The Elders and Discipline (3)

Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Article 74 of the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches speaks of the last step required by Christ in Matthew 18:15-17: "If anyone, having been admonished in love concerning a secret sin by two or three persons, does not give heed ... the matter shall be reported to the consistory." This article also stipulates that "public sins" must be reported to the consistory. It is possible that the sin is so public that the consistory is aware of it even before someone reports the matter. In any case, public sins are the business of the consistory, i.e., the elders of the church.

A public sin is an offense which in its very nature affects the entire congregation. The breach is struck, not between two individuals in the congregation, but between the sinner and the rest of the congregation. The whole church is involved and must act. But the church must act through her elders. The elders are responsible for the exercise of Christian discipline in the church because they are called by Christ to rule and govern the congregation. This in no way changes the obligation of individual members of the congregation to admonish the sinner in love. The fact that a case becomes the official work of the elders never absolves the individual believer of his calling to pray for and admonish the sinner. The Church Order recognizes this calling too, as we shall see.

Articles 76 and 77 carefully and in detail lay out the procedure the elders of the church are to follow in the application of Christian discipline to the impenitent. Two kinds of people must be disciplined according to Article 76: "Such as obstinately reject the admonition of the consistory, and likewise those who have committed a public or otherwise gross sin...." These must be "suspended from the Lord's Supper." 

Suspension from the Lord's Supper implies several truths. This suspension bars the sinner not only from the Lord's Supper lest the table of the Lord be profaned, but also from all privileges of membership in the church of Christ. Such an impenitent sinner has no right to present his child for baptism and no right to vote at a congregational meeting. He is ineligible to serve in the special offices of the church: minister, elder, or deacon. Neither may he protest or appeal to the assemblies of the church concerning any case other than his own discipline. Furthermore, suspension from the Lord's Supper implies that the impenitent is barred from the means of grace. He is, because of his sin, removed from the communion of the saints, refused the means of grace which Christ has ordained only for the faithful. In one word, suspension from the Lord's Supper implies that the impenitent is deprived of his place in the congregation of God's people. 

Suspension from the Lord's Supper is sometimes called "silent censure," because the congregation has not been informed by the elders of the sinner's impenitence or sin. Or this suspension is called excommunicatio minor. It is called this in distinction from excommunication itself, which is called excommunicatio major. Whatever terminology we use, we should understand that this first action of the elders, suspension from the Lord's Supper, is essentially excommunication itself. And, if the sinner continues to reject the repeated admonitions of the consistory, excommunication will be applied. This is a process which takes place over a relatively lengthy period of time, The reason for this is to be found in one of the purposes of Christian discipline, viz., that the sinner may be saved in the way of repenting of his sin and being reconciled with God and His people. This repentance God accomplishes by means of His Word. This is why the consistory must patiently labor with the sinner, bringing the Word of God to him repeatedly.

Sometimes it happens that there is disagreement among the elders and/or members of the congregation as to whether a sin has indeed been committed. Or it happens that a report of sin comes to the consistory too late for the elders to investigate thoroughly prior to a scheduled celebration of the Lord's Supper, or there may be suspicion that a sin has been committed. Two practices have been followed by Reformed churches in such cases. The consistory may apply a temporary suspension of the person from the Lord's Supper, giving it time to confirm its suspicions; or the consistory may postpone the administration of the Lord's Supper until it has completed its investigation. The latter practice is to be preferred.

Article 76 further stipulates that there shall be "repeated admonitions" if the sinner remains impenitent. Article 77 explains the entire process leading up to excommunication and explains of what these "repeated admonitions" consist:

After the suspension from the Lord's table, and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication, the obstinacy of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation; the offense explained, together with the care bestowed upon him, in reproof, suspension from the Lord's Supper, and repeated admonition; and the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him. There shall be three such admonitions. In the first the name of the sinner shall not be mentioned that he be somewhat spared. In the second, with the advice of the classis, his name shall be mentioned. In the third the congregation shall be informed that (unless he repent) he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, in case he remains obstinate, may take place with the tacit approbation of the church. The interval between the admonitions shall be left to the discretion of the consistory.

After the impenitent sinner has been suspended from the Lord's Supper, there are to be three announcements made to the congregation. The biblical basis for these three announcements, or "admonitions" as Article 77 calls them, is to be found in part in Titus 3:10, "A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject."

There are two points to note as to the character of these three announcements. They do not preclude private admonitions made to the sinner by the consistory in official visits. There must be "repeated admonitions" brought to the impenitent by the elders all through the process of discipline. These public announcements do not preclude, as we mentioned earlier, private admonitions being brought to the sinner by members of the congregation. That always remains the calling of the people of God. These public announcements are called by the article, "admonitions." The point is twofold: the announcements are admonitions to the congregation itself on behalf of the sinner, and the announcements are indirectly admonitions to the sinner. He is admonished by having his sin and impenitence made known to the congregation.

These admonitions must include the following elements: a) The offense must be explained. b) There must be an explanation of the care bestowed on the sinner by the consistory. c) This care bestowed on the sinner must be explained in connection with the reproof of his sin, his suspension from the Lord's table, and the repeated admonitions made to him. This explanation should be detailed enough to give the congregation a clear understanding of the disciplinary work being done by the elders. d) An exhortation must be given to the congregation to speak to the sinner and to pray for him.

In the first public admonition the name of the sinner is not mentioned "that he be somewhat spared."

The second public admonition must include the name of the sinner. But this announcement may not be made without the consistory's seeking the advice of the classis. This advice is also mentioned in Article 76 in connection with excommunication. Some think that classis' advice must be sought twice, once before the second public admonition and again before announcing the excommunication. While it is not wrong to do this, it is not necessary. Ordinarily the consistory seeks the advice of classis just once, and that is before making the second public announcement. This advice of the classis is important. There must be safeguards. The consistory must be certain it is doing the right thing and dealing with the sinner fairly.

The classis, therefore, needs to know whether a sin has been committed, whether there is evidence of impenitence, whether the sinner has been suspended from the Lord's Supper, whether the first admonition to the congregation has been given, and whether the labor of the consistory is sufficient. Classis must give its advice carefully, for it is giving the consistory its approval for excommunication if the sinner remains impenitent. 

Proper procedure for this second announcement must be followed. The consistory must make a formal decision to proceed with the second announcement. This decision must have at least two grounds: repeated admonitions have been brought to the sinner, and the latter in spite of these remains impenitent. But the actual execution of this decision must have the approval of classis.

With the third announcement the consistory informs the congregation that the sinner will be excommunicated on a given date if he shows no signs of repentance. This announcement is made so that the excommunication may take place "with the tacit approbation of the church." In this way the entire congregation participates in the discipline of the sinner. If a member at this late date objects to the excommunication, he would have to appeal to classis, and the consistory would have to postpone the excommunication until classis has spoken.

The article stipulates that the interval between these three announcements or admonitions "shall be left to the discretion of the consistory." There are two extremes to be avoided by the consistory. The one is acting too hastily, and the other is acting too slowly. On the one hand, the elders must exercise patience and give the sinner repeated admonitions and offer many prayers for him in the hope that the Holy Spirit will use these to bring the sinner to repentance. On the other hand, the elders must not allow the sin to fester and grow so that it disrupts the unity and witness of the church. The church of Jesus Christ must be kept pure so that no shame is brought to the name of Christ.