Counsel on Church Discipline
I write to you, August 5, 1836, in the seventieth year of my age, and in the fiftieth of my ministry, after conversing much with ministerial brethren, earnestly desiring to see our associational union brought into action by representatives of the churches, with a view to promote a determination — 1. To bear each other’s burden more efficiently in the denomination to which we belong. I lament the deficiency in this point, and ardently wish to see it effectually remedied. 2. To watch over and promote a holy conversation among all the members and all the preachers in a more efficient manner, to prevent persons of unbecoming conversation from obtaining privileges in any church, when they have been excluded in another, for that would occasion spots and blemishes to appear on the bright countenance of the ministry. The associational union, in which all the churches of the same faith and order join, should be a defence of the independence of the churches through their representatives: it should also operate as a sort of check upon independency, lest it should become opposed to the general good, and frustrate the co-operation of the whole body. That they may all be one, is the motto.
Respecting church discipline, we cannot be certain that we are doing right by administering the same punishment to all offenders, even for the same offence, for the general character weighs heavily in the balance of discipline. Also a distinction should be made between the seducer and the seduced, and between being overcome or falling into sin, and living habitually in sin and following it as a slave following his master. The denial of Peter, from weakness, and without previous deliberation, was very different from the betrayal of Judas and his intentional selling of Christ. The different characters of Saul, king of Israel, and that of David required different treatment in discipline on account of their offences. The Lord’s discipline upon Saul was that of a rod of iron, but upon David the correcting rod of a father, for his good, that he might be a partaker of his holiness.
There are two things, brother, which we ought to avoid in the exercise of discipline. We should avoid too great severity on the one part, and too much leniency on the other part. Wisdom is necessary here to distinguish the different characters, those who require severity, and those who claim tenderness: the two are to be found blended in the principle of evangelical discipline. A difference is to be made betwixt some who may have been companions in the same crime; snatching some of them as brands from the burning. The ground of the distinction lies in the different amount of guilt which subsists between the seducer and the seduced.
I have witnessed danger, and have sustained some harm myself, and seen harm done in churches, by exercising tenderness towards some persons in the vain hope of their reformation, receiving verbal testimony or mere fluent acknowledgements from their lips without waiting for fruit in action also; some having been often accused, and as often turning to the refuges frequented by them. I never exercised tenderness towards such as these without being repaid by them afterwards if they had opportunity. Shimei-like, they would curse me after having shed the best oil of tenderness on their heads. There are some in the Christian church like Jezebel; and there are some in our congregations like Joab, the son of Zeruiah, that you can scarce discipline them without rending the kingdom, until they become ripe for judgment; for they hardly ever repent, more than did Joab and Shimei. They are ultimately suddenly broken, without any danger to the church from their fall.
I perceive that the Scriptures make a difference between one that falls into sin, and one wallowing in it; between one overtaken by a party of marauders and dragged into the camp and made drunk at supper, and one like Judas going to the party and being secretly one of them, having pistols as they had: such are hypocrites. I have many times been the advocate of the fallen, and in a variety of instances have observed this operating beneficially for the church. Sometimes I have found those who had been spared upon their own verbal contrition, blessing God for his long forbearance of them, and also their spiritual brethren, who had in a manner set their bones; as the Scripture hath it, ‘Restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.’
We should be careful that discretion and love be in exercise, though in strife and contention it be not always an easy matter to do this. When the beasts of dissension get loose from the caravan, Satan sometimes drives them through the streets of Zion that they may enter the houses of the inhabitants, and like the lioness that escaped from the keepers at Shrewsbury, and attacked the foremost horse in the carriage,1 so contentions frequently attack the leaders in order to stop the carriage of the ministry as it travels on in the labours of the pulpit. In the midst of the noise of strife, the man of God must raise his voice to heaven for courage and tenderness so that the oil of Christ’s love to the souls of men may be found in the oil-flagon of reproof, which is poured on the head; for if anger and revenge enter in they will drop like the spider in Germany into the pot, and that will prevent the salutary effect of the oil, because the poison of wrath is mixed with it. The righteousness of God cannot be fulfilled in this manner in the discipline. O brother! who is sufficient for these things, without constant help from heaven? How awful is this place! This is the house of God and the gate of heaven — and here is a ladder by which we may climb up for help; and a school in which we may learn how to conduct ourselves in the house of God.
You cannot but be conscious, brother, of the great difficulty there is not to speak unadvisedly with our lips, as did Moses whilst drawing water for the rebellious Israelites. The rebellion of the people had embittered his spirit so that his obduracy stood like a cloud between the people and the tenderness of the Lord, when he was showing mercy upon them by giving them water. Moses upbraided their rebellion instead of showing mercy, as the dispensation of God now required; a dispensation which contained in it a secret intimation of the great mercy to be shown by the death of Christ on the cross. Their strife was the cause of embittering the spirit of Moses, yet he should have possessed his soul in patience.
There are two things, brother, which you should observe. Firstly, you will be called upon to attend to causes of contention, and you will find persons so hardened that you will not be able to obtain weapons in all the armoury of God’s Word that will terrify them and make them afraid of entering their old haunts. Such are persons without faith, and without the fear of God and the love of Christ influencing their minds; and though you warn them of the consequences of their contentions, that they are likely to deprive them of the privileges of the house of God, and thus forfeit the promised land, yet they stand unmoved, nothing terrified, for they value the flesh-pots of Egypt and their livelihood there, more than the manna and the land of promise. You cannot frighten them by speaking of the danger and loss of the immunities of the church below, or that above; Esau-like, they will sell their birthright as Christian professors for a mess of pottage. A man who has no money is not afraid to meet with robbers in the wood; but the individual that has gold to lose will be cautious and watchful, lest he should be robbed of his property. On a night of great storm, when ships are broken to pieces and sinking, a person who has no share in any of them will not tremble or feel any concern on their account. Thus there are some men concerning whom it is impossible to make them dread going out among the rapacious beasts of backslidings, and no storms can keep them in fear. Their spirit is one with the marauders, and they have no care, for they have nothing to lose in the tempests that blow upon the cause of the religion of Christ. These are the tares, or the children of the wicked one, in the church.
Secondly, for your own encouragement, brother, I remark that you will have to attend to the exercise of discipline, and to treat with persons that may be alarmed, and who have been made to tremble at the Word of God, and who do not rush presumptuously on an evil course. These are professors who possess white garments, and the gold of faith, and eyesalve from the unction of the Holy One. These individuals are rich in faith. They are afraid of revolutions and upsettings of the constitutional order of the new covenant, for they have funds invested in the stocks of God’s kingdom. They are afraid that any storm or rock of offence should come in the way of the gospel ship, for their treasure is on board of it, and they have an interest in it. They dread the thought of walking unwatchfully and licentiously, lest they should be robbed of their riches, and forfeit the fellowship of God in prayer, lose the light of his countenance, and his peace in the means of grace, and lest they should be deprived of their confidence in the merits of Christ and a good conscience. They have denied themselves, and have pulled out the right eye, lest they should not be acceptable before God. They dread harbouring in their bosoms the old guilt and former doubts. They are cautious not to give a night’s lodging to such miscreants as anger, revenge, lust, and things which are of the earth; for they know that these are robbers, and if they have any indulgence they will steal away the title-deeds of assurance to the inheritance. They are well aware, also, that they will sustain the loss of a pure conscience, which has been purged by the blood of Christ, and which, as a golden chest, is a preserver of our confidence immovable unto the end. It is possible, brother, to manage and discipline such professors. They have something to lose, consequently they will not flee from their refuge, lest they should be destroyed. Keep that which thou hast. David lost for a season the enjoyment of the above blessings; but he was cleansed with hyssop, had his spirit renewed, and his riches were restored to him by faith’s view of the Messiah, for which he vowed to sing aloud for ever and ever. He prayed, after this, to be delivered from presumptuous sins, lest he should be imprisoned a second time by a party so wicked and detestable. May the spiritual gift be kindled in you, brother.
Grace be with you for ever and ever.
This article was first published in the February 1976 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
- An accident which occurred at Shrewsbury, in England, early in the nineteenth century.
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