Lesson 6 – Church Censures


Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©2011

Ecclesiology: Lesson 6 – Church Censures
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2002, 2011

Lesson Index
Our Personal Duty When Others Sin
The Authority of Church to Censure Its Members
The Purpose and Process of Church Censures

Our Personal Duty When Others Sin

Sadly, there are times when God’s people sin and need the encouragement of others to be restored to godliness. This is always the primary goal of what we commonly call church discipline. As a spiritual family we are obligated to do all we can to help one another when we fall into sin.

There are two aspects of biblical discipline. We mostly think of the negative steps that occur after someone is so entangled in sin that he resists personal help. This is where church censures may become necessary. There is also the positive side of discipline. This is where we encourage one another to godliness to avoid falling into sin as much as is possible on this side of glory.

We’re told in Hebrews 10:24 “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” The King James translation has, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works”

This points to what we are to stir up in others. Believers in Christ are a spiritual family. It’s not what we become. It’s what we are. As such, loving one another isn’t a recommendation. It’s our duty.

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, he was directly quoting from the ancient law of Moses in Leviticus 19:18.

Paul’s advice in Galatians 6:2 is, ” Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.”

We are neither created nor redeemed to live isolated lives.

Paul illustrated this in 1 Corinthians 12:21 by imagining our body parts arguing with one another, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

Imagine an army in the heat of battle where all the soldiers argue and don’t get along. A common tactic in war is to disrupt the morale and confidence the enemy troops have in one another, in their cause, or in their leadership. Often supplies are intercepted or blocked, communications are interfered with and conditions are made to deteriorate stirring undisciplined combatants into bickering. This breaks up their ability to function as a unit. Instead of relying upon the special skills of one another, each starts acting on his own and looking out for only himself.

Fingers may not be noticeably important when you’re jogging, But they are a lot more handy than feet when opening a snack package. Every part of the body of Christ is as important as every other, and depends upon every other. It’s the same as how we need all our own body parts working to support one another. If we don’t help one another out as a spiritual family the part each is there to provide will be missing.

Not everyone can do everything. We need to rely on others to get all the work done. This is why God has called some to be shepherds and teachers in the church as Elders. He has called some to to be Deacons to make sure the daily needs are met. Some are Sunday School teachers to help us learn together under the Elders’ direction. Some help the Deacons in their mercy ministries to the needy, or by making repairs, mowing the church’s lawn, getting supplies, cleaning up after worship and social activities and providing transportation to those unable to drive. Some organize our social activities. Some are reliable in prayer, and others are good examples to us as parents or as children. Some remind us of how important it is to be reliably present in worship. Each brings his special ability to strengthen the others. No one does what they do perfectly. But all are to cooperate in love.

One thing every member of the church can and must do is to be encouraging to the others as best he can.

The efforts of the powers of evil shouldn’t have us reeling in disability. Rather than get discouraged, we are told what to do. Just as an army prepares for battle, we need to get involved and carefully design our encouragement of one another in the church. This is the preventive discipline that if lacking creates the need for negative discipline, the correction of disobedience.

Our duty demands careful consideration. Like the other things that help us grow, it doesn’t happen without a plan. The Greek word used in Hebrews 10:24 is katanohmen (κατνωμεν) which means to plan, plot, and scheme.

If you don’t have a clear plan for stimulating others to love and to good works, you’re not obeying this command of God’s word. The church will suffer by its lack of your talent and help.

Those who don’t actively encourage their brothers and sisters in Christ, are like crippled body parts being drug around by the rest of the body. It’s like going into battle without communications among the soldiers, without food supplies or medics. We need everyone to help us become what we ought to be in the service of Christ.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to be an expert at biblical counseling or have immediately helpful answers to all the problems people struggle with. It doesn’t mean that all believers are equally well trained in Bible exegesis and Theology.

Hebrews 10:24 is very specific about our duties toward one another. The goal is to provoke good effects in other believers. The word translated as “provoke’ is paroxusmos (παροξυσμος). The NASB has “stimulate”. It means to stir up someone, to instigate them in some way.

There are two categories for what we are to provoke others to do. The first goal is to provoke those around us to love. Love isn’t just a romantic or warm feeling. It is when our attitudes and actions toward others are in agreement with what pleases God. We promote their well being as if God’s glory was more important than our own desires. The feelings associated with love are the blessings that follow when we act in love according to what God says it is.

It’s one thing to work on love in ourselves. This verse teaches us that it is also our duty to cause love to grow in others. We need to plot and plan ways to make it happen. We are to encourage them to put into practice the duties of love found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. This means we should find ways to encourage those around us in our homes, church, work, and community. We should help them learn to be patient and kind. They should grow to avoid jealousy, bragging, arrogance, and rudeness. We encourage them not to seek things selfishly, or to become easily provoked, or to keep books on past wrongs. We should by example teach them to rejoice in God’s truth rather than in unrighteous things, to bear all things, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to hope in God’s promises, and to endure because love never fails.

We also should provoke others to good works kalohn ergohn (καλων εργων). There is no confusion about what those works are. God tells us what is good in his word. By our encouragement and good example we should plan ways to stir others to do what is good. Their progress is their own responsibility, but it is also our duty to help them tactically.

This is our two-fold duty toward all the believers we know and come in contact with. Each of us should ask ourselves, “What can I be doing to make everyone around me, treat others in love, and to do good works?”

Our plan should be molded around the methods the Bible prescribes. We should be good examples by being loving and doing good deeds ourselves. We should make these godly things part of our conversations so we are all reminded about them. We should pray for one another’s progress. We should appreciate and rejoice with others when they do good things.

Puritan John Owen notes that this behavior says something about our own spiritual maturity, “Love and good works are the fruits, effects and evidences of the sincere profession of saving faith”

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” Do we love him? Then we will take this assignment very seriously.

We weren’t made or redeemed to live alone. God designed us to need one another. Jesus established a church. He did not come to save spiritual hermits. Moffatt calls one who never commits to a local congregation “a pious particle,” The idea of a Christian without a church family he calls, an “oxymoron”, a self-contradictory statement if ever there was one.

If a Christian is to be like Christ, then like Christ he cannot be isolated from other believers. A secret disciple is no disciple at all. Another commentator writes, “either the discipleship kills the secrecy, or the secrecy kills the discipleship.” Failure to be loyal members of a church demonstrates a disloyalty to the Kingdom of God. It is disloyalty both to the King, and to the people who make up his kingdom on earth.

It has been said that spiritual snobbery reveals a Pharisaical heart and mind. Such detached renegades are looking for an acceptable club, not a church united by Sovereign Grace. It shows their total disregard of one of the most clear and fundamental teachings of the law, the prophets, the Apostles, and of Jesus himself.

The importance of actively participating in the church as a family of believers shouldn’t be forgotten or neglected. Therefore our gatherings on Sundays are good times to focus our efforts on this duty:

Hebrews 10:25 – the next verse from our text says, “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.”

In Dr. Kistemaker’s commentary on Hebrews he writes, “One of the first indications of a lack of love toward God and the neighbor is for a Christian to stay away from the worship services. He forsakes the communal obligations of attending these meetings and displays the symptoms of selfishness and self-centeredness.”

The Greek word for assembling in this text is from the word episunagogae (επισυναγωγη), from which we get the word “synagogue”. It is the gathered church as commanded by Christ.

When we meet on the Lord’s Day, we should try to sincerely and properly greet one another. It is not reasonable that everybody gets into a conversation with everybody else, but we should make an effort to reach out beyond our own little group of close friends.

Our concern and encouragement shouldn’t be directed only to those who are like us. We need to reach beyond those in our own age group, those who dress as we do, those who have hobbies or interests in common with us, or who grew up where we did.

We have something greater in common. We all share in the same spiritual heritage by our spiritual birth into the family of Christ. We all struggle against the remaining greed and lusts of our sinful hearts. We all live in a world that has different values and expectations of us. We all have to work hard to provide for our needs in a fallen world.

