Results tagged “Church Discipline” from Reformation21 Blog

A Church Growth Discipline


By God's grace, the church I shepherd has experienced phenomenal growth over the last 15 years. I am often asked what has brought the growth? I am hesitant to answer that question because only God really knows why He has provided this season of growth. I am also reluctant because numerical growth is no validation of any ministry faithfulness. I usually say I do not really know, but I do know some of the things God has used as a catalyst for growth in our congregation. Then one of the things I mention is church discipline. The response is usually a confused look on the face of the person to whom I am speaking. For many, that answer does not make sense. What is less user-friendly than church discipline?

It is even possible that some reading this article may have never even heard of church discipline since the practice of discipline is largely absent today in evangelical churches. I would define church discipline as a vital aspect of Christian discipleship (disciple and discipline have a common Latin source) whereby the congregation lovingly acts help, heal, restore, and liberate wayward members of the body whose actions or teaching subverts the gospel and destroys the witness of the church. The goals of discipline are the good of the one being disciplined, the honor of God, the restoration of the disciplined member, and the gospel integrity of the church. If pleading, prayers, and correction over a long period of time does not lead to repentance, then the church rightly affirms exclusion of the unrepentant from the membership of the church. Most cases of discipline never make it to the congregation because there is genuine repentance in the process (see, Matt 16:19, 18:15-20, Rom 16:17-18, 1 Cor 5:1-13, 2 Cor 7:8-11, Gal 6:1, James 5:20, 2 Thess 3:6, 14-15, 1 Tim 5:19-20, Titus 3:10-11).

Church discipline, rightly done, is a positive, loving, and necessary action of the church for discipleship. Church discipline is done for the purpose of restoration, not exclusion. Church discipline is never carried to its conclusion because someone sins. Exclusion from the membership only happens because the wayward member scorns the corrective love of the church and persists in unrepentant sin. The church determines repentance of the one under discipline and not the individual. The church must reject an unloving false leniency which excuses all behavior under the banner of "All have sinned" (Rom 3:23) and "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7). The church must also reject unloving severity in discipline that stops seeking the good of the offender and simply wants vengeance. As Andrew Fuller wrote, "Love is the grand secret of discipline, and will do more than all other things put together towards ensuring success."

Let me give one example of how church discipline has been a catalyst for growth at the church I have the privilege to shepherd. Many years ago, we found out one of our young adult members was pregnant out of wedlock. If the young man had been a church member, we would have called him to repentance as well, but he was not.  We immediately connected with her to see how she was doing and to pray for her. We assured her of our support during the pregnancy and also talked to her about repentance regarding her sin. She balked at the idea of needing to repent and definitely at the notion of public confession, which we suggested since her pregnancy was going to be a public matter in the church community. We all continued to pray for her and women from the church reached out to her in love. As time went on, she softened and eventually called us to say she wanted to confess her sin publicly and ask the congregation for forgiveness.

She did so on a Sunday morning at the end of the service. People stood up, wept for joy, and applauded the gospel courage of this young woman. A forgiven people are eager to forgive. After her confession, I said to the congregation that the matter had been dealt with and we would do nothing but support her and celebrate the child in her womb. I added that if anyone from this point forward gossiped about the situation or otherwise treated her in an unloving manner, then we would come to them and call for their repentance. She was loved as she had never been loved before by the congregation with support, help, and encouragement. Some ladies provided a baby shower and many consistently asked her how she was doing.

Consider what would have happened if we would have handled that situation the way many churches respond. Everyone talking about it in hushed tones in the corner, smiling when she walks by, and then continuing the gossip when she is out of sight. The young lady would have lived in shame and isolation if we had done that. Few would have reached out to her for fear of seemingly condoning her sinful choices. In fact, that kind of shame, hidden sin culture, often creates a context that tragically pushes young women in the direction of the abortion clinic. How much better it is to lovingly have honest conversations and create an opportunity to celebrate the power and triumph of the gospel.

