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.