When Is Church Discipline Faithfully Exercised
This question cannot be answered in a simplistic manner. It's not a matter that can be determined by statistics only, e.g. how many "cases" come to Classis (though everyone knows in today's world that when large congregations seldom or never come to Classis with a discipline case, there is something drastically wrong — either discipline is not being exercised faithfully (most likely) or the Church Order is not being followed). But what I mean is that discipline is first of all a matter of the constant and diligent supervision of the congregation. Where there is good discipline in the sense of "discipling" (making better disciples), a lot of "formal" discipline (discipline in the narrow sense) can be prevented. Schaver, in his The Polity of the Churches, Vol. I says:
Faithful oversight of a congregation prevents many evils which otherwise afflict a church through negligence. It is better constantly to watch the whole flock carefully than to have to spend time later in trying to reclaim the wandering. A church as well as a house is kept well-ordered only through constant effort. Elders have their opinion about a housekeeper who allows the dirt and the filth to accumulate until it is a stench to the nostrils. They should also consider how their own congregational house looks to the discerning and exacting eye of their Lord. (p. 201)
Elsewhere he says: When the Church permits open defiance to the ordinances of Christ to pass without rebuke, and open abuse to remain without reform, it digs its own grave and becomes chargeable to its Lord for negligence toward a most solemn task. (p. 195)
Discipline is of one piece with the total care of the church, including the preaching. Preaching itself, said our fathers, is an exercise of the power of the keys of the kingdom (cf. L.D. 31 of Heidelberg Catechism). Art. 17 of Heading III/IV of the Canons of Dort speaks the same language: As the apostles and teachers did not neglect to keep their people "under the influence of the Word, the sacraments and ecclesiastical discipline," so we ought also to do. "For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more clearly this favor of God, working in us, usually manifests itself, and the more directly His work is advanced." Art. 14 of the fifth Heading speaks similarly:
And as it has pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings and promises thereof, and by the use of the sacraments.
From this it becomes clear that preaching itself is disciplinary in nature. Formal discipline is only a "backing up" of the preaching.
In brief, discipline is first of all being faithfully exercised through the preaching and constant care of the congregation.
There is more, far more, to discipline than the final phases of it. It is most lamentable that to the popular mind, and even to the office bearers of the Church, the word "discipline" commonly connotes only the idea of a cutting-off process. That is however not even the fundamental idea of discipline. The basic meaning of discipline is to train. The word discipline and the word disciple not only appear to be similar but they are also similar in meaning. Discipline is the training that is suited to a disciple. It includes instruction, training, admonition, and correction, as well as excommunication (p. 200).
But now to come more to the point and be more direct: What about "formal discipline," — when is it being faithfully exercised? (This was the main focus in the mind of Classis, I am sure.)
In brief I would say: When wayward or delinquent members are faithfully visited and admonished, and those admonitions are backed up with the actual steps of formal discipline outlined in the Church Order. Each case, of course, is a case on its own, and the consistory has to decide in each individual case (considering age, response, circumstances, etc.) how much patience must be exercised, and how much time must elapse between each of the steps. But if the steps are never taken, admonitions lose their effectiveness, and discipline tends to become a farce. Already in his day (1947) Schaver wrote that "Classes from time to time also approve the expulsion of members, but these by their absence from church services for a long time have already in effect erased themselves, and they have manifested the contempt in which they held the claim of discipline. Even in the CRC," said Schaver, "the part that is played by the doctor as the patient is about to die and the part that is played by the funeral director after death" — that part is still played in the CRC. "In fact," he says, "but comparatively few disciplinary funerals even are held; for, by permitting easy transference of membership to less strict denominations, this unpleasant task of burial is frequently left for other Churches to perform, or it is avoided by accepting the resignation of members under discipline."
If that was true then, I am convinced it is more so today. Elders have told me that they have members on their rolls who have not darkened the inside of a church building for twenty or more years, but who are still members "in good standing." Of this Dr. Klaas Runia, in his booklet Reformation Today, says:
"The second area in which discipline has been neglected is ... (that) people's names have been retained on the church roll even when they clearly show themselves to have no interest in the Gospel. They attend the church services either irregularly or not at all. Often these same people openly hold views which are contrary to the confession of the church and engage in activities which are condemned by the Word of God." (p. 104)
In similar fashion Schaver writes: The cause of ecclesiastical discipline suffers also because it is not prosecuted with sufficient vigor. The Bible says "because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11). People tend to lose respect for a disciplinary process that drags on almost interminably. In the exercise of discipline the virtue of patience should not be emphasized to the point where it becomes a vice. (p. 194)
This has another bad effect: A consistory cannot start disciplining more recent cases when those of long standing have not been dealt with. The exercise of discipline becomes paralyzed this way. There must be progress in our disciplinary procedures, either in the way of repentance and amendment or in the way of further discipline. The procedure must not become a "stalemate." And we ought to keep clearly in mind the three-fold purpose of discipline as outlined in Art. 79 of the Church Order. Not only is the welfare of the sinner at stake, but also the honor of God and the welfare of the congregation. I think that too often we tend to lose sight of the latter two. Discipline is very healthful for the entire congregation. Public announcements from the pulpit make the congregation aware of the seriousness of the matter, and also serve notice that the consistory takes its task seriously. Remember Paul's admonition: "Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning" (1 Timothy 5:20). We read that this is precisely what took place in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:11).
I happen to think that the main cause for laxity and neglect in carrying out discipline today in our churches is simply: It's a difficult and unpleasant task, and therefore we would just as soon not tackle it. It's difficult because wayward members are often hard to get hold of; sometimes it means trying again and again. This takes time and effort, and sometimes we don't really want to take the time and effort it requires. It's unpleasant because of the very nature of the work: Who likes to rebuke and admonish? What is more, parents and/or other relatives often don't take kindly to disciplinary measures, especially if they affect their children. So the easy way out is not to do it, or to do it in a "token" way, without ever really "taking the bull by the horns." That's the easy way, but it's also the wrong and unbiblical way. Here too, we must seek to please God rather than men, knowing that He will bless what is done faithfully in His Name. Even the final step of erasure or excommunication must be seen as medicine, drastic surgery for what will, we hope, be a good result.
Whatever else the apostle meant by "deliver ... to Satan," (Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20, J.T.) I am sure he meant the guilty party had to be expelled from the church. There is an indispensable place in the church for discipline, and this man had to be disciplined, for his own sake as well as the church's...
This is a much-needed lesson in these days of easy tolerance of sin in the church. A gentle, charitable spirit is a mark of true Christlikeness, but a spirit of compromise and capitulation to evil brings no help to man nor glory to God. We betray our brethren if we encourage them to permit sin to reign in their lives.
Wilbur E. Nelson in Believe and Behave
Remember the Dutch saying: "Zachte heelmeesters maken stinkende wonden." ("Easy doctors make festering wounds.")
It is important that both pastors and elders perform this task, and there must be frequent reminders concerning this. Visits must be made, and progress reports given. We must keep tabs on all our members.
Such a discipline is the task of the whole eldership. It is definitely not the proper thing for the elders to leave it to the minister ... The whole session, that is, the minister together with the elders, should accept the responsibility and act as a corporate body.
Runia, p. 104
In the same vein Schaver says: Not only the pastor but also the other religious leaders of a church have the calling to exercise discipline in its broader sense. They should ever be on the alert to train or discipline the members intrusted to their care. The edification of the body of Christ is their solemn obligation. (p. 200)
Again, there is no exact "timetable" by which to measure whether or not discipline is being faithfully exercised. But the general pattern is clear, and the above indications give some guidelines. Each consistory can then judge for itself whether discipline is being carried out faithfully.
There is then according to the Word of God a great need of exercising discipline faithfully. How can anyone question this need? ... The whole Church should still be filled with fear, for God does not look on indifferently today as the religious husbandmen of his vineyard allow it to become all overgrown with nettles and briars.
Schaver, p. 199