Church Discipline

In 381 the Council of Constantinople wrote the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. In that creed we find the attributes of the Church.  The famous line says that the church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” However, in the days of the Reformation disputes arose. The Roman Catholics contested the Protestant claim to catholicity.  How could Protestants who were at best found in patches of Europe be universal?  Protestants answered that question but they did more. The Protestant church listed three notes or marks that would provide visible shape to the attributes.

The first mark is the faithful preaching and hearing of God’s word. It is not surprising that Protestants would place such a premium upon the consistent and faithful exposition of God’s word.  However, the word was not preached in a vacuum.  It was meant to be heard.  Thus, the one hundred and sixtieth question of the Westminster Larger Catechism asked “What is required of those that hear the Word preached?” Preaching and hearing go hand in glove.

The Second mark is the rightful administration of the sacraments. This mark distinguished Protestants from Rome but it did more than that. Protestants have always valued the word and they considered the signs and seals of the covenant to be visible words, which must always be accompanied by the spoken word but are nonetheless God given. This mark brought a sense of elasticity to the notae.  For example, the nature of the Lord’s Supper varied from the Lutherans to the Zwinglians to the Calvinists.  However, what did not vary was their understanding of the Supper’s efficacy. It was God who conveyed His grace and it was not communicated ex opera operato or from the work performed.

The third mark of the church is the proper administration of church discipline. The Westminster Confession of Faith provides us with a handy guide to this subject in the thirtieth chapter.  In section one the divines teach us that Christ appointed church government and the responsibility for church discipline is entrusted to church officers.  In the second section, the divines teach us about the keys of the kingdom. This section distinguishes Protestants from Roman Catholics.  The Roman Church understood the keys to be given to Peter and successive popes.  However, the Reformed church understands the power of the keys to be bound up in the proclamation of the Word, admitting person to the fellowship of the church and, if necessary, excluding others from that same fellowship.  The third section provides the church with the purpose of such discipline. Many churches today fail in their practice of discipline because they misunderstand its purpose.  Rather than cruel and unusual punishment it is for the restoration of the sinner, the protection of the flock and the honor of Christ and His gospel. The final section even provides a three step process of discipline: admonition, suspension and excommunication. 

This last mark is just as necessary to a healthy church as gospel preaching and the right administration of the sacraments.  We need discipline.  If you need convinced just look at those families where discipline is lacking and children run amuck.  The author of Hebrews would go so far as to say that children who are not discipline are not loved.  The same could be said of a church wherein discipline is absent.  So, for the next several days we are going to focus on the topic of discipline in Christ’s church. Enjoy.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.