THE ORDER AND DISCIPLINE OF THE CHURCH
With Article 32 we confess that it is for the sake of the "preservation and promotion of harmony and unity" in the Church and for the sake of "keeping all believers in obedience to God" that the Church exercises discipline and excommunication. The Church does not do this on its own authority, nor does she do so in a self chosen manner. According to what we confess on the basis of Scripture in Article 32, the Church exercises discipline and excommunication "in agreement with the Word of God."
THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
Matthew 16:16-19 we read of Jesus' response to Peter's confession "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Said Jesus to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Peter was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven, concerning which we confess in Lord's Day 31, Q & A 83, that they are "the preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers."
According to Mt 16, these keys of the kingdom were presented to Peter to do two things: they bind/close and they loose/open the doors of the kingdom of heaven.
These keys do not lock or unlock a door as such. Rather, as the prophet Isaiah indicates, the possession of the keys means that one has control over who is permitted to go through the door. In Isaiah 22:20-22 we read that God is going to replace Shebna, the king's steward, by Eliakim. A person in this position had control over access to the king, was authorised to give or withhold permission to anyone who wished to see the king. Eliakim was to take on the role of a steward with a key. "The key of the house of David I will lay on (Eliakim's) shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut and no one shall open." It is precisely this notion to which the Lord Jesus made reference in Matthew 16. Peter too was authorised to control who may go through to the courts of God.
The Roman Catholics have made out that since the person of Peter died, his successor (which today is Pope John Paul II) determines who may go to heaven. However, the Lord's point is that it is not Peter the person who would stand at the gate of Heaven. In Matthew 16:16 Peter made the confession "You are the Christ." Christ then responded by saying that He would build His Church, not on Peter himself, but on the confession of Peter; a confession which is the Church's foundation. It is this confession which determines access to Heaven. Peter was addressed by Christ as the representative of the believing Church. It was the believing Church which through Peter received from Christ the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
In Matthew 18:15-18 Jesus speaks concerning the way in which people are to deal with a wayward brother in the Church. If a sinner refuses to heed the admonitions of a brother, Jesus instructs that brother to take one or two witnesses, "and if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Here is the same notion of binding and loosing, but in the context of the Church. The keys of the kingdom of heaven have been given to the Church; more specifically they have been given to the office bearers of the Church.
THE TASK OF THE OFFICE BEARERS
This means that the office bearers have also received the right to exercise
these keys. Determining who may or may not go to heaven is a responsibility
they are given by the Lord. We, God's covenant people, live on earth. God
has caused the majority of us to grow up in Church from infancy. We were
raised with Scripture, the Word of salvation, and from a very young age
developed the godly habit of going to Church and praying regularly. One
could quite easily be tempted to conclude that since I am doing 'all the
right things' it is only natural that I will go to heaven when I die. One
assumes that having done all that is expected of the believer, the gates
of heaven will be open for me and that I will be able to pass through those
What, though, do I need to pass through the gates of heaven? I need faith. In exercising the keys of the kingdom of heaven the office bearers need to see evidence of faith. Just like a tree is known by its fruits, so the office bearers will be able to discern faith by the fruits of faith (Matthew 7:17f). The fruits of faith are demonstrated by obedience. Therefore office bearers may not permit anyone to make profession of faith in the absence of such fruits. In order to open the gates of heaven there must be faith. Therefore it is the task of the office bearers to speak with the members of the Church and to discuss with them what it is they see, be it either the presence or the absence of the fruits of faith.
To point out to a brother that his life does not display evidence of faith is an act of love. It is not love to let a brother go on living under the delusion that he is on his way to heaven even while he lives in disobedience; that brother will one day wake up in hell. Love is to confront such a person with his disobedience, to point out the inconsistency between his confession and his conduct, to admonish, and if necessary, to excommunicate.
ELDERS: WATCHMEN OVER GOD'S CHURCH
This responsibility was stressed by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 33 the Lord illustrates the seriousness of the task of exercising the keys of the kingdom of heaven by comparing it to the task of the watchman of a city. "...When I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from their territory and make him their watchman, when he sees the sword coming upon the land, if he blows the trumpet and warns the people, then whoever hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, if the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be on his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, but did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But he who takes warning will save his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand" (Ezekiel 33:2-6).
The Lord then continues to apply the task of the watchman of the city to the task of the watchman of the Church, Ezekiel at the time, but equally applicable to the elder of the Church today. "So you, son of man (ie, Ezekiel): I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you shall surely die!' and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at you hand. Nevertheless if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul" (Ezekiel 33:7-9). To suffer eternal death as a consequence of not heeding the warning of the elders is one's own fault. However, if an elder refrains from warning a wayward brother, the blood of that person who goes to hell will be required from that elder.