If someone isn’t coming up to you don’t judge him. Your duty is to encourage him to love and to good works. Be a friend first yourself. We all need that kind of help and understanding.

Beyond our Sunday gatherings we need to be a real family of believers. We need to pray for one another, to be in contact with others in the church, to remember the situations each family is facing, and to help in practical ways when we are able.

If we really trust the promises of Jesus Christ without wavering we will come to worship with plans to encourage those who worship with us so that they improve in love and in good works. We will also remember our spiritual brothers and sisters during the week.

This is what will make our church family stronger and more Christ-like. This is how those seeking Christ will find what they are looking for in the church.

Hebrews 3:13 puts it this way, “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘today,’ lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

Simple encouragements are an important part of our daily growth in Christ. So, “… let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works”

Sadly, bad behavior can not be completely prevented. We are all but sinners saved by grace. There are situations where love demands that we deal with wrong and hurtful behavior. This negative side means that sometimes, we have to lovingly and effectively advise and correct one another when wrong things are done.

Here’s the problem. It’s not easy to approach someone effectively to encourage them to correct wrong behaviors. It may take a while to learn, but it is not wise just to launch out into correction. That usually provokes defensiveness and rarely stirs the person to love and to good works. Often harsh attacks against an erring brother show an immature self-pride. People might degrade struggling sinners out of a distorted pious belief they are better than others.

While it is true that the one who needs correction might not be as spiritually aware of some things, it is important to remember that we are all just sinners saved and preserved by grace. We grow at different rates and all of us have issues we need to correct.

Sometimes the easy route is to ignore problems in other believers. It’s less challenging not to get involved in helping a brother overcome his temptations. It’s easy to just say it’s none of our business. There might be a fear that it would cause “strain on their relationship.” At times people just don’t feel qualified to say anything since they sin too.

The biblical mandate, the way God tells us is best, is very different. We shouldn’t arrogantly condemn others with an attitude of pride and superiority. And we shouldn’t keep quiet, withholding the help God gives us to offer. God’s way of helping others is summarized by Jesus in Matthew 18 which divides this spiritual help into three very practical levels.

First there is the individual level of help. In most cases this is all that needs to be done. Matthew 15:15 And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

It’s important that the first attempts to help be done in private. First, we need to be sure that we haven’t misunderstood the situation. It’s our duty to listen carefully to understand that what we think we see is accurate. Proverbs 18:13 warns us, “He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him.”

At the same time, we should be careful not to make a person’s sins known to others. If we abandon the importance of privacy, we can do great harm.

A believer should never share his negative suspicions or knowledge with others. This is that destructive sin of gossip. It might even be well intended. Sin often gets past our guard by wearing an appealing disguise. There are times when people tell about someone’s sins in the form of a “prayer request”. Though meaning it for good, this can ruin the reputation of a brother.

We should try to avoid even listening to conversations about another person’s sins. A person who gossips is one who needs our loving and careful correction.

Sins are very serious and personal matters. They should only be confessed to God and to the person directly sinned against. The feeling of forgiveness is an assurance given by the Holy Spirit when we deal with sin in God’s way. But there have always been false teachings that lure us away from this promise.

The practice of confessing to human priests for absolution isn’t Biblical. It looks to humans for what only Christ can do. We come to him directly and privately.

Also, the trendy idea of openly proclaiming sins and faults in groups is a similar error. It relies on a humanistic view of psychology where confession of that sort feels good because it is cathartic. It lets us vent our inner hang-ups and hear stories about the similar sins in others.

But that’s not where the Bible directs us for the comfort of forgiveness. It tells us to confess our sins to God, believing that he really removes our guilt in Christ.

We might admit wrongs directly to the one we hurt so that we can repair the damage. We might even go privately to a brother or to an Elder for spiritual direction, prayer, and encouragement. But the practices of priestly or group confession puts our hope in the wrong place. That is not what the Scriptures mean by confessing our faults to one another. Misplaced hope usually produces more problems and misses the real assurances of God.

