« Prev Section IV. Concerning the Discipline of the… Next »

Section IV.

Concerning the Discipline of the Church.

THE discipline of a church consists in their admitting or rejecting those who offer themselves to join with them; in the members watching over each other; in reproving and admonishing those who walk disorderly, and talking all proper methods to reform them; and in rejecting those who will not be reclaimed, but continue obstinate and unreformed, when all proper means have been previously used to bring them to repentance.

The proper exercise of discipline is important and necessary in order to the comfort, edification, and prosperity of a church; and where this is wholly neglected, in a church, it will go to ruin; and such a society is not worthy of the name of a christian church. Therefore this is particularly enjoined by Christ and his apostles.

The following particulars may serve to illustrate this subject.

I. In the exercise of discipline, the church is to be wholly governed by the laws of Christ. He is the only lawgiver in his church; and in exercising discipline, christians are to execute his laws, and have no authority, or right to do any thing, unless it be agreeable to his direction and command. And whatsoever is done by the church in his name, and according to his laws, is done by authority derived from him, as they are authorized by him to execute his laws: But when, and so far as they deviate from this, they have no authority; and what they do is null and void, and disapproved by him.

II. The power to execute the laws of Christ is not given by him to any one man, or to any particular class or order of men in the church; but to the church, as a particular and distinct society; though some particular members or officers in the church, may in many instances have a distinguished influence, and lead in the transactions of the church, and put into execution their decisions. When the head of the church said to Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: 349And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: And whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven;”484484   Matt. xvi. 19. we are not to suppose that this commission and authority was given to Peter alone, or to the Apostles only, or to any distinct succession of men or officers in the church; but to the church which Peter represented in the confession he had then just made; and of which Christ speaks in the preceding words. “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And what Christ says in the next chapter confirms the truth of this supposition; for when he is there speaking of the doing of the church, in censuring and excommunicating an offender, he repeats the words above mentioned, which he had spoken to Peter, and gives this same authority to the church, and sanction to their doings, according to his laws. “Verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: And whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.”485485   Chap. xvii. 18. Two things appear evident from hence. In the first place, that Christ did not give this commission and authority to Peter only, in distinction from the rest of his disciples; but to them all, as much as to Peter. And in the next place, that this authority was given to them, not as a distinct order of men in his church, but as his disciples, and his church, as they composed the only church which Christ then had on earth, from whom all the professed disciples of Christ, and members of his visible church, have descended, as their successors, being the followers of Christ, and members of his church, as his first disciples were. Therefore, this power and authority is given to the church, and is to continue in it, as long as there is a church on earth, even to the end of the world.

III. This authority therefore, to maintain and execute the laws of Christ, is given to the church, as a body or society; each member of the church having an equal concern and right to judge and act in all decisions to be made by the church, in the exercise of discipline: and the act of the majority is to be considered as the act of the church, as no society can decide and act in any other 350way. And that the whole church are in this way to judge, decide and act, is evident from scripture. When our Saviour is giving particular directions respecting discipline, he gives the authority to judge and act to the church, as a society, and not to any particular member of it. “Tell it to the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man, and a publican.”486486   Matt. xviii. 17. According to this every matter is to come before the church, and is to be decided by the judgment and voice of the church, as a body; which cannot be done in any other way but by the judgment and voice of all the members of it, or of the majority.—Agreeable to this are the words of the apostle Paul to the church at Corinth, when he gave them direction to discipline a particular member of the church, who had been guilty of a scandalous crime. “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 an one unto Satan.”487487   1 Cor. v. 4, 5. This was to be done by the church; in order to which, they must all come together, that it might be the act of the church. And in the whole that he says on this subject, he speaks to the whole church as concerned, and acting in this matter. “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. I have written unto you, not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother, be a fornicator, or covetous, &c. with such an one, no not to eat. Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from yourselves that wicked person.” And when they had rebuked and excommunicated this person, the apostle speaks of it as being done by them all, or the majority of the church. “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted by many,” or by the most, or major part, as the word may properly be rendered.488488   2 Cor. ii. 6. And he speaks the same language to other churches, when treating of this subject. “I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them: For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own bellies.”489489   Rom. xvi. 17, 18.351“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which ye have received of us. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.”490490   2 Thess. iii. 6, 14. Hence it appears, that when this same Apostle, directs Timothy and Titus, respecting the exercise of discipline in the churches in which they presided, he does not mean that they had any authority in the matter over the churches; but that they should excite and lead the churches to a proper care and conduct in the strict and faithful exercise of discipline: For in any other view and sense, he would be inconsistent with himself.