After that Sunday, and others like it, I have countless church members say how powerful a moment like that is  and how it causes them to delight all the more in the gospel and challenges them to honestly own up to their own sins. On the occasion of the young ladies public repentance a visitor told me they knew at that moment Ashland was the church for them because it was a place where "Jesus changes everything" is not just a slogan but a living gospel culture. As one lady said to me, "This place is real. Nominal Christianity had lulled me into lethargy as if it was all there was out there." The young lady who repented wrote me a letter a couple of years later after she had moved away that said, "Before, I believed the gospel message, but I had never felt and experienced gospel love like that before. All I can say is thank you." Of course, not all situations end as beautifully as that one, but all of them are an indispensable aspect of Christian discipleship.

Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" and is often quoted as if it merely suggests that Christ shows up when we gather together for worship. The verse is actually more specific. It is  a beautiful promise of the presence of Christ in the hard work of church discipline when it is properly done as an expression of Jesus' authority. What an encouragement! Also, it should cause us to ponder what it say about churches that refuse to practice discipline? In Matthew 18:20, Jesus makes a direct promise of his presence regarding church discipline, "there I am among them," and at the end of Matthew he does the same after giving the Great Commission he says, "I am with you always" (Matt 28:20). One promise seems to anticipate the other as indispensable acts of faithfulness in His churches. Yes, church discipline can help your church grow.

Ecclesiastical Antinomianism

Antinomianism has certainly received its fair share of just criticism in recent years--predominantly on account of its pernicious presence in the pulpits across our land. While the doctrinal forms of Antinomianism are quite pernicious, its practical forms are sometimes even more dangerous; after all, "bad company corrupts good morals." Yet, for all the attention that theologians have given to battling Antinomianism in the realm of individual Christian belief and experience, there is a widespread form of Antinomianism that requires more attention, namely, ecclesiastical Antinomianism. 

Far too many who live within the pale of the church, have little to no respect for the authority of God in the church. Men and women leave local churches over the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of matters (e.g. the music is not what they wanted it to be, the children's ministry is not as fully developed as they would have it, the people in the church do not measure up to their particular standard of social compatibility, the pastor has a conviction about Christian liberty on one point of minutiae with which they differ, the elders will not allow them to oversee a particular ministry, etc). 

The heart of ecclesiastical Antinomianism is that people act as though the Scriptures have nothing to say about church government or about the responsibility of men, women, boys and girls in the church to submit to the authority of the pastor(s)/elders. 

The author of Hebrews, at the end of a letter in which he calls his readers to give heed to the warnings not to depart from Christ, gives the following two admonitions about those whom God has given the church to keep the members of a local congregation close to Christ: 

"Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follows" (Heb. 13:7). 

"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17). 

Here are two very clear admonitions for members of local congregations to recognize that God has placed men as shepherds to rule over and to watch out for their souls. There is an important imperative for the people of God attached to the explanation about what elders are to do, namely, obey

This does not mean that congregants are blindly to obey their elders or to submit to them on any matter upon which they may speak. What it does mean is that insofar as ministers are living lives of faith in accord with God's word, and are faithfully ministering God's word, local church members are to obey and be submissive to them as they are to God--in accord with God's word. After all, they are the under-shepherds of the Great Shepherd of the sheep. 

In many cases, when individuals or families leave a church, they do not go to the pastor/elders in humility and seek to work through issues in order to come to a happy resolution. The better part make the decision to leave a local congregation and then inform the pastor(s)/elders that they have done so. Certainly, there are cases in which men and women have biblical grounds to leave a church, have spoken with the elders and have seen no progress. In those cases, it is understandable that a decision to leave a local congregation has been made apart from the advice of the elders. However, deferring to the wisdom of the elders in a biblically sound church is part of what it means to obey those who rule over you. If a church is defunct in doctrinal faithfulness or is promoting wicked practices, people should leave the church after prayer and an attempt to see if change could occur. 

