Dear Church Family,

When we were disciplined by our parents as children – admonished and corrected by them – it was no fun at the time, but as we grow older we become grateful for their loving correction. Likewise, church discipline often conjures up negative feelings and attitudes in people; however, it is one of the blessings of church membership by which we may grow in the Lord. For, as the Scriptures tell us, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).

Church discipline (or church censures) was the topic of our most recent adult Sunday school class wherein we studied chapter 30 (“Of Church Censures”) in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

WCF 30.1 – Church Officers

This chapter on church censures begins, in the first paragraph, by establishing both the supreme and the subordinate authorities in Christ’s Church. The supreme authority of Christ’s church is the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself; He is the King and Head of His Church (Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 28:18). The subordinate authority of Christ’s church are church officers whom Christ has appointed to govern His people under-shepherds (Ephesians 4:11-13; Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:4-9; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).

As Jesus declared before Pontius Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world, otherwise His servants would be fighting to protect Him (John 18:36), so too is the government of the church through church officers distinct from the civil magistrate.

WCF 30.2 – The Keys of the Kingdom

Having established that Christ has given authority into the hand of church officers distinct from the civil magistrate, paragraph two of this chapter goes on to explain what kind of power these church officers have. This authority, which was delegated by Christ to His Apostles, is called “the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:15-19).

As this authority is described by Jesus as “keys,” it is apparent that the function of this delegated authority is to open and close the door to the kingdom. Therefore, specifically, the authority of the keys of the kingdom is the power to retain and remit sins, to shut the kingdom against the unrepentant, and to open the kingdom to repentant sinners (John 20:21-23; Matthew 16:19; 18:15-20).

Previously we learned that God has “ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good; and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doer” (WCF 23.1; Romans 13:1-4). However, Christ has not ordained the sword (or physical violence) to be used by the officers of His church. Rather, the power of the keys of the kingdom is exercised through the use of the word and censures. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world; therefore, church officers do not bear the sword or any kind of physical violence in the administration of their duties (John 18:36).

WCF 30.3 – The Purposes of Church Censures

Church censures (or church discipline) is necessary. And, it is necessary to accomplish at least five purposes: (1) for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren (Jude 1:22-23; 1 Corinthians 5:5); (2) for the deterring of others from similar offences (1 Timothy 5:20); (3) for purging out the leaven that might infect the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6-7); (4) for vindicating the honor of Christ and the holy profession of the Gospel (Matthew 7:6); and (5) for preventing the wrath of God (Revelation 2:5).

Our denomination’s Book of Church Order similarly summarizes the purposes of church discipline: “The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. In its proper usage discipline maintains: (a) the glory of God; (b) the purity of His Church; (c) the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners” (BCO 27-3).

WCF 30.4 – The Degrees of Church Discipline

There are three basic forms of church discipline which are given to us in Scripture, three forms of church discipline that increase in severity: (1) admonition (1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:20); (2) suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a time (1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15); and (3) excommunication from the Church (Matthew 18:17; Titus 3:10-11).

Conclusion

Church censures (or discipline) is a serious and weighty matter. As we will learn in the next chapter, all synods or church councils since the time of the Apostles may make mistakes, and many have (WCF 31.3). The authority which Christ delegates to the officers of His church may, and has been, abused. Yet, at the same time, Christ calls fallen men to govern and shepherd His church through His delegated authority.

With that in mind, please remember to pray for the pastor and elders of our church, for the pastors and elders in all of Christ’s churches in our denomination and throughout the world. Pray that we might care for God’s people with the gentleness and tenderness like that of a nursing mother cares for her own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8), while also diligently laboring to exhort, encourage, and implore God’s people as a father would his own children (1 Thessalonians 2:9-12).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch