Although the exercise of the keys of the kingdom of heaven is the work of the elders, whom Christ has appointed to have the rule in the church, the office of believers also has a role in the work of discipline.
We have noticed before that the office of believers functions in and through every special office in the church. The congregation preaches through its ordained ministry. The congregation provides the money for the deacons to care for the poor. And the believers engage in the work of discipline, performed through the elders. In fact, the congregation performs the work of discipline, but the believers in the congregation do so through the elders.
It might be well at this point to emphasize not only that every task of the special offices is a task performed by the congregation through the special offices, but also that this fundamental truth of Reformed church polity has two other important implications.
The first implication of this work of the office of believers through the special offices in the church is that the believers who occupy their office are responsible for all that is done in the church. They are responsible for the pure preaching of the gospel and for the administration of the sacraments according to the command of Christ. They are responsible for the care of the poor. They are responsible for the faithful exercise of Christian discipline.
The second implication of the functioning of the office of believers through the special offices is that all the activities of the special offices are carried on among and by the saints mutually. The saints are called not only to preach through the ordained ministry, but also to witness to the truth which they believe. They are to witness to that truth to one another, but also to the world about them. They are not only called to exercise discipline through the special office of elder, but they are to admonish, exhort, and encourage each other. In fact, as we shall see, the Church Order calls special attention to this obligation. While the believers, in the functioning of their office, care for the poor through the special office of deacon, they are to help each other in gifts of charity on a personal level and among themselves.
But it is time for us to call attention to what the Church Order itself says about this aspect of the calling of believers.
The Believer’s Role in Private Sins
The believer has certain responsibilities towards his fellow saints when they fall into sin. These sins are, in the Church Order, divided into private sins and public sins. Private sins are sins of which only very few are aware — perhaps only one or two. Public sins are those which have become public knowledge. If a believer has any doubt whether a sin which concerns him is public or private, it is better to deal with it as a private sin. Some doubt may arise because those that are aware of the sin are more than the individual himself. Circumstances can often determine whether a sin is public or private. In a congregations of a thousand people, a sin is private if ten know. In a congregation of 20, ten constitute half the congregation. If more than one person is aware of a sin, each one who has knowledge of it has the responsibility to see the sinner and attempt to bring him to repentance. If witnesses are needed to carry out the instructions of the Lord, witnesses ought to be from those who know the sin has been committed.
The point is important. Because the congregation of believers is the gathering of saints, sin is an intrusion and a divisive element, which has the potential to destroy the communion of the saints. Although all the saints are sinning saints, the sins of the saints are not an obstacle to communion, because they are confessed and forgiven by Christ. But unconfessed sin carries with it the lethal poison that could in time destroy the fellowship of the people of God. It has to be taken away, either by confession or by the expulsion of the sinner. The church will be destroyed if one of these two does not take place.
A private sin is, as long as it remains private, not the threat that a public sin is. But it is dangerous and potentially fatal for the congregation. We need only think of Achan’s sin in taking for himself the forbidden thing from Jericho. All Israel was held responsible for that sin even though no one outside of Achan’s family knew of it. Thirty-six soldiers of Israel’s armies were slain in the battle at Ai because of God’s anger against the entire nation (Joshua 7).
The purpose of the saints and the elders in exercising discipline is always the removal of sin, for on sin’s removal hangs the spiritual well-being of the congregation.
If a sin is private, the most edifying way for the sin to be removed is to bring the sinner to private confession. No one else in the congregation knows about it and it is not a trouble and grief to the saints at large. This is most satisfactory and it is the way in which reconciliation is most easily brought about.
The articles in the Church Order that deal with this matter are Articles 72 and 73.
In case one errs in doctrine or offends in conduct, as long as the sin is of a private character, not giving public offense, the rule clearly prescribed by Christ in Matthew 18 shall be followed.
Secret sins of which the sinner repents, after being admonished by one person in private or in the presence of two or three witnesses, shall not be laid before the consistory.
The office of believers must function in such a situation. The following are guidelines for a believer who is faced with such a calling.
1) He must himself be a witness to the sin which has been committed by one of his fellow saints. He is not a witness to the sin if he is aware of the sin because unseemly gossip has come to his ears.
2) He must go to the sinner. That is his sole responsibility. To talk to others of the sin of which he has been a witness is to do great evil and cause harm in the congregation.
3) He must go to the sinner in a spirit of meekness and sorrow. He must not exalt himself above the sinner, nor leave the impression that he is more holy than the one who has fallen. He must attempt to lead the sinner to the cross, not by sending him there, but by going with him. This is Paul’s unmistakable teaching in Galatians 6:1, 2.
4) If the sinner refuses to repent, the believer must pursue the matter further by taking with him one or two witnesses. These witnesses are not themselves witnesses of the sin. That could hardly be, because, if they were, they too should be visiting the sinner. But they are to serve as witnesses that a brother went to see the sinner, and that the sinner refuses to confess his sins. It follows, of course, that these witnesses must be made aware of the sin, and the witnesses must understand that this knowledge is to be kept in strict confidence.
It is also possible that the presence of two or three people will persuade the sinner to confess his sin and seek forgiveness.
A problem sometimes rises in connection with carrying out Jesus’ instructions laid down in Matthew 18. Sometimes, when there is only one witness to a sin, the sinner may deny that he has done what he is charged with. He may give a different and innocent interpretation of his conduct. In this case, the matter reaches a stalemate, even though one may be 95% certain that the sinner is indeed guilty. There is no actual proof. It is the word of one man against another. The matter must then be dropped, and God alone must judge.
Example: A married man is seen with a strange woman in a town other than the place of his residence. When confronted with the charge of adultery, he may deny that he was with the woman for immoral purposes, but was simply engaging in a business deal. No proof of sin can be submitted. The matter must be left to the judgment of God.
If the sinner, while admitting the action of which he is accused, denies that it is in fact a sin, the witnesses can assist in attempting to persuade a man that his conduct was wrong.
Example: A member of the congregation may learn that one of his fellow members is a member of a labor union, something not known to anyone else in the church. He may bring the matter to the sinner, but the sinner may deny that union membership is in fact a sin. Witnesses may be able to help persuade the sinner that indeed his conduct is contrary to God’s will. If they fail, the matter will have to go to the consistory.
When sin is confessed, the whole matter is dropped; sin has been removed from the congregation. All is well.
It is not difficult to see that if indeed sin can be removed on this personal level, the greater benefit of the church as a whole is served. Believers must strive for this in private sins.
The Believer and Public Sins
A believer’s role in public sins of a brother or sister is defined, first of all, in Article 74 of the Church Order.
If anyone, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed, or otherwise has committed a public sin, the matter shall be reported to the consistory.
Two kinds of sins can be called public. The first kind is a sin, once private, but which the sinner refuses to confess. It becomes a public sin because it is like a cancer in the body of the congregation which, if not removed, will eventually destroy the entire congregation. And it is made public by informing the consistory of the sin and of the refusal of the sinner to repent.
The knowledge of the sin on the part of the consistory does not in itself make a sin public, but the consistory must now deal with the sinner and, if the sinner continues to be unrepentant, must inform the congregation of the sin and the sinner.
Once again, if the sinner is brought to repentance by the work of the elders, the congregation will benefit. The fewer who are aware of a sin the better for the congregation – especially if the sinner is brought to repentance. I have laid down the principle earlier that the “higher” one is forced to go with a matter through ecclesiastical channels, the more difficult reconciliation becomes. If one man and a sinner can settle a matter, that is far and away the best. If one man, two or three witnesses, and a sinner can settle a matter, that is very good. If a consistory can settle a matter through the repentance of the sinner, this will benefit the congregation. If the matter has to go to classis, and then to synod, along the way of ecclesiastical processes, the difficulty of reconciliation increases. The believer must strive earnestly to keep the matter of sin in as narrow a compass as possible. He will also do this if he truly loves the church.
A private sin which remains unconfessed must be brought to the consistory. It is at that point that the believer who first witnessed the sin drops out of the picture as far as his own personal involvement is concerned. It is now a matter of the elders who rule in the church.
A public sin must be immediately taken in hand by the elders. The rule of our Lord in Matthew 18 does not apply to a public sin. The sinner whose sin is public knowledge threatens immediately the welfare of the entire congregation and perhaps even the denomination, if his sin is known in the congregation or throughout the churches. This latter, in fact, is likely to happen in the case of a gross sin of a minister.
The question is sometimes asked whether or not an individual has a responsibility to see the sinner alone when the sin is a public sin. The answer to this question is clear from Scripture.
If the sin is public, the individual believer has no obligation to follow the rule of our Lord in Matthew 18, as I already pointed out. Sometimes an ecclesiastical assembly requires that an individual believer follow Matthew 18 even when the sin is public. He is asked whether he followed Matthew 18; and if his answer is in the negative, the assembly refuses to treat this matter until Matthew 18 has been followed. This is wrong.
Example: A minister preaches something from the pulpit which is not in accordance with Scripture and the confessions. A believer brings the matter to the consistory and is asked whether he followed Matthew 18. If his answer is negative, he is told to do this. This is incorrect.
Nevertheless, the believer does have an obligation to go to the sinner personally, but not on the basis of Matthew 18. More than one situation can arise in this connection. A believer may be aware of a sin on the part of a brother or sister, but does not know whether it is public or private. In that event, he must go to the sinner and deal with the sinner as if it were a private sin.
A believer may be aware of the fact that a sin is public, but not know how many in the congregation know of the sin, or whether the elders are aware of it. Then also he ought to go see the brother alone.
A believer, in visiting the brother, whether the sin is private or public, may discover to his pleasure that no sin at all was committed, but that there was misunderstanding, a false report, or even a misinterpretation of one’s conduct. One may read in the newspaper an article about one of his fellow saints that seems to indicate that his brother was involved in sin. The fact that the item appeared in the newspaper makes it a public matter. But upon discussing the whole incident with his brother he learns that the newspaper report was wrong (as it frequently is) or that there is a perfectly good explanation for what seemed in the report to be sin.
One ought always to go to a brother before going to the consistory. If a sin is public, the consistory is probably aware of it, and he need not go to his elders to inform them of what they already know. Only when it becomes apparent that they do not know, ought he to go.
In any case, a brother always has an obligation to go to his brother, even in cases of public sin. This is so even when the consistory is working with the brother to bring him to repentance. I’ll have a bit more to say about this.
The Believer and the Exercise of Discipline
When discipline becomes a matter of the exercise of key power by the elders, the responsibility of the believers is by no means over. The responsibilities of the believer are outlined in Article 77 of the Church Order.
After suspension from the Lord’s table, and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication, the obstinacy of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation; the offense explained, together with the care bestowed upon him, in reproof, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and repeated admonition; and the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him. There shall be three such admonitions. In the first the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned that he be somewhat spared. In the second, with the advice of the classis, his name shall be mentioned. In the third the congregation shall be informed that (unless he repent) he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, in case he remains obstinate, may take place with the tacit approbation of the church. The interval between the admonitions shall be left to the discretion of the consistory.
The article defines congregational involvement in the exercise of the keys as receiving various announcements from the consistory concerning the actions of the consistory. There are two reasons why such announcements need to be made. They are not made just “to keep the congregation informed.” They are made, first of all, so that the congregation may approve of the actions of the consistory.
This approval is not a mere “rubber stamping” of the consistory’s action. The congregation must understand that the action of the consistory is the action of the congregation and that the congregation is responsible for what the consistory does. The congregation must be involved in and approve of the discipline. If anyone in the congregation does not approve, he must make his reasons for withholding approval known to the consistory so that the elders may seriously consider whether they are doing wrong. And, as I said earlier, such a one has the right of appeal, if he considers it necessary. It ought to be obvious that such a course of action is not possible until after the second announcement by the consistory, for in the second announcement the name of the sinner is mentioned.
The second reason why such announcements are made is mentioned in the article itself: “the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him.” Obviously, when the first announcement is made and the name of the sinner is not mentioned, the members can only pray for the sinner. But when his name is mentioned, they are in a position to visit him as well. They are solemnly obligated to do this. Every member who loves the church and seeks the welfare of the church wants a sinner to be brought to repentance. He will do everything he can to attain such a goal. At the same time, every member is vitally concerned for the purity and holiness of the church, and does not want to see sin go unconfessed in the congregation. The presence of unconfessed sin can only lead to troubles and greater sorrows for the congregation.
Two more points must be made. The Form of Excommunication mentions one of these in passing. When giving the reasons why the elders are proceeding to excommunication, the Form says: “…that no one has yet appeared before us, who hath in the least given us to understand that he, by the frequent admonitions given him, (as well in private as before witnesses, and in the presence of many), is come to any remorse for his sins, or hath shown the least token of true repentance.” The meaning of this clearly points us to the fact that if any believer, in visiting the sinner, should observe any indication of repentance or remorse for his sin, he should report this to the consistory. If a believer has truly detected this and is not simply making “his wish father of his thought,” the elders will be happy to visit the sinner to learn if such evidence is indeed leading to true repentance. But the sinner’s confession must, of course, be made, not only to an individual in the congregation, but also to the elders.
The second point that needs to be made is that the presence of a sinner in the congregation is an occasion for the entire congregation to humble itself before God. I already called attention to the fact that the whole nation of Israel was responsible for the sin of Achan and suffered because of its presence in the camp (Joshua 7). When Judah went into captivity because of its sins, an elect remnant remained in the nation, but that remnant was also responsible for Judah’s sin. Daniel brought to God a wonderful prayer at the time that the 70 years of captivity were nearly completed. This prayer is found in Daniel’s prophecy chapter 9. In it is a remarkable confession of Judah’s sins, but these sins are, throughout the prayer, sins which Daniel makes his own. The prayer is one of humiliation before God.
So the church prays not only for the sinner, but for itself. Just as also the elect in Judah sinned when the wicked and unrighteous transgressed God’s commandments, so are all the members of the congregation sinners. It may very well be that the sinful condition of the congregation to a greater or lesser extent contributed to the sin of one being excommunicated. Perhaps the congregation did not help such a one when he was in need. Perhaps the beginnings of his sin went unrebuked. Perhaps others, while not guilty as the sinner was, were nevertheless living “on the edge” of such sins. Perhaps the members gossiped about the sin with others rather than speaking in love to the sinner. But in any case, the sin is the responsibility of the whole congregation, and such need of the exercise of key power is and must be a time for humiliation and confession of sin on the part of the entire congregation.
Sometimes a sinner who comes under the discipline of the church asks for his papers before excommunication can be pronounced. This is frequently done to escape the final penalty of excommunication. He cannot in this way, however, escape the discipline of Christ. The reasons are as follows.
1) When one leaves thinking to escape the discipline of the church, the discipline of Christ still follows him wherever he goes.
2) He breaks a promise which he made at the time of his confession of faith that he would submit to the government of the church. It is a serious thing to break a vow one makes before God and the church.
3) One deprives himself of the God-ordained means to bring him to repentance. Indeed, he flaunts these means and thus shows his disrespect for Christ who appointed elders over him.
The Believer and Excommunicated Members
When a sinner is cut off from the congregation the responsibility of the believer does not end. The Form of Excommunication calls the believers’ attention to their responsibilities. We here sum up what the Form has to say.
1) The believers are to keep no company with the sinner. This is frequently ignored out of a wrong spirit of helping the sinner through kindness. These people have the sinner over to their house. If the sinner comes to church in spite of his excommunication, some go up to him, shake hands with him, and express their delight to see him in church.
This conduct actually does more harm than good. It stands in the way of other Christians fulfilling their calling and it gives the sinner a wrong sense of well-being. It leaves him with the impression that his sin is not all that bad.
2) Yet, though not having fellowship with the sinner, the believers are instructed to refrain from counting one excommunicated an enemy. They are to admonish him as a brother.
3) Each believer is to “take warning by this and such like example; to fear the Lord, and diligently take heed unto himself if he thinketh he standeth, lest he fall; but having true fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, together with all faithful Christians, remain steadfast therein to the end, and so obtain eternal salvation.”
4) Believers are to see how subtle Satan is, how what is only the beginning of sin leads to greater sins and ultimately ruin. They are to guard against the beginnings of evil and to run with patience the race set before them. They are to cling to Christ, seek strength from Him, and pray that they may be guarded from temptation.
5) And, as I mentioned above, they are to humble themselves before God, bewail their sins, and repent of them with true sorrow.
It is striking and important that the Form concentrates most of its attention in this section on the calling of believers to examine themselves and to take warning from a brother who has fallen.
Believers and the Return of Excommunicated Members
Article 78 of the Church Order speaks of the believer’s responsibility at that time when an excommunicated sinner is brought to repentance by the grace of God and seeks readmittance to the church of Christ.
Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church in the way of repentance, it shall be announced to the congregation, either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time, in order that (in as far as no one can mention anything against him to the contrary) he may with profession of his conversion be publicly reinstated, according to the form for that purpose.
The Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons tells us the role of believers when a sinner is brought to repentance. In that form is included what the Church Order has to say about this.
Before such readmittance actually takes place, the first part of the Form is read to the congregation, in which the congregation is informed of the repentance of the sinner and is told that the readmittance will take place just prior to the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That part of the Form which is read at this time informs the congregation that the members are bound to receive such a member with joy. That this should indeed be done is evident from the Lord’s parables in Luke 15, where we are told that even the angels rejoice when a sinner is brought to repentance. And the sour and disapproving elder brother is held up as an example of a dreadful sin which could manifest itself in the church towards a repentant sinner.
The congregation is also told that the believers have the responsibility to go to the elders if they are able “to show just cause why [readmittance] ought not to be done.” Thus the believers once again are summoned to approve of the action of the consistory in preparing for the sinner’s readmittance. This approval is of the work of the elders, the confession and repentance of the sinner, and the action of the elders in making preparations to readmit the sinner to the fellowship of the church. Such approval implies that if any member knows a reason why such a one ought not be readmitted, he is solemnly obligated to bring the matter to the consistory. It is for the welfare of the church that this be done, for if a sinner who is not truly repentant be admitted, great harm is done the congregation.
While this time of approbation passes, every one is admonished to “thank the Lord for the mercy shown this poor sinner, beseeching Him to perfect His work in him to his eternal salvation.”
After readmittance takes place, the congregation also has responsibilities according to the Form.
1) The believers are told that the church had always hoped for the repentance of the sinner, and kept its bosom open to receive the penitent. While this conduct on the part of the congregation takes place before readmittance, it is a reminder of the believer’s attitude towards the sinner.
2) The believers are admonished to receive their brother, “with hearty affection; be glad that he was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found; rejoice with the angels of heaven over this sinner who repenteth. Count him no longer as a stranger, but as a fellow-citizen with the saints and of the household of God.”
3) In the prayer, the petition is made that the believers “learn from this example that with Thee is mercy, that Thou mayest be feared; and that we, counting him for our brother and co-heir of life eternal, may jointly serve Thee with filial fear and obedience all the days of our life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
People who terminate membership in a Protestant Reformed Church must not expect anything else but a certificate of dismissal. This certificate indicates that the elders consider leaving a Protestant Reformed Church to be a sin. That the elders consider it to be a sin is right, because our Confession of Faith binds us to this position when it requires of believers to join themselves to the true church.
Some request their papers when they are put under discipline and refuse to repent. They hope in this way to escape excommunication. Their hope is, however, a vain one, for, not only is it true that they cannot escape the discipline of Christ by leaving, but they add to their sin by breaking the vow they made at the time of confession of faith, namely, that they will submit to the government of the church even when they become delinquent.
These are all aspects of the functioning of the office of believers. They are essential to the welfare of the church. In a church in which believers carry out their responsibilities, God’s blessing comes in rich measure.