Written by J. Tyso of the Wallingford Baptist Church
Receiving the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as their only and sufficient guide in faith and practice; and thence deriving a belief in the important doctrines of the Trinity in the Godhead; the Responsibility of Man, his Guilt, and the Corruption of his Nature; Free Salvation by the death of Christ; Discriminating Grace in Election; the Substitution of Christ for his Church; Justification by Faith; through the Imputation of his Righteousness; Regeneration by the Holy Spirit; the Obligation of Holiness; the Perseverance of Saints; the Everlasting Misery of the Wicked, and Happiness of the Righteous; and maintaining inviolable the Congregational Order of the Churches; --
ASSEMBLED AT WALLINGFORD,
May 24th and 25th, 1836,
TO THE SEVERAL CHURCHES WHICH THEY REPRESENT.
WE are all deeply interested in the welfare of our churches: and it must be evident to you all that our peace and prosperity are inseparately connected with obedience to the laws of Christ. We therefore in our present epistle direct your attention to the important subject of "Church Discipline." The term discipline, is used in the following pages, not merely in its ecclesiastical, but in its general acceptance, including education, instruction, rule of government, order, chastisement, and correction.
Discipline includes the right treatment of the members of a christian church, especially those who offend against the laws of Christ, which are published in the New Testament. "The church which neglects this duty resembles a state in which the administration of justice is neglected, and crime is permitted to be practiced with impunity." Christ is head over all things to the church, and he is the only lawgiver.
We have no right to make laws for the regulation of our conduct in a Christian church. To do this implies that Jesus Christ has been deficient in the enactment of suitable laws, and that we can improve what he has left imperfect. But it is an undoubted fact that that the supreme head of the church has published as many as infinite wisdom thought necessary; and these are embodied in the "Scripture which is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." 2 Tim. iii. 16,17. And if "thoroughly furnished," the word must contain every necessary instruction, partaining to the discipline of the church. Those who deny this "do not consent to the wholesome words of the Lord Jesus."
Church discipline consists principally of three parts; the first is PREVENTIVE, the second CORRECTIVE, the third PENAL. The two former must be always in exercise, the latter must be resorted to only in cases of extremity.
First. The PREVENTIVE part of discipline. This branch may comprehend the following particulars; watchfulness, exhortation, admonition, and warning. These are designed to prevent whatever is contrary to sound doctrine, or opposed to consistent practice.
1. Watchfulness. "Ministers watch for souls as those that must give account." And members of churches should affectionately watch over one another. "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith." A christian church should continue "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplications," not for themselves only, but "for all saints." There is a necessity for the perpetual exercise of vigilance, "because your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." 1 Pet. V. 8. We should also watch lest the things of this world should engross our affections, and by its allurements make us worldly minded. We are prone to become lukewarm and lose our first love; therefore we should watch the first symptoms of a backsliding state in ourselves and others, "and do our first works and repent." A christian community derives great advantages from mutual watchfulness. By this many are prevented from declension in religion, and others who were declining are restored, "Therefore, let us not sleep as do others; but let us watch and be sober." "Looking diligently, lest any man fall of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled." Heb. Xii. 15.
2. Exhortation. This includes incitement to that which is good, and caution against what is evil. Exhortation is an important part of the christian ministry. It is recorded of the apostle Paul, that "with many other words he did testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation." While the apostle exhorted the churches to continue steadfast in the faith and practice of the gospel, they also enjoined it upon them to "exhort one another daily, and so much the more as they saw the day approaching."
The benefits arising from mutual exhortations are numerous. Many are stimulated to duties they would have neglected, and others are encouraged to persevere in important services, which they would have otherwise declined.
3. Admonition. Many are the dangers to which we are exposed; and our proneness to err from the line of christian consistency, renders advice and caution highly necessary. Ministers are required to admonish their hearers privately and publicly, and if Deacons or private members perceive any impropriety in the conduct of others they should affectionately admonish them in the Lord. It is a duty which Christians owe to one another. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another," Col. iii.16. Paul rejoiced in the circumstances of the Church at Rome, "That they were full of all goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another." By regarding salutary advice, we may be often preserved from the baneful influence of the flesh, the contagion of the world, and the snares of the devil.
The sacred history records the iniquities of ancient Israel, and the sins of the first Christians, "and they are written for our admonition. - Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall."
4. Warning. It is the duty of the ministers of religion, to preach Christ, "warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom," and members of churches ought to unite with their Pastors in this good work, and warn one another of the dangers to which they are exposed. The Sacred Scriptures abound with warning, "Beware of dogs, beware evil workers, beware of the concision, -- beware lest any man spoil you, -- beware lest ye be led away by the error of the wicked." When Jehovah instructed Ezekiel to address his fellow-men, he said, "Thou shalt hear the word at my mouth and warn them from me." So important is it in the Christian Ministry also, that the apostle of the Gentiles said to the Elders of the Church at Ephesus, "Remember, that by the space of three years, I ceased not to warn every one of you night and day with tears:" Nor is it the duty of ministers only; it is an apostolic injunction. "Brethren, warn them that are unruly." We proceed to notice,
Secondly. The CORRECTIVE part of church discipline, which consists of reproof, and rebuke.