The goal of our correction is to help the erring brother. He needs to be won back to honoring Christ in his attitudes and behavior. Being won back involves 4 things that must be done when any believer sins:
1. Confession: A Christian should admit (confess) that his sin horribly offends God.
2. Repentance: Sincere sorrow for sin is shown by turning from it, and by striving with God’s help to replace it with God-pleasing behaviors and attitudes.
3. Faith: We need to trust that Jesus Christ satisfied the penalty for the sin, and that the new life he puts in us enables us to be able to overcome our sins.
4. Restitution: The repentant sinner know that he has an obligation to make restitution when possible for whatever harm, damage, or inconvenience his sin might have caused to others.

We are called by God to find effective ways to encourage the sinner to do these things. To accomplish this we need to approach an erring brother or sister with a right attitude. The New Testament describes this as admonition. People sometimes think of the word admonish in a purely negative sense. It often implies a harsh scolding, or a lording it over someone as a moral superior. But in the Bible the word has a much richer, a more tender and positive meaning.

To admonish is a translation of the Greek word nouthetein (νουθετειν). It’s a common word and theme in the New Testament. Colossians 3:14-17 gives a list of characteristics that go along with admonition:

And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 the apostle Paul writes, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men”

Putting together the 11 places where this word is used, we biblically admonish one another when we help others become stronger in the Lord, by humbly offering advice from God’s word, and by our good example. It must be offered in humility, with love, tenderness, patience, and brotherly concern. It is a loving confrontation rather than a hostile one.

Paul used that same language in Colossians 1:28, “And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.”

To become complete in Christ, we need to be taught and admonished with all wisdom. Explaining and reminding others about what God says in his word is central to biblical admonition. To improve in biblical admonition, you don’t need a seminar or a degree in counseling. You need to make effective use of all the means of grace:

  • A helpful brother is one who knows his Bible well and can use it effectively. He studies God’s word daily and thinks about how he should apply what he learns. He makes sure he doesn’t skip sermons or lessons at church any more than he would skip meals. He values the various curricula offered in each program his church leaders put together for him.
  • A helpful brother prays for God’s blessing on all he and his loved ones set out to accomplish. He can be counted upon to pray for his brother and sister in the Lord as they struggle with sin.
  • He is regular in the worship of the church, valuing every worship opportunity. He worships in spirit and in truth as he takes part in each element of worship.
  • He becomes personally involved with the church family and its work. He is there in times of fellowship and shows true interest in what others are going through. He knows how to tenderly and wisely encourage and correct those he loves in the Lord.

Our admonition should never be done with a harsh or disrespectful attitude. To be a biblical helper there is more than just seeing wrong in another, being right about their having done wrong, and then telling them about it.

Real spiritual help must be offered in obedience to God. Otherwise it’s more of a hindrance than a help. A spiritual helper must show the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his approach to another believer. The familiar King James wording of Galatians 5:22-23 lists those characteristics: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance

We add to that the similar advice of … Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger”

Galatians 6:1-2 tells us, “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; {each one} looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ.”

A supporting Christian friend remembers that he too is just a sinner saved by grace. He is always considerate and respectful when he admonishes someone caught up in sin.

But, if we aren’t able to help on our own, we should get someone else to help. Matthew 18:16 says, “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.”

When we need to bring someone else into it we should not forget these principles. We should do all we can to preserve the privacy of the person’s faults. It is good to bring in one of the Shepherds of the church, or a spiritually mature mutual friend. This way it is not just personal. It is not just your word against the other person’s. God’s law reflects the importance of consulting others in a confidential and discrete manner.

The Authority of Church to Censure Its Members

Westminster Confession of Faith 30

I. The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.
II. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

If the personal approach fails, the matter should be brought to the church for help. Matthew 18 continues …

17 And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.
18 Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
19 Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.
20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.”

By comparing other passages about church discipline we see that we do not tell the whole church. It is one of the duties of the Elders to act for the church in dealing with its people. But even when they come into the picture, the Elders, which includes the Pastors, continue the same methods. They need to tenderly urge obedience to God’s ways.

