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Studies & Actions of the General Assembly of
The Presbyterian Church in America

24th General Assembly, 1996, 24-17, pages 111 - 115.

by T. David Gordon

What follows is an outline of the primary realities associated with ecclesiastical discipline, especially in light of the instruction of the New Testament. It consists of little more than an outline, which outline could usefully be supplemented by prose discussion. Sessions and Presbyteries might find this outline fruitful as a structure for conversation about church discipline.

I. Discipline is an aspect of discipleship

A. Mt. 28:18-20. The positive dimension; teaching to observe all that Jesus commanded.
B. Heb. 13:17. The "prevenient" dimension; watching over souls to prevent their going astray. (This dimension is also implicit whenever the officers are referred to as "shepherds".)
C. 1 Cor. 5. The "remedial" dimension; correcting or pronouncing judgment on the wayward.
II. Discipline is a mark and duty of the church
PCA BCO Preliminary Principle 3: "Our blessed Saviour. . . has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty. It is incumbent upon these officers and upon the whole Church in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God."
A. Matthew 18:115-18 -- "binding and loosing"
B. Matthew 16:18-20 -- "keys of the kingdom," "binding and loosing"
C. John 20:23 -- "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
D. Hebrews 13:17 -- "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account."
E.1 Cor. 5

1. "Remove" the offender, 1-5
2. Beware of the danger to yourselves, 6-8
3. Your concern is for insiders, not outsiders, 11-13: "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside."

III. Discipline has several goals
BCO 27-3: "The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. In its proper usage discipline maintains:
a. the glory of God,
b. the purity of His Church,
c. the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners."
A. Glory of God (and honor of religion). 1 Cor. 5:1: "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles -- that a man has his father's wife."
B. Purity of the Church. 1 Cor. 5:4: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, [5] deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. [6] Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? [7] Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened.
C. Reclamation of the wayward. Mat. 18:15-20. Note contextual concern for "one of the least of these" in 18:10-14, and the transition then to 15, eau da, with the goal of winning (ekerdesas) the brother.
D. If "C" were the only goal of discipline, then we would never discipline those who appeared to be "lost causes." Yet the glory of God and the purity of the church are also at stake. In 1 Cor. 5, Paul urges the Corinthians to remove the offender, not only for his sake, but for their sake, warning that a little leaven would poison the entire church.
E. It is thus never true that discipline will "do no good." That a given individual may not immediately respond favorably does not mean that "no good" is done. Often there is no immediate, visible response to preaching, or to the administration of the Lord's Supper, or to prayer; this does not mean that preaching and the Lord's Supper and prayer "do no good." It merely means that God the Holy Spirit uses his own ordinances as he wishes when he wishes.
IV. Discipline has several stages

We refer to "stages" rather than "steps." At the positive level, we do not instruct merely once (a "step"), but many times. We do not pray merely once, but regularly, repeatedly. Even when the "remedial" aspects begin, there are "stages," not "steps," because the effort to win a brother "alone" should not be hastily or perfunctorily done. It is not a "step" one passes quickly by, but a "stage" that may require many visits, as long as there is any reasonable possibility that progress is being made. We are guided, in this patient and painstaking process, by the law of charity: "Love hopes all things."

A. Positive. The "positive" stages of discipline include all of those activities that promote godliness.

1. Instruction. All of the church's preaching, teaching, and private counsel, are means by which saints are discipled/disciplined. Through the blessing of God, such instruction is the instrument by which the affections and thoughts of God's people are brought into conformity with his own affections and thoughts.
2.Godly example and encouragement. Within the professing community, the godly example and patient encouragement of others also has a discipling or disciplining effect.
3. Prayer. The patient, persisting prayer of other saints is a means by which God sanctifies and disciplines his people.
4. Sacraments. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are means by which, positively, we learn about our duties and privileges as saints, and are increasingly disciplined in the Christian life and graces.
5. Other? There may be many other, specific ways in which the Christian is disciplined in the Christian life in a positive way.

B. Prevenient. The "prevenient" stages of discipline are similar to the positive stages, but include those various actions that help prevent spiritual decline, and protect against sin.

1. Catechism. Whether technically, using the actual catechisms, or more generally, using sound instruction, the comprehensive instruction about the Christian faith and life undoubtedly prevents many sins from ever occuring.
2. Corporate worship; the means of grace (frequent preaching and communion?). Weekly assembling for God's worship undoubtedly functions preveniently, to call us back to communion with God before we go astray.
3. Visitation by shepherds. Pastoral visitation by pastor and elders undoubtedly prevents many sins from beginning or continuing.
4. Prayer by shepherds. Surely the patient, persisting prayers of saints and officers is frequently blessed by God to prevent sin from manifesting itself.
5. Other?

C. Remedial. The "remedial" stages of discipline are those stages that are instituted after sin has already occurred (or has been alleged to have occurred).

1. Private stage "go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. This stage should not be quickly dispensed with, as though it were a mere formality. In the great wisdom of God (who knows our frame, that we are but dust), this is a very important stage, for at least two reasons. First, at this stage there is no public scandal. Disrepute has not yet come upon the Bride of Christ, because at this point, only two people are aware of the incident. For this reason, one should persevere at this stage patiently, for as long as there is any evidence that progress is being made. Second, people tend to be defensive about allegations against them. And, they tend to become more defensive the more public the allegations become. Therefore, it is much more likely that an individual will be humble, meek, or contrite, when dealt with tenderly and privately, than if dealt with publicly.
2. Arbitration stage "But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you." Sometimes, even after a patient, extended season of private discussion, two brothers do not settle the dispute, and others must be brought in to attempt to facilitate resolution. Much wisdom should be exercised at this stage, in selecting arbiters who will be manifestly impartial, patient, and discreet.
3. Ecclesiastical/formal stage "If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." 1 Cor. 5:3-4 "For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing." Regrettably, there will on some occasions be no resolution to a dispute even after the arbitration stage. On such regrettable moments, there is no alternative other than to bring the matter before the appropriate church-court for resolution.

V. Discipline faces several difficulties
A. Personal. It is hard for sinners to discipline sinners. We tend to be either too strict (Mt. 7) or too lax (1 Cor. 5)
B. Exegetical. "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand," 2 Peter 3:15-16.

1. What issues does the Bible address? (BCO 29-1)
2. What does the Bible teach?

C. Cultural.

1. Individualism. People do not perceive themselves as either responsible for others or accountable to others.
2. Voluntarism. People believe that church membership is voluntary or unilateral, rather than as covenantal or bipartisan.
3. Rise of litigation and litigiousness, including litigation against churches. This makes the stakes very high for those who will not follow the constitution.
4. Sentimentalism. Few people are capable of the kind of dispassionate judgment that discipline requires; they tend to sympathize with a party or against a party.

D. Denominational. Our BCO renders discipline somewhat difficult in practice, for the following reasons. The following are not necessarily intended as criticisms of our communion. Rather, they are intended to assist us in being alert to the particular challenges our communion faces, because of its distinctives.

1. There are clauses in it that are unique in Presbyterian history, thus rendering the opinions and actions of previous Presbyterian bodies somewhat moot in terms of the direction we might glean from them (e.g. the provision for a congregation withdrawing from the denomination unilaterally in BCO 25-11; the provision for a non-delegated General Assembly).
2. Our BCO is a "moving target," potentially changing every year, occasionally frustrating the efforts of those who conscientiously attempt to learn it. (Other, earlier Presbyterian bodies had no provision for piecemeal changes. When the Book was considered significantly deficient, a Revision Committee was erected; which worked for years on a wholescale revision, which was then debated as a whole.
3. Our Book of Discipline is conceptually arranged, not procedurally arranged. Thus, it is sometimes difficult to determine what needs to be done first, second, third, etc. (N.B., this committee is working on developing a checklist of judicial procedures, in an effort to ameliorate this effect).

For the judicial procedures checklist in other formats, click here: [pdf] or [doc]