1. Reproof. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for reproof, and is designed to correct us in all our wanderings from the path of duty. Ministers are charged before God and the Lord Jesus Christ not only to preach the word, but also "to reprove, to rebuke, and to exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine." 2. Tim. iv. 2.
The administration of reproof requires wisdom both as to the time and the manner of it. "As an ear-ring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear." Though perverse and obstinate persons, are not susceptible of any thing but severe correction, yet "Reproof enters more into a wise man, than a hundred stripes into a fool." As an inducement to listen to those who tell us of our faults, we should remember, "He that heareth reproof getteth understanding, but he that hateth reproof shall die." Impressed with the importance of this part of salutary discipline, the Psalmist said, "Let the righteous smite me, it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me, it shall be an excellent oil which shall not break my head."
2. Rebuke. The Law says, "Thou shall rebuke thy neighbor and not suffer sin upon him." The Gospel says, "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him, and if he repent, forgive him," Luke xvii. 3. It may be necessary that offenders should be rebuked sharply that they may be sound in the faith, and exemplary in practice, and sometimes publicly. "Them that sin, rebuke before all, that others may fear." 1. Tim. v. 20.
The directions here recited are of divine authority and are designed to discipline the church and train it up according to the will of God. They form the corrective part of good discipline, and if scripturally employed, will generally prevent the application of the penal part.
But should some disregard all the kind exhortations, admonitions, reproofs, warnings and rebukes given them by their Pastor, and fellow members; we are directed most unequivocally with regard to them to employ more decisive measures.
Having briefly stated the outlines of that discipline which is corrective, we proceed to notice,
Thirdly, The PENAL part of church discipline. By penal, we are not to understand, fines, imprisonment, or penance; but that punishment only which the New Testament authorizes: and this is exclusion from the privileges of church fellowship, and particularly from the Lord's table. The Lord Jesus Christ has deligated to his church the highest ecclesiastical authority on earth, to him alone it is accountable and from its decisions there is no appeal. But let every church take care that its decisions are according to the law of Christ. Our inquiry should be "What saith the Scriptures?" Our constant appeal should be to the sacred oracles. No member should be excluded from a christian church, for any offence whatsoever, if the New Testament does not direct and require it. It is unquestionably one of the greatest evils for a church to make laws to exclude its members in cases for which Jesus Christ has made none. His laws are perfect, and explicit, and need no alterations nor additions. All Christians are sinners, but every sin they commit, is not a capital offence demanding excommunication, nor should any church proceed to exclude its members for any offence, except as the laws of Christ direct.
All Christians have their failings, and in Christians of every grade from the highest officer in the church to the humblest member there are some improprieties; imperfection attaches to the best of me.
"Owe no man any thing" is a plain precept, but there is no command in the New Testament to exclude the debtor. Yet if a man involve himself in debt without any prospect of payment, and practice fraud to support his sinking credit, he is chargeable with immorality, and should be treated accordingly. It is a very plain command of the only Lawgiver in the church, "Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." Mat. v. 48. But if all members who break this precept were to be excluded, the churches would be annihilated, since none can be found who are as perfect as our heavenly Father. The infinitely just and perfect Jehovah has given to man, just and perfect laws; nor would it become him to reduce the standard of moral excellency, so as to accommodate it to human corruptions. Jesus says, "A new commandment I give unto that ye love one another as I have loved you," but though our love to each other does and will fall short of his love to us, yet he has left no command to exclude us from his church on this account.
If for the breach of every precept of the New Testament members were to be cut off, there would be no opportunity for the exercise of forbearance, longsuffering, forgiveness, &c. Yet we are commanded to "walk worthy of our vocation, with all longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, and forgiving one another even as Christ hath forgiven us." Col. iii. 12, 13. And in perfect accordance with this sentiment, the ministers of religion are instructed, "to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with all long suffering."
Servants are commanded to "obey in all things their masters according to the flesh," but should they in some things fail in their attention to this precept, where is the law of Christ which authorizes their exclusion?
A great many things of a similar nature might be adduced, which are positively forbidden in the New Testament; and for doing which the offenders ought to be admonished, reproved and rebuked, but not excommunicated; -- and for this plain reason, the laws of Christ do not authorize the church to do it.