To church hop every time you find something with which you are unhappy is a form of ecclesiastical Antinomianism. It shows a lack of unwillingness to submit to those whom God has put in authority over you--as well as to the brethren in that particular congregation. When men and women leave a congregation because they have rubbed shoulders with the leadership over adiaphora in worship or congregational life, they often think that they can keep their friendships with those in that congregation without inflicting any harm or incurring any loss. However, when an individual or family leaves a church because of their discontent with leadership, they are also walking away from the congregation that they may have vowed to love and support. They can no longer fulfill the "one another" imperatives of the New Testament in that particular local congregation. The body suffers as it loses one of its necessary members (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4). 

There is, however, another form of ecclesiastical Antinomianism--namely, that which has to do with congregants and ministers who have fled to another church or denomination while under discipline. A congregant under discipline usually gains the sympathetic ear of a pastor in a nearby congregation. Most pastors are susceptible to believe the first defense of someone who is coming with interest in joining the congregation they pastor. Here, the best course of action is for ministers in a geographical area to pick up the phone and have a conversation with the minister of the congregation from which a former member is seeking to make a change. Much spiritual damage would be avoided if we viewed the church in its Catholic (i.e. universal) nature here. 

In addition to members fleeing from discipline, the number of times that ministers have fled the discipline of the church or denomination of which they were a part is far more than one could wish. Rather than submitting to the brothers to whom they took vows to submit, certain men have acted as "fugitives of discipline" in order to move somewhere that they can continue holding office. The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPRC)--of which the PCA, ARP, OPC, URCNA et al are a part--has an "Agreement on Transfer of Members and Congregations" from one denomination to another. NAPRC denominations agree upon the following: 

"That a 'fugitive from discipline' who no longer is a member of a church or who is no longer on the roll of a presbytery shall not be received until the former judicatory/assembly has been contacted to determine if proper restitution has been made and/or reconciliation has been attempted."1 

On rare occasions, small denominations have been established to serve as places of ecclesiastical refuge for "fugitives of discipline"--i.e. for ministers who have fled the jurisdiction of their Presbyteries or denominations. This is an ecclesiastical Antinomianism of the worst kind. Instead of submitting to the courts of the church, these men make themselves a renegade denomination. 

Church discipline is essential to the governance of the Kingdom of Christ. John Calvin, reflecting on the important role that discipline plays in the preservation of the true church, wrote: 

"Because some persons, in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name, let them understand this: if no society, indeed, no house which has even a small family, can be kept in proper condition without discipline, it is much more necessary in the church, whose condition should be as ordered as possible. Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place. Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration--whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance--are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church."2 

In a day when the court of public opinion is viewed as the highest civil and ecclesiastical court by many in our land and in our churches, we must be on guard against embracing an ecclesiastical Antinomianism. We all have the enemy of self within telling us to do what we want, when we want and in whatever way we want. When we come to Christ we surrender our imagined right to do so. We, who have died with Christ and have been raised with Him, are to live as slaves of righteousness and members of His body (Rom. 6:5-11; Eph. 5:30), submitting to His rule through His ministers in His church. May God give us grace to do so for His glory, our joy and the well-being of His church in the world. 

1. An excerpt from the PCA Handbook for Presbyteries Clerks, under the section on the "Agreement on Transfer of Members and Congregations." p. 013 

2. John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.12.1

I have so far refrained from public comment on the resignation of Tullian Tchividjian in light of his confessed sexual sin, limiting myself to praying for him and his family.  As one who has strongly criticized his theology, I wanted to avoid the impression that the personal failure of a leader automatically invalidates his teaching (or vice versa).  Only the Word of God proves our teaching.  Recent developments warrant comment, however, particularly as the actions of a theologically motivated community make clear its actual values and beliefs.  In the two-plus months since Tullian's resignation, we have witnessed the Contemporary Grace Movement (CGM) in action, applying their doctrine to one of its most prominent spokesmen.  It is not fair, of course, to ascribe these attitudes to everyone associated with the CGM.  But if I was a card-carrying member of the movement, or a pastor who frequently endorsed the "grace" and "liberation" teaching espoused by Tullian and company, here are three questions I would be asking myself and other leaders:

1.       Does pastoral godliness matter?  This question is fairly raised, given both Tullian's writings (including tweets) since his admitted sexual infidelity and now the response to it by his supporters.  For his part, Tullian has expressed an unwillingness to cease his public ministry, saying this would "undermine the very message" he teaches (one can only but regrettably agree).  This attitude has now been confirmed by Willow Creek Church (PCA) in Orlando, which just announced hiring Tchividjian to its ministry staff.  This a mere two weeks after Tullian filed for divorce, three weeks after he was deposed from the ministry, and a little over two months after he resigned his pastorate over admitted moral unfitness.  The apostle Paul's teaching that a pastor (and by extension, a celebrity preacher) must be faithful to his wife and above public reproach (1 Tim. 3:2) also does not seem to matter.  Perhaps because Paul's teaching falls into the category of law it is deemed irrelevant to the celebration of grace.

2.       Does the covenant nurture of women matter?  One of the more horrific moments in this affair was Tullian's disgraceful exposing (even highlighting) of his wife's sin before the national media.  Likewise, Paul Tripp's public article defending Tullian's divorce implied that the problem was her unwillingness to reconcile.  One may wonder why a private counselor would even publish such information about his clients (for the answer, see #3).  It certainly does not seem that the CGM emphasizes the duties of husbands to protect and love their wives, perhaps since teaching male obligation would under Tullian's doctrine amount to legalism.  Sadly, we are reminded of what happens not only when sin is given license but when our "glorious ruin" is celebrated: many vulnerable people, starting with women and children in the home, suffer from the tolerated sins of men.  Of all the people who should express concern about attending CGM churches, prospective wives may be among the first.

3.       Does the church matter?  By immediately seeking a ministry position, Tullian was showing little concern for the division and discouragement that would ensue in the church.  (By the church, I do not mean only Willow Creek PCA, but the broader church, including Coral Ridge and the PCA as a whole.)  Moreover, since the Bible requires good household management as a qualification for both elders and deacons, a church that was concerned for its people would not likely bring a man onto its staff just weeks after he filed for divorce and was defrocked.  Then comes the matter of the role of a celebrity counselor acting in the place of the established courts of the church.  Why was a private counselor the one to oversee Tullian's repentance instead of his presbytery?  With what authority did Paul Tripp publicly endorse Tullian's action to divorce his wife (in an article since taken down)?  The most likely answer seems to be that in the concern to minister to Tullian, biblical concerns regarding the church were pushed aside.

In observing this affair, I was perhaps most aggrieved by a statement that is itself wonderfully true.  After reading on Paul Tripp's website that Tullian's marriage is damaged beyond repair only two months after the sin was revealed, my eyes wandered downward to read his banner slogan: "Connecting the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life."  Here, then, is a fourth question I would ask leaders of the Contemporary Grace Movement: what can a statement like this possibly mean in light of the "discipline" of Pastor Tullian?  For if we really believed that Christ has power not only to forgive and remove the sorrow of sin but also to transform and sanctify us from sin itself, it seems to me that the CGM's response to Tullian's scandalous sin would be very different. 

Now back to prayer...

Results tagged “Church Discipline” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 30.3, 4

iii. Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

iv. For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person. 

What are Church Censures for?

Christ has a government in his church and it is called to discipline. But what are these censures for? Paragraph three summarizes five reasons why church discipline is necessary. 

First, it is necessary 'for reclaiming and gaining' the offender. Discipline is intended to help the sinner, to draw him back to the Lord. Jude urged Christians to save people 'by snatching them out of the fire' (Jude 23). The Apostle Paul told Timothy that Hymenaeus and Alexander were 'handed over to Satan'. Why? So 'that they may learn not to blaspheme' (1 Tim. 1:20). The apostle urged the Corinthians to correct a man. Why? 'So that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord' (1 Cor. 5:5). He warned them about their sinful conduct at what they called the Lord's supper. Why? Because he did not want them to 'eat and drink judgement' on themselves (1 Cor. 11:29). He later reminded them that 'when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined'. Why? 'So that we may not be condemned along with the world' (1 Cor. 11:32).

Second, the chastisements of the church are necessary as a deterrent. Discipline is alarming. It clarifies the minds of disciples and often discourages us from following the pattern of an offender. Paul told Timothy that when it came to people 'who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear' (1 Tim. 5:20). Censures help us to remember who and what we are to follow, and who and what we are not. God has a preventative purpose to discipline.

Third, God-ordained ecclesiastical punishments, such as those mentioned in paragraph four, are necessary tools for keeping the germ of sin already present in the church from infecting the whole body. When Paul chided the Corinthians, who were reluctant to correct a member in their midst, this third argument was one that he made with great force: 'Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened' (1 Cor. 5:6-7). Discipline purifies the church.

Fourth, Church censures are necessary 'for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel'. What Christ offers to us is holy; it is a pearl of great price. We are to keep what is holy from those who act like dogs and pigs in the church (Matt. 7:6). Furthermore, God's people are called to be godly. Jude says we are to hate 'even the garment stained by the flesh' (Jude 23). We discipline for Christ's sake.

Finally, discipline is also sometimes necessary 'for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders'. Paul's admonitions about the Lord's supper, his mysterious comment in 1 Corinthians 11 about some offenders being weak, ill and dead - these are warnings about God's displeasure over disrespect to the seals of the covenant (the sacraments) or to the covenant itself (the gospel). God is displeased with churches that tolerate sin - for example, allowing unrepentant sinners to partake of the supper or baptize their children. To avoid God's displeasure, we must deal with sin faithfully, and that sometimes entails discipline. If only we judged more faithfully in the church, and more truly, the apostle tells us that we would not have to be judged by the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27-34). 

Degrees of Discipline

It remains to be said that to attain any of these five ends, there are different kinds and degrees of censure to be carried out by the church's officers (rather than the church's congregation). The method of discipline pursued, and the lengths to which it is pursued, should always take into consideration the nature of the wrong itself, the faults of the person, their response to correction and, we might well add, God's great grace to us.

Sometimes all that is needed is admonition. This is the kind of rebuke that Paul urged the Thessalonians to accept from their leaders (1 Thess. 5:12). 

Sometimes what is needed is suspension from the sacrament of the supper, at least for a time. This may be what Paul meant when he talked about keeping away from brothers and sisters who were not obedient in life and doctrine, bringing them to shame in order to warn them - but still treating them like brethren (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15). 

Sometimes someone needs to be cut off from communion with the saints altogether: excommunication from the Church. This is the severe treatment that Paul advocated for a member of the Corinthian church, what Jesus commanded for those who refuse to listen to the church, and what Titus was called to do with divisive people who ignored multiple warnings (1 Cor. 5:4-5, 13; Matt. 18:17; Tit. 3:10). Yet even here, it is our hope that the sinner can be restored (1 Cor. 5:5). And as the church can testify, with joy, they sometimes are. 

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.

Chapter 30.1, 2

i. The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

ii. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

The Government of the Church

The first port of call for a chapter on church censures is the subject of church government. Thus the first paragraph of chapter thirty begins by identifying the governor himself: the Lord, whose name is Jesus. 

In his verses about the coming servant king, Isaiah wrote about one who would carry on his shoulders a government, the increase of which would know no end (Isa. 9:6-7). This governor is the king and head of his church, the one with 'all authority in heaven and on earth'. He issues the commands, as he did in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). He is the one who appointed New Testament governors and government under himself. It should not need to be said that no mere mortal should seek for himself the title of head of the church, when the actions of our Lord, and the praise of his apostles, give this title to him alone (Eph. 1:22; 5:23; Col. 1:18).

The governors that Jesus Christ appoints under him are called 'elders' (1 Tim. 5:17; Acts 20:17-18) or 'leaders' (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24). Here they are simply called 'church officers'. They have the gift of 'governing' or 'administering' (1 Cor. 12:28). The Christian church knows them as those who 'labour among' us and 'over' us. They are the people who sometimes 'admonish' us (1 Thess. 5:12). These are the hands used by the head of the church.

Christ's government is administered by church officers, distinct from civil magistrates. Historically, the very fact of the independence of church government was resisted by both king and parliament, for leaders in the state did not want to be accountable to a leadership in the church. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that in the New Testament Christ established a government that was churchly, or ecclesiastical, over Christians, and that government was separate from the civil government. 

We know this, historically, because the Roman civil government that was over Christians was opposed to the church, its message, and its work; and biblically, because only the government of the church would do the kind of work God commends elders to do: not just ruling, but preaching and teaching, speaking to us the word of God, and 'keeping watch over' our souls (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17). The church is not the religious arm of the state; it is an institution distinct from the state and has its own unique purpose.

The Keys of the Kingdom

The focal point of church government is the power and exercise of what Jesus called 'the keys of the kingdom of heaven'. Here the Confession is picking up language used in Matthew 16, where the keys of the Kingdom are mentioned in the context of the pre-eminence of Christ. Before all the disciples Peter confessed Jesus as 'the Christ, the Son of the living God'. Our Lord commended him, and with a word play on Peter's name (which means 'rock') he promised that 'on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Matt. 16:13-18).

It is a passage that underlines the government of Christ, his power, and rule over the church. Famously it is also the passage where Jesus goes on to declare to his disciples that they would be given 'the keys of the kingdom of heaven': 'whatever you bind on earth', Jesus said, 'will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' (Matt. 16:19). Jesus gave these keys in Matthew 16 to his disciples, and in them to the governors or officers who rule his church. Church officers are given the task of binding and loosing, or retaining and remitting sins - making judgements as to whether sinners are impenitent, unrepentant, and bound by Satan, or penitent, repentant, and freed for Christ. 

The same truth was taught again by our Lord, recorded only two chapters distant, in Matthew 18. There Jesus was again speaking with his disciples, this time giving instruction about church discipline. At the end of the discussion Jesus announced, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' (Matt. 18:17-18). On yet another occasion, this one recorded in John 20:23, Jesus told his disciples, 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld' (John 20:23). 

The message of these three passages is astonishing. It seems to be the plain point of these pronouncements in Matthew 16, 18, and John 20 that it is the responsibility of church officers to judge by the word of God, as far as is possible, who is going to heaven and who is not. Church governors have power from Christ, 'respectively, to retain, and remit sins'. The elders of the church guide the body of Christ in determining if someone is to be treated as a brother, as an erring brother, or as what Jesus called a Gentile or a tax collector. The elders 'shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel'. Sometimes, 'as occasion shall require', we leaders must preach stern words, and exercise real discipline. Sometimes, 'as occasion shall require', we must open wide the kingdom by preaching the gospel and offering release from correction. Officers offer what the Westminster assembly calls 'absolution from censures', and what the Apostle Paul calls a turning 'to forgive and comfort' (2 Cor. 2:7; cf., vv. 6-8). Even the most godly church officers are by no means perfect, as we all know, but they are appointed as gate-keepers who, 'as occasion shall require', sometimes shut the kingdom on Christ's behalf. 

They do this by the Word, and by censures. The preaching of the Word alone lets some people know where they stand before God. The reading and preaching of the word is the most commonly applied tool of discipline, for it convicts us of sin and drives us to repentance. Usually this is enough for us. Sometimes we need the censures of the church to have matter further clarified for us. Practically, this means that when the officers of a church examine a person for membership in the church, they are making an awesome decision. They need to decide if they will give someone the assurance that the leaders of the church think that all is well with their soul - or not. And when your elders travel a long way down the road of church discipline, they are forced to ask hard questions: does this person's life and testimony so contradict the Word of God that they must be put outside of the church, and a present hope of heaven? 

This should carry real significance for the members of the church. If you are a member in good standing in the church of Christ, this is material for encouragement. Those whom Christ appointed to look after your eternal welfare think there is sufficient reason to think that you are on the narrow road of the kingdom. And if, on the other hand, the eldership of a church is admonishing a member, or suspending him, disciplining him, or excommunicates him, that member should consider these things with the utmost gravity, and once the matter is made public, every other member must be in prayer for that person incessantly.

Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn is Professor of Church History at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and associate pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Virginia. This article is taken from his forthcoming commentary on the Confession, published by the Banner of Truth Trust.