The Scandal of Undisciplined Disciples: Making Church Discipline Edifying. James Durham.

The Scandal of Undisciplined Disciples: Making Church Discipline Edifying. James Durham.  Reformation Heritage Books, 2022. 165 pp. Softcover. $14.

The dying words of Rev. James Durham (1622-1658)[1] was his major writing on the vital need for proper ecclesiastical disciplinary procedures in, A Treatise concerning Scandal.  Its original 1658 title?  The dying Man’s Testament to the Church of Scotland.

In the recently published second of four volumes repackaging this work by Reformation Heritage Books (RHB), Durham leads with Christs rebuking the church in Pergamos for neglecting discipline (Revelation 2:14–16) and opens his introduction with this appeal: 

The topic of church discipline is very prominent in the letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2–3). When a church is commended or rebuked, it is often largely down to [being] faithful or defective in administering church discipline … no wonder that the devil is so busy trying to oppose church discipline or undermine it … failure to exercise scriptural church government and discipline is very advantageous to Satans kingdom and very detrimental to Christs. (1, 2)

Part two of his original book is an easily navigated ‘go-to manual’ for ministers and elders to consult while serving Christ’s local church and her broader courts both privately and informally as well as publicly and officially (and knowing when and how).

Durham emphasizes at the forefront, “ …church discipline flows immediately from Jesus Christ. It reminds people more directly of His authority and the fact that they are answerable to Him” (3).  He amply proves the need for church discipline and the dangers of its neglect, and helpfully fills in many nuanced details between the degrees of Reformed confessions and books of church order which officers can often spend countless hours seeking out from others.

Durham’s original treatise covered four subjects which RHB offers in The Scandal of Stumbling Blocks (2020),[2] the present release, and two forthcoming issues.[3]  This second volume on discipline answers seven questions.

1.     Why Does Church Discipline Matter? 

Anticipating an objecting answer that it does not, Durham parries to defend faithful governors doing their duty with the delinquent:

Who fumes most at church authority? It is those who are inclined to looseness in practice or error in doctrine and cannot abide any such restraints … It is often the most faithful and zealous ministers and elders of whom people are most suspicious … Suspicions about church authority tend to arise mostly when ministers and elders are serving Christ, and people tend to entertain such suspicions mostly when they are least spiritual. (5)

2.     When Is Church Discipline Necessary? 

Durham says tread carefully and advises passing over sins of infirmity, indifferent things, things that cannot be proven, and things that can be better dealt with in other ways.[4]

However, “Stumbling blocks are of such a nature as to require church discipline when the following is true: 1. When they are in their own nature gross and infectious, like a little leaven ready to leaven the whole lump. 2. When they are clear and cannot as a matter of fact be denied” (10).[5]

3.     How Should Church Courts Handle Disciplinary Cases? 

Because each person and circumstance is so different, this seasoned advice (peppering in experienced guidance of ancient and Puritan church fathers) carefully balances the mutually governing responsibilities of Hebrews 13:7, 17 with Galatians 6:1, 1 Peter 5:1-3, and Matthew 18:15-20.

Durham points to the Apostle Paul’s varying approaches which can liberate an earnest concern to be consistent and not a respecter of persons:

… the gift of governing … reveals itself especially in the right managing of discipline in reference to the various … characters which church leaders have to do with. For as in physical diseases the same cure is not appropriate for the same disease in all constitutions and times, … so this cure of discipline is not to be applied equally to all persons, not even to those who have created the same stumbling block. For … what might edify one might be a cause for stumbling to someone else who has a different temperament and personality. (15)[6]

Edification of everyone is the ultimate endgame, as Durham cites 2 Corinthians 12:19 and emphasizes throughout.[7]  Still, he qualifies, “When I speak of edifying someone, I do not mean pleasing them (for it is often destructive …). Rather, I mean acting in a way that is most likely to benefit them spiritually and build them up, even if … they find it displeasing” (18).

Teaching when and how varying allowances can be made, Durham walks through the steps of Matthew 18 prescribing the proper methods and manner from private rebukes to public court cases, highlighting that all “ … should aim especially to deal with consciences, … rather than to wrangle with corruptions or wrestle with their outward behavior” and that “The more place Christ gets in the meeting, the more impact the disciplinary procedure will have” (37).

4.     When Has a Discipline Case Been Satisfactorily Resolved? 

First, Durham warns against a naive conclusion of peace: “Not every verbal acknowledgment of a fault, even if it includes a promise of amending, is sufficient to count as satisfactory … someone could give a verbal acknowledgment but … only mock the ordinance of discipline, or … frequently relapse into the same behavior … or … some other gross evil” (49).

He offers this guidance on gauging when all can be truly settled: 

For full satisfaction, so that the offender has access to all the privileges of a church member, what is necessary is a sober, serious acknowledgment of the stumbling they have caused along with a sober, serious expression of unfeigned purpose to walk from now on without causing stumbling, especially in reference to the kind of stumbling they have caused. Where this is, we say it is sufficient. (58)

Like a master craftsmen training nascent apprentices, Durham shows how to discern between subtle signs of sincerity and disingenuousness and deal with them while correcting unreasonable expectations for resolve.  Ultimately, “ … serious profession and an attractive, inoffensive lifestyle … is the condition on which the key of discipline absolves.” (77)

5.     What Practical Issues Arise in Administering Church Discipline? 

Durham addresses the circumstances of public rebuke and which require delay and which immediacy.  Reading through is like attending conferences analyzing case studies that can’t be covered during seminary classes or ministerial internships.

He also admonishes church members about handling their own scruples without causing further stumbling by stubborn avoidance or schism.  The sixth and seventh chapters sternly warn covenanted congregants with myriad Scriptures against withdrawal:[8]

If known evil in anyone who communicates pollutes the ordinances in themselves, then how can you communicate with yourself? … on the same basis that you may communicate with a good conscience, notwithstanding your own corruptions, you may also communicate notwithstanding the corruptions in someone else, and all the more so because the sins that follow your corruption are your own sins … (116-117).

And Durham reproves the abandonment of attending and belonging using scandal as excuse:

You cannot continue as no member of a church, as that is both impossible and absurd … it would mean that Christ had no visible church, or that He has an ordinary way of edifying His people by external ordinances without His visible church, or that a person might disregard His church and ordinances and go without them, … and expect the benefit of His approval. (130)

Putting yourself outside the church is the way to make your children heathens … (131)

… we suppose that few people will be so uncharitable as to think there is no congregation they can join or, on the other hand, so addicted to outward appearances as to choose separation—with the stumbling it causes to others, the disturbance it causes to the church, and, it may be, the little quietness it will bring to themselves … (140)[9]

Rather than withdraw, “We should be … especially watchful in observing opportunities to edify others and build them up (Heb. 3:13)” (127).[10]

And when all is said and done, “If that fails, and the churchs decision leaves a stumbling block unremoved, there is no other public redress … Christ has left it there, and so should we also. Scripture does not show anywhere that Christ has appointed separation to be the next step of an individual church members duty for removing stumbling blocks …” (128-129).[11]

The Scandal of Undisciplined Disciples provides tremendous assistance for Biblical government of the church and ourselves so we testify that the Lord is not a God of confusion and visitors would fall on their faces and proclaim that God is in our midst.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010. He also serves the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals as community engagement coordinator as well as assistant editor for He and his wife, Fernanda, have seven covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, Gideon, and Giulianna. He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] One of the seventeenth centurys great Scottish Presbyterians, James Durham served in Glasgow at Black Friars Church as a chaplain to King Charles II and as a minister at the cathedrals Inner Kirk.

[3] The Scandal of False Teaching and The Scandal of Church Divisions.

[4] He writes, Everything that causes stumbling is not immediately to be brought before a church court” (7).

[5] Interestingly, Durham notes Sabbath breaking” on his short list of gross and infectious evils (11).

[6] As the editors note in their formatted subheading, “A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Is Unlikely to Be Edifying” (17).

[7] Thus the subheading of the present volume, “Making Church Discipline Edifying.”  He even instructs waiting to correct until after unteachable moments such as drunkenness or rage have subsided (136).

[8] 5. Why Does Separation from a Church Fail to Address the Issue?; and 6. What Should Church Members Do When Discipline Is Defective?

[9] This sentiment reflects the Westminster Confession of Faith 25:4-5: “This catholic [universal] Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them … The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.  Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will.”  For more on this topic, the reader is directed to David Engelsma’s, Bound to Join and A Defense of the Church Institute, and Richard Bacon’s, The Visible Church and the Outer Darkness.

[10] He adds, “We should be more frequent in giving private admonitions and exhortations, and have a more weighty, circumspect manner in doing so.  We should pray.  There should be much exercise of prayer, and even fasting …” (127).  Yet this does not mean we should turn a blind eye as if we are not our brother’s keeper: “It is the duty of individual church members to make known the existence and the evidence of stumbling blocks to ministers and elders or church courts and so to put them to removing these stumbling blocks.  We should appeal using the channels Christ has provided … If it is not resolved then, it is their duty to follow it up before competent superior courts. Christ’s direction, ‘Tell the church,’ means and warrants this.” (128)

[11] He adds “(much less to come as a step before the other steps have been taken)” (129).