Moses and David received divine directions in all things pertaining to the Tabernacle and Temple, and by these they were bound to act. Moses had a special charge, "See that thou make all things according to the pattern showed thee in the mount." These buildings were types of the christian church. "Ye are the temple of the living God," "a spiritual house, an holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices." Ministers and churches should look well to the pattern given them in the New Testament, that all things may be done according to the laws of Christ.
What should we think of a British Judge, who should condemn a man to death for an offence which the law of our country has not made capital? Judges have no right to go beyond the law of the case, -- nor have Christian churches. The Judges in our courts of law, are not more bound by the laws of the land in their official capacity, than Christian churches are bound by the laws of Christ in administering church discipline.
What then, are the offences for which the church of Christ is commanded to exclude its members? This is certainly a very important question, and one to which every church ought to be able to give a scriptural answer. The New Testament contains all the laws of Christ, and therefore it affords ample information on this subject. Besides this, there is no other authority to which the church should appeal in order to regulate its decisions. According to this divine code of Christian laws, the offences are the following.
1. All crimes which are usually denominated immoralities. Such as incest, fornication, covetousness, idolatry, railing drunkenness, extortion, &c. "If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an Extortioner," with such a person the church is commanded "to have no company, no not to eat with him," but "to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." 1 Cor. v. 5, 11, 13. Nor is it for immorality alone, that the church is directed to exclude from its communion, but
2. Denying any essential article of the Christian faith. "Though we or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed." Galatians i. 8. To the same effect is the injunction of the apostle John. "If any man come and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house; neither bid him God speed; for he that biddeth him God speed is a partaker of his evil deeds." The law of the case is farther stated in Paul's epistles to Timothy. "If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; - from such withdraw thyself." Hymeneus and Alexander were men of this description who had "made shipwreck of faith; whom" said Paul, "I have delivered unto Satan." The particular error of Hymeneus related to the resurrection of the dead, "Of whom is Hymeneus and Philetus; who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is already past," and by publishing their error overthrew the faith of some. 1 Tim. i. 20. vi. 3-5. 2 Tim. ii. 18. "Nothing can be more plain than that these passages require us to separate from our communion those who deny what we consider to be essential articles of faith." James's Church Member's Guide. Page 197.
3. Causing divisions and offences in the church. "Now I beseech you brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences, - and avoid them." Romans xvi. 17. "Now we command you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly." "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed." 2 Thes. iii. 6, 14. And if any man consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, but is guilty of pride, "envy, strife, railing, evil surmisings," - "from such withdraw thyself." I Tim. vi. 3-5. "If men are covetous, boasters, proud, - unthankful, unholy, - truce-breakers, false accusers, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, - from such turn away." 2 Tim. iii. 2-5. "A man that is an heretic" (that is a factious person who forms a sect or party in the church) "after the first and second admonition reject." Titus iii. 10. These expressions "Have no company with him;" - "From such withdraw thyself," - "From such turn away," "Avoid them," - "Put away from yourselves," - "Reject," - and "deliver unto Satan," are all phrases which denote excommunication. How is it possible for a church "to have no company" with a person whom they suffer to accompany them when they go to the Lord's table? How can they "withdraw" from a person with whom they hold communion at the Lord's supper? And how can they "avoid" those with whom they associate? Or "reject" those whom they continue to retain? The "putting away" and "delivering unto Satan," are used to express the same thing relative to the incestuous Corinthian, 1 Corinthians v. 5. 13. and it denotes a putting the offender from the church to the world from whence he came, for Satan is "the god of this world - the spirit that worketh in the children of disobedience." Matthew Poole, one of our most judicious commentators, having quoted most of the above text says, "The sum is, the church should excommunicate them, and all sound Christians should turn away from them, and shun their society that they may be ashamed." Poole on Rom. xvi. 17. Of the same mind are Doddridge, Burkitt, Brown, Diodate, Hammond, Whitby, Macknight, and Gill. On 2 Thes. iii. 6. Gill says, "Walking disorderly is not filling up our places, but neglecting attendance with the church on the word and ordinances, nor does this withdrawing signify debarring from the Lord's table only; but a removal from communion or an excommunication of them." Irregularity and neglect of the worship of God with the church is an evil of great magnitude, and if generally practiced would bring the church to confusion and desolation. "Every city or house divided against itself cannot stand." It therefore cannot be right for one member to do that, which if all did, the church would be ruined; and this must certainly be the case, if all were to desert public worship and neglect the Lord's supper. Many churches are made very unhappy through such disorderly conduct. There are, however, many cases which require forbearance, for a considerable time. But to constitute the neglect of public worship with the church an offence which requires exclusion, there must be a perseverance in it after admonition. Again the providence of God removes some persons from the church where they are members; and sometimes where there is no church with which they could unite. In this case it would be unjust to exclude them, but if there be such church, persons should apply for this dismission and join themselves to the society where they worship.
