Discipline: Course of Events
In the tradition of Dort people often speak of “the 3 steps of discipline”. Few, however, can name them. Many presume them to be the three announcements found in the Liturgical Form for Excommunication. That, however, is incorrect.
This article will outline the course of events as church discipline is exercised.
Discipline commences when a sinning believer fails to adequately examine his own walk with God.
Church discipline begins when a fellow believer addresses a sinner with respect to his doctrine and/or life. To protect the sinner’s honour and reputation, initial admonitions are done privately.
If the sin is of a public nature (e.g. living common law), the overseers of the church will become involved immediately.
Should the sinning believer deny the need to repent, the person admonishing will bring along one or two more people. The task of such witnesses is three-fold. (1) They agree that at issue is sin which requires admonition. (2) They can testify to the fact that admonition has taken place. (3) They can testify to the fact whether repentance has taken place.
Formal Involvement of the Church
If the sinning believer refuses to repent, the original accuser will report the matter to the elders of the church. These elders (as consistory) will determine whether the sin is censurable (requires discipline) and whether, thus far, the Way of Matthew 18 has been followed.
Step 1: Silent Censure
If the consistory is convinced censurable sin has been committed, two or three elders will meet with the sinner, confront him with his sin, and call him to repentance.
If the sinner refuses to repent, the consistory will decide to place the sinner under Silent Censure. The term “censure” indicates the sinner has been formally withheld from celebrating the Lord’s Supper. He is being told he is not to count on God’s justifying and sanctifying grace. The term “silent” indicates that officially, except the consistory and the sinner, no one knows about this.
Elders will continue to call the sinner to repentance. As consistory meetings tend to be only monthly and the church, like her gracious God, is to be patient (“long suffering”), step 1 lasts many months, often even years.
If the sin committed is public rather than private and it is clear the sinner refuses to repent, the consistory will decide to impose silent censure at once.
Step 2: Public Censure
If the sinner continues to refuse to repent, the consistory will decide to involve the congregation in the exercise of discipline. This process consists of three announcements made to the congregation.
The consistory informs the congregation that a member of the congregation is living in sin and refusing to repent. The congregation is called upon to pray for the unrepentant sinner. The congregation is not made aware of who the sinner is. Elders continue to communicate with the sinner (through visitation if possible), calling him to repentance. Again, this will last at least several months.
If the sinner continues to refuse to repent, the consistory will seek the advice of classis as to whether consistory is justified in making the sinner known to the congregation so that the whole congregation may join in calling the sinner to repentance. If classis agrees, consistory will announce the name and, if need be, contact details to the congregation. Alongside communications from the elders, the sinner now also receives communications from other members, calling him to repentance. This period often lasts more than a year.
If such admonitions do not result in the repentance of the sinner, the consistory will set a date on which the sinner, if continuing to refuse to repent, will be excommunicated. To give the congregation time and to ensure an intervening consistory meeting, the date is never less than a month from when the announcement is made. The elders and congregation will do their utmost to call the sinner to repentance.
Step 3: Excommunication
Should the sinner remain defiant, the consistory will declare to the congregation that he is no longer to be regarded as a faithful member of the church. He has broken covenant with God and therewith placed himself outside the Kingdom of God. Except via the road of repentance, the sinner cannot be received again into the covenant community.
The three steps of discipline relate to the formal involvement of the church, that is, the elders. The three steps are silent censure, public censure, and excommunication. Discipline in relation to private sins is always preceded by private admonitions. Discipline in relation to hardening in a public sin will commence with step 1.