It has been observed, that in every decision and act of the church, in the exercise of discipline, there must be the voice of the major part, or greatest number of the church, at least; and every such act is to be considered as the act of that particular society or church. But it is desirable, that the church should be unanimous in all their decisions and votes; and therefore, all proper and possible care and pains ought to be taken to effect and maintain this unanimity in all their proceedings. And when this cannot be obtained, and there appears a difference in judgment among the members of the church, and a number do not view the case before them, in the same light with the majority, they are to be treated with love and tenderness, and the latter ought to use all proper means to enlighten and convince their dissenting brethren, that they may think and act with them, and manifest a reluctance to proceed and act without their concurrence and consent; and, if possible, persuade them, at least to say, they are willing the majority should act as they think best, and though they cannot see with them, at present, they will not be offended, nor are disposed to make any division or uneasiness in the church.

And the minority, who cannot act with their brethren in any instance, when they have offered the reasons of their dissent in meekness and love, ought to acquiesce in the decision of the church, so as to take no offence, or do any thing to interrupt the peace of the church; unless 352they consider the case to be so important, and the proceedings of the majority so contrary to the laws of Christ, that they ought to remonstrate, and think they cannot be faithful to Christ and their brethren unless the} take some farther steps. In such a case, it will be the duty of the church to join with the dissatisfied in asking judgment and advice of other churches. And in any instance, where the matter to be decided is intricate or difficult, or when the person, concerning whom the decision is to be made, desires it, it is proper and wise to ask the advice of other churches, in order to get all the light and help they can obtain respecting the matter to be determined. But every particular church, after asking counsel and advice, and making the best improvement of it they can, must act according to their own judgment, they not being bound implicitly to submit to the dictates of any other churches or councils, as having authority to decide for them in any matter; or any farther than they receive light and conviction.

IV. The females are included in the male members of the church, and are to act only by them, as thus included; or the males act for them, and the women are not to dictate and vote in the church, in any matter which is to be decided, as this would be usurping and exercising that authority over the men, which is forbidden in scripture, and is inconsistent with that state of inferiority to men, which God has for wise reasons constituted, by which they are not to rule, but to be in subjection. But they have a right to know all the concerns and proceedings of the church, as they are equally interested in them with the male members; and it is desirable that they should be satisfied with all the transactions of the church, and know the reasons on which they proceed. They have therefore a right to be present in all the meetings of the church, and ought to attend with the males, and give all the light and evidence they can in any case, in which it is desired; and may propose any difficulty or uneasiness in their minds respecting the proceedings of the church, in order to get information and satisfaction. And they have a right to be regarded and treated with respect and kindness, by the brethren, who ought to give the sisters all the light and satisfaction in their power, in every case.


When a particular church is to be formed and constituted in any place, the proposed members of it are to satisfy each other that they are so far agreed in their understanding and judgment respecting the Bible, as to the doctrines and truths therein revealed, so far as they regard faith and practice; and that they have such a practical acquaintance with the christian religion; and that their life and conversation are so far agreeable to the commands of Christ, that they can receive each other as real christians to a state of church fellowship, and agree to walk, in all the commands of Christ, and in attendance on his worship and ordinances. By this they are prepared to unite in a confession of their faith, or of their understanding and belief of the important and essential doctrines contained in divine revelation, and of the institutions and duties which Christ has appointed: And to enter into mutual and solemn covenant, to walk in the ways and ordinances of Christ, blameless; and to assist and watch over each other in their christian practice, and in the exercise of that discipline which Jesus Christ has instituted, to prevent corruption and apostasy in the church, in doctrine or practice, and for their mutual edification in love. And when the necessary officers of a church are chosen and ordained, they are prepared to attend upon all the institutions of Christ, and to exercise that discipline which he has appointed.

In the exercise of this discipline, they are to admit or reject those who offer to join with them, as members of their christian society; which is to be done with care, discerning and judgment. After proper acquaintance with such, and a careful examination into their knowledge and belief of the most important doctrines of revelation, and their experimental acquaintance with them, and cordial approbation of them; if they appear to the church to understand and approve of those doctrines which they hold important and necessary to be understood and believed, in order to be real christians, and to be willing to devote themselves to Christ, and observe all his commandments; and to make public profession of this, and enter into a solemn covenant to obey all the commands of Christ, as members of that church, they are to receive them as real christians, 354so far as they are warranted to judge and determine. But if they appear to them ignorant of the essential truths and doctrines of the gospel, or not to believe them; or do not appear to have embraced them cordially and experimentally; or if their temper and conduct have not been agreeable to the gospel, and they do not manifest a disposition to repent and reform, they are to be rejected, as not appearing to be real christians; and therefore unworthy to be visible members of a christian church.

When any who are members of the church shall fall from their profession and christian character, by embracing error, or any unchristian practice, of which there is sufficient evidence; and after proper methods taken with them to bring them to repentance and reclaim them, without success; they are to be rejected and cast out of the church, as unworthy of a place in the visible church of Christ: But may afterwards be received again, upon their giving proper evidence of true repentance.

There is to be special care taken of the children of the church, viz. the children of those parents who are or have been members of the church, who have dedicated them to Christ, in the ordinance of baptism, and have been received by the church, as visible members of Christ, the lambs in his flock, in the manner and on the grounds which have been before explained. Every adult member of the church ought to be concerned that these should have a christian education, and watch over one another, with respect to this, and direct, admonish and exhort those who appear negligent and deficient in their duty to their children. And every gross and continued neglect ought to subject the person guilty to the censure of the church. And when the children arrive to an age in which they are capable of acting for themselves in matters of religion, and making a profession of their adherence to the christian faith and practice, and coming to the Lord’s supper: If they neglect and refuse to do this, and act contrary to the commands of Christ in any other respect, all proper means are to be used, and methods taken to bring them to repentance, and to do their duty as christians. And if they cannot 355be reclaimed, but continue impenitent and unreformed, they are to be rejected and cast out of the church, as other adult members are, who persist in disobedience to Christ.

V. The general rule of exercising discipline towards those members who give offence in words or conduct, and which is applicable to every case, is given by Jesus Christ in the following words: “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. 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. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”491491   Matth. xviii. 15, 16, 17.

It has been supposed by some, if not generally, that this direction respects private and personal offences only, and that it is not applicable to general and public offences. But perhaps this will appear to be a mistake, when the matter is properly considered; and that the method and steps here pointed out, are to be taken with every offender, as most agreeable to the dictates of christian love, and best suited to reclaim such; and the most proper regulation and guard to prevent unreasonable and frivolous complaints being brought to the church.

When a member of the church acts contrary to his christian profession, and transgresses any of the laws of Christ, and walks disorderly, he trespasses or sins492492   The word in the original αμαρτηση translated trespass, is the word which is used for sinning. It is so translated in the 21st verse. “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him!” And it is so translated in the following passage: “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.” 1 Cor. viii 12. And it is to be observed, that by sinning against the brethren, he does not mean, any particular personal injury or offence. against every brother in the church, and offends him as really, and as much, as if he injured him in particular in his person, character or estate: And there is the same reason and obligation to take steps to reclaim him, as if his trespass were against one individual only. And if his sin be not of a private, but of a public nature, and is 356known to many, or to all, this is no reason why every person should not feel the trespass against him, and be ready to take proper steps to bring him to repentance, and be the first to apply to him to that end, unless particular circumstances render it more proper and convenient for some other person to do it.