Those that cause division and offences, disturb the peace, and are troubles of the church, therefore ought to be cut off. The law of the case in the scriptures is plain. "I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment whosoever he be. I would they were cut off which trouble you." Galatians v. 10, 12. Not removed by death nor cut off from Christ, "but cut off by the censures of the church." This is the import of the passage according to Henry, Doddridge, Burkitt, Baxter, Hammond, Macknight, and Scott and of most, if not all other commentators. "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints." And "the Lord hateth him that soweth discord among brethren."
4. Not hearing the church. If one member commit a personal offence against another, then the offended partly should take the directions given in Mat. xviii. 15-17. "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee two or three more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church: but if he neglect to hear the Church; let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." If for a personal offence against a brother, a man who neglects to hear the church is to be accounted as "an heathen man and a publican," how much more for a public offence against the laws of Christ ought the church to account an incorrigible member who neglects to hear them "as an heathen man and a publican?" "If he neglect to hear the church, he must, what ever might have been his original transgression, be expelled from its fellowship." James's Church Member's Guide.
When we consider the depravity of human nature, and the numerous infirmities of our flesh, we shall not be surprised if offences come, but "woe to that man by whom they come." Yet if offending members are admonished affectionately and scripturally, the greater part of them will be brought to repentance, and to a consistent deportment, without their cases being stated to the church. But if they will not hear their pastor, or deacons, or their fellow members privately, it will be necessary to bring the case before the church; and if the offender will not yield to the advice and directions of the church, there can be no more union or communion with him. He neglects to hear the church, therefore "let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."
But persons excommunicated are not to be abandoned and counted as enemies but admonished as brethren. 2 Thes. iii. 15. And if they manifest true repentance, they should be restored to church fellowship after a suitable term of punishment. It appears from the dates of the epistles to the Corinthians that the excluded member mentioned in 1 Cor. v. chapter, had been under the sentence of excommunication about a year, when Paul directed the church to restore him, saying, "sufficient to such a man is the punishment which was inflicted of many," therefore "confirm your love to him." 2 Cor. ii. 6-8.
These are the laws given by the supreme head of the church, relative to offending members; and all churches are bound to keep them. No excuse for disobedience is of any avail. Neglect brings them into disrepute, and makes it very difficult for them to exercise discipline, even where it is absolutely necessary for the honour of religion.
In church discipline two objects should be constantly kept in view,
First, the good of the church. It is designed to preserve its purity, peace and reputation. "Therefore purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened." 1 Cor. v. 6, 7. When the sharpest rebukes, and censures are administered, it is "that others also may fear." 1 Tim. v. 20. This also was the design of discipline in the Jewish church; "And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness." Deut. xiii. 11.
Secondly. The good of the offender. If any one is excommunicated and so delivered unto Satan, it is "that he may learn not to blaspheme." 1 Tim. i. 20. It is also for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved, in the day of the Lord Jesus. 1 Cor. v. 5.
There are four general rules laid down in the New Testament, to which every church ought closely to adhere in all their social meetings.
1. "Let all things be done decently and in order". 1 Cor. xiv. 40. This injunction includes all the proceedings of the Church, and the observance of it is peculiarly requisite in the administration of discipline, that it may have its due weight and answer its desired end.
2. "Let all things be done without murmurings and disputings." Phil. ii. 14. These should be avoided as much as possible. They spring from a bad principle and have a baneful tendency. "Therefore my beloved brethren let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." Let those who are most esteemed for their wisdom and piety, "and let the others judge." "Only by pride cometh contention; but with the well advised is wisdom." Prov. xiii. 10.
3. "Let all things be done to edification." We should aim to establish, and build one another up in faith, and practice of the gospel. Every one ought to seek the good of others, and strive together to promote the general good. By so doing all will reap the benefit of their own endeavours. "Therefore seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church." 1 Cor. xiv. 5. 12. 26. 2 Cor. 12. 19. Rom. xiv. 19. and xv. 2.
1. "Let all things be done with charity," or love. 1 Cor. xvi. 14. The exercise of love is of the highest importance, because "Love suffereth long and is kind, it envieth not, it vaunteth not itself. Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil." We should beware of false lenity, and unchristian severity and endeavour to imbibe the spirit of Christ. If love does not govern our conduct the exercise of discipline can have no beneficial effects. Love to Christ, love to the church, and love to the offenders should characterize every act. "Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love." Rom. xii. 9. 10. If Christian churches abide by these rules, and act in the spirit of the gospel, they will avoid may evils to which they are exposed, promote their own peace and prosperity, and enjoy the approbation of their divine Lord; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
THO. WELSH, Moderator.
[This Circular Letter was photocopied from the original at the Angus Library, Regents Park Baptist College, Oxford, England. The Letter is on pp. 1-12 in the original Minutes. There were eleven churches in this association with a total of 1107 members. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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