The Praying Elder and the Admonishing Visit
The Administration of Discipline
It is the task of the elders to administer discipline. In the Church Order of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands this task is articulated in article 21: “Together with the ministers they also have the duty to administer discipline...” In the Form for the ordination of elders and deacons, the following is stated in respect of this task: “They shall exercise Christian discipline, according to the command of Christ, against those who show themselves unbelieving and ungodly and refuse to repent. They shall watch that the sacraments are not profaned.” The Form makes reference to Matthew 18:17-18. From these verses derives the task for elders to admonish church members who live in sin, and to come to the provisional and then the final excommunication when no response is given to the admonition and exhortation.
As a rule two elders will make the visits of admonition. This is done by order of the consistory of the church and on its behalf.
During the procedure of admonition up to and including the possible excommunication, prayer for the wandering brother or sister takes an important place.
The Elder’s Prayer with Someone who is Erring
It is clear that the elders will speak from God’s Word during their visits and that they will address the sinner with God’s Word. During the conversation it will become clear whether the wandering brother or sister will listen to the admonition and takes it to heart or whether he hardens himself.
How should the elders conclude their visit if they see clear evidence of hardening? Can they say at that moment, “Brother, we have observed that you are hardening yourself; we will conclude our conversation with prayer”?
At times that is how it is done. The prayer with the sinner is in fact imposed on him or her. But then it is forgotten that the sinner cannot pray along with it. After all the elders will be praying for his conversion. But the one who has been spoken to and who is being prayed with, does not want to repent.
Nevertheless, the elders should desire to close the visit with prayer. Therefore, the visited member must be asked whether he deems it right that they pray with him. In addition, the elders must clearly let him know how and what will be prayed for. He must be able to pray along. He knows that prayers will be made for his conversion. He must be aware that the elders will not pray for the forgiveness of his sins, because the sinner needs to confess his sins first.
The idea that we may pray for someone’s conversion, but not for the forgiveness of sins for someone who does not confess his sin, is based on 1 John 5:16. John says there that we must pray for someone who does not commit a sin leading to death. Then God will give life to that sinner. A confessed sin is one that does not lead to death. If someone confesses his sin and prays to God for forgiveness, either through the sinner himself or, for example, through the office-bearers, then God forgives that sin. Then the sinner receives life.
But we also hear of sin that leads to death. That means: there is sin that irrevocably leads to death. That is the unconfessed sin, the persevering in sin. John says: “...I do not say that one should pray for that”. John does not say that one is not allowed to pray for the person who perseveres in his sinful life. No, John argues that it is not allowed to pray for that, namely for that sin to death. It may not be asked if the Lord forgives that sin. Praying for the forgiveness of unrepented sins would mean that we want to make God a God who is in solidarity with sinners who harden themselves in their sinful lives and do not repent of their sins.
Sometimes people argue against this thought based on the prayer of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). But then it must be remembered:
- that Jesus speaks these words before his exaltation, so that there is still an opportunity of excuse for the objects of Jesus’ prayer;
- that these words can mean that Jesus asks his Father not as yet to destroy these people by judgment; Jesus prays for a postponement of execution for his murderers.
Also Stephen’s prayer for his executors may be used by some to counter the idea that prayers should not be made for forgiveness of sins of those who do not confess their sins: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). But then it must be remembered:
- that Stephen does not pray for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 7:60 uses a different verb than in Luke 23:34);
- that these words can mean that Stephen asks God whether he will not destine the sins committed by his murderers in such a way that they have no longer a chance to repent. (In this case the prayer is true for Paul: he agreed to the execution of Stephen, but later on God calls him to be an apostle).
If the admonished party refuses that there will be a prayer for his conversion, the elders will have to decide to leave without a prayer being offered. However, they must not leave without having pointed out that this refusal indicates that there is a pertinent hardening in sin. This will play a role in the progress of the admonition and the subsequent disciplinary proceedings. If the judicial disciplinary procedure has already started, such a refusal will have consequences for the length of time between the various public announcements to the congregation.
When the admonished party agrees that he should be prayed with, then a sliver of repentance could become apparent, even though it was not immediately noticeable during the conversation. In that case, the elders will pray very focused and very concretely. They must clearly state in prayer what the sinner needs to repent of. They ask for the disruption of the devil’s efforts, who wants to draw these wanderers away from God and his service. They pray for the working of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the erring person, so that he again submits to the authority of God’s Word and desires to live according to that Word.
When the elders pray with the errant in such a way, the church indirectly prays along in and through them. I know: in a certain phase of exhortation and discipline, the congregation is not always aware of the fact that fellow brothers or sisters are living in sin. But the elders bring their exhortation visit on behalf of the consistory which represents the congregation. In the first phase of discipline, the congregation is not muzzled, but it prays through her elders. At a later stage, the congregation becomes more directly and intensively involved in praying for those who are wandering.
