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Of Church Discipline.


Of Church Discipline.

James Dodson

167. What is Church Discipline?

Church discipline is the exercise of ecclesiastical power, for the prevention and correction of offences in the visible church.

2 Cor. 10. 8. "Our authority which the Lord hath given us for edification."

168. What do the scriptures teach us respecting church discipline?

The scriptures declare the necessity for discipline in the church—the authority by which it is administered—the offences which it is intended to remedy—and the acts by which offences are to he removed.

169. What necessity is there for the exercise of discipline in the visible church?

Offences must frequently arise in the visible church, from the ungodliness of unregenerate professors, and from the remaining corruptions of those who are truly pious [a]: to prevent the unhappy effects of such offences, Christ hath instituted church discipline [b]; and no church can, without the faithful exercise of it, hope for God’s blessing [c].

[a] Mat. 18. 7. "For it must needs be that offences come." [b] Rev. 2. 14. "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication." [c] Rev. 3. 16. "So then, because thou art luke-warm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."

170. In whom hath Christ lodged authority for administering church discipline?

Every society of rational creatures must exercise authority to correct offences against its own laws: private Christians, associated for religious exercises, have a right to manage, by common consent, in agreeableness to the divine law, all their social concerns: but the Head of the church has lodged in the hands of ecclesiastical rulers, exclusively, the power of exercising discipline in the church of Christ.

Mat. 28. 19. "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them." Acts 14. 23. "They had ordained them elders in every church." Mat. 16. 19. "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven."

171. Who are the proper subjects of church discipline?

Sinners without the church may justly be reproved with faithfulness and prudence by private Christians, and by the ministers of the gospel [a]: but the proper subjects of the ordinance of church discipline, are church members, including children [b].

[a] Acts 3. 14,. 19. "But ye denied the Holy ONE, and the just and desired a murderer to be granted unto you,—Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out." Eph. 5. 11. "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them." [b] Tit, 2. 12. "Teaching us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world." Mat. 11. 30. "For my yoke is easy." 1 Cor. 5. 12. "Do not ye judge them that are within?"

172. Is a person who hath lived a scandalous life before he joins himself to the christian church, a subject of discipline on account of crimes committed before his admission?

Heathens who evidence repentance, are not to be censured, after having joined the church, for crimes committed before their conversion [a]; but those who have been baptized, and have received a christian education, and come afterwards into scandal, are not to be received into church fellowship without adequate censure: such persons, when they profess submission to church order, are proper subjects of discipline, and this is the first church privilege to which they are admissible [b].

Eph. 5. 8. "For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light." [b] 1 Thes. 5. 14. "Warn them that are unruly." Mat. 11. 29. "Take my yoke upon you."

173. Does every transgression subject a member of the church to be tried and censured?

Imperfection is attached to all men while in this life [a]: it is not every thing which is sinful and displeasing that constitutes scandal; but something which may tempt others to sin [b], expose the church to just reproach [c], or mar the edification of the saints [d].

[a] Rom. 7. 21. "When I would do good, evil is present with me." [b] Luke 17. 1. "It is impossible but that offences, scandals [Σκανδαλον.], will come; but wo unto him through whom they come." [c] Rev. 2. 14. "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling block, scandal [Σκανδαλον.], before the children of Israel." [c] Rom. 14. 13. "Judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block, scandal [Σκανδαλον.], or an occasion to fall, in his brother’s way."

174. How many kinds of censurable offences are there?

The scandalous offences are of three kinds: heresy, which consists in maintaining errors contrary to the subordinate standards of the church, and to the holy scriptures [a]—Immorality [b]—and contempt of church order, which consists in untenderness to brethren, neglect of ordinances, disrespect to the ministry, and resistance to the authority of the church [c].

[a] Rom. 16. 17. "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark then which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them." Tit. 3. 10. "A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject." [b] 1 Cor. 5. 11. "If any man that is called brother, be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer or a drunkard or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat." [c] 2 Thes. 3. 6. "Withdraw yourselves from eve brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us."

175. What remedy has Christ provided for his church, in case of offences?

Christ has appointed adequate censures to be administered to transgressors, by those who have the rule over them.

Heb. 13. 17. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves."

176. Are censures to be indiscriminately inflicted upon offenders?

The candid and faithful exercise of church discipline requires a distinct view of the ends of censure—of the degrees of censure—and of the proper forms of process in bringing the offenders under discipline.

177. What is the immediate end for which censures are inflicted?

Subordinate to the glory of God, in maintaining the purity of his church, the immediate end of censures is the reformation of the offender himself [a], and the preservation of others from similar transgressions [b].

[a] 2 Thes. 3. 14. "Note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed." [b] 1 Tim. 5. 20. "Them that sin, rebuke before all, that others also may fear."

178. What are the different censures which the church inflicts upon offenders?

Offences are to be carefully and impartially considered, with all the circumstances which aggravate or diminish the scandal, and in determining the suitable degree of censure, the end, whether the reformation of the offender, or the prevention of others, is to be kept in view: the various degrees of censure are, admonition, and rebuke, administered with more or less degrees of publicity, as the case may require—suspension from special privileges—and excommunication.

179. By what rule is the degree of publicity with which rebukes are administered, to be ascertained?

The offences of church members are not unnecessarily to be made public [a]; the publicity of the censure is to bear a proportion to the magnitude and the publicity of the scandal: admonitions and rebukes may, according to this rule, prudently applied, be administered to the offender secretly, in the family, before the session of the congregation, and publicly before the whole church [b].

[a] 1 Pet. 4.8. "And, above all things, have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins." [b] Tit. 1. 13. "Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith." 1 Tim. 5. 20. "Them that sin, rebuke before all."

180. In what cases does it become proper to suspend a member of the church from special ordinances?

It may be proper, in very flagrant cases of scandal, if they cannot be brought speedily to trial, to suspend the accused from sealing ordinances until the trial comes on, or while it is pending; and when a person is found guilty of an offence, he may be suspended from the privileges of the church, until he give evidence of a proper sense of his fault, and of reformation.

1 Cor. 14. 40. "Let all things be done decently, and in order." Lev. 13. 4. "Then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague, seven days." 2 Thes. 3. 14. "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him."

181. Wherein does the sentence of excommunication consist?

Excommunication is the highest censure which the church can inflict: the ground of it is either some highly aggravated immorality [a], or obstinate perseverance in some scandalous practice subversive of the doctrine or the order of the church [b]: it consists in solemnly excluding from the fellowship of the church, and delivering over to the world, the kingdom of Satan, the impenitent offender [c].

[a] 1 Cor. 5. 13. "Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." [b] Gal. 5. 12. "I would they were even cut off which trouble you"—and Gal 1. 7. "But there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ." [c] 1 Cor. 5. 5. "To deliver such an one unto Satan, for the destruction of the flesh."

182. Wherein consists the awefulness of the sentence of excommunication?

The sentence of excommunication, pronounced according to God’s law, is ratified in heaven [a]; Satan receives power over the excommunicated person [b]; he is given up to terrors of conscience, or to what is still more alarming, blindness of mind and hardness of heart [c]; church members cease from communion with him; for, although the discharge of natural duties is not suspended, Christians are to avoid all familiar fellowship with the excommunicated sinner [d].

[a] John 20. 23. "Whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." [b] l Cor. 5. 5. "Deliver such an one unto Satan, for the destruction of the flesh." Eph. 2. 2. "The spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience." [c] 2 Cor. 2. 6-11. "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment—lest perhaps such an one should be swallowed up with over much sorrow—lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices." Eph. 4. 18. "Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart." [d] Mat. 18. 17. "Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." 2 Thes. 3. 14. "Note that man, and have no company with him."

183. Seeing the sentence of excommunication is so dreadful, is it not more safe to permit transgressors to leave the church of their own accord, than to inflict it?

Faithfulness to Christ demands a punctual administration to his ordinances [a]; and anxiety for the good of the offender does not admit that he should escape, as a fugitive from discipline [b]: Christ himself gives no liberty to any person to leave his kingdom with impunity [c]; and those who watch for souls in the visible church, are accountable to the Lord for every church member, young or old [d]: There are only three ways in which the pastor’s responsibility for any member of his church can be removed: dissolving the connexion by death; removal by Providence into another part of the church; and excommunication, according to order.

[a] Rev. 2. 25. "But that which ye have already, hold fast till I come." [b] 1 Cor. 5. 5. "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." [c] Heb. 10. 38. "But if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him." [d] Heb. 13. 17. "They watch for your souls as they that must give account." Ezek. 34. 10. "Thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand."

184. Are church officers subject to the same censures with the other members of the church?

Church officers are subject to Christ’s yoke of discipline, and are liable to similar censures with private members [a]: there are other censures peculiar to official characters—suspension, from the exercise of any official authority—and deposition from office, as the nature of the scandal may require [b].

[a] Mat. 11. 29. "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me." [b] Gal. 1. 9. "If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed."

185. By what means are offenders convicted, in order to be censured?

The process for censuring offenders includes the regular entry of a case before the competent Judicatory, the patient examination of testimony, impartial judgment on the case, and the faithful execution of it, in administering the decreed censure.

186. In what manner is an offence to be introduced before the church for judicial examination?

For private offences, private means of redress are first to be used [a]; when private expostulation proves ineffectual, or when it is, from the nature of the offence, inadequate to remove the grievance, a libel must be presented to the competent court [b]: when the scandal is notorious, the ecclesiastical Judicatory may call the offender to account, upon a charge of fama clamosa [c]: the Presbytery, in case of ministers, and the Session, in every other case, is the competent authority to commence and finish the process, unless a reference or an appeal be made to the superior Judicatory [d].

[a] Mat. 18. 15. "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." [b] Verse 17. "If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church." 1 Cor. 5. 9, l2. "I wrote unto you in an epistle, not to company with fornicators—Do not ye judge them that are within? but them that are without, God judgeth." [c] Rev. 2. 20. "I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols." [d] Acts 15. 2. "When, therefore, Paul and Barnabas had no small dissention and disputation with them, they determined, that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem, unto the apostles and elders, about this question."

187. In what manner is testimony examined by an ecclesiastical court, in respect to cases of scandal?

The confession of the accused sets aside the necessity of other testimony [a]: no witness is at any time to be esteemed valid, if he be evidently incapable of understanding whereof he affirms, or under the influence of malice toward the accused [b]: the testimony must hear a proportion in weight, and in clearness, to the improbability, the magnitude, and the consequences, of the scandal [c]: the defendant has liberty to me every lawful mean to invalidate the testimony which appears against him [d].

[a] Jam. 5. 16. "Confess your faults one to another." [b] Prov. 14. 7. "Go from the presence of a foolish man, when thou perceivest not in him the lips of knowledge." Prov. 19. 18. "An ungodly witness scorneth judgment." [c] 1 Tim. 5. 19. 21. 24. "Against an elder receive not an accusation but before two or three witnesses—observe these things, without preferring one before another—Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment." [d] Acts 25. 16. "That he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him."

188. How is the decision formed in a case of scandal?

No trial is to be unduly hurried to a decision, or unnecessarily delayed [a]: the conduct of the court should be candid [b], regular [c], mild [d], and impartial [e]: malicious accusers are to be judged criminal in proportion to the scandal of the accusation preferred against the innocent [f]; and, upon conviction of the offender, the sentence is to be pronounced with suitable solemnity [g].

[a] Deut. 16. 18. "And they shall judge the people with just judgment." [b] Prov. 18. 13. "He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him." [c] 1 Cor. 14. 40. "Let all things be done decently, and in order." [d] Phil. 4. 5. "Let your moderation be known unto all men." [e] Jam. 2. 12. "So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty." [f] Deut. 19. 18, 19. "And behold, if the witness be a false witness—then shall ye do unto him as he had thought to have done unto his brother." [g] 1 Pet. 4. 11. "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God."

189. Is an excommunicated person ever after to be restored to church fellowship?

An excommunicated person is not to be restored, without evident marks of humiliation, repentance, and reformation, for a sufficient length of time to satisfy the church that his habits of virtue are confirmed.

2 Cor. 2. 6-10. "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment—Comfort him, lest perhaps such an one should be swallowed up with over much sorrow—To whom ye forgive any thing I forgive also."

190. Is it lawful to restore to office a minister, or ruling elder, who may have justly been deposed?

It is improper to give any person a hope at the time of his deposition, that he shall be restored to his office; but if his piety be exemplary, a sufficient time of trial have intervened, and circumstances have happily united, in divine providence, which afford a prospect that he shall be useful in the church, he may be restored to his former office.

Tit. 2. 15. "And rebuke with all authority." 1 Tim. 3. 7. "He must have a good report of them which are without."—Ver. 10. " And let these also first be proved." 1 Cor. 14. 26. "Let all things be done unto edifying."

191. What is the duty of Christians toward their rulers in the exercise of church discipline?

The disciples of Christ should submit with cheerfulness to the yoke of discipline [a]; they should learn how to walk in agreeableness to the order of the church [b]; they should be thankful for the power which he has lodged in the hands of rulers [c]; they should esteem and admire the reasonableness and the excellency of the presbyterian constitution of church government [d]; they should pray for a faithful administration of it, and for the approach of that period, when the whole earth shall be happy under its universal establishment [e].

[a] Mat. 11. 30. "For my yoke is easy, profitable [Χρηστος.]." [b] 1 Tim. 3. 15. "That thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church." [c] Ps. 122. 5. "For there are set thrones of judgment." [d] Ezek. 43. 19. "The whole limit thereof round about shall be most holy. Behold, This is the law of the house [See Note W.]." [e] Rev. 11. 1. & 15. "Rise, and measure the temple of God. and the altar, and them that worship therein.—The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever."