This article discusses the second key of the kingdom that Christ has entrusted to his church, that of church discipline. It considers how the writings of the church (confessions, liturgical forms, Church Order) repeatedly emphasize the importance of discipline. It goes on to consider what exactly church discipline is, how Scripture speaks about practicing it, and its purpose. It discusses some aspects of the "Forms for Lord's Supper" as used by churches in the Continental Reformed tradition. It then concludes with several discussion questions.

8 pages.

The Second Key: Church Discipline

A.  Introduction🔗

Christ has given his church the authority to open and close the kingdom of heaven through the preaching of the Word of God. This power is called the “power of the keys”, because Christ uses the image of keys when he speaks of this to Peter and the other disciples (Matthew 16:19).  The Heidelberg Catechism differentiates between two keys when it refers to the power of the keys: (a) the preaching of the gospel, and (b) church discipline (Q&A 83). This distinction, also made by Calvin, is correct so long as we do not take the reference to keys (i.e. the plural form) of Matthew 16:19 to mean that there are only two keys.  Rather, it means that Christ gave Peter a number of keys, a bundle of keys for the kingdom of God. Consequently, the apostles - and therefore the church - receive complete authority.

For the sake of clarity the church has used the distinction of two keys. This differentiation is actually an extension of the (plural) key image. Church discipline, the second key, is seen as a personal and more direct intensification of the admonition already given in the preaching, the first key.

The procedure of church discipline has been cast into a liturgical form, and there are three such forms in the Book of Praise.

  1. The form for the excommunication of non-communicant members is preceded by two announcements, which occur over a certain time period.
  2. The form for readmission into the church of Christ is preceded by an announcement that readmission will take place.
  3. The form for the excommunication of communicant members has three sequential announcements, the last one of which contains the actual date set for the excommunication.  In many (if not most) cases, the censured person withdraws from the church sometime during the discipline procedure. As a result these forms are seldom used and are less known.  However, the congregation knows what church discipline is. In this Outline we shall discuss discipline and examine the relevant forms.

B.  Discipline is indispensable🔗

Article 29 of the Belgic Confession refers to the practice of church discipline “for correcting and punishing sins” as one of the distinguishing marks of the true church.  In light of the authority given in Matthew 16, the church must apply discipline if she wants to be true to Christ.

The churches of the Reformation in the 16th century were firmly convinced that discipline was essential. They carefully considered the question of how discipline was to be practised in a Scriptural manner. This study was necessary to counteract the degeneration of the Roman Catholic Church, where the leaders had assumed total power, also in matters of discipline. It was also necessary to oppose the fanatically driven Anabaptists and their radical practices.

Discipline must be practised in order to exclude sin from the congregation. A church that does not practise discipline yields herself to the decay of sin and is on the road to disintegration.

Although church discipline is always difficult to apply, and requires a great deal of wisdom and steadfastness, it is nonetheless essential if the church does not want to lose communion with Christ and members of the congregation. Christ wants to protect his church in the salvation obtained for them. Hence the church must never yield to the destructive power of sin.             

The importance of discipline is repeatedly emphasized in the writings of the church.

1.  Discipline and the confessions🔗

In the first place, the confessions define the meaning of discipline.

  1. Discipline, as a hallmark of the church, is punishment in a spiritual manner. The purpose of discipline is to preserve and foster solidarity and unity in the church and to remain obedient to God (BC, Art. 29, 30, 32).
  2. The two keys must be used as commanded by Christ and the apostles, lest the covenant be desecrated and God’s wrath aroused against the entire congregation (HC, Q&A 82-85).

Please note that the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about the administration of keys in its second section, which deals with our deliverance.  This means that, by means of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, reconciliation is administered in the church!

2.  The importance of church discipline according to the liturgical forms🔗

In the various liturgical forms, individuals are asked to promise to submit themselves to church discipline and admonition, in the event of sinning or spreading false doctrine. This occurs:

  • in the form for adult baptism (the Fifth question)
  • in the form for public profession of faith (the Fourth question)
  • in the form for the installation of ministers, elders and deacons (the Third question). In addition, the form for installation of ministers and elders explains why it is their task to administer the keys of the kingdom.

3.  The importance according to the Church Order🔗

The Church Order makes it clear that the Reformed Churches attach great importance to church discipline. Chapter five of the Church Order concerns itself with church discipline.

The various synods of the Netherlands in the 16th century laid the basis for church discipline in the Church Order. The Synod of Dort (1618 – 1619) formulated and adopted the Dutch statutes of church polity, including the articles concerning Christian discipline which were revised and adopted in English by the General Synod of 1983.

C.  What is church discipline?🔗

Various answers can be given to the question: “What is church discipline all about?” In the 17th century, Voetius spoke of “a personal and judicial application of the will of God, in order to awaken and alarm the conscience of sinners; and to prevent or remove scandals in the church.” H. Bouwman, professor of church polity in Kampen, 1903 - 1933, calls church discipline “maintaining the dominion of God’s Word in the Church”, and “maintaining the ordinances constituted by Christ.” J. Kamphuis finds the above descriptions too general and formal. His formulation focuses more on the essential character of church discipline.    According to him it represents “the judicial application of the holiness of God’s congregation in opposition to the destructive power of evil in the lives of those within the congregation who allow themselves to be governed by sin”. The Belgic Confession emphasizes the spiritual character of discipline. Article 30 speaks of a “spiritual” governing of the church and of disciplining evil men “in a spiritual way”.

Those who remain in their sinful lives are confronted with the seriousness of the gospel. They are admonished, called to order, and reprimanded, from and with the Word of God. The office bearers are never permitted to impose their own will, but only the will of God.

In whatever manner church discipline may be described, in practice it is always about the administration of the Word of God.  The character of the second key is no different from the first, namely, the proclamation of the holy gospel.  In the preaching of the gospel, the promise of forgiveness of sins has another side:  “the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them, as long as they do not repent” (HC, Q&A 84).  The application of the second key of discipline accomplishes a most powerful, personally directed application.

The purpose of church discipline is to bring the hardened sinner to repentance. It is all about preventing the sinner from eternally losing communion and peace with Christ. Discipline must therefore be seen as a means to save a sinner. According to the form, even the final step of excommunication is the “ultimate remedy”. Article 68 of the Church Order adopted by the Synod of Dort also speaks about the “ultimate remedy”. Discipline is not meant to rid the congregation of difficult members, but rather to save them. Calvin uses the metaphors of medicine, a bridle, a tight rein, and the taming of those who rage against the doctrine of Christ. It may also be perceived as a stimulus, whereby those who are not willing are awakened. Sometimes it is a rod used in a fatherly way to punish sinners who have fallen deeply. This ought to be done in a charitable manner, as Christ taught us (see Calvin’s Institutes IV, 12, 1).

Discipline must be decisive and thorough, but should be charitable as well.  Otherwise, the means will be worse than the condition.

A great deal of wisdom is necessary to apply discipline properly. It must be done with love and patience, because Christ continues to search lovingly for his lost sheep.

D.  Practising discipline is a mandate from God🔗

We should review how Scripture speaks about practising discipline, so that it may be demonstrated that the church “governs itself according to the pure Word of God” (BC, Art.29).

1.  Old Testament🔗

Leviticus 19:17:  You shall reprimand your neighbour (cf. Matthew 18:15).

Leviticus 24:10-23:           The death of blasphemers is a dreadful warning of discipline.

Deuteronomy 13:5:         God’s people must banish sin from their midst (cf. Deuteronomy 17:7; 19:19; 22:24; 24:17). Paul refers to this in a specific example in 1 Corinthians 5:13, as the basis for discipline in the congregation.

Deuteronomy 16:18-20:                Judges and officers are necessary for expeditious and just judgment in the congregation.

Deuteronomy 19:15:      Two or three witnesses are necessary to determine guilt (cf. Matthew 18:16).

Joshua 7:             The history of Achan illustrates how the sin of one man defiles the entire congregation and brings it into great danger.

2.  New Testament🔗

Matthew 18:15-20:          Christ explains how discipline must be applied: beginning with personal reproval, then with one or more witnesses, and finally bringing it before the congregation (i.e. to the elders, HC, Q&A 85).

1 Corinthians 5:2,13:       The perpetrator of the sin must be banished from the congregation.

1 Corinthians 5:4-5:         Banishment is meant to persuade him to break with sin, not to destroy him.

2 Corinthians 2:6-8:         Reproof should not make the sinner lose heart or become desperate, but rather, bring him to repentance.

1 Thessalonians 5:14:      The unruly are those who do not take God’s ordinances seriously.

2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14: The unruly who do not want to listen must be confronted with the serious consequences of their sins, in order to bring about repentance.

1 Timothy 5:20: Punishment is also necessary to instruct others.

Titus 3:10-11:                     A divisive person must be reprimanded and, if necessary, excommunicated.

E.  Doctrine and conduct🔗

Church discipline does not only influence our lives as illustrated above. It is also about doctrine, that is, our confession. The church mentions conduct and doctrine in one breath (cf. HC, Q &A 85; form for profession of faith – the Fourth question; form for adult baptism – the Fifth question; form for the installation of office bearers – the Third question; CO, Art. 66). This is wholly in accordance with the Word of God.

Those who create dissension through heresy must be carefully watched (Romans 16:17-18).  A curse is upon all those who bring a false gospel (Galatians 1:8).  One who causes dissension or factions can be called a heretic (Titus 3:10-11). 

Heresies cause the congregation to follow a path that leads it away from the Word of God. Its faith and life are endangered. Therefore, as leaders and rulers, office bearers carry a greater responsibility.  By signing the subscription form, office bearers promise not to propagate any divergent doctrine (cf. CO, Art. 26). When office bearers persist in false teachings, they are to be suspended from office and, if necessary, deposed (cf. CO, Art. 71).

F.  The purpose of discipline🔗

It is not difficult to see what the objective of church discipline is. We can summarize it in three issues:

  • to save the sinner, as a result of repentance

Matthew 18:15:                                Punishment may win a brother over.

1 Corinthians 5:5:             The goal is to rescue his soul.

2 Thessalonians 3:14:      Discipline causes remorse, which is beneficial.

  • to respect God’s majesty, which is defamed by sin

Romans 2:24:     God’s name is blasphemed by sin.

1 Peter 1:15-16:                The congregation must live a holy life, because God is holy.  If the congregation does not live a holy life, God’s holiness is defamed.

  • to safeguard the holiness of the congregation, against the destructive power of sin

Hebrews 12:15: Failing to obtain the grace of God (by sinning) brings forth a  “root of bitterness” which causes trouble and defiles many.

These three goals are interrelated. The holiness of God is the standard for the holiness of each member of the congregation. When the church does not practise discipline, but allows sin to corrupt her, she is no longer able to discern holiness. The congregation suffers enormous damage because of it. These three aspects are discussed at length in the liturgical forms.

G.  The forms🔗

The General Synod of ‘s Gravenhage [the Hague] (1586) ordered that forms be drawn up for both excommunication and readmission. Therefore, these forms date back to the 16th century. They are found in the Book of Praise in modern form. The three announcements, or the three ‘steps of censure’ intended to inform the congregation, were drawn up by the Synod of Arnhem (1930). The form for the excommunication of baptized members was drawn up and accepted by the Synod of Groningen-South (1978).  These forms were adopted by the Canadian Reformed Churches1and presented in modern form in the Book of Praise, 1984.  We shall further explore a few important aspects of the forms.

1.  A mandate for the entire congregation🔗

Although we distinguish between mutual discipline (cf. Matthew 18:15-16) and official discipline by the office bearers, the application of discipline remains a mandate for the entire congregation.

The three announcements preceding the actual excommunication make this very clear. The congregation gets progressively more involved in seeking the salvation of the sinner and breaking the powerful bonds of sin by means of prayer and reproof.

Although an office bearer pronounces the declaration of excommunication, the form leaves no doubt that the entire congregation has a responsibility here.  In the event of readmission, the congregation must also be able to consent to this decision.

To admonish or rebuke a sinner is not an easy matter in any congregation. In a large congregation, you may hardly know one another well enough to dare to speak to each other. In a small congregation, you may know too much about one another.

The approach outlined in Matthew 18 remains difficult. We may ask ourselves: Am I being a snoop?  Is another person’s private life my business?  Are others not personally responsible for what they do?

The freedom of the individual is strongly emphasized in our modern society. Everyone decides for themself how they want to live; nobody else should interfere. The spirit of this age makes it more difficult to speak to one another about sins in the church.

Yet the Lord says to us: “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24), and, “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13).

When you reprimand someone, you ought to stand beside him, not above him. Reprimanding must always take place in the spirit of humility, as you “watch yourself” (Galatians 6:1).

To say that everyone is individually responsible is not relevant in this context. This should not be used as a shield to crawl behind whenever we are faced with criticism.

If love rules our lives, as Psalm 133 points out, then mutual discipline will be possible.

2.  Excommunication is real but not absolute🔗

As long as the censured member is alive, he has an opportunity to repent and turn back from his sinful ways. According to the relevant form, the congregation may not sever ties with him forever and leave him to his own devices. At the same time, however, he must feel that he stands outside of the community.

The way back is kept open, and rightly so. The church does not let go of him.  Though he broke the bonds with the church by refusing to be part of her, the church would gladly see him return.

Because God desires the repentance, not the death, of the sinner (Ezekiel 18 and 33), we must continually seek to rescue the excommunicated. The way to accomplish this must be chosen with great care. Much will depend on the situation. The old term “cut off” highlights the inevitable pain which the amputation caused the body of Christ to suffer.

3.  Readmission into the congregation🔗

Excommunication need not be the end, as is evident from the form for readmission into the congregation, which was set down by the churches.

The announcement before the readmission has joyful overtones: “The Lord has blessed our admonitions and prayers so that ... has repented and requested to be again received into the communion of the church.” Even excommunication is meant to lead to salvation. When the excommunicated person repents, there is a place for him within the community of believers again.

The questions he must answer with “I do” in the presence of the congregation confirm for everyone his repentance and return. The thankfulness for his return resounds throughout the entire form.

4.  Disciplining non-communicant members🔗

Disciplining non-communicant members concerns backsliders, adult baptized members who turn away.  Not all adult non-communicant members who have problems in their faith life fall into this category. There are those who have specific difficulties in their faith life and are therefore unable to decide to make public profession of faith. Others show indifference without being specifically unwilling or unbelieving. In both cases they do not make public confession of faith.

We must distinguish between the negligent and the depraved, wayward adult baptized members. The form concerns itself with the latter type of person.

This manner of censure was mentioned as early as the 16th century, but was not extensively addressed until the Synod of Middelburg (1896). The Synod of Sneek (1939) established guidelines for this form. The Synod of Groningen-South (1978) endorsed the form that is now found in English in our Book of Praise.

Wayward non-communicant members should be disciplined. They are adults and may be held responsible. Is an adult not one who makes choices in his life? Not loving and serving God is also a choice, albeit a negative one.

By means of the announcement, the congregation is roused into action: they must talk to the person and pray for his repentance. As a rule, the discipline procedures are put into action when the non-communicant member has reached the age of twenty-five.

H.  Summary🔗

The Scriptures give us compelling evidence that church discipline is a mandate Christ has given to his church. Discipline is a personal application of God’s Word by which the sinner must be rescued from his ungodly walk.

At the same time discipline purifies the church by removing the corruption that can destroy it. In both cases, God’s holiness is given due honour.

I.  Tips for the introduction🔗

1. In the administration of church discipline, the pastoral function is central; it is the supervisory work of a shepherd. From this point of view you will be able to properly approach and explain the nature of church discipline. Regarding the attribute of God as a shepherd in the Old Testament, see Psalms 23; Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34.  Regarding the attribute of Christ as a shepherd in the New Testament, see John 10:1-18; Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-4. Also read the forms for the ordination (installation) of office bearers. Draw an analogy between being a shepherd and a watchman, which is emphatically dealt with in Ezekiel 3:16, 33:1-20.

2. Elaborate on section F (about the objective of church discipline) by referring to the texts mentioned there.

J.  For discussion🔗

  1. The first step in church discipline is to bar the communicant member from participating in the Lord’s Supper. What is the connection between the Lord’s Supper and church discipline?
  2. What does it mean when it is announced that someone “subjects himself to the discipline of the consistory”?
  3. Why does the congregation have to consent to someone’s request for an attestation to another congregation or to someone’s wish to make public profession of faith, etc?
  4. Why is the approval of the sister churches (classis) necessary before a second disciplinary announcement can be made?
  5. Why is the name of the censured person not mentioned until the second announcement is made? Should it not be made known at the very beginning? How can you as a member of the congregation now be actively involved?
  6. Should we not show more unity in having a “Reformed life-style”, so as to facilitate mutual discipline?
  7. In Article 69 of the Church Order the consistory is to “determine whether the benefit of the congregation requires that this confession of sin shall be made publicly”.  In such a situation, what must the consistory keep in mind?
  8. How can you hold on to someone who is being disciplined, while letting him know that the communion of saints is disrupted because of his sins?


  1. ^ General Synod Cloverdale 1983, Acts, Art. 145.

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