and to sit in judgment upon it. (2) They are to pass judgment as to the right or wrong of the case in the light of the Scriptures, and to submit their findings to the offender. (3) If he has the Spirit of Christ he will submit himself to the decision of the church, make the wrong right, and be reconciled to his brother. But if he rejects the word of the church, then he is to be excluded from their communion (regarded as a "heathen") and from their civil intercourse (to be regarded as a "publican"). E. T. Hiscox observes:
The church is to pass the final sentence, after a full and fair hearing of the whole case. There is no higher tribunal, and no further appeal. The great Head of the church has directed what that decision shall be, if the offender be still unmoved and incorrigible. The object all of the way through is to "gain a brother." Failing in this he is to be no longer a brother. As he will not show a brotherís spirit, and will not act a brotherís part, he is to be removed from the fellowship of the brotherhood.óNew Directory For Baptist Churches, pp. 176177.
Dr. Hiscox makes a further important observation on what is involved in this multi-step scriptural procedure for righting problems between brethren, in a note at the same place, in which he says:
Let it be born in mind that the mere neglect to hear the complainant, brings it before the "one or two more," and a neglect to hear the "one or two more," brings the matter before the church; and a neglect to "hear the church" ends in exclusion. No offensive deportment, no other insubordination to authority, no vindictive spirit on the part of the accused, is necessary to secure this final sentence, but simply a "neglect to hear." That becomes a refusal to submit to lawfully constituted authority, as well as a violation of voluntarily accepted covenant obligations when admitted to its fellowship.óloc cit.
If there be those that say that this is a lot of trouble to go to in dealing with one who is obviously reprobate, we reply that we cannot know that he is reprobate and hardened until we have given him the opportunity to repent and be reconciled. This, then, is the pattern for dealing with such offenses; we cannot do otherwise. To Peterís query, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?" (Matt. 18:21), our Lord replied, "Till seventy times seven" (Matt. 18:22). Luke records, "If he turn again to thee saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him" (Luke 17:4). This is the extent to which we are to go individually so long as there is evidence of genuine repentance. However, in Bible numerology, seven is the number of completeness, so that seventy times seven would signify an ultimate forgiveness, or an almost unlimited willingness to forgive the penitent.
Many times, however, there are minor disagreements which come up between church members which neither affect the testimony nor the tranquility of the church. How then should these be dealt with? A case in point is referred to by Paul in Philippians 4:2: "I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord." These two ladies were of a contrary mind as to some undisclosed matter. In this particular case, Paul does not recommend disciplinary action, but appeals to each of the individuals concerned, placing an equal responsibility upon each to seek to correct the disagreement. Room is certainly left for personal opinions in minor matters, and even disagreements may be tolerated so long as they do not affect the witness nor the peace of the church. Paul was inspired to talk about such disagreements and the need for mutual tolerance in Romans 14. Many otherwise harmful disagreements could be quietly resolved were some disinterested party to help and encourage contrary parties. More often, though, partisans line up with each party, and foment the disagreement until it develops into a full-scale church schism.
A second reason for the exercise of church discipline is what may be termed public offenses. A personal offense may develop into a public offense if it is not speedily resolved. Public offenses may deal with oneís morals, oneís spirituality, or a matter of general disorderliness. Anything which is disorderly in nature, and which reflects back unfavorably upon the Lord and upon His church, is to be dealt with by the church. "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us" (2 Thess. 3:6).
From this passage we note: 1. It is spoken to the brethren of the Thessalonian church, 1:1. 2. It is spoken upon the authority of the Lord Jesus Himself: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." 3. It is a command to separate from the disorderly brother. This does not deal with the relationship of church members to outsiders. 4. The reason for separation is to be "disorderliness," not personality clashes, personal opinion, or because of competition for church office. Paul further amplifies this statement by saying, "...and not after the tradition which he received of us." By "tradition," he does not mean the traditions of men, which some would have us subject ourselves to. He refers to apostolic teaching. Any deviation from apostolic teaching of doctrines is cause for examination and exclusion by the church if the guilty party will not repent of his heresy. However, this deals with a third reason for discipline, to be considered hereafter.
We are given a scriptural example of one form of disorderliness and the manner in which the church was to deal with it. This was the case of the immoral member of the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:1-5). After speaking of this, Paul went on to include several other forms of ungodliness in the same category. "I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolators; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat" (1 Cor. 5:9-11). This deals with church members.
Disorderliness does not deal exclusively with fornication, although Paul gives special prominence to that particular form of immorality in this epistle. Paul warns of the dangers of this sin in the following words: "Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are Godís" (1 Cor. 6:18-20). The remedy for such danger? "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband...Defraud [withhold] ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency [lack of self-control]" (1 Cor. 7:2, 5).
The other forms of immorality besides sexual sins which are mentioned are: Covetousness-greediness of material gain with no scruple as to the manner of obtaining it. How many churches would call in question the shady, or even outright crooked dealings, of its members? Yet Paul is inspired to command the Corinthian church to not even eat the Lordís Supper with such a person (1 Cor. 5:11).
Next he mentions idolatry. Idolatry! Can a "brother" be guilty of idolatry? Yes, any Christian who gives anyone or anything a higher place in his affections than he gives to God is an idolator. Covetousness is classified as this sin (Col. 3:5), for there are Christians who worship the mighty mammon more than the Almighty God, and those whose idolatrous actions are outwardly manifested to the reproach of the Lord and His church should certainly be dealt with by the church.
Pleasure is classified as idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10:7, which may take many forms, as when Christians absent themselves from the Lordís house in order to visit relatives, play golf, go fishing, engage in sports activities, or even just watch television. This giving of personal pleasure more place in the affections than God has, cannot but incur Godís displeasure.
Yet another form of immorality mentioned that is to be dealt with by the church, is that of the "railer" or abusive and blasphemous person. Nothing hinders the testimony of a church like having a foul-mouthed person on the church roll. In many cases, the foul corruption that comes out of the mouth only manifests the corruption that is in the heart. Hear the words of our Lord on the subject of corrupt language: "O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of an evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned" (Matt. 12:34-37). But even a true believer can be guilty of giving vent to his baser nature and speaking things that ought not to be spoken. James says, "Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?" (3:10-11).
Drunkenness is also listed as a form of immorality which justifies exclusion from the church. It is now a popular thing to refer to drunkenness as a disease, yet it is not a disease in the sense that it strikes down innocent victims without warning. No person ever became an alcoholic but who was first a sampler, than a social drinker, and then finally a sot drunk. Alcoholism only becomes an addiction after repeated social drinking. The excuse "I cannot help drinking" is one of Satanís lies, for every person can avoid taking the first drink, and no man becomes an alcoholic on the first drink. But even for the confirmed alcoholic, there is no limit to the power of God to deliver from the curse of drink. All too many people have no real desire to be delivered from drink, but only seek to excuse themselves by pleading inability to refrain from drinking.
Drinking alcoholic beverages is risky business. It leads to addiction, but this addiction, being voluntarily received, does not excuse the drunkard. If alcoholism was a natural and inherent disease, it would not shut up the kingdom of God to an individual, for God does not shut men out of His kingdom because of natural incapacities, but He does shut up the Kingdom of God to the drunkard (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Therefore, alcoholism is an acquired defect, and one for which man is morally accountable. The person who takes even occasional alcoholic drinks is a worse fool than the man who plays Russian roulette, and will more certainly lose if he persists in it. Russian roulette will only destroy the physical life, while drunkenness will destroy a person spiritually in hell.
Most Baptist churches subscribed to the Baptist church covenant, and the person who unites with a Baptist church puts himself under that covenant, part of which is the pledge to "abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage..." If a person is not willing to subscribe to the Baptist church covenant in whole, he should not present himself for membership in a Baptist church:
That church which knowingly allows a member to exercise such ungodliness violates its own covenant as well as the express teaching of the Bible. Contrary to many personsí beliefs, a church is not a social organization which exists only for the pleasure of its members. It has a divine commission to discharge, and this it cannot do if it is carrying a load of immoral deadwood.
Then extortion is a cause for church discipline, and while this is related to covetousness, there is a distinction. Covetousness is the cause: extortion is the effect. A covetous person may or may not be an extortioner, but the extortioner is always a covetous person. A covetous person may desire that which belongs to someone else, but may not make any positive effort to obtain it. An extortioner, on the other hand, not only desires that which belongs to another, but also attempts to obtain the same by fraudulent or violent means. A man does not have to be a house-breaker in order to be a thief or extortioner. One may be so by being oppressive or unjust in his business dealings. Tragically, many a second-story man in business is considered a first story man in the church.
A third reason for church discipline is heresy, or the departure from sound doctrine, of which Baptists as well as Protestants are witnessing a great increase at this present time. This is the warning of prophecy: "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times, some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron" (1 Tim. 4:1-2).
Concerning heresy, Paul says, "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (1 Thess. 3:14-15). This is further amplified in Titus 3:10:11, where he says, "A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself."
Heresy has no place in a Christian church, and that church which winks its eye at such will soon find that the leaven has permeated the whole church. We note from the two foregoing Scriptures: 1. The church is to take note of, and have no company with, the man who rejects the Scriptures. This amounts to a disfellowshipping of him. (Paul not only refers to the contents of the Thessalonian epistle, but says in 3:6, "the tradition which he received of us," i.e., the whole of the New Testament, which was delivered, not only by him, but by the other inspired writers as well.) 2. The church is to first admonish the heretical person as a brother. In Titus, the heretical person is to be admonished twice before rejection. We recognize that the epistle to Titus was not addressed to a church, but it was sent to Titus to explain how he was to "set in order the things that are wanting," 1:5, in that place. Hence, we believe that this order of discipline was delivered to an individual only in order that he might in turn deliver it to the church in Crete. The fact that the verb "reject" is in the second person singular probably means no more than that Titus was, as the pastor and agent of the church, to lead them in rejecting this man. 3. After the second brotherly admonition, the church is to reject the heretical person, who shows by his actions that he has been perverted from the truth. 4. The word translated "reject" literally means to "ask off from," and evidently means to shun or decline to have further contact with the person. Both these passages call for a virtual disfellowshipping by withdrawal. 5. The word "heretical" comes from the Greek hairesis, and originally meant "a choosing," then a deliberate choice, and finally, the choosing of false doctrine, or heresy in our modern sense. Except for 2 Peter 2:1, it is to be doubted that this word ever has the modern sense of "heresy" in the New Testament. More commonly it mean to foment a schism around some tenaciously held personal opinion. This, after all, is but a lesser degree of "heresy" in the modern sense of the word. And it certainly justifies disciplinary action if the individual continues to create a schism in the church by his own opinions, and refuses to be admonished to cease disrupting the unity of the church.
A word of warning must here be inserted. There is a great deal of difference between Ignorance, Error, and Heresy, and each of them must be dealt with in a different way. In the first place, a person is naturally ignorant of the things of God when he is first saved, and hence, must be taught the doctrines of the Word by the church (Matt. 28:20). It naturally follows that there will be some false notions entertained by the new convert. These will generally be replaced by the truth as he is correctly taught. Because of this, care should be taken to be slow to denominate the new convert a "heretic" because of his beliefs.
In the second place, where a new convert may be ignorant because he has never been taught the Scriptures, an older Christian may be in error because he has been mistaught, or because he has misinterpreted the Scriptures. It is the duty of every child of God to study the Scriptures, and to be teachable, and as he studies, he will receive new light upon the doctrines of the Word. "But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18). He who is beyond the point of learning has either died or become an obstinate fool. Every believer ought always be ready to learn more about the Word of God.
Erring from the Scriptures can indeed become heresy if one persists in his error after he has been plainly shown from the Scriptures the error of his belief. Yet erring brethren are to be the objects of mercy, and the attempt should be made to turn them from their error. James 5:19-20 says: "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul (life) from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." Henry G. Weston rightly says of this:
Erroneous belief is no ground for church discipline; the error must be maintained in such a way as to destroy the unity and fellowship of the church (Rom. 16:17; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; Tit. 3:10-11). The apostleís direction is, Give these strife-breeders the first and second admonition, and if these do not suffice, exclude them.óThe Constitution and Polity Of The New Testament Church, p. 70,
Heresy, in the generally accepted sense, is the result of false teaching, and such there has always been, and was in New Testament times. "But there were false prophets also among the people even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them and bring upon themselves swift destruction" (2 Pet. 2:1). However, as said before, this word is also used in the New Testament in the sense of "division" or "schism" and so is used: 1. In reference to the sects of the Sadducees and the Pharisees (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 26:5). 2. In reference to the Christian religion, which was considered to be but a sect of the Jewish religion. This usage generally involved the idea of reproach (Acts 24:5, 14; 28:22). 3. In reference to dissentions within a Christian church (1 Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20).
Heresy, in the Bible sense of the word, is found in proud, opinionated men who have their minds made up and will not be swayed by any facts. Such are to be excluded from the church because they will destroy the church in order to maintain their own beliefs. Those, on the other hand, who are merely mistaken in their views because they have never been taught the truth, are to be reclaimed by teaching them the truth. The teaching of Godís truth will almost always have one of two effects: if a person is truly of the truth, and is willing to be led of the Spirit, he will be drawn to the truth and strengthened and blessed by it. If, on the other hand, a person is not really of the truth, or if he is wilfully set in his own preconceived ideas, he will be offended by the truth, and will probably seek refuge in other false doctrines. An individual often shows what he really is by his reaction to Godís revealed truth.
THE REACH OR EXTENT OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Taking professing Christianity as a whole, it is to be noted that church discipline is generally to one extreme or another. On the one side, there are those churches which practice absolutely no discipline whatsoever. On the other extreme, there is the Church of Rome which uses excommunication as a lever to bring all its communicants into absolute subjection to the Pope and his underlings. They have so extended the supposed right of excommunication as to claim authority that reaches from the bottom of hell to the height of heaven, yet nothing could be further from the truth.
In connection with the deliverance of the first instructions concerning church discipline, the Lord said, "Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven," Matt. 18:19. This is the extent of church discipline. It is confined to matters upon earth. Not only so, but we will further show that it is confined to matters within each individual church.
It has been the error of many Protestant denominations to follow Romeís lead in relegating the authority for church discipline (or rather religious discipline, since it is often exercised beyond the limits of a local congregation) to the civil magistrates. This has been especially prominent in the enforcement of infant baptism and conformity to the practices of the State church, neither of which have any authority in Scripture, and hence they must get it from the civil authorities, if they have it at all. Countless Baptists in almost every age since the First Century have fallen martyrs to this dragon, and perhaps many more will fall in like manner if the current trend toward centralization of religious authority continues. History has oft recorded that where the church has extended the cross to the state, she has always asked that the sword of the state be given to her in return, and seldom has she failed to exercise it when it was in her power to do so.
Even the history of our own country is marred by many examples of persecution of Baptists by other groups which had usurped the authority of the state. All too many denominations fled the persecution of the state churches in the old countries only to set up a like state church here, and in turn persecute those who were not in agreement with them. American church history is filled with such instances, yet in no recorded instance has any Baptist church ever engaged in such a policy. It is contrary to Baptist doctrine and practice, and hence has always been rejected by them. The nearest approach to such a practice was the episode of the so-called "madmen of Munster," yet these men were not Baptists in any true sense. Their only resemblance was in their practice of anabaptism, or rebaptism of those who came unto them from other groups, and even this was not their uniform practice. It is now known that these were mostly Lutheran, and history has fully vindicated Baptists from the slander that they were the ones who did these bloody deeds.
Baptists have never sought to extend their authority beyond the local church, and even when it has been proffered them they have always politely but steadfastly refused to unite with the state and receive either its help or its authority.
The question has sometimes been asked "Would the Baptists become a state church, if the opportunity was offered?" We answer: No, judging by their principles and their past actions. They have ever refused for themselves, what they have declared a wrong for others to receive. For instance, in Virginia in 1792, "the Baptists had members of great weight in civil society; their congregations had become more numerous than any other Christian sect." They doubtless controlled the government of Virginia, and yet they secured equal liberty there for all. In Wales, the Baptist churches and ministers declined state support by taxation of the people, such as others received, which was offered them, though they were as poor as any. For one hundred and fifty years, the Baptists had sole power and rule in Rhode Island, and the evil example of others around them, but, unmoved in their principles, they used their power for the good of all alike.óR. B. Cook, The Story of the Baptists, p. 251.
Other instances could be cited in which Baptists had the opportunity to become the state church, yet refused it. They have always stood against the union of church and state. Because of this, Baptists have been almost continually persecuted by the state churches, beginning in 325 A. D., when Constantine the Great effected the marriage of the state with the laxer churches of the day. It may well be that Baptists will again be called upon to suffer for this principle, for if the Lord tarries His coming, Rome may some day soon effect her desire to be the state church of the United States of America. For that matter, great efforts are now being made to form one great universal Protestant-Catholic church, which will doubtless be given the honor (?) of being the state church of our nation when once it has united the main religious groups in this nation. Neither of these groups would ever rest content to let the other group go its own, free, independent way, should they be able to become the state church.
Many churches in the Catholic and Protestant denominations believe that church discipline is synonymous with eternal judgment, and that excommunication from the church necessarily means excommunication from God. Thus, it will be our duty to look into the Scriptures to see if church discipline has this extent.
"To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:5). Here, the excommunication of the offending member may be seen to have as its desired end, not a vindictive self-satisfaction, but rather "that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Far from excommunication being unto damnation, the opposite is true. It is remedial, not merely punitive. The church is to always have four primary things in view when church discipline is administered: (1) The glory of God. No person should be allowed to bring reproach upon his Master. (2) The honor of the church. It must not appear to connive at sin. (3) The attempted admonishment and reformation of the offending member. (4) His eternal joy and reward. Churches should be concerned, not only that a member is saved, but also that he may have an abundant entrance into the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:11).
The extent or reach of this discipline relates only to the members of a given church. As one reigning sovereign cannot take it upon himself to discipline persons in another rulerís country, so neither is one church to seek to discipline the members of another church. Churches in the New Testament were each treated as though they were the only bodies of Christ in existence. When Paul wrote, "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1:22), it is obvious that he was speaking primarily of the Ephesian church (though it also has an institutional sense secondarily: i.e., what is here said of the Ephesian church is also true of every other institution of the same class). But it is equally clear that he did not mean that the Ephesian church was the body of Christ to the exclusion of every other church. Neither did he mean, nor can it even be violently forced into this text, that the Ephesian church was only a part of the body of Christ, as universal church advocates would have us believe. The opposite truth, that each local body is but one among many, is implied in the literal rendering of 1 Corinthians 12:27: "But ye are a body of Christ (there is no definite article in the Greek text here), and parts individually."
Every church is so constituted that it may and should operate as if no other church existed. By this, of course, we refer to internal order and business, for churches should both fellowship and work together in carrying out the Great Commission. Thus, in the matter of church discipline, Paul admonished the Corinthians as to their duty relative to disorderly persons within their own church. "For what have I to do to judge them also that are without [outside the membership of the church?] Do not you judge them that are within [within the membership of the church]? But them that are without [outside the church] God judgeth. Therefore, put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
As to the extent of chastisement which a church can inflict upon a person, we must re-emphasize the fact that this in no way relates to the eternal destiny of the soul. True it is that in many instances the person guilty of such behaviour may go into eternal punishment when he dies, but if he does, it is because he has never been saved, and not because he has been excluded from a church. In many cases, church members act wickedly because they are inherently wicked, never having been saved. However, truly born-again persons are also prone to fall into grievous sins sometimes, and it is this group to which Paul refers, for he calls them "brethren," who are to be admonished as brethren, and not as enemies (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15).
Church discipline extends to exclusion from the church and no further. Separation of the church from the offending member is set forth in almost every passage which deals with church discipline. "Withdraw yourselves...have no company with him..." (2 Thess. 3:6, 15). "Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican..." (Matt. 18:17). "Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Rom. 16:17).
These passages all set forth the principle found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, that of separation from the unrighteous and unbelieving. That professing Christian who acts like an unbeliever is no more to be fellowshipped with than the heathen who makes no claim to being a Christian. The Lordís command is, "come out from among them, and be separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you..." (v. 17). Exclusion is necessary that the church may vindicate itself from the wickedness of the offending member. And the church which will not discipline an ungodly member condones his sin, and makes itself a parry to it.
Again we note that the Corinthian church was to "deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh" (1 Cor. 5:5). This deliverance pertains only to the flesh, for as the "wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), so the sinning Christian may be called home lest his unsaintly behavior bring reproach upon his Fatherís name, and "...that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." Here is the reason why the life of the sinning child of God may be taken. Comparison of this with the many passages which teach the security of the saints manifests that the Lord will take the physical life of one of His erring children before He will let him sin away his spiritual life. God destroys the bodyóthe instrument of sin in a Christianóbefore he can commit such a sin. "There is [such a thing as] sin unto death. Not concerning that one I say he should request. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is [such a thing as] sin not unto death" (1 John 5:16b-17), literal rendering. Some sins are mortal, or deadly sins; i.e., they will result in the physical death of the believer who does them. But others are not, and this portion makes this distinction. "All unrighteousness is sin," but there are certain forms of sin that are "unto death," and others which are "not unto death."
James also speaks of this when he says "He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul (life, as it is sometimes rendered) from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins" (James 5:20). Death is the ultimate fruit of all sin, and the Christian who continually dabbles in sin shall reap of his sowing. The church has this ministry of conversion wherever possible, but if the sinning member refuses to be "converted" from his error, then he is to be "put away from among you" that the judgment of the Lord may fall upon him" (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
The exclusion of members from the church is the extent to which discipline can be administered. There can be no acts of violence performed either upon the person or upon the property of the disorderly. However, exclusion from the church is a sufficient discipline. It is no mere strawman. In some cases it is more severe than any corporal punishment could be, for it puts the offender under the judgment of God Himself.
The reach or extent of church discipline may be summed up as: 1. Pertaining only to matters upon earth. The church cannot open and close the doors of heaven at will. Only Christ "openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth" (Rev. 3:7). 2. Pertaining to church matters, not to civil, nor even to community matters. Violation of this principle has always been the root of persecution. 3. Pertaining only to matters within a given church; i.e., there can be no inter-church discipline. 4. Pertaining only to the offenderís body, for no one can reverse salvation. "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:28). No one can be unborn. 5. Pertaining only to the exclusion of the person from the privileges and fellowship of the church. No corporal punishment is to be inflicted by the church. Once outside the membership of the church, God administers the judgment, sometimes even to the point of taking the life. "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons" (Heb. 12:6-8).
THE RESULT OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
While it is erroneously taught in some denominations that church discipline is synonymous with eternal damnation, others go to the opposite extreme and teach that it embodies nothing more than the shame of being excluded. It shall now be our purpose to examine the results of such action.
It is true that shame is a part of the exclusion from the church, for the Thessalonians were commanded "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed" (2 Thess. 3:14). The Christian who is truly spiritual will want to be in a spirit of unity with his brethren, and will endeavor "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). And if a person sometimes becomes willful and seeks to have his own will in opposition to the will of the church, it may take the action of the church to make him realize that no individualís will comes before the will of the church. A spiritual person, upon reflection, will be ashamed of his willful opposition to the body of Christ, and will repent. It is only the carnal, obstinate person who refuses to admit his wrong and recognize the authority of the Lordís church, and it is such a person who is under Godís judgment when excluded from a church.
Shame will sometimes accomplish what argument will not, for some offending church members have the idea that their fellow members think too highly of them to ever vote to exclude them. Others think that the church "cannot afford to lose such a valuable member" as they think themselves to be. In some cases, this is the thinking of some shallow minded churches. But where such a condition exists, it is simply a matter of rejecting Godís authority in order to retain the friendship of men.
However, whether church discipline results in shame to the person disciplined or not, it is still to be exercised in order to vindicate the church, and to keep it as free from reproach as possible. A state of corruption never improves except by purging. This principle is recognized by the housewife who regularly purges the potato bin of rotten potatoes. It is recognized by the farmer who knows that a crop left to itself will soon be taken over by weeds. Even the laws of the land recognize this principle, for were there not laws to put away the corrupt and vicious, the whole society would soon be corrupted, and the "survival of the fittest" would become the universal law. Why, then, do not the churches of the living God recognize that unless they purge themselves of the leaven of wickedness, it will soon corrupt the whole body? The answer lies in ignorance, unbelief, rebellion against Godís will, and a mistaken notion of charity toward the guilty party who, by his actions, shows that he holds in contempt the churchís righteous stand.
In the case of the incestuous man at Corinth, Paul shamed the church for not taking action against him for his ungodliness. "And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you" (1 Cor. 5:2). To the shame of many of the Lordís people, this same situation exists in churches today.
It is not as though no certain way of duty were given, for Paul says plainly, "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump..." (1 Cor. 5:6-7). Notice how this is in the midst of the declaration concerning church discipline. No true charity can be shown for a man by ignoring and even violating the command of God. And, as Paul bears out, the really charitable thing to do for the man is to exclude him in order that he may be brought to repentance, or else that his sinning body may be destroyed so that his spirit will be saved unto the day of the Lord. God will riot allow His child to continue in gross sin; He will take his life first. And that church which refuses to take a stand against the ungodliness of such an individual not only becomes a partaker of his sins, but also shows no real love for the person, being not concerned far his reformation. Inspiration says: "therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1 Cor. 5:13b).
The statement "that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:5), does not intimate that an individual could sin to the point of not being saved in the day of the Lord. Conversely, it teaches that the Lord will not allow any born-again person to continue in sin to this point. The believer cannot sin away his salvation because: 1. The body is the instrument of sin in the Christian. His soul cannot sin after it is saved (1 John 3:9). 2. The Christian cannot continue in sin to the point of total apostasy. God will not allow it. He will destroy the body first (1 John 5:18). 3. Though the soul cannot sin, yet the body remains prone to sin, but even in this, we are not to despair, because we have an Advocate with the Father who will plead our cause (1 John 2:1). 4. The gift of eternal life is irrevocable and no oneónot the most powerful king, not the devil, not even an individual himself-can pluck a saved person out of Christís hand (John 10:28). (5) The saved person, being redeemed, no longer belongs to himself (1 Cor. 6:19-20), and so, he no longer has the right of disposal of himself. God will not allow him to so take control of himself as to destroy his spiritual life. But this security is predicated, not on church membership, nor on nominal Christianity, nor on mere profession, but upon a real, vital relationship to Christ (John 10:25-27). As blessed as is the doctrine of salvation by the free and unmerited grace of God, let us never forget that it entails a duty to serve the Lord in the beauties of holiness, and no one flaunts this duty without the risk of physical death.
Paul is very specific as to the result of exclusion upon the person who is guilty of wickedness. "But them that are without God judgeth" (1 Cor. 5:13a). How solemn indeed is this! Scriptural church discipline does not result only in excommunication and shame. It carries the judgment of God also. This judgment may take many forms. In the case of the man at Corinth, it was physical death, "the destruction of the flesh," and so it may often be, for "he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body" (1 Cor. 6:18). This judgment may take other forms. This writer has observed men whose lives have been filled only with friendlessness and bitterness after their exclusion because, instead of repenting of their ungodliness for which they were excluded, they turned upon the Christian friends who had been compelled to exclude them-the only real friends they had. Others have had sorrow upon sorrow because the judgment of God was upon them. In any case, it is never profitable for an individual to harden himself in his sin until he must be excluded from his church.
"To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh" leaves little room for doubt as to the length to which God will go to keep one of His children from being a continual reproach. This is nothing more than a repetition of the dictum that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), and it makes it applicable to the sinning Christian as well as to the lost person, so far as the body is concerned.
Physical suffering and death is a ministry which is sometimes delegated to Satan by God. Paulís thorn in the flesh he described as "a messenger" (literally, Ďangelí) of Satan" (2 Cor. 12:7). But that Satan can only exercise suffering and death upon man by Godís permissive will, is obvious from the dialogue between the two in Job 2:6: "And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life." Were this not so, Satan would snatch every lost person from life as soon as he had reason to think that the individual was coming under conviction of his need for a Saviour.
The command to "deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh" was given to the church, not to individuals, although Paul wrote to Timothy that he had delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander unto Satan because of their blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20). This was not a case of church discipline, however, as it related to lost apostates who were greatly withstanding the progress of the gospel. Whether Paulís action was the exercise of apostolic authority or whether he meant this only in the sense of giving up all hope of them ever coming to the truth, is not clear, but the former is more likely. In any case, the passage in question does not relate to church discipline, and cannot be a proof-text for individual action.
From Matthew 18:19 it is clear that God ratifies church discipline which is done scripturally, but that which is not based upon the revealed will of God is quite another matter. Matthew 18:18, together with Matthew 16:19, which is so often quoted as a proof-text of the absolute authority of the church to bind or loose in heaven, is, at best, a hazy translation. The tense of the verbs in the phrases "shall be bound in heaven," and "shall be loosed in heaven," is not future, but is the perfect passive, which carries the meaning of actions completed in past time with results extending to the present. There is indeed the future form of the verb "to be" used also, but that only points to what the church is ever more to do: it is to conform its decisions to what has already been bound or loosed in heaven. That is, it is only to operate on principles already established in heaven. The same is true of the tenses in John 20:23.
The translators of the King James Version were not inspired men, nor were they even sound men in some ways. How could they have remained life-long members of the apostate religions that they belonged to if they were. They were scholarly men, but scholarliness is not the same as being spiritual. It is the writerís belief that the correct translation of Matthew 18:18 is that which is given in Charles B. Williams translation, as follows: "I solemnly say to you, whatever you forbid on earth must be already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must be already permitted in heaven." See also Kenneth Wuestís Expanded Translation, the Amplified Translation, and other similar more literal renderings of this. On the basis of this rendering, the teaching would be that henceforth from the giving of these instructions (hence the future form of the verb "to be") all disciplinary action is to be taken in accordance with the principles which are already settled in heaven (Ps. 119:89), and which have been revealed to men through Godís Word. Contrary to teaching that there is no limit in heaven or on earth to the churchís authority, this verse teaches that the church is limited in its disciplinary actions to what has been revealed in the Word of God.
Nothing can be considered a just and reasonable cause for the withdrawal of fellowship, and exclusion from the church, except it be clearly forbidden in, or manifestly contrary to, the Scriptures, and what would have prevented the reception of the individual into the church had it existed at the time and been persisted in. Even these do not usually lead to disfellowship, providing they be confessed and forsaken.óE. T. Hiscox, New Directory For Baptist Churches, p. 180, Note.
One is sometimes made to wonder concerning professing Christians whose lives make church discipline necessary, and who afterward manifest no outward signs of repentance, yet whose lives are apparently untouched by the judgment of God. Is it possible that some escape the judgment of God for their carnality? The wise man says, "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it will be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God" (Eccl. 8:11-13). It is also said, "Thou shalt also consider in thine heart that, as a man chasteneth his son; so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee" (Deut. 8:5). Paul was moved to write in the same vein when he says, "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons" (Heb. 12:6-8).
Here, then, is the answer! If God does not chasten a professing Christian who is guilty of flagrant sin, it is pretty obvious that God does not recognize him as one of His children. However, it is not for man to say how long God will bear with the disobedient, nor how long His mercy will be extended to one before he does bring judgment upon him. And for any one to try to set a time limit within which God must bring judgment upon them if they are His, is to intrude into a realm where he does not belong. "For the Son of Man is not come to destroy menís lives, but to save them" (Luke 9:56).
Some people have been cast out of a church for no other reason than for standing for the truth, or for withstanding the despotic or heretical actions of the pastor. Such a case is recorded in 3 John 9-10: "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church." The persons here would certainly have no reasons to fear the judgment of God upon themselves since their exclusion was for a wrong reason, and was performed in a wrong way. The same is true today. Church discipline is not recognized in Godís sight except it be done according to His command. Conversely, those who are persecuted "for righteousness sake" are pronounced blessed, and are promised the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:10-12). Occasionally we hear of cases of supposed church discipline which amounts to nothing more than persecution by an individual or a group because of personality clashes, or other carnal reasons. Such perversions of church discipline will not stand under the searching eye of God.
One other result of church discipline should be mentioned. It is the desirable result in every case. "Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (Heb. 12:11). Would to God that every time the chastening hand of God were upon us, we would be "exercised thereby" unto "godly sorrow" (2 Cor. 7:10). But alas, how seldom is this true because of the hardness of our hearts. "Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?" (Job 9:4). Unanswered Bible questions like this one are often meant to imply the emphatic answer "NONE." If, however, church discipline, or afterward, the judgment of God upon the individual, effects this "peaceable fruit of righteousness," then it has had its desired end, the repentance of the offender to the glory of God.
Restoration to the fellowship of the church ensues when the object of discipline is accomplished. These objects are two-fold-to vindicate the character of the church as a moral and spiritual body, and to secure the reformation of the offender. When these are accomplished, the offender should be restored.óH. G. Weston, The Constitution And Polity of the New Testament Church, p. 71.
Discipline has a positive and definite purpose. It is not an aimless and vagrant administration. Its design is to heal the offense, or remove the offender; the correction of the evil, or the expulsion of the evil-doer; so far, at least, as corrective discipline is concerned. So soon as the erring one can be induced to turn from his evil way, making acknowledgment of it, with promise of a better course, the labor with him is to cease, the proper result having been attained; that is, in all ordinary cases.óE. T. Hiscox, New Directory For Baptist Churches, p. 171.
THE REACTION OF THE CHURCH TOWARD THE DISCIPLINED
In this matter many are at fault even among those who have Scriptural reasons, and who observe the Scriptural order of exclusion. The reaction of the church toward the excluded person after his exclusion is as important as were the proceedings before.
In some cases, the excluded person has been treated as though he were being persecuted, rather than being disciplined. In other cases, he has been treated as some sort of an unsung hero. Both such attitudes on the part of church members will, in effect, invalidate the whole proceeding, make those who brought the charges look like persecutors, and condone the very sins which were condemned. Andrew Fuller has well said on this subject:
If individual members act contrary to this rule, and carry it freely toward an offender, as if nothing had taken place, it will render the censure of the church of none effect. Those persons also who behave in this manner will be considered by the party as his friends, and others who stand aloof as his enemies, or at least as being unreasonably severe; which will work confusion, and render void the best and most wholesome discipline. We must act in concert, or we may as well do nothing. Members who violate this rule are partakers of other menís sins, and deserve the rebukes of the church for counteracting its measures.óWorks, Vol. III, pp. 334-335.
It is true that the guilty person is not to be treated as an enemy, 2 Thess. 3:15, yet neither is he to be excused for his ungodliness unless he manifests a repentance for it. He is to be admonished as a brother even after the dismission from church fellowship.
The wrong attitude of church members toward an excluded member is liable to more evil than just disrupting the peace of the church by causing partisanship. It often leads to church splits. Many churches have been killed outright by partisans lining up with an excluded member, causing a split church, and finally causing the church to wither and die. No one individual or group has a right to insist upon having its own way at such a cost, yet it is quite common for carnal people to demand their "rights" even against Godís known will.
It is possible to go to extremes on either side. The Bible leaves a broad middle avenue in the case. On the one hand, the wicked are to be "put away from among yourselves" (Rom. 16:17; Matt. 18:17; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14; 2 Cor. 6:17; Num. 16:21, each of which text teaches separation of Godís people from the wicked, both in Old and New Testament times). On the other hand, the Lordís desire is not for a mere cold conformity to His commands in this matter, but rather a genuinely warm concern without compromise. There should be the desire for the repentance and reconciliation of the guilty party even after he has been purged from the membership of the church. There should be no limit to our forgiveness when the offending party manifests a genuine spirit of repentance, yet this implies no obligation to readmit any except those who have a "godly sorrow." Many excluded persons experience a "sorrow of the world," but this only works death (2 Cor. 7:10), and should not be confused with godly sorrow.
Scripture gives us an example of the proper reaction of a church toward such a person who experienced this "godly sorrow" after being excluded, when it says, "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such an one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him" (2 Cor. 2:6-8). This was doubtless written concerning the incestuous man at Corinth whom Paul had advised the church there to exclude. It shows the proper reaction of the church in such circumstances.
We note from this passage: 1. That such a punishment was sufficient to effect its desired end. (1) It is denoted a "punishment," therefore it is not remedial only. (2) It was inflicted of "the many" (literal rendering), or majority, which is proof of congregational action in voting. (3) This punishment resulted in the offender greatly sorrowing (v. 6), the desired end. 2. The reaction of the church. (1) The church is to again receive those who by godly sorrow are brought to repentance. (2) The penitent is not only to be forgiven, but also is to be comforted. (3) If this were punitive only, there would be no concern lest one should be swallowed up of sorrow, but it is remedial as well as punitive. 3. Paul designates such as being a confirmation of love toward the sinning brother. (1) This principle is recognized (either consciously or unconsciously) by the parent who has the childís ultimate good at heart, and who will deny the childís immediate desires in order to accomplish an ultimate and lasting good. Those who refuse to deny the child his immediate desires, whatever the future consequences may be, do not love the child as much as they love the esteem of the child. They would rather let the child have his own way, whatever the consequences may beóyea, though they may result in his eventual damnationóand have the childís esteem, than to deny the childís wish for his ultimate good, and risk losing his esteem. To deny a child his immediate wishes when he will be ultimately bettered by it, is showing true love for that child even though the child probably will not recognize it at the time. (2) This principle holds true in the church as well. Church discipline, where rightly administered, confirms the churchís love for the erring, for it shows that the immediate desires are not to be esteemed so highly as the ultimate good. (3) To contrariwise "forgive and comfort" the repentant sinner is to confirm our love, and to show that our greatest desire is for his being in a right standing with God.
There is a great need for the right administration of church discipline today. There has always been a need for it. The first great schism within the ranks of Christianity occurred in the Third Century, and had to do with this very matter; rather it was caused by an earlier failure to exercise church discipline. From about 238 A. D., until 249 or 250, Christianity was in a time of ease due to the favorable attitude of the Emperors Gordian and Philip, and because of this and the lax attitude of the churches, many unbelieving persons came into the membership of the churches. Doubtless some came in because Christianity was becoming popular, and others because of the favor of the emperors toward the churches. But in any case, these mostly had no real love for the Lord, and manifested it at the first sign of persecution. Decius became emperor in 249 or 250 A. D., and issued an edict of persecution against Christians upon his ascension to the imperial throne. Those who had come into the churches without having been genuinely converted had no relish for persecution, and so they apostatized at the first sign of danger, and not only denied Christ, but many of them delivered up the copies of the Scriptures which the churches had.
This persecution was short-lived, for Decius was slain in 251 in a battle with the Goths. However, the apostates had already revealed their true colors by denying the faith and worshipping idols in order to escape persecution. These now returned and sought readmission to the churches which they had betrayed and reviled. The vast majority of the churches were for readmitting these, some indeed advocating readmitting them with no examination whatsoever of their repentance or attitudes. It remained for a group of men, afterward called, from the name of one of the leaders, Novatians, to take a stand for a strict communion and an even stricter discipline. These stated their standards for membership as follows:
If you wish to join any of our churches, ye may be admitted among us by baptism; but observe, that if you fall away into idolatry or vice, we shall separate you from our communion, and on no account can you be readmitted among us. We shall never attempt to injure you, in your person, property, or character; we do not presume to judge the sincerity of your repentance, or your future state; but you can never be readmitted to the fellowship of our churches, without our giving up the securest guardian we have for the purity of our communion.óG. H. Orchard, Concise History of Baptists, p. 54.
Whether we agree with their strictness in never readmitting even the ones who were truly repentant, we must certainly appreciate the fact that in an age when almost the whole professing Christian world had so lowered its standards as to differ from the world in name only, these alone stood for purity of doctrine and deportment. God blessed these pious Christians so that, in spite of intense persecution by the laxer churches, these continued until the Fifth Century, at which time they were absorbed by, and came to be called by the names of, other separatist groups.
Then, as now, the cry was for unity of communion among Christians, with an utter disregard for the purity of communion, and, as those who today stand for purity of communion before unity of communion are execrated as the most evil and abominable of schismatics, so it was then. The Novatians were contemptuously called The Cathari (i.e., The Pure) because of their stand, and they were persecuted above almost every other sect, yet their greatest crime was the desire for liberty to worship God in a pure, moral and spiritual way according to the teachings of the New Testament.
Each Christian has a moral and spiritual obligation to live a life above reproach, and each true church has a duty to execute disciplinary judgment upon those of their number who do not measure up to the standard. It is little wonder that the world holds the churches in contempt when the churches have so miserably failed to conduct themselves as they ought. If every Christian lived like a Christian, and every church imitated the pattern of the churches of the New Testament, we would see a revival, the like of which has not been seen since the First Century. But so long as the churches fail to preserve a pure membership, so long as they refuse to purge out the obvious leaven, so long as they fail to seek to reconcile those who may have been excluded, there is little hope for any improvement in the condition of the churches, and good reason to expect the churches to move in the opposite direction. When churches have so deteriorated that they become like the Laodicean church described in Revelation 3:14-19, then will the Lord also fulfill His promise to "spew thee out of my mouth" (v. 16). "When the Son of man cometh, shall he find the faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8, literal rendering).
What then is the answer to this problem? A strict adherence to the Word of God is absolutely necessary to purity of communion, for none can live pure lives who do not know what God expects of them, and what provisions He has made for them. Nor is compassion for the erring to take precedence over Godís command, for He has left ample room for compassion toward the erring when we observe His commands.
Church discipline is often necessary for "all men have not faith" (2 Thess. 3:2), and this is sadly true of some church members, as well as those outside the church. To the members of the Corinthian church, Paul wrote, "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates" (2 Cor. 13:5).
The Lord has not left His churches in the dark either as to the obligation to exercise corrective discipline, nor as to the order of this discipline, and those who disregard this duty, do so in the face of Godís express command. This is nothing more than loving the friendship of man more than the friendship of God, and it will not profit.
The Lordís churches need to get back to the ancient standard of right conduct for righteous people; we need to emulate our spiritual ancestors in this matter.
The discipline of the English Baptist churches was in harmony with their doctrines. It was a commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:17. As they would not admit any to fellowship, knowingly, who did not appear to be the subjects of regenerating grace, so they placed members under censure, or excluded them, for immorality or any unscriptural or disorderly conduct, without respect of persons.óJ. M. Cramp, Baptist History, p. 381.
They (the Waldenses) were described nearly in the following language: "If a man loves those that desire to love God and Jesus Christ, if he will neither curse, nor swear, nor lie, nor commit lewdness, nor kill, nor deceive his neighbor, nor avenge himself of his enemies, they presently say, he is a Vaudois (Waldendensian)óhe deserves to be punished."óG. H. Orchard, Concise History of Baptists, p. 268.
What peculiarly distinguished them (the Novatians), was their refusing to re-admit, to the communion of the church, those who, after baptism, had fallen into the commission of heinous crimes, though they did not pretend that even such were excluded from all possibility or hopes of salvation. They considered the Christian church as a society where virtue and innocence reigned universally, and none of whose members, from their entrance into. it, had defiled themselves with any enormous crime; and, in consequence, they looked upon every society, which re-admitted heinous offenders to its communion, as unworthy of the title of a true Christian church. For that reason, also, they assumed the title of Cathari, i.e., the pure.óJ. L. V. Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, Century 3, Part II, chapter 5, 18.
Practical piety, and its sister practice, church discipline for the disorderly and immoral, have been Baptist tenets from the very beginning, and history has recorded the practice of these by our Baptist ancestors in every age since the First Century. This is but another characteristic of the "faith once for all delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3), which our Lord promised would have a continuity spanning the centuries from the time He spoke until He should return.
It is indeed a pity that some Baptist churches have now seen fit to disregard our Lordís instructions, and the historic practice of over nineteen centuries in the matter of church purity and discipline. May God burden the hearts of His people to live lives more consistent with their profession, and may His churches be more diligent to exercise discipline upon the erring, and to forgive and comfort the repentant.