It is the obligation of the office bearers to speak and to warn according to Scripture at all times. It is the obligation of all believers to live in the obedience of faith. It is only by faith that one can be saved, and where there is true faith there will also be evidence of faith, fruits of faith, namely, obedience to God's Law. God is consistent. Faithful obedience to Him is the criteria for salvation, both in this life and at the gate of Heaven at the end of this life. Therefore it is an act of love for the watchmen of our souls, the elders, if they warn us when we disobey God, for they do not want us to have any delusions concerning our eternal destination. Endowed with such a responsible task, the elders are in great need of the prayers of all the church members under their charge.
THE TASK OF THE CONGREGATION
Church discipline, the task of guarding the gates of heaven, is not a task for the office bearers exclusively. This is a task which has been given to the Church at large; it is a task which involves all the Church members. As members of the congregation we are to be our brother's keeper. Out of love for the other we must tell the other if we see him living in sin. Jesus said to His disciples: "Moreover, if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15ff). This is a general principle valid for every child of God. God has loved me so much that He gave His Son to die for my sins. God did the same for my neighbour. If I see my neighbour sin I demonstrate my love for him by telling him of his sin. I do not want to see my neighbour harden in sin, for it is his eternal well being which is at stake. To do this is certainly not easy, yet it is not too difficult for me to do, because the Lord commands it and so He will also give the strength to do it.
"But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church." Should my neighbour not listen to my admonition, I am to take one or two more witnesses with me, so that they might hear my admonitions and testify to the consistory that my charge against my brother has not been heeded. Here is my task. Although the office bearers have the final authority when it comes to church discipline, church discipline does not start with them. Church discipline is first of all the responsibility of the church members. The consistory never works in isolation from the congregation. If I leave the task of church discipline to the consistory only, discipline will not get done. I may well know more about an individual and his way of life than that person's own office bearers. Therefore it is for me to take the first step, and to do so is an act of love towards the person concerned.
ADMONITIONS ARE TO BE RECEIVED IN HUMILITY
If church discipline is an act of love that is exercised within the communion of saints, it means too that if someone comes to me to warn me of any sin on my part, I must adopt an attitude of humility. When I made public profession of my faith, I was asked, "Do you promise to submit willingly to the admonition and discipline of the Church, if it should happen, and may God graciously prevent it, that you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in conduct?" ("Form for the Public Profession of Faith", Book of Praise, p.593). I promised I would submit. Implicit in both the question and my promise is the possibility for me to become delinquent in doctrine and conduct. It is not above me to do what David did, to commit adultery, or to murder, nor is it above me to do what Peter did, to deny Jesus. Yes, I am most certainly able to commit the same sins David or Peter committed. The fact that in the early church there were brothers who fell for false teaching (see 1 Timothy 1:19f) can only make me humble; I am not above the same error. Hence, if a brother or a sister of the congregation approaches me to warn me, I must be humble and listen. I must adopt the attitude that I am certainly not above doing what my brother or sister wishes to warn me about. It is true that I find humiliating the very notion that I could do as David and Peter did. Yet I am to be realistic, acknowledge my abiding sinfulness, and so receive humbly any who would admonish me.
In 1 Corinthians 5 we read that there was a member in the Church at Corinth who was living in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles - that a man has his father's wife!". The members of the Church at Corinth were recent converts from heathendom. Now one of these Christians had reverted to the practises of his heathen past, living in sexual immorality.
The apostle's purpose in addressing this matter is to advise the congregation as to how they should deal with this brother. Rather than advise them to be tolerant or lenient on him, with regard perhaps to his background, the apostle is very forthright in what he urges the members to do, namely, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:4,5). Note here that Paul is addressing the congregation as a whole, not just the elders. Yes, the elders have the authority and take the initiative when it comes to excommunication, but church discipline commences with the members, involves the members.
Paul's first motivation for advising the above course of action is "that his spirit may be saved." Paul does not want this person to go to hell, to have to live eternally under the dominion of Satan. Paul loves the brother, and it is out of love that he advises the congregation to deliver him to Satan. Better to be delivered to Satan temporarily in this life than eternally in the life to come. This brother's relationship with his stepmother is not an act of obedience to the Lord. Where there is no repentance, excommunication must take place. This brother was not allowed to think he was going to heaven when that was not the case. To deal with this brother in the manner Paul advised was not harsh or cruel, but was rather an act of love, medicine, an expression of care.
