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LETTER XVIII.-Of Scandals and Discipline.


LETTER XVIII.-Of Scandals and Discipline.

James Dodson

TO prevent and redress the scandals of church-members, is one great end of her judicatures. No sin, however heinous, while it remains in absolute secret, can be a scandal. It tempts none to imitation. It can grieve the heart of none but the guilty. Every open and plain violation of the divine law by omission or commission, is scandalous; voluntary gross ignorance of divine truth; apostasy from it; denial of the being of God: contempt of his word; neglect of his instituted worship; idolatry; superstition; blasphemy; profanation of God’s names, titles, attributes, ordinance, words, or works; breach of the Sabbath by idleness, carnal employments, or recreations; want of natural affection; cruelty; malice; drunkenness; unchastity; covetousness; fraud; lying; revelling, and the like (Isa. 27:11; Hos. 4:1, 2; 1 Cor. 5:11 and 6:9, 10; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Thes. 1:6; 2 Tim. 3:1-5). To impose indifferent things, as necessary, in religion; to do things indifferent, as the eating of flesh, if it tend to the tempting of others to sin; or if it grieve the godly; and produce contention and disorder; is scandalous, sinful, and murderous (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8). Prayer, fasting, and other things good in themselves, may be rendered offensive in their circumstances, cause, manner, instrument, place, or time (Mat. 6:5, 16; Isa. 58:4, 5); as prayer by a man drunk, or in the streets, &c. When the doing, and the not doing, of anything not commanded of God, tends to offend on either side; the character and number of the persons offended may be of some use to determine our conduct; but generally it is safest to forbear doing. By this means we are passive, in what offense is taken; in the other we should be active.

The method of procedure, with scandalous offenders, is clear. If the offense be known to but one, or a few; secretly is he, or they, with Christian meekness, plainness, and love, to tell the offender his fault. If hearkening, he profess his sorrow, and resolution to amend; carefully must the whole affair be concealed, the once offended, with pleasure reflecting, their offending brother is gained. If, after one or more such secret reproofs, he continues impenitent, and offending his faults; one or two more Christian brethren, grave, sagacious, and meek, are to be taken along; and the offender dealt with, by, and in their presence. If now, he appear to repent, the several persons concerned in his reproof, are with care and pleasure to cover his crime; lest, by divulging it, they render themselves wicked reproaches. If the offender contemn one or more such private reproofs; or if his scandal be of such a nature, as will necessarily become public; the affair is to be dilated to the church judicatory, to which he is most immediately subject. To bring him to a due sense of his fault, he is to be there dealt with, in a manner prudent, affectionate, plain, convincing. If after manifold such dealing of the judicatures, he remain obstinate, he is to be delivered up unto Satan, for the destruction of his flesh, or sinful corruption, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord; he is to be cast out from the church, and held as an Heathen man and publican; under which sentence ratified in heaven, if he die impenitent, it appears impossible he can escape the damnation of hell (Mat. 18:15-18). Such ecclesiastic censures are necessary to reclaim offending brethren; necessary to deter others from the like offenses; necessary to purge out the leaven of the infectious scandals, which might otherwise leaven the whole lump, the whole church; necessary to vindicate the honor of Christ, and holy profession of the gospel; and to prevent the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon churches, should they suffer his covenant, and seals thereof, to be profaned, by notorious offenders (1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 5:20; Mat. 7:6; 1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Cor. 11:27-34; Jude 23).

In the case of the incestuous Corinthian, we have a distinct procedure unto excommunication (1 Cor. 5 and 2 Cor. 2:5-8). Nothing appears extraordinary in the whole affair. It is not extraordinary, an unwary professor should fall into the most scandalous crime; nor, that his obstinacy should render it necessary for the honor of God, and the purity of the church, to cast him out from her fellowship, till he mark his repentance.

To the rulers of the Corinthian church, met in the name of their head, is the whole affair apostolically committed. By not the all; but the many, or chief ones (2 Cor. 2:6), as the word may be rendered; it, in other places of the sacred volume, being translated better, more, greater (Mat. 6:25; Mark 12:38, 43; Mat. 12:41, 42); was this sentence, this punishment, inflicted. To inflict such censure, however, there must be a pretty general consent of private Christians; otherwise it will be to little purpose. They will not withdraw from the company of the excommunicated. The delivery of a scandalous person, obstinate in his wickedness, to Satan, is not extraordinary thing; is no giving him up to be tormented of the devil, as several have fancied. It imports no more, but an ejection from the church, the visible kingdom of Christ, into the world, the visible kingdom and family of Satan. The gathering of men to the church is called a turning them from Satan to God. The ejection of them must thereof be a re-delivery of them to Satan. Here is no hint of bodily torment; but of the Corinthians casting out from their church-fellowship, that wicked person; and of much grief in him, as the fruit of it. The case of the damned for ever, marks, that Satan’s torment of the body tends not to the saving of the soul. Besides, a man’s body is not destroyed, but saved in the day of the Lord, as well as his penitent soul. In fine, if the affair had been miraculous, how could the inspired Paul reprove the Corinthians, for not doing it sooner? or how could he call them to do it forthwith? Working of miracles was none of their business.