How should elders conclude their visits of admonition when the erring person clearly shows he is ready to repent and to confess his sin? The question of whether to pray in such a case is not difficult to answer: yes they should. The elders will thank the Lord with the repentant sinner for what he has worked through his Holy Spirit. They will pray together for forgiveness of sins. They will ask if the Lord will keep him from the temptation of the devil. After all, the devil will do everything in his power to seize his prey, which threatens to slip from his hands. There will be prayer that the person concerned will again take his place in the congregation and that the congregation members will deal with him in the communion of the saints.
What a luxury it is to be allowed to pray and thank like this. And thank God that there is the opportunity to give thanks and to pray. It does happen that sinners repent: a gift from God; fruit of exhortation; prayers being heard.
The Elder’s Prayer for the Wandering Person
The congregation prays along indirectly during the phase of admonition and “silent censure” (provisional excommunication). The elders, however, must pray in a direct way. After all, at the meeting of the consistory the names of those who are subject to admonition and of the preliminary excommunication are mentioned. In many churches it is customary — a good practice — that the district deacon of the church member is also informed about the exercise of censorship.
That puts a great deal of responsibility on the office bearers, also with regard to their personal prayer. Often it is impossible to pray with a wandering member. Office bearers can pray for a wandering person. They have to do that. And then it also applies here, that the wandering person is surrounded through the elders (and through the district deacon of the sinner) by the prayer of the congregation. Such prayer for conversion is powerful.
Elders must obviously make room for personal prayer in their lives. Yes, especially they have to make room for that. They may never forget in their personal prayers that they are office bearers. They must never forget that they — rather than those who are in the office of all believers — are aware of the fact that brothers and/or sisters are headed on the way to death. Woe to the office bearers who, in their personal prayer, do not dedicate these straying people to the Lord.
The Praying Elder and the Praying Church
Praying for N.N.
When a sinner persists in his sin, the office bearers will intensify the exhortation. They will proceed from the provisional to the final excommunication. When that moment comes, the elders must mobilize the congregation. That mobilization starts with the weapon of prayer: the prayer for an anonymous brother or sister. After all, when the first public proclamation takes place, the name of the sinner is not mentioned.
Does the prayer for an anonymous person, who is a member of the church, achieve anything? We are convinced that it does. For the church is fortunately not a meeting of individuals. The church is the body of Christ. An erring person belongs to the body of Christ and as such is not anonymous, even though his name is not yet known.
The church is enlisted with its power of prayer. In the Form for the excommunication this is formulated in the first proclamation in this manner: “We (the consistory) seriously exhort you to pray the Lord that he may bring this member of the body to repentance.”
The congregation is not asked for a judgment and even less for permission. No, the congregation follows its elders. Its empowerment is recognized by the call to pray for the erring person.
Elders call for prayer with a sense of urgency. That urgency must also be brought to the attention of the church. From the pulpit and/or via the local church bulletin, it must be made clear to the congregation that this prayer occupies an important place in the progress of discipline. It is also good to indicate that at an earlier stage the congregation has already prayed indirectly through its office bearers. The new thing is that her prayer power is now being applied directly.
Elders call the congregation to continuous prayer. To this end they must stimulate the congregation time and again. When the time between the first and second public announcement is lengthy, the congregation must always be reminded of the first proclamation. This is important for the members of the congregation who were present when the first proclamation took place, but also to mobilize any newcomers to use their prayer activity. A local church bulletin also offers great opportunities for encouraging continuous prayer.
Elders will see to it that their minister prays regularly in the Sunday worship service for the brother or sister concerned. Then the congregation prays together. That public prayer also has pedagogical value: it reminds the church members of their calling to pray.
Elders must be especially alert regarding that point when the congregation does not have its own preacher. Then the prayer for a censored person must not be restricted to those worship services in which an elder reads a sermon. They must regularly ask guest preachers to give this matter a place in public prayer.
Prayer and Admonition
When the sinner persists in the way of hardening his heart, the congregation is mobilized even more. For in addition to the incitement to prayer there is the incentive to appeal to the sinner. This is possible at a later stage. After all, the name of the sinner is mentioned in the second public announcement; there is something added. That means that the prayer activity remains necessary. In the Form for excommunication it is said in the second proclamation: “We seriously exhort you to admonish this sinner continually in love. Pray the Lord that He may bring this brother (sister) to repentance, that this sin may be banned from the congregation and the sinner be saved.”
Words of the same effect are used in the third public announcement, which adds the serious urgency of the forthcoming excommunication from the congregation if there is still no repentance.
It is striking that in the second and third announcement prayer comes in the second place. This is not due to the fact that the admonition is more important than prayer. There is no question of ranking. On the contrary, it is caused by the structure of the Form and the various announcements. In the first announcement, the elders called the congregation to pray. Prayer has thus already been given a place in the struggle for conversion of the sinner, for the preservation of a brother or sister. This prayer now gives the opportunity, the willingness and the boldness to exhort the sinner in love. That is the first mentioned aspect in the second announcement. When the sinner is addressed he will react in a certain way. That reaction then gives depth to the prayer of church members. That reaction gives direction to prayer. Prayer becomes more concrete. This means that the power of prayer is made more intensive. In this phase, the church members know (almost) as much as the elders, so that now the one, complete body of Christ is committed to the one goal.
Finally, the consistory may need to proceed with excommunication. In the service in which the notification of excommunication is made, prayer is offered up to God. Not just for the sinner, but for all church members. They are all sinners. Guilt is confessed. Forgiveness is requested. The Lord is asked for perseverance in faith.
Praying for Those who are Excommunicated?
Does the exclusion bring an end to the prayer activity for the person who was excommunicated? This question can be answered with both “yes” and “no”. We will no longer pray for him as a wandering brother; as if he were still part of the body of Christ. But for him there will be continuous prayer as for someone who is as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt. 18:17). The church members pray personally and collectively for all who no longer share in the spiritual gifts that God has given to his church. The content of this prayer is the repentance of him and the many others who live outside of Christ. When someone who is excommunicated repents, it is the fruit of the discipline and of the exhortations and of the prayers before and after the excommunication. When there is subsequent repentance, such a person is taken up again in the congregation of Christ through the Form for re-admission into the church of Christ.
It is necessary to give some attention here to Hebrews 6:4-6. Is it not said there that repentance is excluded when a man falls away, who has once been enlightened, and who has tasted the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come?
In Hebrews 6:6 it states that it is impossible for someone who grew up in the covenant and who then fell, that he would come to repentance again. Literally it states: to renew to repentance.
It does not say that such people cannot repent anymore, but that it is not possible to bring them back to conversion.
It is wrong to philosophize in this connection about the possibility of a second conversion. The statement of Hebrews 6:6 has been interpreted as a measure of ecclesiastical discipline. It would then mean that the church should no longer accept those who have become unfaithful to her and God.
But in the bible verse it is not about the question of whether a sinner who confesses guilt can be taken back into the community of the church, but about the question of whether it is possible to make those who have renounced the Christian doctrine to repent.
In other words, the subject of the sentence in Hebrews 6:6 is a Christian teacher. That teacher teaches the Christian doctrine. He gives his students a taste of the wealth of faith. Of course, such a teacher starts at the beginning. That is said in so many words in Hebrew 6:1-3.
That basic education was about conversion from dead works and about faith in God; about a doctrine of baptism and of laying on of hands; about the resurrection of the dead and the eternal judgment.
Now when certain people have had that elementary education and then moved on to the school of the Holy Spirit and then fall away, then it is not possible to bring them back to repentance by giving them basic education again. They have had that already. They know everything about it.
Christian teachers, office bearers, members of the congregation cannot bring to repentance those who have strayed from church and religion or who have been cut off from the church, by starting from the beginning again.
This explanation is obvious. Certainly, when we pay attention to the word “For” or “because” at the start of verse 4. The foregoing is explained by it. The author of the letter to the Hebrews wants — if God permits him — to let go of the basic schooling, because it is impossible...and so on.
This does not mean, however, that the person who was cut off can now not repent anymore. But for that, exclusive forces from above are required.
If Hebrews 6:6 were to say that an excommunicated person could not repent, the church would have wrongly kept open the possibility of re-establishment and would also fall short of the power of prayer and of the power of God. With him is possible that which is impossible with men (Matt. 19:26).
It will be clear that the elders must communicate to the congregation if a sinner repents during the definite excommunication procedure (from the first public announcement). The content of the announcement depends on the moment at which the conversion takes place.
If it is between the first and second announcement, obviously the name of the sinner who repents may not be mentioned. But there must be mention of the conversion.
If the conversion takes place after the second public admonition, the congregation must be informed that brother (or sister) N.N. has repented. It may not be such that congregation members continue to pray for repentance for someone who has repented. Prayer is too serious for that.
The same also applies if the censored person withdraws himself from the discipline and supervision of the church during the disciplinary procedure. If this is done before the second public announcement to the congregation the elders will no longer keep the anonymity, which characterized the first proclamation.
It will be communicated to the congregation that the brother who withdraws himself is in fact the brother in regard to whom a first announcement had been made. This is now possible because the fact of not mentioning the name in the initial phase of the excommunication was done in order to protect the name of the sinner. But the sinner himself lifts the anonymity and thus the protection of his name by removing himself from further discipline.
In this way it is prevented that the prayer of congregation members continues to focus on a situation that no longer exists.
Praying office bearers during disciplinary proceedings, with a praying congregation behind them: both are instruments of God to preserve people in the path of life.