And however public the offence may be, every individual ought to be disposed to make private application to him first, unless some other person shall do it, before he speaks of it to others; and to consider this as necessary in order to obey the command of Christ, and the law of love, which ought to govern, in every step taken in such a case. Perhaps the person offending does not view what he has done in a true light, or think himself guilty of unchristian conduct, or does not know that others are offended with him. And if he should have his crime properly set before him in a private way, he might be made sensible of what he had done, and that he had given just offence, and voluntarily make christian satisfaction by a public confession, without any public accusation, or process before the church. If the brethren were all under the proper influence of christian love, and felt that concern and tenderness towards an offending brother, which is the attendant of such love, such a method would doubtless appear most agreeable to them, and they would be ready to take it, whenever there is opportunity and a call to do it; and it will be peculiarly agreeable to them, to have a brother who has sinned, reclaimed in such a private and easy way. And it is presumed there is no christian who is a member of a church, who would not wish to be treated in this manner, if he should in any instance give offence to any or all of his brethren: and who would not think it a privilege to be in union with brethren who would deal thus privately and tenderly with him, whenever he should give them any just, or supposed ground of offence: and therefore if he should neglect to take this method with any of his brethren who should give offence to him, he would not do to him, as he would desire others to do to himself, and so transgress the law of love, and this wise law of Christ, which commands christians to endeavour to heal every offence, in the most private, easy 357and tender manner. It may be the supposed offender will satisfy his offended brother, that he is innocent, and has really given no ground of offence. But if he be not able to do this, and be not made sensible of his fault, and so do not hear his brother, he must take one or two of his brethren, whom he thinks most likely to convince and gain the offender; as this is most agreeable to christian love, and best suited to answer the end. If they, when they have heard and considered the case, judge there is just ground of offence, and do convince the offender of it, and persuade him to make christian satisfaction, the faulty brother is gained. If they judge that there is no sufficient ground of offence, or no proper evidence of the fact with which he is charged, the matter cannot be carried any farther, and laid before the church. If they think there is just ground of offence, and evidence of the fact of which he is accused, but cannot convince the offender of it, and therefore judge it ought to be laid before the church; the way is prepared to bring a complaint to the church, which ought to be received when it comes to them by the approbation of two or three, and not otherwise. And thus, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word is established.” They are witnesses which ought to have great weight with the person’s conscience with whom they deal, and which is suited to convince him, and bring him to his duty, if they condemn him. They are witnesses to the church, that private methods have been taken to convince and reclaim him; that he will not hear them, and that he ought to be called to an account by the church. And in this way, the church go on proper and safe ground in receiving a complaint against any of the members, and proceeding to call the accused person before them, in order to hear and judge of the matter of which he is accused. And there is a proper guard placed against accusations being brought to the church by individuals, which might be wholly without any foundation, which would give needless trouble to the church, and might be very injurious to those against whom the complaints are made.

On the whole, it will doubtless appear to all who well consider the matter, that the rule our Saviour has given 358in the words under consideration, extends to all instances of offences given by any professing christians; and that no person can, according to this, be called before the church to answer for any fault, whether private or public, unless a complaint be brought against him, in the way here prescribed: And that the wisdom and goodness of Christ appeals in forming this short and plain rule of proceeding in all such cases, which is perfectly agreeable to the law of love, and is in the best manner suited to promote the peace and edification of the church, and the good of every individual member: And consequently, every deviation from this rule is contrary to the law of christian benevolence, and tends to evil.493493   It has been supposed by some, that the direction in this passage to go to an offending brother, “and tell him his fault between thee and him alone,” is applicable to no case hut such wherein none knows of the fault of which the brother is guilty but the person who applies to him. But I this can of be true: For in such a case he would not be able to prove to the church, or any one, that his brother has been guilty of any fault; and therefore has no right to take one or two more to deal with him, or to speak of it to any person in the world. It must remain a secret between, him and his brother; and to tell it to others would be a violation of the law of love, and a real slander; and would expose himself to suffer as a slanderer of his brother, having spread an evil report of him, which he cannot prove. Therefore, in the case of a trespass mentioned by Christ in this passage, it is supposed that it can be proved by other witnesses than him who tells him his fault, or those whom he takes with him in the second step; otherwise he cannot take such a step; and it is so secret that though he knew the fact to be true, he may not speak of it to any one; and cannot be a matter of public discipline.
   If it be asked. What an offended brother can do in such a ease? The answer is plain and easy. He ought to deal with his faulty brother privately, and try to convince and awaken his conscience, and bring him to repentance. But if he remain obstinate, he must leave the matter in secret till the day of judgment, and continue to treat his brother before the world, and in the church, as visibly in good standing, and a visible christian, as he really is, whatever be the secret sins of which he is guilty.

