John Yates and The discipline we need

1305 Church, Mission and Ministry Week 6: Church Discipline

Interchange  JOHN YATES


1. Introduction

‘Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened’ (1 Cor. 5:7a)

There exists a diversity of opinion in ecclesiology as to how the expressions ‘marks of the Church’, ‘notes of the Church’ and ‘attributes of the Church’ should be used In this paper it will be accepted that the notes of the Church are four in number as outlined in the Nicene Creed viz. ‘We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church’. These notes are the things which are essential to the Church’s very nature, to be the Church means to be ‘one holy catholic and apostolic’. Each of these aspects the Church’s nature can however be interpreted in various ways, hence the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the various denominations. It is possible however to talk about the Church, in a rather less complicated way. Whereas the ‘notes of the Church’ possess a certain apriority there must be manifestations of the Church’s essential nature which are the sort of things which show us where the Church is. The great majority of theologians accept that two of the manifestations of the Church are the preaching of the Word of God and the proper administration of the sacraments. Some branches of Reformed theology however have insisted upon a third mark, the faithful exercise of Church discipline. To attempt a theological justification for this claim extends beyond the scope of this paper, but that discipline could be considered an essential sign of the people of God seriously raises the question of its role in the Church today.

1. H. Kung, The Church, tr. R. and R. Ockenden, London: Search, 1969, pp. 263-269 uses ‘marks’ and ‘attributes’ interchangeably, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church EL. Cross and E.A. Livingstone (eds), Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1974, p. 982 identifies ‘marks’ with ‘notes’, but G.C. Berkouwer, The Church, tr. I.E. Davison, pp. 11-17 distinguishes between ‘attributes’, ‘marks’ and ‘notes’ and makes his ‘marks’ different from those of the other authors.

2. I shall resist giving these a technical name to avoid adding to the confusion in this area.

3. These two are named in Article XIX of the Anglican Articles of Religion. The Homily for Whitsunday however extols three notes or marks, whereby the church is known, one of which is ‘the right use of ecclesiastical discipline’. The doctrine of this homily however cannot be treated as authoritative at all points. See E.C.S. Gibson, The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England,London:Methuen, 1902, pp. 726-728.

4. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology,London: Banner of Truth, 1958, pp 599-601.


In the traditional Protestant denominations at any rate discipline has almost disappeared. Long ago John Calvin warned: ‘Those, I say, who trust that churches can long stand without this bond of discipline are mistaken, unless, indeed, we can with impunity dispense with a help which the Lord foresaw would be necessary. And indeed, the greatness of the necessity will be better perceived by its manifold uses’. In this discussion I will briefly trace the basis and function of Church discipline and conclude with a short assessment of the validity of Calvin’s prediction.

2. The New Testament Foundation

For a Christian, the ultimate basis for any practice is the express command of Christ. We are familiar with this reference point in the case of both evangelism and the sacraments, but the same appeal can be made for Church dis cipline. The usual way of describing this is in terms of ‘the power of the keys’. Matthew tells us that Jesus said to Peter, ‘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 shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matthew 16:19. cf. Matt. 18:18; John 20:23) Commentators generally understand the reference to ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ against a rabbinical background. In rabbinical usage ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ usually signify interpretative decisions of prohibition and permission about moral or ceremonial matters, but they can also signify condemnation and acquittal in disciplining members of the synagogue who disobey such interpretative decisions.’ In the New Testament itself references to exclusion from the synagogue can be found in Luke 6:22 and John 9:22. Given this background there can be little doubt that Jesus empowered the first community of believers with a certain authority in determining the boundaries of its membership.

The apostolic Church seems to have exercised this discipline regularly. Paul refers to ‘taking note’ of people who create difficulties in the congregation (Romans16:17; 2 Thessalonians3:14), and the usual advice for handling such people is to separate them out from the Christian assembly (1 Corinthians 5:7; 2 Thessalonians3:14; Titus3:11; 2 John 10). The range of offences covered is quite wide, from incest (1 Corinthians 5:7) to idleness (2 Thessalonians3:11), and includes false doctrine (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10; 2 John 10). The milieu in which such discipline was exercised was governed by an appeal to the authority of the recognised ministry, both apostolic eg. 1 Corinthians4:15, 21; 2 Corinthians 10:5-6;12:19-13:10, and local eg. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:l-5. The locus classicus for such practices is Matthew 18:15-20. Here Jesus sets out a clear-cut approach for dealing with sin in the midst of the people of God.

