Discipline: On What Ground(s)?

Consistories are often confronted with the question whether a person should be placed under discipline or not. This article reviews Biblical data and concludes that there is only one ground for church discipline: refusal to repent.

Excommunication Is Biblical

God told Abraham that those who refused to belong to God – signified and sealed by circumcision – were to be considered outside the community (Gen. 17:14). Through Moses God instructed His people to remove defiant sinners from the covenant community (Num. 15:30-31). Under the Mosaic covenant, such excommunication meant the death penalty (Num. 15:35; Deut. 13:5,9).

The “defiant sinner” is referred to in Hebrew as “one sinning with raised hand”. Picture a person being admonished for sinning and then balling his fist in the face of God’s Spirit, refusing to admit guilt and refusing to repent. Refusal to repent is in fact sinning against the Holy Spirit.

Sin Is Not Always Censurable

Now Numbers 15 makes clear that sinning is in and of itself not a reason for church discipline. Indeed, even the person who sins many times over is to be forgiven, provided he admits guilt and repents  (Matthew 18:22). A person who sins unintentionally or because of weakness should never be denied assurance of forgiveness and communion.

The classic Lord’s Supper form is clear: “But all this, beloved brothers and sisters, is not meant to discourage broken and contrite hearts, as if only those who are without sin may come to the table of the Lord. For we do not come to this supper to declare that we are perfect and righteous in ourselves. On the contrary, we seek our life outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ and, in doing so, we acknowledge that we are dead in ourselves.”

Only One Sin Is Censurable

Discipline is to be exercised when an individual refuses to admit guilt and refuses to repent (Matthew 18:32-35). Such a person is grieving the Holy Spirit. By his words and actions he is making clear that he has broken covenant with God. He claims no need for forgiveness for a particular sin and he is not looking for communion with God on God’s terms. Such a person has been placed outside the Kingdom of Heaven by God Himself. The church, through the exercise of church discipline, will make that clear to the individual and the church. (Matthew 18:18)

Again, the classic Lord’s Supper form is clear: “According to the command of Christ and of the apostle Paul, we admonish all those who know themselves to be guilty of the following offensive sins to abstain from the table of the Lord, and we declare to them that they have no part in the kingdom of Christ: … all who either in word or conduct show themselves to be unbelieving by leading an offensive life. While they persist in their sins, they shall not take of this food, which Christ has ordained only for His believers.”

In line with this one church order commentary states: “It is definitely irrepentance which brings forth suspension, not the sin committed.”[1] Another says: “Ultimately, one sin alone is addressed in church discipline. It is the sin of not repenting of whatever sin one has fallen into. This is also the significance of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:17; the refusal to repent (…) must be reported to the church.”[2]

Illustrations of the Practice

A person is not to be placed under discipline for alcohol addiction, adultery, or usury. Such a person requires admonition regarding sin and pastoral assistance to do what is right. It is the person who rejects the admonition regarding sin and refuses assistance in the battle against sin who is to be disciplined.

Thus a consistory ought always first to determine whether the sinner is sinning “unintentionally” or “out of weakness”, or whether it is “out of hardness of heart.” Only if a consistory is convinced a sinner is hardening himself and thus cannot count on forgiveness and has been excluded by God from the Kingdom of Heaven, only then can (and must!) church discipline be exercised.

A simple test for the consistory is to ask the question: “Do we believe that before God this sinner stands condemned to hell?” For the consistory will indicate in its communication to the sinner that only repentance in word and deed will mean re-entry into God’s Kingdom.

In Short: One Ground for Discipline

All are sinners, both before and after coming to faith. Discipline is exercised, not with a view to sin, but with a view to one’s attitude to sin. Those who sin unintentionally or out of weakness may trust that God’s grace will deliver them. Those who refuse to fight against their sins should realize they stand condemned before God.

There is only one ground for discipline: Refusing to heed the Holy Spirit’s call to repent.

[1] Van Dellen, Idzerd & Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1949), p. 313.

[2] C. Bouwman, Spiritual Order for the Church (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 2000), p. 173.