IV. When the accused person is thus regularly brought before the church, if they judge he is censurable, and he remains impenitent, and will not hear them; or if he refuse to appear and answer to the complaint, when desired, he is to be rejected and cast out of the church; and cannot be restored again, without a proper manifestation of repentance. This is expressed by Christ in the following words: “But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” That is, consider and treat him as you are accustomed to view and treat heathens and publicans.—The apostle Paul expresses the same thing 359in the following words: “I have written unto you, not to keep company, 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 an one, no not to eat.”494494   1 Cor. v. 11.—And to the same purpose he says again: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which ye received of us. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.”495495   2 Thess. iii. 6, 14. The Jews avoided the company of heathens and publicans, and did not eat their common meals with them. And in the above passage, Christ commands the members of his churches to treat those who will not hear the church, in the same manner. And the same thing is enjoined by St. Paul, when he commands the church at Corinth not to keep company with such, no not to eat. He tells them he did not forbid their keeping company with the wicked men of the world; for this would be inconsistent with their living in the world. But if he, who had the name of a christian brother, transgressed the rules of Christ, and fell from his profession, they should renounce him, and not only exclude him from the privileges of a visible christian in the church; but treat him with peculiar neglect and slight, and avoid his company at all times, and never so much as eat with him at a common table; as suited to keep in his view his character and situation in the sight of christians, and to excite those feelings, and that shame, which tended to bring him to repentance.

Such a treatment of an excommunicated person is proper and necessary, in order to answer the ends of the censures of the church, so as to have their desired effect. By this their authority is exercised, maintained and kept in view, and their particular abhorrence of the character and conduct of the censured person is constantly expressed to him, and to the world; and the distinction between him and those who are in good standing, and his awful situation, is made manifest in all their conduct towards him: And it is suited constantly 360to affect and impress his mind, to give him uneasiness in his situation, to make him ashamed, and bring him to repentance.—Thus the salutary ends of the censures of the church are in this way answered, both with respect to the church, the excommunicated person, and the world.

VII. The brother who commits a fault, by which he falls under the censure of the church, may be restored to good standing again, by reformation, a public confession, and profession of repentance, and not without this.

Some have thought that a confession before the church only is sufficient in order to a person’s being restored to good standing; and that this is all that can be reasonably required. But it ought to be considered, that the church is a public society, a city set on a hill, which cannot be hid; and their light is to shine before others. When a christian falls from his profession in his conduct, he puts out his light before others, as well as in the sight of the church, and cannot recover it, and cause it to shine again, but by a profession of repentance, and condemnation of himself, before them, or in their sight. And a true penitent will desire to do this before all to whom the knowledge of his crime may have come, and wish all may know that he does repent. A contrary disposition to this is found only in the impenitent.

VIII. It is to be observed, that Jesus Christ has pot given to his church any authority to inflict any corporeal punishment on men for disobedience to his laws; to imprison or fine them, or subject them to any worldly inconvenience, except what is implied in casting them out of the church, and treating them in the manner mentioned above.

All that has been done of this kind in the christian world, by the professed followers of Christ, has been an abuse and violation of the laws of Christ, and has proceeded wholly from an antichristian spirit. The kingdom of Christ is in this respect, as well as others, not of this world.

IX. On the whole, it is observable, that the prevalence of the spirit of christian love is necessary in order to the proper and useful practice of discipline in the 361churches of Christ. Christ and his apostles have insisted much on this, as that without which the laws of Christ cannot be obeyed in any degree. It is this alone by which the disciples and church of Christ are to be distinguished from the men and the societies of the world. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”496496   John xiii. 35. Where a spirit of true christian love prevails, it will be natural and easy to obey the laws of Christ respecting the discipline to be exercised in his church; it will appear important and necessary that these laws should be observed and executed with great care and strictness: And the good effect will be apparent. By this the church will edify itself in love, and become “fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.” And when this spirit of christian love is not in exercise, the proper practice of discipline will not take place; and all attempts to practise it will proceed from selfishness, pride and a worldly spirit, and promote confusion, divisions and contention, rather than peace and edification, which has been verified in too many instances.

« Prev Section IV. Concerning the Discipline of the… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection