Does Church Discipline Matter?

Does Church Discipline Matter?

Does Church Discipline Matter?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
9 Aug, 2019

Who these days wants authority–especially if it might restrain your freedom? Church discipline won’t be high on the checklist of many Christians looking for a new church. And ministers and elders worry about driving people away by seeming negative. Does anyone worry about church discipline any more? Isn’t it just up to the individual and their conscience? Church discipline may not matter to many people but it matters to Christ. And that ought to make us think. At the Reformation they said that discipline was one of the signs of a true church. Why? Because it’s one of Christ’s main tests of whether a church meets His approval.

James Durham reflects on how when the Lord Jesus Christ emphasises the matter of discipline when He writes to churches in Revelation 2-3. The following is an abridged and updated extract from Durham’s discussion of this theme. He also mentions the great benefit of church government and discipline to individual believers in the Sum of Saving Knowledge. Christ has ordained this gift for His Church so that they are hedged in and helped forward towards keeping the covenant.

What do we mean by church discipline? It’s one of Christ’s gifts to His Church to prevent and correct open disobedience to His Word (2 Corinthians 10:8; Matthew 18:15-20; Matthew 16:19). It involves doctrinal error as well as matters of behaviour (Titus 3:10). Church discipline arises from Christ’s love to His people (Revelation 3:19). Its purpose is Christ’s honour and the Church’s good by avoiding others being tempted to sin in the same way or being harmed spiritually. The spiritual good of the person involved is also in view, it is intended to bring them to repentance.

Discipline may involve private correction or more public rebuke (1 Timothy 5:20). Other cases may involve removing some of the privileges of church membership such as participating in the Lord’s Supper. At its most serious it may be excommunication from the Church (1 Corinthians 5:13). We are always to hope that it will be temporary because it brings the person to repent (1 Corinthians 5:4-5; 2 Corinthians 2:6-10)

1. Church Discipline Matters to Christ

The topic of church discipline is very prominent in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3). When a church is commended or rebuked, it is often largely down to whether they are faithful or defective in administering church discipline.

This shows not only the lawfulness of church government and discipline but also its usefulness, and how necessary it is to the church of Christ when it is faithfully exercised. It is a special means and ordinance appointed by Christ to edify the church. It is not something indifferent which church officers can exercise or not exercise as they please. Rather they have the responsibility to exercise church discipline.

Ministers and elders need to be faithful in this if they want to receive Christ’s commendation on the one hand, and avoid His sharp reproof on the other. They need to be faithful in this for the sake of the people over whom they watch over (and for whom they must give account). Faithfulness in this will prevent people from stumbling and being destroyed. It will also help see them edified and built up in the faith instead.

2. Church Discipline Matters to Satan

It is therefore no wonder that the devil is so busy trying to oppose church discipline or undermine it. In the early church he represented church government as inconsistent with civil government and a threat to it–leading emperors to persecute the church. Then he perverted church government into something that tyrannised church members, making even the concept of church authority seem harmful or repugnant to believers. More recently he has been insinuating into people’s minds the idea either that Christ has given the church no distinct form of government at all, or else that the church should be governed in another way from what Christ has appointed in His Word.

Often, those who oppose the scriptural form of church government and the scriptural nature of church discipline do not oppose the truth of the gospel. Nor do they intend to sow confusion in Christ’s church. Nevertheless failure to exercise scriptural church government and discipline are very advantageous to Satan’s kingdom and very detrimental to Christ’s.