Sadly, if the brother or sister refuses even this level of admonition, the Elders are obligated to guard the Lord’s Table by suspending them until they repent. They may eventually have to remove his membership, which is what verse 18-20 are talking about. It does not mean his salvation is revoked. Only God can do that. They may however, have to recognize that his trust and love of Christ has come into doubt. Every step must be done in love with the goal of helping and restoring the erring brother.

This is the process of church discipline. We all have a part in it. We are obligated to try very hard to lovingly help people in private as friends, and as a spiritual family. We encourage and pray so that the negative times are very few. But when these times come upon us, we dare not abandon the ways God promises to bless.

There are times when each of us might be on the receiving end of correction. Our family or friends might have to approach us in love to help us overcome our sin. If they do, we should remember the advice of Proverbs 12:15, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.”

The teaching and admonition of our friends and church is how the word and ways of Christ are established among us. It is the method God promises to bless when it is done his way.

When this positive and personal discipline fails to restrain sin in others and to help them grow in godliness, we are obligated to deal with their faults carefully and in the way God specifies in his word. The Bible grants limited authority to earthly leaders which must be respected as they discipline wrong doers.

In the area of civil sins, the authorities of the state are to deal with them by the principles of God’s word. We covered that in our unit on the Civil Magistrate. God has authorized the government of the church to operate distinctly from the civil authorities.

Upon This Rock – the Keys of the Kingdom
The officers of the church continue to function as they had in ancient times. God has given them authority only over those who are members under their shepherding care. Their area of authority is limited to the matters that have to do with involvement in the covenant community and the partaking of the sacraments of the church.

This spiritual oversight is specified in a way that does not encroach upon the rightful authority of heads of homes, or of the civil governments. The duties of the church toward these other areas of life is limited to the spiritual discipline of individual church members, and to the informing and challenging of those other authorities concerning what God has revealed and demanded in his word.

One of the most central passages of the Bible which summarizes the authority of the church leaders is Matthew 16. There it speaks of the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 16:13-28 (also Mark 8:27-9:1 and Luke 9:18-27) tells about the time when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought the Son of Man was. First they explained what men commonly were saying at the time. Then Jesus asked them “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered for the group in verse 16. “Thou art the Christ, Son of the living God,”

The word Christ means “the Anointed One of God”. It is the Greek form of the Hebrew word we commonly translate as Messiah. He was the one born of a woman’s seed to crush the head of Satan (Genesis 3:15), the one anticipated by the prophets to deliver Israel from oppression.

Only Matthew, in 16:17, records the comment Jesus made about Peter’s answer. And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

The Apostle’s understanding could not have come from flesh and blood. This means that the natural ways we get to know things in this world could not have been the source of his understanding. Fallen man can’t possibly understand spiritual truths on his own due to the corrupt state of his fallen nature (Romans 3:10-12 John 6:44 1 Corinthians 2:14). The truth Peter expressed had to have been revealed by the Father in Heaven. It was made known to him by a sovereign work of God upon his heart.

Then Jesus spoke words of promise to Peter. In Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus said, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

There are various interpretations of what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “upon this Rock I will build my church”.

The Roman Church claims that this established Peter as the first Pope. They claim that the church was built upon this papacy as its foundation. Since no mention of this office or authority is found in Scripture we will not give it serious consideration. They also extend the scope of the rest of Christ’s promise to include the power to admit to eternal life or to condemn to everlasting judgment. This is clearly a departure from the text which speaks only of the Kingdom, the place where God’s reigning authority is manifested.

Some believe that Peter was not the rock of which Jesus was speaking. They see it as a play on words to show that Christ was the rock, and that Peter was merely a small part of, or ledge of, that rock. The linguistic arguments presented to support this view are based upon trivial differences in words and grammar that do not hold up. Besides, it really proves nothing because Jesus particularized saying, “upon this rock”. If he mean a ledge, then he is still talking about Peter.

A variation of this view is that instead of speaking of Peter, Jesus was saying that upon the basis of his profession, or its divine origin, the church would be built. But this ignores the rest of the promise of Jesus which speaks of the keys of the kingdom being given to Peter as an individual. He is not saying that the keys will be given to some profession of faith or to the work of the Father in revealing truth to otherwise dead hearts.

Jesus was clearly addressing Peter in this passage. In some way, Peter is the rock upon which the church was to be build. But what does that mean? In the most fundamental sense, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3:11 wrote, “for no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

But in a secondary but very real sense the Apostles are the foundation of the church as the called ministers of Christ. Ephesians 2:20 says of the church, “having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” And in Revelation 21:14 John writes, “the wall of the city (the new Jerusalem) had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”

Peter played an important role in laying the Apostolic foundation for the church. He preached at Pentecost (Acts 2), he initiated the bringing of the gospel to the gentiles, and he wrote two of the inspired New Testament books to direct the church.

Before mentioning the keys of the kingdom, Jesus assured Peter that the church will be victorious and triumphant, “the gates of hades will not prevail against it.”

Certainly there will be enemies. Satan, his legions, and duped followers will oppose and persecute the church as they did the prophets in more ancient times. But the opponents only prevail for a moment. Their success is only seen if we re-define the standards of victory. By God’s standards, and in the larger picture, they will fail.

Paul wrote in Romans 16:18, “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” This is a strange testimony for a man who would soon be held in prison, for a church on the brink of Nero’s persecutions just a few years in its future. Yet there were many triumphs by the martyrs burned alive in the gardens of Nero and on put to death the floor of the Colosseum.

John writes in Revelation 17:14 “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”

In verse 4 of the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865) we read, “Crowns and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane, but the church of Jesus constant will remain. Gates of hell can never ‘gainst that church prevail; We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail”

The world may at times be larger, richer and make a bigger show of things. However, in Christ believers are reconciled with God, forgiven of their sins, privileged to know the moral principles that please their Creator, promised satisfaction in the issues of life, assured to dwell in the presence of the Sovereign God forever, united in a spiritual family as the church of God, and granted access to the table of the Lord here on earth as they wait. What great honors!

If we become discouraged when we compare the success of the true church with the foolish bragging of a world on it’s way to hell, then we are using the wrong ruler for measuring what God is doing among us.

Jesus then charged Peter with the “keys of the kingdom”. Keys operate locks. They determine who may be kept out, and who may go in.

Certainly men are never given the authority to determine who will be eternally saved and lost. But God did give power to men to admit and bar from membership in the earthly manifestation of his kingdom, particularly as it is represented in the Church.

The Heidelberg Catechism in its answer to question 83 explains, “the preaching of the holy gospel, and Christian discipline, or the excommunication out of the Christian church: by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.”

By the preaching of God’s word, the gospel, the door of the kingdom, is opened to some, and closed to others. Some responded to the gospel with joy and faith. Others with anger and hatred of Christ. Peter was fundamentally engaged in the work of confronting men with the gospel. (See Acts 2:38,39 3:16-20 4:12 10:34-43 and 3:23.)

Just as Peter and the other apostles laid the apostolic foundation for the church, we too follow their example by proclaiming the gospel which will bring some into the church and will turn others from it.

The kingdom is also opened to some, and closed to others by formal church discipline. When a professing member of the church persists in sin or heresy, and refuses to submit to the authority Christ placed in the officers of his church (the Apostles, and later the Elders) they defy the authority God gave these men in guarding admission to the sacraments, and in defining the membership of each local flock of Christ’s church.

If in extreme cases a person is removed from membership, it is because his life has been found to be inconsistent with and contradictory to a true profession of faith. It means we have no biblical grounds upon which to believe they are truly born-again by the grace of God.

Jesus granted the rest of the Apostles this same authority in Matthew 18:18. It was not unique to Peter. The Apostle Paul applies this to the Elders of the church in his letters to the churches. In Romans 11:16-28 the olive tree illustration shows that our ecclesiastical discipline is a judgment of what God is making known about those in the church. We must follow the rules of evidence and of fair hearing which God provides for us in his word. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 appears to be an example of one such person cut off from the communion of the church in Corinth.

