Church Discipline

This solid, biblical article I ran across while researching online, illustrates just how much the synodical literature of today has changed. This article came out in the Aug. 7th, 1896 issue of The Lutheran Witness. It is entirely doctrinal and dispenses with academic vacillation or trying to appeal to the wisdom of the world. It simply speaks the truth of God plainly so that hearts may be taught by the Spirit. God’s Word and the Holy Spirit have not changed in the intervening years, most thankfully. The Word of God has the same power to convict and embolden—but first people must hear it. May the Word of Christ in Scripture gives us courage to act, and even discipline to bring about spiritual repentance, in the name of Christ. –ed.

Christ our Lord has given to His church on earth the power in His name and by His authority to forgive sins and to retain sins. In the 20th chapter of John we are told that “He breathed upon his disciples and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” And again in Matt. 18:18 Christ says to all Christians in general: “Verily, 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.” According to these words of Christ the church has the right and the duty, to announce the forgiveness of sins to such sinners as confess their sins and express their sorrow for them; and to retain the sins of such as are impenitent and obstinate. Christ has vested this power in the church, so that those who are troubled and alarmed in their conscience on account of their sins, might have a means and place of finding ease and comfort for their hearts, and on the other hand the object of retaining the sins of the impenitent, is to strike terror and dismay into the callous conscience, so that the careless and secure sinner may repent of his evil deeds and return from the way of perdition.

However, this power of the church to retain sins cannot be handled arbitrarily, but before it is exercised, a certain process of admonition must be observed, the object of which is to lead the offender to repentance, but resulting, if this object is not reached and the sinner remains impenitent, in the retention of his sins and his final exclusion from the congregation. This process is generally designated as “church discipline.”

The term “church discipline” is a little misleading and, hence, needs some explanation. It is composed of the two words “church” and “discipline”. It is therefore, as the name indicates, a discipline or the discipline that is, or ought to be exercised in the church or by the church.

Now what is that discipline that is to be exercised by the church? By discipline we generally mean a systematic training and bringing into subjection to certain rules and punishing insubordination to such rules. That is the meaning of the word for instance, when we speak of the discipline in a school or college. Then the word includes all the various means and ways that are employed to bring about the desired conduct of the pupils, such as admonition, reproof, correction and even expulsion. In this widest sense the term “church discipline” too, would imply all that the church does to train its members in living a godly life, all the instruction, admonition, exhortation, and reproof, both by public preaching and in private intercourse of members among themselves and of members and pastor, by which Christians are to be trained to become always better children of God.

But this is not, what we generally mean by the term “church discipline”. We here take the word “discipline” in a narrower sense. By “church discipline,” as was already briefly indicated, we mean a graded process of admonition, resulting in case of obstinate impenitence, in the final excommunication or exclusion from the congregation of a fallen brother. According to this definition of the term we speak of church discipline only in the case of a fallen brother. When a brother—or sister—, i. e. a member of the congregation, has fallen or committed sin and by his or her sin has given offense, then the process called church discipline is to be instituted against him or her.

What this process is to consist in, has been accurately prescribed by Christ Himself in Matt. 18:15–17. “If thy brother trespass against thee,” He says, “go and tell him is fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not gear 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.” These words of the Lord are very plain and clear. The process of church discipline, as prescribed by them, is in brief as follows: If your brother sins against you, i. e. if you are wronged by him, or if at any rate you know of a sin of his and are offended by it, then go and tell him his fault, admonish him and try to lead him to repentance. If he hears thee, thou hast gained thy brother, and then say nothing more about it. But if he will not listen to you, if he remains impenitent in spite of your admonition, then take one or two other Christians with you and admonish him together with them. If he even refuses to hear them, if he will not listen to your joint admonition, then take him before the congregation and let him be admonished a third time. If he then persists in his impenitence and wickedness, then let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican, then let him be excluded from the congregation and treated as a wicked and reprobate person.

This may suffice to give us a general idea of what is meant by church discipline. It is our purpose, in a series of articles to discuss the single features of the subject, and may God’s Holy Spirit open the hearts of all readers, diligently to ponder and meekly to receive the important truths that shall be brought home to us! G. L.