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CHAPTER IX.
CHURCH DISCIPLINE.


      In the examination of this subject I shall endeavor to show,

      I. The Import and Necessity of Discipline.

      Discipline primarily signifies correction (Job 36:10). But the term is used by modern writers in various acceptations.

      It is sometimes used to signify the whole order of a church, or a denomination.

      Again, it is used to denote any human system of church rules and regulations. These different uses of the word, however, are not what is meant by Christian discipline, or the discipline I am now about to investigate. The discipline here under consideration simply means the execution or enforcement of the laws of Christ's house against offenders; or, in other words, it denotes the exercise of that spiritual power by which unworthy members of the church are censured, or expelled, as the case may require.

      Its necessity grows out of our moral infirmities.

      It may be argued,

      First. From the Word of God (see Mt 18:15-20 Joh 20:21-23 1Co 5:7).

      Second. From the constant practice of both the Jewish and Christian churches. Discipline was observed by the Jews [101] (see Joh 9:22 12:42). It was also constantly exercised, or maintained, by the Apostles and first Christian churches (see 1Co 5:4,5,13 2Co 2:6 1Ti 1:19,20).

      Third. From the nature of the thing itself. For without discipline no society can subsist. The toleration of vice and scandal tend to the subversion, and not to the preservation, of the church, as some do vainly imagine. And discipline is the more necessary in the church because it is a spiritual society, which is not governed by force, or coercive power, as civil societies are. I go on to show,

      II. The Persons by Whom Discipline Is to Be Exercised.

      The right and power of exercising the moral discipline of the church belong not to the Pope of Rome, nor to the Patriarch of Constantinople, nor to the civil authorities, nor to the Bishops, nor to the brotherhood or the whole church, but to the presbytery, or the elders, of each individual church. That Christ Himself has committed the exercise of discipline, and the government of the church, to the eldership, and to no one else, I have proved before (see Chapter VIII). And if elders only are invested with the right of administering discipline, then it is not lawful to transfer it to any other.

      There are some things, however, which fall under the cognizance of the church in its collective capacity, such a mutual watch over one another, and what may be called private remonstrance, &c. These are duties, or acts of moral discipline, which properly belong to all the members of the church to perform; and it is upon the proper discharge of these duties that much of the peace and purity of a church depend. I proceed to point out,

      III. The Persons Against Whom It Is to Be Executed.

      Discipline is not to be executed on those who are not members of the church, but against all church members who, by their impure faith or practice, render themselves unworthy of occupying a place in the church.

      First. Against heretics, or the erroneous. By heretics or erroneous persons I mean those who manifestly depart from any of the leading principles of the gospel. [102]

      Now, that such persons are proper subjects of Christian discipline, the passages I shall here quote will sufficiently prove.

      "I would they were even cut off which trouble you" (Ga 5:12).

      "Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away" (2Ti 3:5).

      "A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself" (Tit 3:10,11).

      "I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam; so hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate" (Re 2:14,15).

      "It has been asked by persons who disapprove of all the church proceedings, on account of differences in religious principles, who is to judge what is heresy? We answer, those who are to judge what is immorality in dealing with loose characters." There is a great variety of opinion as to what is immorality, as well as to what is heresy, or a departure from the faith of the gospel. Now, to suppose it impossible to judge what the one is does not merely preclude the possibility of judging the other; but it also charges the apostolic precepts in regard to this duty with impertinence.

      "It has been further objected that censuring, or expelling a person on account of his religious sentiments invades the right of private judgment. The right of private judgment, while we claim no connection with the church, is an undoubted right. We may be Christians, infidels, or atheists, and none but God has any control over us; but if we desire, or claim, admission to a Christian church, or should we be in it already and claim a right to continue our situation, we must be subject to that authority which Christ has instituted for her general government." Now, it would be as easy to show that the officers of the church have to direct and oversee the faith of her members, as well as their practice. For errors in faith will lead to errors in practice, which, if persisted in, will doubtless lead men on to death and perdition. [103]

      "But again, it is asked how the erroneous can be tried, condemned, and excluded from the church without some creed or book of discipline?" We reply, in the same manner that the apostolic churches, when no such human instrument existed, censured or expelled such individuals. To reply more directly to the question, the presbytery, which is the proper judicatory of the church, with the Bible for their guide and the rule of their procedure, must judge and determine such cases, as well as all other matters of discipline. And by a plurality of their votes it ought always to be decided what is truth or error, morality or immorality, according to the Word of God, and not according to the doctrines and commandments of men.

      Second. Against schismatics. "Schism means a sin against Christian love, with reference to the deportment of men in and about the institutions of Christ and their communion in them." The Greek word schisma signifies a rupture, or division. This is the only notion of schism that is exemplified in the Scripture, the only evil condemned under that name. This will appear to any who shall, with heedfulness, read the Epistles of Paul the Apostle unto the Corinthians, wherein alone the nature of this evil is stated and exemplified. As heresy is a departing from the principles of the gospel, or some fundamental article of religion, so schism is a departing from the ordinances, or the external things of the gospel.

      A schismatic, then, is not a person who dissents from any humanly invented rules, articles, or canons for the government and worship in any church, but one who departs from one or more of the institutions of Christ, and thereby causes unlawful divisions and dissensions in the church. The men are a kind of religious demagogues. And men of this stamp are described by the Apostle in the Epistle to the Romans: "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrines which he have learned; and avoid them. For they are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple" (Ro 16:17,18). [104]

      "There should be no schism in the body" (1Co 12:25).

      According to this description schismatics may be known by three things:

      1st. By their doctrine. It is contrary to that which has been learned of Christ.

      2d. By their selfish pursuits. "They serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly" [Ro 16:18].

      3d. By their insinuating, whining pretenses of affectionate regard towards their partisans. "By good words and fair speeches [they] deceive the hearts of the simple" [Ro 16:18].

      Now, all such persons as create divisions and offenses in the church, contrary to the doctrine of the Bible, we are commanded to mark and to avoid. This evidently supposes them to be seriously guilty, and consequently, they must be subjects of ecclesiastical discipline. But further, Christian discipline must be exercised,

      Third. Against immoral persons, or such as are notoriously wicked in their lives. Accordingly we read,

      "If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one, no, not to eat. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1Co 5:11,13).

      Thus we see that against all such as are openly immoral or depraved in their lives, such as sin wilfully and deliberately, discipline must be exercised, and they severally dealt with according to the nature, aggravation, and circumstances of their crimes.

      Yet I would here observe, and it deserves maturely to be considered, that not every irregularity, fault, or imperfection ought to be made a subject of discipline. There are many things which are, or ought to be, subjects of Christian forbearance. "A subject of forbearance, however, must be one that may exist without being an occasion of dispute and wrangling in the church. It must also respect things which do not enter into the essence of God's kingdom, [105] the leading principles of which are 'righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost' [Ro 14:17]. Moreover, it must be something which does not destroy 'the work of God,' or which is not inconsistent with the progress of vital religion in the church, or in our own soul.

      "That which does not subvert the gospel of the kingdom, nor set aside the authority of the king, though it be an imperfection, is yet to be borne with."

      There is, perhaps, in all the churches a description of men whose characters are far from being uniformly circumspect, and yet not sufficiently irregular to warrant their being separated from the church. Every offender ought to be dealt with according to the degree of his offense. It is necessary, therefore, always to distinguish between faults which are the consequence of ignorance, infirmity, or sudden temptation, and such as are the result of premeditation and habit. The former require a compassionate treatment; the latter, a greater portion of severity. "Of some have compassion, making a difference: and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh" (Jude 1:22,23).

      IV. The Different Acts, or Steps of Discipline, and the Manner in Which It Is to Be Conducted.

      There are two acts of church discipline, according to the Bible.

      The first step which is to be taken in the course of church discipline is admonition.

      This duty is to be done, first privately, and afterward in a public manner.

      There is what may be called private admonition.

      "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother" (Mt 18:15). The ground of proceeding here, as stated by our Savior, is an actual and serious fault committed by one member of the church against another. It is a [106] trespass. If thy brother shall sin against thee, then, and in that case, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone. And tell him for the purpose of gaining, winning over and restoring thy brother. In order to do this, speak to him in all the meekness and gentleness of the gospel (Mt 18:15).

      "But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established" (Mt 18:16).

      This course seems to be prescribed for two reasons. One is that these persons may be witnesses of every thing which pertains to the existing state of the transaction. The other is that by their influence and counsels they may assist in convincing and gaining their trespassing brother.

      There is also another step in the process of discipline, which may be called public admonition.

      But, and "if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church" (Mt 18:17). That is, bring him before the proper tribunal of the church, and let them admonish him. It is also said, "Them that sin rebuke fore all, that others may also fear" (1Ti 5:20).

      If, after he has been publicly admonished before the proper tribunal of the church, he neglects to listen to them also, that is, continues incorrigibly impenitent, then the second act of discipline must be executed against him, which is exclusion.

      "Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican" (Mt 18:17). Let him be considered by you as one of the worst of men, and consequently as one that is utterly unfit to be a member of the church. "Therefore," says the Apostle, "put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1Co 5:13). And this should be done in every instance where any person sins so grossly against the plain rules of the gospel, or the laws of God, or Christ, as thereby to unchristianize himself, or forfeit his claims to the character of a Christian. [107]

      But the sentence of exclusion is the severest act of punishment the church has any right, or power, to inflict upon delinquents. The formality and the severity with which the act of excommunication is exercised in the Greek and Romanish Churches, and even in some of the Protestant Churches, have no foundation in the Word of God. For, according to the Bible, the church merely has the power to disown such offending persons, to disclaim all Christian fellowship with them, by expelling them from the church and turning them into the world, which is the kingdom of Satan, till they show real signs of repentance and amendment of life. But they have no authority to hurt their lives, or to injure their property, or to inflict any corporal punishments whatever.

      As it respects the manner in which the discipline ought to be exercised, I would remark that two things are to be observed and two are to be avoided.

      First. Two things are to be observed, viz.: A spirit of meekness, and a Christian firmness.

      Discipline ought to be exercised in the spirit of meekness, that is, with solemnity, tenderness, and affection.

      Hence, says the Apostle, "If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness." [Ga 6:1].

      But at the same time, it is necessary in the exercise of discipline to maintain a degree of firmness becoming the Christian character and authority of the church.

      "Exhort and rebuke with all authority" (Tit 2:15).

      Again, there are at least two things which ought to be carefully avoided, viz.: a false lenity and an unchristian severity.

      "There is often a party found in a church," says a learned and pious author, "who, under the name of tenderness, are for neglecting all wholesome discipline; or if this cannot be accomplished, for delaying it to the utmost. These persons are commonly the advocates for disorderly walkers, especially if they happen to be their particular friends or relatives. Such, for a time, was the spirit of [108] the Corinthians; but when they were brought to a proper sense of things, what carefulness it wrought in them; yea, what clearing of themselves.

      "On the other hand, there is often another party found in the church who, in opposing the extreme of false tenderness, are in danger of falling into unfeeling severity. This spirit will make the worst of every thing, and lead men to convert the discipline of the church into weapons of private revenge. Now, the true medium between these extremes is a union of mercy and truth. Genuine mercy is combined with faithfulness, and genuine faithfulness with mercy, and this is the only spirit likely to purge iniquity. Connivance will produce indifference, and undue severity will arm the offender with prejudice, and so harden him in sin; but the love of God and of our brother's soul is adapted to answer every good end. If we love God like Levi, we shall know no man after the flesh, nor acknowledge our nearest kindred, but shall observe His word and keep His covenant. And if we love the soul of our brother, we shall say, 'He is fallen today, I will reprove him for his good; I may fall tomorrow, and then let him deal the same with me.' Love is the gravitating principle, and the grand secret of church discipline, and it will do more than all other things put together towards insuring success."

      But I would mention, with respect to those church members who have been expelled from the church and still continue in a state of obstinacy and impenitence, that it is the duty of every member in the communion of the church to withdraw themselves from all such and have no Christian fellowship with them. "They may, it is true, continue their ordinary and necessary intercourse with them as men, in the concerns of this life; but there must be no familiarity, or anything that is expressive of connivance at their conduct." Hence it is said, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly" (2Th 3:6). "And if any man [109] obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed" (2Th 3:14).

      In the mean time, such excommunicated persons ought to be admonished as brethren, and every proper inducement held out to them to return again by repentance and reformation. And whenever they do return, ingenuously confessing their sins, acknowledging the justice of their punishment, imploring the forgiveness of God and a reunion to the family of God, and recommencing the Christian life with new amiableness and beauty, they should be received again to their forfeited privilege, or to the full communion of the church.

      V. The Intentions or Ends of Discipline.

      First. The reformation or amendment of those who offend is one end for which church discipline is exercised. A wholesome discipline is a party of that chastisement whereof all partake (except they are bastards, and not sons), to the end that they "might be partakers of His holiness. For though now it seemeth not to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" [Heb 12:10,11]. But this is more directly declared by the Apostle: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan, for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1Co 5:4,5). Again, he says, "Hymeneus and Alexander I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1Ti 1:20).

      Second. Another end contemplated by the exercise of discipline is the purity and reputation of the church. Purity is one of the prominent attributes of the church. And within her hallowed pale none but the pure in heart and life have a right to be.

      "The temple," or church of God, "is holy, which temple ye are" [1Co 3:17]. But the gangrene members, whose "mind and conscience are defiled" [Tit 1:15], and who are "abominable, and disobedient" [Tit 1:16], must be purged out as the "old [110] leaven" that the whole church may be a "new lump," pure and unleavened [1Co 5:7]. And when this is done, the church will sustain a fair and irreproachable reputation in the eyes of the world. Thus she will become a "crown of glory in the hand of Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of [her] God" [Isa 62:3]. Whereas experience abundantly testifies that wherever the exercise of Scriptural discipline is either perverted or neglected, and the old leaven of wickedness is not cast out, there will be "confusion and every evil work" [Jas 3:16]. How very important, then, is it to maintain a well-directed system of Christian discipline.

      Third. The honor and glory of God is another intention of ecclesiastical discipline. God is honored when His commandments are observed. He is glorified when His perfections are displayed. This is done in every instance where the discipline of Christ's house is lawfully and faithfully executed against transgressors. And this should be the great and ultimate end of all our actions. This should be kept in view in every thing. "Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1Co 10:31).

      VI. The Motives to a Faithful Performance of Church Discipline.

      The motives or considerations which ought to encourage Christian churches in the exercise of a proper and wholesome discipline are various and highly important. Several of these I shall here enumerate.

      1st. The evils arising from the neglect of discipline should operate as a powerful inducement to a faithful performance of this duty.

      The evils which result from the neglect of discipline experience has long since shown to be neither few nor small. The pernicious effects are not only felt and sustained by the unhappy delinquents themselves, but also by the whole church and the community at large. There are many churches in which drunkards, and swearers, the erroneous and scandalous of every description are tolerated, and no kind of discipline exercised. And wherever this is done, there we have a practical illustration of this truth, that great and [111] deplorable evils will result from the neglect of church discipline. Sinners will become bold in sin, saints will feel discouraged, and religion will rapidly decline.

      2d. The general benefits and good effects produced by the administration of this system of order is another motive that ought to excite to the performance of it. There are no less than the reformation, the future usefulness and the salvation of a lapsed brother or sister; the purity, edification, and prosperity of the church'; and the honor and glory of God, all which are highly important. And it may justly be said that "the free circulation of the blood and the proper discharge of all animal functions are not more necessary to the health of the body than good discipline is to the attainment of these important ends."

      3d. The obligation of churches arising from the command of God to observe this duty is an additional motive to the exercise of discipline. If discipline is an institution of God, then Christian churches cannot neglect it with impunity; but they must, of course, be obliged to exercise it according to the divine commands. This I have testified before. Blessed, therefore, are they who read and keep those things which the divine Savior hath ordained in the churches. [112]

 
 
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