To render a man excommunicable by us, necessarily supposed his connection with us in church-fellowship. To cast out these never in immediate Christian communion with us; or, to pretend to deliver corruptions to Satan, as if they had been church-members, and Satan a purger from sin; is too ridiculous to deserve a confutation. To render on excommunicable, he must be obstinately scandalous. Nowhere doth Jesus allow us to reject the most notorious heretic, till he is contemned a first and a second admonition (Tit. 3:10). To excommunicate the apparently penitent, how gross soever their crime, is to misrepresent the gospel; overthrow the design of the sentence and reject these, we have reason to believe the Lord Christ has received. A prudential suspension from the sacred seals, which some call the lesser excommunication, even of a penitent offender, for a time, may indeed be necessary to promote edification. But no warrant from God, under pretence of deterring others, or vindicating the church, to cast out such an oneunto Satan, appears marked in the sacred volume. Divine ordinances are too important, to be made bugbears. Nor can it be a dishonor for a church, to embrace a penitent, who, in the judgment of charity, is purged by Christ.

To render one a proper object of excommunication, his offence must be a sin, condemned by the light of nature, or the plain declaration of the Holy Ghost: such a sin, as the divine Spirit witnesseth, men cannot be saved. Never doth the scripture instance its infliction, but where the original scandal was glaringly wicked; incest, blasphemy (1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 1:20), &c. In matters of doubtful disputation, Christians are required to bear one with another. In these, a sensible and conscientious person may be incapable to discern his mistake: and so can never be truly obstinate therein. To apply this tremendous censure, where the libelled offences are not, cannot be made evident to be sinful, to every indifferent beholder, is to frustrate the end of the sentence, and bring it to contempt. People cannot conscientiously withdraw from the person where they cannot see his offence to be a real and plain breach of the divine law. It tends to blast the success of ecclesiastic discipline; tempting these who deserve, to ridicule it. In the Savior’s name, it prostitutes his ordinance into a cursed engine of partiality, cruelty, pride, hatred, and spiritual murder brethren; perhaps dear to Christ. Not only must the offense be notoriously sinful; but the fact must be proven, by the judicial confession of the party, or the testimony of two or three witnesses, proper for the purpose (Mat. 18:16). Repeated admonition, attended with patient expectation of success, must be duly premised (Tit. 3:10). To neglect, and especially to refuse converse with the supposed offender, upon the subject of his alleged offence, argues a murderous unconcern, and a malicious fear, lest the sentence should be prevented by repentance. With evident kindness and compassion to the offender, must the admonitions be given, and the case of obstinacy judged in. Without this, his spirit is provoked, and the whole amounts to a murdering his soul and character, in the name of Jesus Christ.

This sentence is to be administered, with solemn and earnest prayer: without this, it is but a rash, a profane curse (1 Cor. 5:4). With tender compassion to the offender, and deep sorrow and lamentation over his crime? under a solemn impression of the future judgment, which it represents, and to which the administrators must quickly account; it must be dispensed. With affectionate concern, and earnest prayer for his recovery; and dealing with his conscience as occasion offers; but declining all common converse with him, as far as natural relation permits; must it be followed (1 Cor. 5:2; 2 Cor. 12:2; Mat. 18:18; 1 Cor. 5:11). Without these, be his crimes as they will, our infliction of the censure, can but amount, to an hateful destruction of our brother, in the Saviour’s name.

Should this dreadful censure, be justly incurred; no carnal motive, no consideration of trouble, to the object, or dispensers, should stop it. Let the ordinance of God be betrayed for no carnal advantage. But from the inspired apostle’s giving no advice to the Galatian and Corinthian churches, to excommunicate the heretics and false apostles, while in great vogue, and followed by many; whom, notwithstanding, he wished cut off, and was in readiness to revenge, when the obedience of these churches should be fulfilled? It appears manifest, that, while deservants of this censure, have a strong party in the church, it is not for edification to inflict it (Gal. 5:12; 2 Cor. 10:6; 3 John 10).