The second reason why this brother needed to be excommunicated can be read in 1 Corinthians 5:6, "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?' Sin that is not dealt with can be compared to cancer. Left unchecked, a little cancer will eventually kill the whole body. One immediately acts upon a diagnosis of cancer, for to postpone medical treatment means to hasten death. One cannot afford the time to wait. Although excommunication is carried out first and foremost for the sake of the salvation of the sinner, it is in the second place carried out for the sake of the salvation of the congregation.
Historically, a third reason given for excommunication is that the world is not given cause to blaspheme God. Said Paul concerning the sexual immorality of the brother tolerated in the Church at Corinth, "... such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles - that a man has his father's wife" (1 Corinthians 5:1). Corinth was well known for its sexual immorality, but such a sin as was tolerated in the Church was unheard of outside of it amongst the heathen. Allowing the sinner concerned to remain part of the congregation would give the heathen cause to mock God and His Church.
In 1 Timothy 1:18-20 Paul informs Timothy what he did with regard to
Hymenaeus and Alexander. They too, having made profession of their faith
and then rejecting the faith and making a ruin of it (or as Paul puts it,
"concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck") were excommunicated
by Paul. They too, we read, were "delivered to Satan that they
may learn not to blaspheme." The apostle told them to go, gave
them over to Satan so they might repent. Satan is the chief of hell,
and it is better to give someone to Satan now before it is too late.
HOW TO RELATE WITH EXCOMMUNICATED MEMBERS OR MEMBERS WHO HAVE WITHDRAWN THEMSELVES
How is one to relate to a person who has withdrawn himself or has been excommunicated from the Church? In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul reminds the Corinthians of what he had earlier written on the subject. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:9 "I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people." The Corinthians had apparently understood Paul to mean that one was not to relate in any way with any person who was immoral. Yet that would mean that one would need to go out of the world - since the world is full of immoral people. So Paul explains what he meant. He write in verse 11, "But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner - not even to eat with such a person." The point here is this: if a person such as described in 1 Corinthians 5 is living in blatant sin, can I possibly act towards him in a way that might indicate to him that all is well? That is impossible. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, said that one is not even eat with such a one. The sinner must feel that he is on the wrong track.
Paul gave similar advice in his second epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter 3:6,14-15, namely, "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who leads a disorderly life and not according to the tradition which he received from us.... And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." Concerning those who confess their faith but do not live according to that confession, and do not listen when this is pointed out to them, we cannot and may not act towards them in a way which would indicate that all is fine. We must distance ourselves from them, even before excommunication. The text quoted above is not first of all a reference to excommunication. Already before excommunication we may not act as if all is fine, nor give the message to the wayward brother that we expect to see him in heaven. To really love such a person is to convey to him the message that 'all is not well; you need to change.'
"Admonish as a brother," wrote Paul. A sinful brother, or one who has withdrawn himself or has been excommunicated from the Church should not be treated like an enemy. One does not 'spit on him', but one must nevertheless let him know that he is in the wrong. If I were to act towards him as though there is nothing wrong I would hinder the Lord. The principle here is: in love to keep a certain distance between oneself and such a person. Admittedly, this may be very difficult to practise for direct family members. One's door must stay open to them, for the family bond remains. However, it is a bond which has come under strain.
There is no difference between the way one is to deal with a person who has withdrawn himself from the church or a person who has been excommunicated from the church. In fact, it must be clear that -contrary to the notion that to withdraw oneself is better than being put under church discipline and being excommunicated- withdrawal from the church is a rejection of the admonitions God sends through congregation and officebearers. As such, to withdraw means to short circuit the process of church discipline, which includes the admonitions and prayers of the members of the congregation.
In one's admonitions to those who wish to withdraw or are under church discipline, one can appeal to the promises they voiced when they made public profession of the faith. To do so is to make an extra appeal to their conscience. That is the difference between the two forms for excommunication in our Book of Praise. One is for non-communicant members and the other for communicant members. The latter concerns those who have promised God to "serve Him according to His Word ... (and) firmly resolve(d) to commit (their) whole life to the Lord's service as a living member of His Church" ("Form for the Public Profession of Faith", Book of Praise, p. 593).
It is for the very reason that church discipline is the responsibility of the congregation that public announcements are made concerning the measures of church discipline the consistory must follow for unrepentant members or concerning letters of withdrawal by members. Also with letters of withdrawal, as with announcements preceding a member's excommunication, the consistory solicits the prayers of the congregation, for "the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16). Together with the consistory, the congregation must make an all out effort to save the sinner, for it is his eternal salvation which is at stake.