3. Church Discipline Matters to the Church

Failure to exercise church discipline matters greatly to the wellbeing of the church. Neglecting church discipline:

  • obscures the beauty and excellence of Christ’s church and leads people to undervalue it
  • makes it harder to restrain or remove errors in doctrine and stumbling others
  • excludes the opportunity for edification which church discipline provides. The penalties available to civil authorities only extend to making people socially acceptable, not spiritual. But if someone is at fault in some way and they are given a church censure, it edifies others and brings greater conviction to the individual’s conscience about the sinfulness of their fault. This is because church discipline flows immediately from Jesus Christ. It reminds people more directly of His authority and the fact that they are answerable to Him. A verbal church censure (which is in itself only a very light thing) carries much more weight and makes much more impression in terms of edification and conviction than a severe civil penalty would
  • makes it look like it does not matter to the church that there are church members who believe or behave in perhaps very ungodly ways. If the church used the authority that actually belongs to her, to purge out unfaithfulness in doctrine or practice, there would be no grounds for anyone to say, “What sort of persons would those church members be, if there wasn’t some other authority restraining them?”
  • casts aspersions on the wisdom and holiness of our Lord, as if He has left His church incapable of dealing with these problems on her own authority
  • weakens and obstructs the other ordinances of the church. It breaks down the boundary marker for the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. It makes church offices such as elder and deacon useless and it makes preaching contemptible. If you deny that the church has the authority to administer discipline, then either the minister has to carry out the disciplining arbitrarily by himself or discipline must be left undone altogether
  • allows the devil to succeed in making religion seem like something you can use to advance your own self-interest

4. Church Discipline Matters to Believers

Upholding and submitting to church authority is a necessary duty which concerns all of us (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). If what we have said about church authority is true, then submission must follow. It is the duty of ministers and elders to discipline (even those who have caused others to stumble). Since this is so, it is also the duty of those who are disciplined to submit and the duty of the church to acknowledge these decisions. Hebrews 13:17 says that we are obey them that rule over us, and submit to them.

People are often very suspicious of ministers and elders, suspecting that they grasp at power for its own sake. They fear that they will be authoritarian and abuse their power. Church authority has always been regarded by the unconverted as bondage, and church officers are always regarded as too proud and rigid etc. But people should seriously consider the following.

  • Is that the fault of the ordinance of church discipline itself or of the individuals who hold office in the church? If the fault is in the individuals, why should it be imputed to the thing itself in this case, more than in other cases?
  • Is there anything in a church office which prompts this authoritarianism, more than in any civil office? It seems unlikely on the face of it.
  • If we look more closely at ministers and elders, there is less reason to be so suspicious of them. No one else’s position and qualifications are so specifically regulated in Scripture as the office of minister or elder. No other office is so deliberately filled by conscientious and qualified individuals. Nor is anyone else so circumscribed by beneficial rules when they exercise their authority.
  • Think of what these individuals are like in themselves, even if they were not church officers. They are men of tenderness, conscience and gifts; just like people in any other position. Looking at their qualifications and manner of life, you could well imagine that they might hold other positions, such as judges or rulers, without anyone being suspicious of them more than anyone else in that position. If that is the case, then why should a church office make them more liable to suspicion, rather than less?
  • Who fumes most at church authority? It is those who are inclined to looseness in practice or error in doctrine and cannot abide any such restraints. Those who are bitterly opposed to discipline are also also against preaching that rebukes and spiritual authority in general.
  • It is often the most faithful and zealous church officers of whom people are most suspicious. This has always been the case. Think of how Elijah and John the Baptist were treated, for example. Yet this really only reflected how people found the doctrine and power of the Word unbearable.
  • Suspicions about church authority tend to arise mostly when church officers are serving Christ, and people tend to entertain such suspicions mostly when they are least spiritual. No one has been able to take comfort from their opposition to the faithful exercise of church authority when on their deathbed, although contempt for it has often lain heavily on their consciences in such circumstances. What advantage indeed comes from opposing church authority? Only greater freedom to sin and the fewer ways to reclaim people from sin. And if censures are administered in a way that only lets people laugh at their sin, without reaching their consciences to convict them, how does that benefit anyone?

Conclusion

The right exercise of church discipline has never been detrimental to anybody. Godliness and church discipline flourish hand in hand. Congregations are best placed when church discipline is most vigorous. And the sad effects of the lack of church discipline evidently demonstrate how necessary it is.

 

Find out more about James Durham and read other articles featuring his work.

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How to Bring Christians Back from Sin

How to Bring Christians Back from Sin

How to Bring Christians Back from Sin
James Fergusson (1621-1667) ministered in Kilwinning, Ayrshire. He published a number of expositions of books of the Bible and preached faithfully against the domination of the Church by the civil government.
20 Jan, 2017

We are prone to extremes.  Some avoid dealing with others in relation to their sins and faults; others are quick to respond with extreme severity.  Neither of course, is biblical.  We are responsible for each other. Rebuking those who are sinning is loving but it shows hatred to allow them to go on in it (Leviticus 19:17).  It is our duty to tell them what they ought to be hearing from their conscience. Yet such rebukes and challenges must be given with love, wisdom and humility.  We ought to be ready to give and receive such loving and faithful reproof. It something Christ Himself has appointed for our wellbeing (Matthew 18:15).

James Fergusson reflects deeply and at length on a verse that helps to guide us between the extremes of severity and inaction. What follows is an updated extract. He says that in Galatians 6:1, the apostle speaks to those who are “spiritual”. This means those that had received a large measure of spiritual graces. By such grace they were preserved from the subtle snares of sin and Satan, which had entrapped others. Such are also called “strong” (Romans 15:1) and “perfect”, i.e. comparatively (Philippians 3:15).

He exhorts such to seek to reclaim and restore all those “overtaken” in a fault. They are to restore them to both a felt sense of God’s pardoning grace and to amendment of life. “Overtaken” means being suddenly and without prior consideration being overcome by any sin.  In the original Greek it means to do something in haste (1 Corinthians 11:21).

In using all necessary means to achieve this end e.g. admonition, reproof or necessary correction, they should exercise the grace of spiritual meekness. They must suppress all feelings of revenge or sinful expressions of emotion. He enforces this exhortation by counselling that everyone, even the best, must consider deeply their own frailty while dealing with the faults of others.  They must recall how easily he may be drawn by temptation to be overtaken with the same, similar, or a greater sin.

 

1. We Must Deal Meekly with Those at Fault

Tolerating sin both in others and ourselves is far too common (1 Samuel 3:13). Yet there is another sinful extremity to be avoided, i.e. when under pretence of hatred to, or righteous anger against the sins of others we refuse to admonish, reprove them in the spirit of meekness because we think they are obstinate. The apostle says, “If a man”. This can be read as anticipating an objection, “though a man be overtaken in a fault, restore such an one…” This presumes that some were apt to think themselves free from the duty of meekness towards a person at fault. The apostle shows, that nevertheless they were bound to restore and deal meekly with such despite their fault.

 

2. Excessive Severity Comes from Pride

This sin of excessive severity towards the sinful failings and falls of others comes from pride. Such a “holier than thou” (Isaiah 65:5) attitude may well pretend to be zeal but really it is pride. The rigid critic and lofty censurer of another’s faults does not seek his brother’s reformation so much as to create a good opinion of himself in the minds of others. He seeks to be seen as if he were more concerned for holiness and hatred of sin than others.  The connection between chapters 5 and 6 shows that this sin is to be guarded against as having some kind of dependence on vainglory. Compare “Let us not be desirous of vain-glory” (Galatians 5:26) and “if a man be overtaken in a fault, restore him in the spirit of meekness” (Galatians 6:1).

 

3. Motives for Compassion

The apostle calls the Galatians “brethren” to give more force to the need to exercise love and meekness in recovering those who had fallen. He calls them brethren to express his love to them and remind them of the love they ought to have to one another as brethren. The person to be restored is referred to by the common name of “a man”. This points to the common frailty of mankind so as to show that his falling into sin is rather to be pitied than wondered at. Paul also transfers the guilt of the sin in a great measure from the person himself to the subtlety of Satan and violence of the temptation by which he was overtaken. All of this provides motives to exercise the pity and meekness to which he exhorts. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault”, he says.

 

4. Those Who are Not Yet Obstinate Require Less Severity

Greater severity must be used (1 Corinthians 4:21) towards those who are so maliciously obstinate in sin that they cannot be reclaimed by a meek and lenient approach. Yet others, whom we must in charity judge to be otherwise, but are rather overtaken by the violence of some prevailing temptation, ought to be dealt with more gently. These are the only ones whom the apostle will have us to deal with using a spirit of meekness: “If a man be overtaken in a fault, restore such an one etc.”

 

5. It is Easy to be Overtaken in a Fault

So subtle and assiduous is Satan in tempting (1 Peter 5:8) and so ready is our corruption to comply with temptation as soon as it is presented (Ephesians 2:2) that the child of God cannot but be overtaken unawares by some sin or other. This will happen unless we are all the more careful and diligent (Matthew 26:41). By sinning in this way the child of God dishonours God and lays a stumbling block before others. Paul assumes that it is likely for all men to be similarly overtaken when he says, “If a man be overtaken in a fault. “

 

6. The More Holy We Are the More We Should Seek to Restore Others

It is the duty of all men to endeavour to reclaim those lying under unrepented guilt (since the command is given to all: Leviticus 19:17). Yet, the more holy men are, and the further they have advanced in spiritual things, the more obliged they are to this duty. This is primarily because they are better able to fulfil it since they less tainted with sin than others. They have therefore, more liberty to reprove. They also know better how to do this difficult duty wisely. Such are more willing to perform it than others with less knowledge and love to God’s glory and their neighbour’s good. Thus, the Apostle directs this exhortation mainly to those that had received a greater measure of grace. He addresses those “which are spiritual” telling them to “restore such an one”.

 

7. The More Gifts We Have Received, the More We Should Seek to Restore Others

The more graces and gifts a man has received, the more he is obliged to devote himself and all he has received (within the limits of his calling; Hebrews 5:4) for the spiritual good and edification of others. Paul gives this task of restoring the backslidden Christian chiefly to those who had received a greater measure of grace and spiritual gifting: “Ye which are spiritual, restore such an one”.

 

8. Those Who Have Fallen into Public Sin are Reluctant to be Restored

When a child of God falls into public sins and erroneous opinions they damage the inward condition formerly enjoyed. It lays waste the conscience and consumes all his former spiritual sensitivity (1 Peter 2:11). Thus, the person who has fallen in such sins is, ordinarily, averse to being reclaimed and proves difficult to deal with. They are like a man with a dislocated bone that can hardly bear to have it touched. The word rendered “restore such an one” implies this because it means literally, to set dislocated parts of the body in joint again. Thus we see that sin puts the soul, as it were, out of joint.

 

9. We Must be Tender in Using Means to Restore Others

Since it is the duty of all Christians (especially those who are spiritual) to seek to reclaim any who are so fallen we must use means. The necessary means are: admonition (Matthew 18:15); reproof (Leviticus 19:17); and prayer to God on their behalf (James 5:14-15). Christians must pursue these out of charity and their mutual relation to one another as members of one body. Ministers and elders must also pursue them, by virtue of the authority which Christ the King of the Church has given them (Ephesians 4:11-12). In pursuing all these means everyone must use great skill and tenderness in order to attain their goal of restoration. He says, “restore such an one” or set him in joint again. It is a phrase borrowed from surgeons who, when they treat a dislocated bone, handle it with skill and tenderness.

 

10. Meekness Proves Our Intentions are Right

The grace of meekness, which is necessary to moderate inordinate anger and quickly repress feelings of revenge before they rise to any height (Ephesians 4:26), is the work of God’s Spirit in us. It is essential to exercise this grace towards those who are fallen in all the means we use to reclaim them so that we are not carried away with passionate rage but only zeal to God, love to the person and sanctified reason. This is how we prove we are seeking to recover our brother rather than abuse him. We are labouring to help him; not seeking to disgrace him. Thus, he says, “Restore such an one in the spirit of meekness”, or in the meekness which is produced by God’s Spirit.

 

11. Anyone May be Tempted

No one (not even the most spiritual) can promise themselves immunity from strong temptations to gross public sin or that they will stand when if left to themselves. Paul urges even the spiritual man to consider himself, lest he is also tempted. It is not only possible that the spiritual man may be tempted, but also that he may yield to temptation when presented to him. The argument would not have had such strength to enforce meekness towards those who are overtaken in a fault.

 

12. Those Who are Most Uncharitable Know Their Own Hearts Least

Those who censure the faults of others in the most rigid and uncharitable way are usually greatest strangers to their own hearts and scarcely sensitive to their own infirmities. We need serious consideration of our own weakness and the fact that the root of our neighbour’s sin and all other sin is in us (Romans 3:10-20). We must be mindful that it is only by God’s grace that we are able to stand (Psalm 94:18). If God allowed the tempter to break loose on us, we would exceed the sins of others as much as they exceed ours. Seriously considering all this should not completely restrain us from reproving sin in others. Rather, it should cause us to moderate exceedingly our severity towards their sin by showing meekness, pity and compassion towards them. This is why the apostle enforces the former exhortation of restoring their fallen brother in the spirit of meekness with counsel to consider ourselves lest we also be tempted.

 

13. It is Difficult to Take Our Own Weakness Seriously

We are so prone to think well of ourselves that there is great difficulty in getting people to reflect on themselves, and seriously consider their own frailty and weakness. They are reluctant to consider every other thing which may keep them low in their own eyes, without despising others. This is clear from Paul’s change from speaking to them all in the plural to addressing them individually. Having said, “Ye who are spiritual, restore” which is the plural pronoun (“ye”); he then says, “considering thyself” changing to the singular pronoun (“thy”). This gives greater force and a sharper edge to his admonition. He knew that he was urging a duty that would only be obeyed with great difficulty.

FURTHER READING

Read more articles from James Fergusson

REFORMING YOURSELF

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

What Does it Mean to Have a Fulfilling Life?

Everyone is pursuing fulfilment but what does that mean? James Fergusson identifies the necessary aspects of a fulfilling life as defined by God.

How Do I Know if My Repentance is Genuine?

James Durham explains the different ways we can be impacted by the sense of sin forgiven and hope of future mercy.

The Irreconcilable Instincts of the Human Heart

Politics makes for a poor functional saviour. James Fergusson gets to the heart of the war on sin.

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Empathy seems to be in serious decline today. James Fergusson shows how the apostle Paul highlights the need for true empathy.

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Marriage has been redefined–will it be redefined further. How do we know that group marriage is wrong?

REFORMING YOUR CHURCH

How Do I Know if I’m Putting Christ’s Interests First?

Half-committed Christians fail to seek Christ’s interests first and foremost. The Church suffers as a consequence. Here’s how to get our priorities straight.

The Questions We Ask When Others Leave the Faith

When we hear of others leaving the faith we may have many questions. But the most urgent questions concern ourselves and Jesus Christ. George Hutcheson explains what these are from Scripture.

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We have genuine, justified fears for the Church. What can we do? Our answer is in looking beyond confidence in our own activities to the activity that is taking place in heaven.

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A full confession of faith invites Christians to explore and value the panorama of God’s truth and become mature in their understanding. A Confession helps the Church fulfil its commission to make spiritually mature disciples.

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When God hides His face there is a lack of His presence and blessing in the life of the Church. Why would God do this? And if this is the case, is there anything we can do? Consider what Jame Renwick has to say.

What Do We Forget in Forgetting the Church’s History?

We forget vital things about God, His Church and His promises when we forget Church history. We need to make use of it to inform, encourage and steel ourselves for serving God in our own generation.

The Ultimate Test for a Sermon

James Durham brings us back to the One whose words are Spirit and life and who is able to use the words of those whom He has sent. This is an encouragement for preachers who are discouraged.