5. J Calvin, Institutes of the Christian’s Religion, MacDonald: McDill, n.d., 4. 12, 4.

6. All quotations of the Bible are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise stated.

7. See, for example, R.H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art,Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, pp 335, 368-369; L.L. Morris, The Gospel According to John,Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, p. 850.

8. E Buchsel, deo, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, tr. and ed. G.W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, vol 2, 1964, pp. 60-61.

9. For a useful survey of some of the biblical material see A.T. Hanson, The Church of the Servant,London: S.C.M., 1962, pp. 61-67.

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1. The first level involves private admonition only. ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone’. The category of transgression dealt with here is best thought of as ‘private’, but although Jesus refers specifically to a sin committed against oneself (‘you’) the principle can be applied to any sinful action, attitude or belief to which a Christian brother has privileged access Such knowledge imposes an immediate moral responsibility upon the informed believer, so that he must use every means in his power to bring his brother to repentance. Not to act in such matters is itself a sin.

2. The second level of action which Jesus recommends is ‘to take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by two or three witnesses’. This action is essentially the same as the first, excepting that the presence of witnesses fulfils the O.T. laws about evidence (Deuteronomy19:15). This means that if such action fails, it may move to a public level

3. The third step is to involve the assembled congregation, ‘tell it to the church’. Gauging by the evidence of the epistles what we have here is something more than the mere giving of information. Paul delivers the following advice to Timothy and Titus: ‘Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear (1 Timothy5:20). ‘As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him’ Titus 3:10. This process clearly involves a warning about the serious consequences of sin and the urgency of repentance. If this fails only one step remains.

4. ‘If he refuses to listen to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.’ As the righteous Jews of Jesus time hated and despised Gentiles and Jewish collaborators it seems that he is counselling a complete break in social contact with offenders. That is to say such a person is to be cut off from Christian fellowship, or, in perhaps more familiar terms, excommunicated. The process of exclusion from the believing community has O.T. precedent (Ezra 10:8) and represents the extreme limit of discipline on a Church member. Such a move is not to be entertained lightly, as can be judged from the sober and intensely strong language of 1 Corinthians 5:1-12 That Paul goes much further than mere disbarment from participation in Church activities comes out most clearly in 1 Corinthians 5:l3b where he cites Deuteronomy 17:7 ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’. What is

10. I am here assuming the universalisable nature of fundamental ethical principles.

11. Calvin, Institutes, 4. 12, 3 argues that this first level of action is to be omitted altogether in the case of public offences already known of by the Christian community.

12. The sequence of steps at this point becomes complicated in the case of private sins involving public individuals. For example. In a situation known to me a parishioner found his minister in bed with someone other than his wife. Given the dynamics of a case like this, where the normal ordering of authority has become blurred, it would seem most appropriate to move immediately to this second level of action.

13. So, C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians,London: A. and C. Black, 1971, pp. 120-132., G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians,Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, pp. 194-214.


advocated here is definitely stronger than mere verbal admonition, even if physical coercion is not in question!

There are no biblical grounds however for regarding excommunication as either a punishment or a sign of final damnation. Strictly speaking the Church never punishes her erring members, even if expulsion must be regarded as a form of censure. To expel someone from the Church is not to expunge them from the number of the elect, as the return of the Corinthian sinner shows (2 Corinthians 5:5ff) Final judgement is in the hands of God alone, so that no human power can pass an irreversible spiritual decree. It is best to see the nature of the act of excommunication as declarative rather than judicial, the proclamation that the sins of someone are ‘bound’ is a correlation of the gospel and not the passing of a sentence! If the authority of the Church in matters of belief and conduct is based on the Gospel itself, then its proclamation can never be a closed judgement, otherwise that of which it speaks would be separated from its root in God’s grace and mercy.

Prima facie the example of Ananias and Sapphira may seem to contradict this. There are a number of reasons however for believing that this example does not provide an exception. In the first place it has been suggested by O’Donovan that the early chapters of Acts are not typical of the Church’s powers but archetypical, ‘displaying in the sharpest possible profile the lineaments of the Pentecostal authority which must undergird, though less explicitly, the life of the church throughout’ What O’Donovan means is that the power of God was at work in the Early Church in a particularly intense way, which we have no reason to necessarily expect to be at work in other times.

Secondly, it is possible to interpret this event in the light of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians that a notable sinner should be delivered ‘to Satan for the des truction of the flesh so that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:5Cf; 1 Timothy 1:20; 1 Corinthians 11:30; James 5:20; 1 John 5:16). The simplest way of understanding this text is that premature death as a result of punishment for sin somehow ensures such a believers’ salvation! On the negative side, it seems that there are no obvious moral or theological grounds for disallowing the discipline of excommunication. If however the Church is to practice this, positive persuasive reasons must be provided to move our consciences beyond mere acquiesence to action.

14. J. White and K. Blue, Healing the Wounded,Leicester: I.V.P., 1985, pp. 99-100 tie this to ‘the power of the keys’ and the operation of effective spiritual authority. That is, the word of the Church is enforced by the power of the Spirit.

15. Barrett, Corinthians, p. 125 makes this identification. Cf. P.E. Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians,Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, pp. 63-65. Even if the identification is denied, so, Fee, Corinthians, p. 212, V. Furnish, 2 Corinthians, N.Y.: Garden City, 1984, pp. 160-168, it is still clear from the exegesis of the passage that a return to fellowship was possible.

16. In other words it makes known the way things are and does not cause them to be the case.

17. 0. O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order,London: I.V.P., 1986, p. 177.

18. It is recognised here that this is not the only possible interpretation of this passage. See Fee, Corinthians, pp. 208-213 for a full discussion.

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3. The Theology and Necessity of Discipline

In discussing the necessity for ecclesiastical discipline G.C. Berkouwer says:

‘discipline has everything to do with the visibility of the Church, which is the light of the world, the sign of God’s mercy in the world, and the witness of the restoration of grace’ In other words, for the Church to be seen as the Church there must be discipline. This is to emphasis the supernatural side of the Christian community. Other writers lay greater stress on the fact that the Church is a human institution with inevitable limitations and weaknesses. As Friedberg says: ‘no religious community can hope to enforce its regulations which does not possess and if necessary use the power of excluding members who persistently refuse obedience to them’!° This pragmatic approach is more or less self-evident, but falls outside the stress on the subject found in the NT.

There are a number of clear reasons for exercising Church discipline. The highest conceivable reason for exercising Christian discipline is to protect the name of God. The name of God comes into open disrepute whenever those who call themselves Christian lead shameful lives. God’s holiness appears to be compromised when the Church refuses to act against people whose behaviour is considered by outsiders to contradict what they understand to be the ethical principles of the Christian faith. Kuiper is correct in saying:

As the welfare of the individual member is a means to the end of the welfare of the church as a body, so the welfare of that body is a means to the glorification of its Head. And that is a way of saying that the church which neglects discipline is not only destroying its own glory but also shows a serious disregard of the glory of Christ. The faithful exercise of discipline is in very deed a mark of the true church. The church which is not deeply concerned about the honour of Christ simply is no church of His. On the other hand, passionate love for Christ and a consequent consuming zeal for His glory will impel the true church to be faithful in discipline.

A second patently obvious reason for discipline is, as Paul puts it: ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’ (1 Corinthians 5:6), in other words, ‘bad company ruins good morals’ (1 Corinthians15:33). The moral climate of a community is a dynamic affair, and tolerance of sin can only lead to increasing moral compromise. Empirical holiness requires standards. It is as Barth says of the Church:

The grace of sanctification, and therefore of Jesus Christ generally, is surely alien to it if it does not try to counteract the continual menace and process of a profanation of that which is holy by its own human and therefore unholy hands; if it does not resist to the best of its ability and conscience.

19. Berkouwer, The Church, p. 377.

20. E. Friedberg, “Excommunication”, in The New Schaff — Herzog Religious Encyclopae dia.Grand Rapids: Baker, vol. 4, 1950, p. 237.

21. R.B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ,London: Banner of Truth, 1967, p. 310.

Even in a culture as secular as contemporary Australia, the truth of Kuiper’s words have been borne out by the repeated comments of non-believers as to what they understand to be the leniency of the Church discipline handed Out to erring American televangelists.

22. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, tr. and ed. GW. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, Edinburgh, T. and T. Clark, Vol III, 4, 19, p.709. White and Blue, Healing, pp. 64-66 add another dimension to this by suggesting that tolerance of wickedness itself, and the gossip and division it brings within the Church makes discipline essential.



In other words because the Church is holy it must live as holy, a pre-requisite for this is godly discipline.

The same principle applies in the case of doctrine. The truth to which the Church witnesses is revealed and not discovered, it therefore carries with it a demand for obedience and faith. The Church must exercise authority to protect the apostolic deposit from erosion and contamination, and only a community which practices discipline can effectively transmit that which is has received. This action is directed towards making the gospel perspicuous in its public life i.e. discipline is directed towards ensuring that the Word of God can be truly declared. In this sense therefore, if the Church is to maintain its existence as a closely knit community of faith, Christian freedom can never be absolute. Those who will not conform to the gospel do not belong to the Church.

A third motivation for discipline, sometimes called ‘the teleology of discipline’, is the aim of reclaiming a sinner. ‘If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. (2 Thessalonians 3:14). The aim of Church discipline can never be the destruction of the offender but always his salvation. A persistent temptation is to employ discipline as a device to get rid of ‘trouble makers’ from the Church. This is not only antithetical to Jesus’ own words in Matthew 18:15 but contradicts the entire atmosphere of the N.T. with its commitment to reconciliation. We are taught to restore sinners in a ‘spirit of humility’ (Galatians 6:1). Justice without mercy is a contradiction in a Church which has the command: ‘Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful’ (Luke6:36) Discipline must be exercised not in a spirit of condemnation but in a spirit of expectation. It is not the legalistic application of a set of rules which is at stake but the welfare of a human being. Properly understood ecclesiastical discipline must be an affair of the Spirit of God.

It is for this reason that considerable stress has been laid on the public nature of reconciliation. Article 33 of the Anglican Articles of Religion for example makes it plain that once a person has repented of their sin they must be openly reconciled to the Church, just as they were publicly renounced. The Patristic

23. It is perhaps useful at this point to recall that holiness and love must meet in the Church in the same way as they meet in God. It can only be described as a situation of gross mis- comprehension when a Christian minister in a large Australian city publicly replied to a call to discipline an active homosexual member of his congregation with the words: ‘whatever he is in his personal life, we love him’.

24. This is a particular emphasis of Roman Catholic theologians. See A. Dulles, A Church to Believe In, N.Y.: Crossroads, 1984, p. 63. Cf J. Macquarie, Principles of Christian The ology, London S.C.M. 2nd ed., 1977, p. 483.

25. In the midst of a row in a Church in which I once served, the minister terminated the discussion with the exclamation: ‘You are excommunicated’. The hitherto troublesome

parishioner quickly found another place in which to worship.

26. This stands against all authoritarianism. Watchman Nee, for example, The Body of Christ: A Reality, NY.: Christian Fellowship, p. 48 says: ‘If you are at odds with them (church leaders) you will also be at odds with God’. Terms like ‘covering’ and ‘umbrella’ are often used to teach a form of subjugation with a veneer of godliness but which is in principle legalistic.

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Church made the nature of the reception quite clear by including the laying- on-of-hands as part of its ceremony of re-admission to communion. Excessive harshness in the matter of conditions for reconciliation, could only produce, as Calvin puts it: ‘either great hypocrisy or very great despair’.

Most writers on Church discipline do not seem to go beyond the range of considerations offered above. Oliver O’Donovan’s recent writing in the area of Christian ethics has opened up a theological framework for excommunication which is rather more profound than other analyses. He understands excommunication to be a public act which is a demonstration of the final separation of truth from falsehood on which theKingdomofGodis founded. It points to a gulf which must exist eschatologically between one who has refused God’s Word and the redeemed community which lives by it.

Such a sign enables the Church to express itself unmistakeably when it announces the gospel, to overcome the ambiguities which cling inescapably to its message if it cannot repudiate unbelief and impenitence when it meets them

Even in its penultimate judgment theNewTestamentChurchunderstands itself to be making final judgment visible. In this way its public life is protected against erosion by the ambiguities in the midst of which it lives, and continues to be shaped by the gospel which is God’s last word about man’s ambiguous relation to created good.

In other words, if the Church is to maintain its identity as the eschatological community it must draw limits of a visible kind between itself and this present evil age. If it does not do this it cannot stand at one and the same time as a sign of God’s salvation and judgement. If the ‘powers of the age to come’ (Hebrews 6:5) are really constitutive of her life, then the Church, to be true to her own inner being must live as if she is more than just a part of this world.

It is perhaps at this point that serious questions will be raised as to the scope of Church discipline. In the first place it needs to be remarked that nothing in Scripture itself can be taken to militate against the regular practice of discipline. In some circles it has been popular to interpret the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew13:24-30; 36-43) in such a way as to exclude discipline. All action with respect to the faith of others must be exercised by God while we wait for the last judgment. But even a superficial reading of this parable makes it clear that the field in question is not the Church but the world. Good and evil alike dwell in the world until the last day.

Hans Kung is surely correct when he says that: ‘the essential norm for judging

a situation is not some viewpoint of ecclesiastical politics, but the gospel

itself’. The sign of divine judgement can only be executed in response to

a refusal to obey God’s Word, and not to a refusal of what the Church may

27. For an historical treatment see: D.S.Schaff, ‘Discipline (Christian)’, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. J. Hastings,Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1911, vol. 4. pp. 715-720.

28. Calvin, Institutes, 4. 12, 8.

29. O’Donovan, Resurrection, p. 177, 178

30. See on this Kuiper, Glorious Body, pp. 306-307.

31. So, W. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew,Edinburgh: Saint Andrew, pp. 74-75

32. H. Kung, The Church Maintained in Truth,London: S.C.M., 1979, p. 64.



have ordered. The situation is more ambiguous where a sustained theological argument at some remove from the biblical text seems to require a certain conclusion. That is to say, where something is only implicit in the Bible. John White and Ken Blue advance a useful rule of thumb: ‘We are to train one another in godliness through corrective action at the point where one or more of these (sins) becomes evident in a way which hampers mutual fellowship’. That there will be many very difficult cases cannot be denied, but this can never be a sufficient reason to negate the whole matter of biblically-based discipline.

4. The Decline and Recovery of Discipline

Historically, the decline of a biblically based discipline in the European Churches can be traced back to the alliance between Church and State which began underConstantineand culminated in the Theodosian Code (435 AD). This formalised the relationship between Church and State in such a way that ecclesiastical offences fell under civil law. Considerable confusion about the respective roles of the state and the Church in the punishment of offenders against Church order continued throughout the Middle Ages. These problems continued into the Reformation era and necessarily obscured the spiritual and eschatological character of true Christian discipline. The enforcement of discipline by excommunication had been so abused by Popes, bishops and priests that by the time of the English Reformation it had fallen into disuse. This placed the laity in a situation of intolerance to it. Despite serious attempts by the Reformed Churches to draw up new codes for spiritual correction by the late seventeenth century John Owen described the situation like this: ‘it is so come to pass, that let men never be so notorious and flagitiously wicked, until they become pests of the earth, yet are they esteemed to belong to the church of Christ; and not only so, but it is considered little less than schism to forbid them communion of the church in all its sacred privileges’. Even more seriously the rise and influence of rationalism undercut the very theological premises upon which an understanding of discipline was based. Subsequent to the Reformation the divided state of the Church made the main- tenance of discipline extraordinarily difficult. Someone disciplined in his own denomination could easily transfer to another.

33. O’Donovan, Resurrection, pp. 174-175 gives as examples that of a layman celebrating Holy Communion or a bishop ordaining a woman before the Church had authorised it (O’Donovan is an Anglican). Other examples which come to mind might be dancing on a Sunday (for certain Sabbatarian groups) or marrying a non-believer.

34. An appropriate example here might be the prohibition of Christians from involvement in active euthanasia, which seems to be required by the way human life is treated throughout the Bible. (The Roman Catholic Church has been known to excommunicate its members involved in abortion counselling centres).

35. White and Blue, Healing, p. 108

36. ‘Theodosian Code’ in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. EL. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 1361.

37. See, The Tutorial Prayer Book, C. Neil and J.M. Willoughby (eds),London:Harrison,

1912, p. 474.

38. John Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government, vol. 16, The Works of John Owen, 1689, reprinted; London: Banner of Truth, p.11.

39. A recent example of this occurred when a youth worker who was suspended from active ministry for a year because of fornication was immediately invited to take up a post at a nearby assembly of another denomination. A reasonable response in situations like this would be for the first church to approach the other to explain how they saw their original course of action as being in the best interests of the sinner. What is at stake here is not expedience but sanctification.

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Pressures against effective ecclesiastical discipline have not diminished but intensified in our day. In the first place there is a widespread ‘lack of nerve’ in the Church, and many Church leaders stand in a situation of positive fear with respect to congregational numbers. The spirit of ‘democracy’ which is so owned by Western culture is irritated by any suggestion of the penal exercise of authority. Individualism is rampant within the Church in such a form that Christian freedom can be identified with the sole sufficiency of one’s own judgement. Many Christians still think in terms of a division between the sacred and the secular, and consider that there is no area of their ‘private lives’ over which the Church has the right to discipline. Secretly or openly Christian leaders are fearful of the sort of adverse publicity which is generated when the Church takes public action which contradicts accepted social standards of morality. In various ‘Bible-believing’ churches the need for discipline is given tacit recognition, but in practice there is a tendency to rely almost wholly on the effect of the exposition of the Scripture from the pulpit and the sensitivities of the conscience of Church members. This itself can be interpreted as a capitulation to the spirit of the age. Calvin’s prediction has become more true than he could have ever realised.

However difficult the application of the principles discussed in this paper may be the consequences of avoiding the question seem too large to allow the situation to continue in its present state. It is possible for the Church to become unrecognisable because of the absence of truly spiritual discipline, that is, the progressive accumulation of errors, both moral and doctrinal, obscures the content and hinders the proclamation of the gospel of grace. This means that the practice of discipline is not peripheral to the life of God’s people but is a defence against the weakening of the foundation of the gospel itself.

It is not easy to find a way forward in this matter, or, more accurately, a way out of a situation that has already so sharply declined. In the first place any return to a true exercise of discipline would seem to have to be rooted in a return to the power and purpose of the gospel itself. The body of Christ in this world is always simul iustus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinful), but it is only when the dynamic of justification is properly appreciated that sin can be adequately dealt with. That is, the experience of forgiveness is the best surety against a lack of Church discipline. When forgiveness and real repentance are evoked by the preaching of the whole counsel of God a climate is created where discipline must be seen as complementary and not contradictory to the Church’s true (holy) character. Along these lines it is to be expected that the parodies associated with discipline in the popular Christian mind, such as intolerance, harshness and lack of love can be avoided as the mind is reshaped by a full proclamation of Christian truth. This implies that effective disciplinary action must be firmly rooted in the shared consciousness of the congregation. Where misunderstanding or false sympathy dwell discipline can only lead to misrepresentation and division. It is

40. See J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit, tr. M. Kohl,London: S.C.M.,

1977, p. 308.

41. I am aware of a situation where for this reason the head pastor allows de facto Christian couples to worship freely in the Church over which he presides despite the protestations of junior clergy.



as a community of the faith that the body of Christ must discipline its members. This places heavy responsibility not only upon the eldership of a congregation but upon every member of the Church to act as a guardian of God’s truth. The whole body of Christ is responsible for the whole body.

It is appropriate to end this discussion with a few practical suggestions as to how the Church today might administer discipline more effectively.

When a Christian becomes aware of what he believes is a serious fault in a fellow member of the congregation he should privately discuss the matter with the individual concerned, as far as possible avoiding the need to relate the matter to others. If his entreaty is ignored or denied then it is imperative to raise the issue with someone in a recognised position of authority (pastor, elder, deacon, church warden, etc). A meeting should be arranged between the putative offender, the authoritative figure, the informing Christian and witnesses to the actions under review. If the leader is satisfied of the truth of the charge but the sinner refuses to accept counselling or in any other way to change their position, then, to ensure fairness on both sides, all those involved to this stage should meet with the recognised oversight body of the church, eg. pastor and elders. If this group is satisfied that the offence is real and deserving of excommunication and the offender continues to be intransigent then the matter must be taken to ‘the Church’.

It is quite clear from 1 Corinthians 5:4, ‘when you are assembled’, that the sentence of excommunication must be passed in a time of corporate public worship. It is only under conditions such as these that the body of Christ can own in any meaningful way the action of discipline. A problem obviously arises in situations of very large congregations where the majority of worshippers are unknown to the offender, or where there are multiple services of worship. In this case ‘the Church’ should be understood as that group of people most acquainted with and likely to be affected by the offender’s transgression — either one of the services of worship, or a house group to which the individual belongs. The sinner should be invited to attend, not to defend themselves, as the time for this is over, but to be made aware of the serious ness of their actions, to hear the proclamation of the Word of God concerning their stand and to know that they are still receiving the prayers of the saints. Their failure to attend should not substantially alter the procedure to be followed. A sermon on church discipline would provide an appropriate context for the individual to be named, to be charged with their offence publicly and to be delivered in prayer to the mercy of the Lord with a view to repentance. It should be made clear to all assembled that this is not a sentence

42. This principle, I believe, is vitiated in Anglican circles by the need to refer to the diocesan bishop and his tribunal. Roland Allen described a situation inChinaat the turn of the century whose difficulties encompass this point: ‘the church in which the offender lives feels little or no responsibility and the man is not excommunicated by the majority. Consequently the act has little effect. It does not come home to the offender; it does not come home to the church. A man can afford to present a stubborn front to the fulminations of a (church leader). He cannot so treat excommunication of his neighbours . . . What he needs is the public censure of the majority of his fellow churchmen’. R. Allen, Missionary Methods:St Paul’s or Ours,London: World Dominion, 1912, pp. 160-161.

43. For a full discussion see White and Blue, Healing, and J. White, Eros Defiled,Leicester:

I.V.P., 1978, pp. 146-166.

50        JOHN YATES

of condemnation but one of excommunication. Kindness remains appropriate, but sympathy is not. The congregation must be charged to avoid all social intercourse with this individual, in practical terms they must be treated as living as an enemy of Christ. Conversation should as far as possible be restricted to loving admonition for them to return to God. They are to be denied access to the sacraments.

The question remains as to how someone may return to fellowship. In some way the individual must persuade the leaders of the church that they are truly repentant. This would involve confession, seeking forgiveness, a change of lifestyle and perhaps appropriate restitution. At this point the eldership may re-admit them unconditionally to fellowship, or set out a series of conditions to safeguard there-entry of the person into full church life. These would be protective measures both for the Christian community and for the individual. They may relate to leadership positions, fraternizing with the opposite sex, attending a particular home group and so on. Should such measures be put in place they would continue at the elders’ discretion. At all points judge mentalism must be avoided and the stress laid upon the forgiving character of God revealed in Christ.

In conclusion I suspect that a matter such as this cannot be properly addressed without a much deeper recognition of the fact that one of the notes of the Church is holiness. It is only against this background that the Church is given holiness to start with, and that the profound implications of: ‘You must be holy for I am holy (1 Peter l:lb), can be worked out. Perhaps the best one can hope for in this ‘time between the times’ is a sort of creative tension that avoids the extremes of authoritarianism and the laissez-faire. Such a tension is true to the eschatological character of the body of Christ and drives us back to ever increasing dependence upon the Spirit of God without which we are certain to succumb to our own prejudices.

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