Chapter 30.3, 4
August 7, 2013
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.