The details of the authority and its relationship with God’s promise is summed up in the expression, “… whatever you shall bind on earth, shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth, shall have been loosed in heaven” (NASB). And in the KJV it reads, “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The verbs in the expressions “shall bind/loose” are aorist active subjunctives, and in “shall have been bound/loosed” they are perfect passive participles. More literally it reads, “whatever you bind on earth has been bound in heaven … whatever you loose on earth has been loosed in heaven”

Making the perfects to have a futuristic meaning is purely interpretive and is weak grammatically. It may unjustly imply that the action in heaven is based upon the judgment of the apostles.

It should also be noticed that it’s not who you bind or loose, but what. It is not the people as individuals which are being considered. It is the cases and evidence brought before the Elders that is actually being judged.

Lexical studies also show that the terms ‘binding” and ‘loosing” are rabbinic terms used in their writings for “forbidding” (placing bonds on someone to restrain them from some privilege), and “permitting” (allowing them to be loosed so they may enjoy some privilege). This reverses the common understanding of the order. To bind a man regarding the Kingdom is to keep him from being a part of it, and to loose a man is to allow him to engage in the Kingdom as a member in good standing.

When a person persists unrepentantly and without concern in what is forbidden, church discipline removes his recognition as a child of God, following God’s instructions for discerning what has been the person’s standing in heaven all along.

When someone repents of sin and submits to Christ’s law, he is received into the full privileges of membership in the church as a child of God.

After the resurrection Jesus said to the Apostles in John 20:23, “if you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

What the apostles bound or loosed here on earth ought to represent the person’s standing with God to the best of the officers’ ability. This is not an infallible judgment. It reflects the person’s standing with the Kingdom of God in heaven only to the degree that the Apostles or Elders have followed the standards of God’s word faithfully. An unrepentant person shows no evidence of being born again and so should not be numbered here on earth as being among the citizens of God’s kingdom. Those who credibly repent and submit to the ways God has revealed in his word show reason to include them in the privileges of church membership. God promises to condemn the unrepentant and to redeem the repentant. The judgment of the church simply follows that revealed promise in making its rulings.

By using the term “overseer” for one of the duties of the Elders, Paul’s letters show that these officer are to continue this binding and judging duty given the Elders in the ancient Law of God to His covenant people.

A church Session (the formal meeting together of the Elders) attempts to determine the facts in any particular case and make a judgment based upon them according to the judicial principles in Scripture. They investigate, hear the witnesses, examine evidence, and hear the testimony of the accused.

If the evidence is lacking, the name of the accused is cleared and his full fellowship in the church is affirmed. Those accusing must honestly forgive and forget the issue. If false charges have been made, the accusers must repent or face charges themselves.

If the accused is found guilty, there are two options.
1) If the accused sincerely repents, he is restored to fellowship
2) If he persists in his sin, the Elders must censure him

The Purpose and Process of Church Censures

Westminster Confession of Faith 30

III. Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.
IV. For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.

The Motives of Censure
Ecclesiastical discipline must not be neglected in the church. It is not loving to allow someone to continue in harmful behavior without taking reasonable steps to stop them, and to help them to live according to what God has revealed is good.

The confession divides the motives for censure into five basic categories:
1) We should be concerned to restore a sinning brother to godliness and full fellowship with God and with the other members of his spiritual family in the church on earth. It is significant that the section of Matthew 18 that deals with discipline comes right after the lesson of Jesus about seeking the lost sheep.

2) We should be moved by our love of the offenders to deter them from sin by the threat of censure. Often times temporal consequences are easier for our finite and sinful minds to consider when we do wrong. A person may persist in some immorality if nothing negative seems to immediately come of it. If he knows he will be confronted by the church, and perhaps lose his access to the Lord’s Table or become excommunicated, he might be deterred from persisting in his sin. The temporal censure illustrates for him that God does not view sin lightly. When others in the church see those who unrepentantly sin face such consequences, they too will be reminded that there are moral principles higher than our immediate pleasures. Growing up in a church where concern about sin is evident is healthy and good for our children as they develop more spiritually mature ways of making moral decisions in their lives.

3) We should be highly motivated to purge moral infection from harming the rest of the church. The Bible uses the analogy of leaven spreading throughout the loaf of bread to show how sinful attitudes can spread throughout the church. Unchecked gossip breeds more gossip. Mean attitudes can stir others to forsake kindness and patience. Immorality overlooked gives the impression, particularly to our young children, that such things should not only be tolerated, but also that they are not horribly wicked or dangerous.

4) We should be diligent to vindicate the honor of Christ. When the church tolerates sin within its membership, and takes no steps to correct it biblically, the reputation of Christ, and the life transforming claims of the gospel are brought to question. The world sees accepted hypocrisy where there ought to be repentance and a striving for moral growth. This confusion brings disgrace upon the Lord we say we love and serve, and hinders a right understanding of the gospel message.

5) We should be concerned to prevent God’s wrath from rightly falling upon a corrupt church. If the unrepentant and notoriously evil are admitted to the Lord’s Table, and given positions of leadership in the church, God may deal with the whole congregation or denomination by withdrawing his blessings and peace. In 1 Corinthians 11:29-32 Paul warns the church about the consequences of desecrating the covenant sign and seal of the Lord’s Supper by unfit persons partaking. “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world.”

The Methods of Censure
The church is not free to invent its own methods of discipline. The Elders of the church are given four basic tools for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners in their congregations. Three of them apply to all the members of the church, and one of them applies only to church officers.

1) The first stage of discipline by the church is a formal admonition. This comes after personal attempts to bring the sinner to repentance have failed. When personal and pastoral counsel is ignored, the Elders acting as a formal Session having fairly heard the evidence issues a firm but loving warning. The Elders ask the offender to cease doing whatever wrongs that have come to the attention of the church, and to repent sincerely doing whatever is reasonable to correct any harm he may have done.

2) The second censure is suspension from the Lord’s Supper. It is harmful for the unrepentant member and the rest of the church for him to continue to partake of the sacraments hypocritically. His participation is a profession of confidence in God’s work of grace and submission to his lordship. If he remains rebellious against God’s law and the officers of the church who are serving him the elements, he should not be permitted to desecrate this God ordained privilege. The danger is clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (quoted previously).

3) The censure that only applies to officers of the church is deposition. An Elder (including Pastors), or a Deacon who persists in unrepentant sin brings contempt upon the church and may mislead those he is charged to lead spiritually. The church may after a proper trial revoke his ordination based upon properly presented evidence which contradicts his claim to a calling to office by the Lord.

4) The ultimate censure is excommunication. This is a judgment that the person has persisted in unrepentant sin, and has failed to heed the warnings of the church to the point where he no longer gives evidence that he is born again. This is a very serious step and should not be administered hastily or without a clear investigative and judicial process. When convicted of both persisting in sin unrepentantly, and of a contumacious attitude toward the authority Christ has placed in his church officers, the person’s membership is revoked until repentance and a credible profession of faith is demonstrated. He may be re-admitted to the church in the same way a new believer is admitted. Meanwhile he is to be treated lovingly and evangelistically as if he was an unbeliever (Matthew 18:17)

By this process of discipline the Elders strive to help sinning members repent and keep the church free of pretenders to Christianity. The good olive tree in Romans 11 is pruned by the removal of branches that show no fruit (the lack of evidence of submission to the Lord in their lives). Such disregard for God’s word is not consistent with a credible profession of faith. All members of the church should be alerted to that judgment by the Church if they persist in unbelief and unrepentant sin. Romans 11:20-21 says, “…they were broken off for their unbelief, and you stand only by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.”

1 John 2:19 shows that there are those who enter the church for impure and dishonest reasons. “they went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us.”

1 Corinthians 5 gives a case study showing how this principle is applied.

Church officers should take this duty of judicial discipline very seriously. They should follow fair and just methods to determine cases brought before them so that the honor of Christ is preserved, the church is kept as pure as is possible, and sinners are restored to humble faith and obedience in their lives as professing believers in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.

Note: The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

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