An explanation and defence of the practice of Church Discipline
The first official act of Jesus' public ministry was His cleansing of the temple. Jesus and His disciples went up to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover. While in Jerusalem, they found in the temple the buyers and sellers of animals and those who were changing the money. Jesus made a scourge, a whip. With that whip He drove out those who were buying and selling oxen, sheep, and doves, and He overturned the tables of the moneychangers. The Lord Jesus Christ drove out those who were defiling His Father's house. The disciples remembered the Word of God that was written, 'The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up' (John 2:17).
Still today the Lord Jesus Christ drives out of His Father's house those who have no business to be in that house, and who are defiling that house of His Father. The Lord Jesus does that today by the faithful church, through the exercise of Christian discipline. When discipline is exercised, those who defile the house of God are driven out. And when that discipline is exercised faithfully, the one who drives them out in the end is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
There is in the churches today a widespread neglect of the exercise of Christian discipline. Men stand by doing nothing while God's house is being defiled. Christian discipline is a dead letter in the churches. The vast majority of evangelical churches in our land today have no concept of Christian discipline. There is little understanding that it belongs to the calling of the church to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and in the end to exclude impenitent sinners from the church of Jesus Christ.
The membership rolls of many churches include those who for many years have never set foot in the sanctuary, or who have darkened the doors of the church only very infrequently. They don't attend the divine worship services. They don't contribute regularly to the support of the gospel ministry. Yet they're left on the rolls of the church. No one visits them. They are left undisturbed.
What can be said about this neglect of Christian discipline in the churches today? This is what can be said about it—men are not consumed today by a zeal for the purity of the house of God.
The Motivation for Christian Discipline
The neglect of Christian discipline in the church is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to the fact that men have lost sight of the motivation for Christian discipline. They don't understand the reason for Christian discipline and have no idea of the purpose that Christian discipline serves. A clear understanding of the motivation for discipline is necessary if discipline is going to be preserved in the church. Even in the true church of Jesus Christ where Christian discipline is faithfully exercised, if there is not a clear understanding of why we discipline, and if there is no motivation for discipline, then in the end Christian discipline is going to go by the board. For the preservation of discipline there must continue to be in the church a good understanding of the motivation for discipline.
That motivation comes down to one thing—love. That is the motivation for discipline—love for the erring brother who is the object of discipline, love for the church as a whole that exercises discipline, and ultimately love for God on behalf of whom, and out of a zeal for whose name, discipline is exercised.
Motivation # 1: Love for the Erring Brother
The first motivation for Christian discipline is love for the erring brother. Discipline must be motivated by love. They are wrong who object to the exercise of Christian discipline because it is, they allege, unloving. That's a characteristic criticism of the Reformed practice of Christian discipline. We repudiate that charge. On the contrary, we are convinced that discipline is motivated by love. It is exactly love for the erring brother that moves the church to discipline.
This is true, is it not, of parents in the discipline of their children? What moves fathers and mothers to discipline their children is the love that they have for their children. The wise preacher in Proverbs 13:24 says this: 'He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.' A father who loves his son does not ignore wickedness in the life of that son. A father who loves his son and who does not want to see his son or his daughter go on impenitently in sin, ultimately to spiritual and eternal ruin, disciplines that son or that daughter.
What is true in the covenant home is equally true in the covenant family of God, the church. Just as discipline in the home is motivated by parental love, discipline in the church is motivated by love for the erring brother.
But then, it must be motivated by love. Every parent has to ask that question in the discipline of his children: 'Is my discipline really motivated by love for my son or for my daughter; or is my discipline motivated by my own wrath because my will has been defied? Is my discipline a way to vent my own anger and to make the one who has hurt me in some respect feel that hurt himself?'
In the church, too, we have to ask ourselves that question. Does love really motivate the discipline of the erring brother? Is it love, really love, that moves me privately to go see the brother when the brother has sinned against me? If it is not love in your heart, then do not go. Don't go! The elders, too, must be motivated by love in their hearts when they visit those who are wayward. It becomes a real temptation, especially when a discipline case is long-standing and is dragged out over a period of time, that pretty soon the elders become weary of it. Pretty soon it becomes a temptation not to carry on the discipline work out of the real motivation of love.
Even when Christian discipline leads to excommunication, even when the form for excommunication is read publicly—even then the motivation on the part of the congregation must still be love. Out of love the congregation proceeds to what Reformed churches regard as the 'extreme remedy.'
The Goal of Christian Discipline
Love in Christian discipline aims at the good of the one who is disciplined. Love always aims at the good of the one who is disciplined. Parents who love their children are interested in the good of their children. In Christian discipline the aim is that the brother return. The goal is that he come back to the church in the way of repentance and confession and is restored to membership in the congregation. Love does not desire that he be cut off permanently. Love in discipline is not interested in getting rid of an unsavory member who has been rather troublesome in the congregation. But love in discipline always aims at the brother's return.
That, too, is true of the discipline of Christian parents. Because it is out of love that they discipline their children their discipline aims to be a remedy to make their children see the error of their ways, bring them back again, and move them to repentance. That is the thing the church must be interested in also in the exercise of Christian discipline.
That is not to say that the church must not be careful in the whole matter of restoration. Indeed, the church must be careful. There must be genuine repentance before someone is restored. In addition to repentance expressed, there must also be the evidence of that repentance in the life of the one who is restored. The Heidelberg Catechism says, at the end of the 85th Answer, that when those who have been disciplined promise and show—not only promise, but also show—real amendment of life, they are again to be received as members of Christ and His church. In the end, the consistory makes the judgment whether there is genuine repentance and whether there is a showing of that repentance by a changed life.
But then, when there is repentance, when there is conversion of life, in love the congregation must welcome back the restored sinner. As the father of the prodigal received his son with open arms, with the expression of his love to him on returning to the fellowship of the family, so must the church take back and restore the wayward sinner.
The Breaking of Fellowship
It is exactly out of love for the excommunicated member that, so long as he is excommunicated from the congregation, fellowship with him is broken off. That belongs to the exercise of Christian discipline, and that is an aspect of the calling of the congregation that must be taken seriously. It is not enough for the congregation that they pray earnestly on behalf of the one who has been excommunicated that God will work in his heart to bring him to repentance and restore him to the church. It is not enough, as is our calling when we have opportunity, to admonish the excommunicated person so that by that admonition his heart may be broken. But it belongs to the calling of every member of the church that we break off fellowship with the one who has been excommunicated.
The Scriptures are clear about this calling. In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle speaks of this in verses 9-11. '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 with 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.' No fellowship! Do not keep company! Do not even eat with such an one!
It happens, sometimes, that the members of the church do not carry out this calling. They do not take seriously the will of God in this respect. The motivation for this breaking of fellowship is not that the members of the church are so much better than the wayward sinner, for every one of us must say, 'But for the grace of God, there go I.” We are all sinners, and every sin that is a censurable sin, and that calls for excommunication from the church when there is impenitence in that sin, is a sin that you have committed and that I have committed. None of us is a stranger to any of these sins. That is not the point.
The point is that it is the will of God that so long as one goes on impenitent in sin and under the discipline of the church, excommunicated from the congregation, fellowship is disrupted. The members of the church may not keep fellowship with one who has been excommunicated.
For as all of us know by our own experience, so long as we go on impenitent in any sin, so long as there is a sin in our life that we do not confess and break with, our fellowship with God is disrupted. We do not have the sense of God's smiling face shining down on us. We do not enjoy living communion with God. It is only in the way of repentance that the fellowship with God is restored, the sense of His favor experienced, and His blessing enjoyed once more. It is exactly because of that, as a reflection of that, that the members of the church are called to break off fellowship with the impenitent sinner excommunicated from the congregation.
There are times when this will of Christ is not honored in a congregation. There are times, even when someone has been excommunicated, that members of the church continue to have friendly relationships with this individual. They socialize with the person, going places together and doing things together. They do not recognize the validity of the excommunication of the church. This is wrong on the part of the members of the church.
Love, real love that aims at the restoration of the sinner, requires that fellowship be broken off. As hard as that may be, love does that. Love does that in the hope that that breaking off of fellowship, that not experiencing anymore the communion of God's people, will be the very thing that God will use to break the sinner's hard heart, convict the sinner of his guilt, and bring him to his knees in repentance. Then the fellowship can be restored. Then the sinner can be brought back into the communion of the church. Then the right hand of fellowship can again be extended.
Motivation # 2: Love for the Church
Besides being motivated in Christian discipline by love for the erring brother, we must also be motivated by love for the church. Christian discipline must be motivated by love not only for the individual member of the church who goes on in sin, but also for the church as a whole. Love is interested in the well-being of the congregation. And love is concerned that the sinner left impenitent in sin will be an influence for evil on the other members of the church. The result of the example that he sets will lead other members of the congregation astray. Out of a zeal, therefore, for the other members of the church, discipline must be exercised.
That is the way it is with discipline in our covenant homes too. Parents discipline their wayward child out of a love for that sinful child and in the hope of bringing that sinful child back. But there ought also to be a love that is concerned for the welfare of the rest of the family. Parents who neglect to discipline a wayward or rebellious child expose their other children to the influence of that wicked way of life. And there will be an influence. Parents who are concerned for their other children, especially the younger children in their home, take seriously their calling to discipline. What is true in our covenant homes is also true in the family of God.
The danger here must not be minimized. It must be taken seriously. The Scriptures point out the seriousness of this whole matter. In 1 Corinthians 5:6, the apostle Paul speaks of this. 'Your glorying,' he says, ' is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?' The apostle is referring to a sinful member of the congregation at Corinth, and to the sin of the congregation in not dealing with that impenitent member. The apostle points out that that impenitent member left in the congregation is like leaven, yeast, that works itself through the whole lump of dough, influencing the whole lump of dough to make it rise. Sin in the congregation is like leaven or yeast. If sin is not dealt with and the sinner disciplined, then the whole lump eventually is going to be leavened. The sin of that one member is going to have its impact on the other members of the congregation.
There are other passages of Scripture that refer to this same thing. In II Timothy 2:17 the apostle compares an impenitent sinner in the congregation to a canker—literally, gangrene. If the gangrenous member is not cut off, pretty soon the whole body is filled with gangrene and the person dies. Sin in the congregation is like that.
Out of love, therefore, for the church as a whole, Christian discipline must be exercised. History demonstrates the truth of this. History demonstrates that a failure on the part of the church to exercise Christian discipline results in the decay, and in the end the destruction, of the whole church.
Just let wickedness on the part of some of the young people be tolerated in a congregation. Let the elders take a tolerant view of that wickedness—'They're just sowing their wild oats. And, after all, they're covenant children and they'll come around eventually'—so that loose and wild living is ignored. Rather than to deal with these young people, the elders wink at their immorality and drunkenness. What happens? What happens is that pretty soon the other young people are influenced by that wickedness left undisciplined in the congregation, and pretty soon the congregation is infected with wicked and worldly young people.
Or let a church adopt the teaching that God's grace is in one sense or another common, and all men are the objects of the favor of God, so that at the very least He desires the salvation of every individual member of the human race, and that false doctrine in the church works itself through. Pretty soon the church is teaching about the cross of Christ that it was a death of Christ for everybody, an atonement that made salvation available for all but efficacious for none. Pretty soon it is denied that there is in the decree of God a restricting of salvation to some only. Reprobation is set aside. And pretty soon salvation is openly taught as being dependent on the free will of the sinner. Principles work through. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
Or let a higher critical view of the Scriptures be tolerated in the church. Let it begin by men saying about the Bible that it is both the word of God and the word of men. Pretty soon the opening chapters of Genesis are denied and regarded as myth. The first chapters of Genesis recount religious experience, they do not record historical fact. In that way the teaching of evolution is imported into the church. After that, the miracles are denied, the virgin birth of Christ, and the blood atonement. Principles work through. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
Or let the church set aside the Bible's teaching concerning marriage—that marriage is for life, and that the only legitimate reason for divorce is unrepented-of adultery, and that even in that case the bond of marriage is not broken. Let the church set that doctrine aside, let the church permit the remarriage of just the innocent party. Let it begin with remarriage of the person whose sin was not the occasion for the break-up of the marriage. Let it be permitted that only that person be allowed to be remarried. Pretty soon the church is filled with married and divorced persons who are divorced for every reason and are permitted to remarry.
Sin breeds sin. It does that in one's life. And it does that in the life of a church and in the life of a denomination of churches Out of love for the church, therefore, and motivated by a zeal for the holiness of the church, let the church exercise Christian discipline.
Motivation # 3: Love for God
But the motivation does not end in love for the erring brother, or in love for the church. In the end, the motivation for Christian discipline must be love for God.
This is the way it must be in the Christian home. This is why parents in the church must be faithful to exercise discipline over their children. The motivation must be love for the Lord God. They must be interested in the honor of His name. His glory must mean more to them than anything else.
That is the great evil of parents who do not discipline their children. It is not that, in the end, they do not really love their children. It is not that, in the end, there is no love for the rest for the family and concern for the well-being of the other members of the family. The great evil of the neglect of parental discipline is that parents do not love God as they ought to love him.
This was the word of God to Eli expressing the seriousness of Eli's neglect to discipline his wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas. In I Samuel 2:29, God Himself says about Eli that he honored his sons more than he honored God. No parent may honor his children more than he honors God. The parent who honors God, God first of all, God's glory, God's name, will for God's sake discipline his children.
That was Jesus' motivation for cleansing the temple. That what John 2:17 tells us, 'The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.' He had a zeal for God's house, God's honor and God's name. He was moved to righteous anger because it was God's honor that was being trampled upon by the defilement of His house. It was out of zeal for Jehovah God that the Lord Jesus made a whip and drove out those buyers and sellers. That same kind of zeal for the house of God and for the honor of God's name must motivate the church in the exercise of Christian discipline.
So much did the Lord Jesus Christ love God that He laid down His life in obedience to God. That was the cleansing of God's temple. That is what the cleansing of God's temple and the zeal for the holiness of the temple of God required of our Saviour. All of us by nature, because of our unholiness and depravity, defile the temple of God. None of us has a right to a place in that temple. It was out of a zeal for His Father's house that He went to the cross, to die for His people, to take away their sin and the guilt of their sin, so that they might have a place in the holy house of God.
May the zeal of our Lord be the incentive to the church to preserve the exercise of Christian discipline! May the church be motivated by love for the erring brother, love for the congregation as a whole, and, above all, love for God!
Rev. Ronald Cammenga (Wife; Rhonda)
Ordained: September 1979
Pastorates: Hull, IA - 1979; Loveland, CO - 1984; Southwest, Grandville, MI - 1993; Faith, Jenison, MI - 2004; PR Seminary - 2005Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Ronald_Cammenga
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