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Discipline in the Church

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Date May 7, 2019

When is a Church not a Church? Such a theological conundrum presupposes that the inner reality may be lost while the outer shape remains, rather like a nut which when cracked open proves to have no kernel inside. In fact the Bible goes further and asserts that what looks like the Church may indeed be opposed to the true Church, just as the Jews in the Acts persecuted the Christians and so became ‘a synagogue of Satan’. (Rev. 2:9)

Where then does the true Church exist? Many of the Reformers gave a threefold answer: ‘Where true doctrine is preached, where the sacraments are administered according to the Word of God and where ecclesiastical discipline is exercised.’ It is with the third of these marks of the Church that this article is concerned.

Positive Discipline

The first and most important side of discipline is the positive, the whole structuring forth of doctrine into practice, in which the authority of the pastor (given for building up and not for knocking down) is called into play. This ‘educational work’ must be undertaken by the Church too, for every member should encourage and admonish his fellows — a kind of collective sanctification — enabling the body to grow together towards maturity.

The pastoral work of the ministry implies that a couple of sermons on Sunday will not exhaust the duties. Christ has appointed pastors to lead the flock, to help the feeble, to admonish the unruly, to cure the diseased, as Ezekiel describes in the 34th chapter of his prophecy. Teaching from house to house and individual care for individual souls is part of the commission. The modern system of preaching with the take-it-or-leave-it attitude on the part of the preacher would have been unintelligible to Paul. With the authority given to him he ‘sets in order’ and ‘commands’, and today a proper doctrine of the Word and of the ministry of the Word will lead directly to discipline in the Church. ‘The doctrine then obtains its full authority and produces its due effect, when the minister not only declares to all the people together what is their duty to Christ, but has the right and the means of enforcing it’ (John Calvin, Institutes, Bk. IV Ch. 12 Sect. 2).

Such authority is, of course, derived authority. Paul speaks of the authority given to him for building up (2 Cor. 13:10). Church authority is only true where it is subject to the Word and to the Holy Spirit. Such true spiritual authority, as opposed to the institutional variety, is not easy to obtain, because these conditions are not so easy to fulfil. Authority is not automatic, that is, it does not follow that a minister can automatically exercise this authority; but where it does exist, it requires obedience.

To sum up thus far, the Church has not only the authority, derived from the Word and the Spirit, to proclaim a message, but also authority to enforce its teaching within its own ranks.

Discipline and the Sacraments

But we can go a step further. The Church has the right to enforce standards of entrance into its membership. This has to do with the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, whose promiscuous use is one of the scandals of modern Christendom. The implications of the sacraments, especially the implication of oneness with Christ, preclude such promiscuous use. Paul’s explanation of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians uncovers the principle that ‘the dignity of that which they partake is the measure of the dignity which their irreverence profanes’. The Supper presupposes the doctrines of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. It would be meaningless without them. Indeed Plummer suggests that the rite may have been accompanied by some ‘expression of belief’ in the atoning death. To partake worthily we must believe that Jesus is the Son of God and died for us, that his blood cleanses from all sin and that in the sacrament he offers us, in the symbols, the benefits of his death (Hodge in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians). To eat and drink unworthily, that is, failing to see the sacramental meaning of the elements, is to bring judgement upon oneself. Faith is the prime requisite, and at this table we make a solemn declaration of faith in Christ. ‘Those who receive the cup profess to embrace the covenant of grace, and bind themselves to obedience to the gospel’ (Charles Hodge).

Whatever view we take of the controversy on the subject of baptism, there is reason to deplore the widespread laxity in administering this sacrament — a laxity prevalent in many Baptist churches where the high standards of former ages have been lost, and in Paedo-baptist Churches where often the only possible scriptural grounds for baptizing infants viz. the believing acceptance of Divine promises regarding the children of God’s people have been forgotten. In these churches the indiscriminate administration of the ordinance to the children of families who are not separated from an unbelieving world, becomes a great abuse and obstacle to true discipline. ‘Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible Church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him, but infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, are to be baptized’ (Larger Catechism 166).

The Church and the World

Such a use of positive discipline would help to preserve the distinction between the Church and the world. Admitting, of course, that in the last day, the line of demarcation will be drawn right through the official list of disciples (Matt. 7:22) and that it is impossible to preserve a Church absolutely pure, yet it is important to notice how sharply the New Testament draws the line between the Church and the world. Those who are within and those who are without (1 Cor. 5:12); redeemed and perishing, righteous and unrighteous (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 1 Cor. 6:1), children of God and children of Satan (the Epistles of John). In the Acts and the Gospels, the same is true. The Lord added to the Church such as should be saved (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14, etc.); others feared to join (5:11, 13). Some belong to Jesus, others do not. Yet all this avoids pride because it is the sinner who is called, not the righteous, and the righteous Judge will not be satisfied with the mere ‘Lord, Lord’, of profession. The Church then is the fellowship of those who have been called by God. Through such an activity of God, the Church receives its boundary. ‘Spiritual boundaries exist where Christ’s work ends’ (Schlatter). Discipline will endeavour to maintain the definition of these boundaries, excluding the unworthy whether their unworthiness lie in doctrine (Rev. 2:2) or in life (1 Cor. 5), and insisting that the standards for entry be adhered to.

The modern tendency has been to ignore what P. T. Forsyth called ‘the vital and eternal differentia which marks off the Church from every society’, and in an effort to get alongside the world with a view to rescue, many modern churches have degenerated into clubs (One suspects, though, that many clubs have higher standards of entrance than the churches, and maintain a more rigid discipline over their members). This holy society which God has created must maintain a clean cut from the world, so that there is no doubt which is which. But today the ‘Spirit of the world has eaten deep into the vitals of the Christian commonwealth, so much so that the charge can be made, not justifiably indeed, but at least without obvious absurdity, that the average moral life within the Church is little higher, if at all, than the average moral life without’ (Cadoux).

The charge is sometimes made that those who insist on discipline act more in the spirit of the law than of the Gospel. ‘Ye should act in love’ we are told, and not in a ‘quasi-legal’ way. When a brother sins we should deal with him in love, not in the legal manner that discipline implies. But love, like every other concept, has been perverted by sin, so that what we call love is not necessarily true. Especially serious is our misunderstanding of the love of God for us, for a fundamental error here will affect the rest of our theology — including our theology of discipline. We have to be shown at the Cross what God’s love really is. There it is defined in relation to his righteousness and his wrath. If this wrath is illusory, as some theologians say, then eventually the need for discipline is obscured. But his love is a holy love, and therefore, if we are to love each other as he loved us, our love will be a holy love also. If, because of his love, he chastises his children (Hebrews 12) then we will do likewise. Only a sentimental kind of love takes no account of sin. Such goodness needs to be mixed with severity if it is to be real love. ‘We do not’, writes Augustine, ‘discipline our children otherwise than with a degree of anger and indignation, yet we should not discipline them at all, but in love to them’. We should, like this great father of the Church, seek to strike a wise balance: ‘We judge that it pertains unto sound doctrine. . . to attemper our life and opinion, so that we both endure dogs in the Church, for the sake of the peace of the Church, and, where the peace of the Church is safe, give not what is holy unto dogs. . . that we neither grow listless under the name of patience, nor be cruel under the pretext of diligence’.

The Church cannot long continue to exist in health (perhaps, exist at all) without discipline, for it is a bond which the Lord foresaw would be necessary for us, like the sinews which bind a body together. Calvin does not perhaps put the matter too strongly when he writes: ‘Discipline was not wantonly contrived or invented by men; it is rather a rule which our Lord Jesus established among his followers, to be inviolable; and whoever attempts to repress it shows that he is an enemy of the Christian faith.’


This article is taken from the January-February 1966 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

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