To the several Churches which they represent.
"ON CHURCH DISCIPLINE"
BELOVED CHRISTIAN BRETHREN,
THE subject which has been elected for our Annual Letter is one of great interest and importance. The Discipline which our Lord established in His church, and by which He designed to promote the peace, purity, and prosperity of his people, can scarcely be an unseasonable subject of address from the Ministers and Messengers assembled in their annual meeting. The spiritual condition of the churches themselves, the influence which they ought to exercise in the world, and the enjoyment of the presence and blessing of the Redeemer, are inseparably connected with the faithful, temperate, and impartial administration of the laws of Christ.
The idea of government or discipline is involved in the very constitution of the Christian church. It is a voluntary society of holy men and women, recognizing one supreme authority, embracing common truths, and united for the attainment of great spiritual objects. It acknowledges the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole lawgiver, and the sacred oracles as the only authoritative standard of faith and practice. The members of such a community sustain peculiar relations to each others as well as to Christ. To the laws of the Saviour they are all subject, and over each other they are to exercise loving fraternal watchfulness. To each society Christ has given authority to warn, rebuke, and finally to exclude from its fellowship those who walk inconsistently with the christian character, and for fidelity in the exercise of this truth each church is responsible to its Lord. He himself reproves the churches of Pergamos and Thyatria [sic] because they had them that held the doctrines of Balaam, and the doctrine of Nicolaitanes, and because they suffered the woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, while one of the things commended in the church at Ephesus was that they could not bear them that are evil.
It forms no part of our design to discuss minutely and at length the offences which call for the exercise of church discipline, or to attempt to assign to each of these the kind of censure which it demands. This neither comports with the character in which we address you, nor with the limits to which we are restricted. Our purpose is more simple, direct, and practical. We wish to stir you up by putting you in remembrance of your responsibility to Christ, and of your duty to the church. Each christian society is answerable for the maintenance and enforcement of the laws of Christ, and to its own master it standeth or falleth. Our province is to set before you the imperative character of the duty, and to urge you to the conscientious and faithful discharge of it. It is impossible to lay down rules applicable to each case that may arise. Christian discipline is not a rigid mechanism: it is spiritual, and the spirit, as well as the letter of the gospel, must be regarded in the application of its precepts to the offences with which the church has to deal. But we may be permitted to remark, that the range of scripture discipline is exceedingly wide. It is by no means confined to the violation of the laws of morality. It is not limited to those acts which are stigmatized by human laws, and may be punished by the civil magistrate. It is not merely the drunkard, the fornicator, the swearer, the thief, that are declared amenable to the censures of the church, but they extend to many characters who are regarded as respectable and creditable members of our societies. They embrace those who cause divisions and offences, the covetous, busybodies, railers, and other offenders, and to these the highest penalty of the church - exclusion of its fellowship - has been assigned. Indeed, it is to be feared that we are more influenced in our views of discipline by the opinions of men than we would be willing to avow. Many offences visited with the severest censures of the church may lie venial in the sight of God, compared with many others which are tolerated among us. The language which a most thoughtful and sagacious observer of the christian world applies to the covetous, may, with some modification, be extended to many other offences: "I cannot pretend to know much of the right formation and discipline of churches, but it does always appear to me, that there must be something very unsound in the constitution of a church that retains such a member. They are expected, and justly so, to exercise discipline in various things very censurable, but not of the worst kind; (great imprudences, temporary lapses under sudden temptation or provocation, injurious actions of a minor degree, &c.) But here is a great flagrant Idolator in their communion, who might just as well go on his knees and literally worship his gold and silver, if put in the form of an image." The truth is, that the morality of the gospel is exceedingly elevated and pure. My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. The directions which are given for the exercise of church discipline place the gospel before us in the highest and holiest aspect. The standard of character which that discipline implies is exceedingly severe. The church is designed to be a reflection of the Saviour's purity and glory. Be ye holy, for I am holy.
It is essential to a wise and healthful exercise of christian discipline, that the end we have in view should be distinctly and clearly recognized. This will determine the cases with which we are called upon to deal, the manner in which each case is to be treated, and the spirit in which discipline is to be administered. The design of all discipline is the restoration of the offender, and the vindication of the honor of Christ in the purity of his church. It is intended as a means to an end. In the scriptural examples of discipline exercised, these ends are distinctly set before us. The Corinthian offender was to be delivered over unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of judgment. If the end be kept in view, we shall be kept from criminal connivance, false lenity, and undue severity. We aim to convince him of his sin, to lead him to repentance, and to bring him back to the Saviour. The action of the church is a solemn condemnation of the offence, an emphatic appeal to the offender to repent and seek divine forgiveness, and a vindication of itself from all participation in the sin. This will determine the spirit in which the discipline of the church is to be exercised. It is not in harsh and unfeeling severity. It is not in the pharisaic disposition which would lead us to say, stand by thyself, come not near me, for I am holier than thou. It is not in the temper of the disciples who would call down fire from heaven to consume those who received them not. The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. It is in the spirit of love and tender compassion. It is in love to the offender, though in hatred to the offence. It is in the spirit of meekness, knowing that we ourselves are compassed with infirmity. It is in the temper of mind which would lead us to say let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. It is hardly less as a warning to ourselves than as a rebuke to the offender. The end we contemplate will lead us to discriminate intelligently between offences which differ in their character. Every offence and every offender is not to he dealt with alike. The very same sin, when committed under different circumstances, will demand very different treatment. We are not to confound the degrees of guilt, and the indications of character which offences present. One individual may be overtaken in a fault, hurried by passion and temptation into sin, with hardly a moment for reflection; another exhibits deliberation, forethought, and design, in the transaction In one case you may have only an act; in the other you may have actions ripened into habits. The former may be a serious blot on the christian character; the latter casts suspicion on the very existence of christian principle. The one calls for a lenient and compassionate treatment; the other necessitates the exercise of greater severity. In all cases the spirit of love is to be cherished, but it is love illumined and guided by wisdom. Of some have compassion, making a difference: others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.
The vindication of the holiness of the church being one of the ends to be obtained by the exercise of discipline, this determines the manner in which it is to be administered. It is to be the act of the whole church, assembled in its spiritual character, and in the name of the Lord Jesus: In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, the church at Corinth was to put away the offender. They are enjoined as the professed disciples of Christ to maintain the discipline and preserve the purity of the church. But the disciples in their collective capacity are only an executive body. They have only power to enforce the Laws of Christ, not to enact laws of their own. What ever cannot be brought within the meaning of the laws of the Redeemer, forms no object of church discipline. It may he a very weak and foolish thing, and may be very offensive to others, but if it be not a breach of the statutes of the Lord Jesus, it does not come within the province of the church. The revealed will of God is the law of his church, and to the law and the testimony every act is to he brought. But let us not be misunderstood, dear brethren. You may not find every offence enumerated in the word of God, but you will find the principle by which its character is to be determined. The accidents and circumstances of an offence may not he described, but the spirit and character of it may be clearly provided for. The particular act may not be specified, but the class to which it belongs may be clearly and authoritatively condemned. It is the application of the divine law to the circumstances which may arise that the wisdom, impartiality, and faithfulness of pastors and churches are displayed. It is easy for a community to deal with some cases, and there are few churches which would suffer a grossly immoral character among them; but there will be cases which will put to a severe test the fidelity of the church to the authority of the Lord Jesus. There will circumstances arise which will necessitate a calm, impartial, and decisive procedure, or which will involve criminal indifference to the will of Christ, and a cowardly compromise with the offender. Of churches as well as of individuals, it may he truly said, Then shall I not he ashamed when I have respect unto all thy commandments.
In the exercise of discipline it is of the utmost consequence that you should carry with you the moral conviction and approbation of the entire church. The value and spiritual power of church censuses, their salutary influence upon the offending party, and their holy impression upon the minds of others will bear, some proportion to the unanimity with which they are passed. The apostle refers to this element, when he says, Sufficient to such a man is punishment which was inflicted of many. It should be ratified by the consent of all. But to the attainment of this there are many and serious difficulties. In a christian church there are many ties beside those which are spiritual. There are the natural bonds of life, and the influence of friendship and intercourse. When we become christians we do not cease to be men. It is impossible that these ties can be forgotten in a moment. It is exceedingly difficult to merge them in the higher and holier responsibilities of the spiritual life. When a case discipline occurs, these blind the understanding, warp the judgment, and stir up the passions. The very tribunal which has to deliver judgment is biassed. It is impossible to exercise discipline in the clearest cases without inflicting pain on some to whom we least desire to give it. In no Society can the guilty be punished, without the innocent, to some degree, participating in it. The more imperative the necessity for discipline, the more painful the case may be to the innocent. In these instances the disciples of Christ have to suffer in a measure what their brethren in primitive times had to bear in greatest bitterness. They have to forsake father and mother, and brother and sister, for Christ's sake. Like Levi, they are not to spare their nearest kindred. Like Aaron they have to hold their peace. We hardly like to advert to another influence in the church, which may impede the exercise or neutralize the effects of its discipline: we mean the existence of party spirit, which too often is found among us. It kindles suspicion of each other's conduct. If the offence be unquestioned the mode of dealing with it may be impunged. No step that is taken can be expected to meet with the approval of all. It is scarcely surprising that it should be so. Beloved brethren, we entreat you to realize your responsibility to Christ. Fidelity to the Saviour is not incompatible with the tenderest love to kindred and friends. The exercise of holy discipline is as much enforced by love to the offender as by submission to the divine law.
The treatment of those who are under the censures of the church is a matter of great moment, and of some difficulty. It is to he feared that this is hardly thought of by the members of our churches. The exclusion of a person from the fellowship of believers is followed by hardly any other consequences than that he is debarred from the ordinance or private meetings of the church. There are two extremes which are to be carefully avoided. The one neutralizes or lessens the weight of the discipline of the church; the other puts forth no effort to bring the offender to repentance and the acknowledgment of his sin. It is clear that the primitive churches regarded those who had proved themselves unworthy of the christian name, with very serious feelings. The language of Paul is most emphatic: If a man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or coveteous, or an idolator, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, with such an one no not to eat. This does not refer exclusively to the Lord's supper, but extends to the ordinary intercourse of life. They were not to keep company with such an one, any more than with those who made no profession of godliness. They were only to be found in his society as duty or necessity required. The bond of fellowship between them was broken, and they were not to become partakers of his evil deeds. "These commands," says a commentator, "though seemingly severe, are in the true spirit of the gospel. For the laws of Christ do not, like the laws of men, correct offenders by fines and imprisonments, and corporeal punishments, or outward violence of any kind, but by earnest and affectionate representations, admonitions, and reproofs, addressed to their reason and consciences, to make them sensible of their fault, and to induce them voluntarily to amend. But if these moral and religious means prove ineffectual, Christ hath ordered the society, of which the offender is a member, to shun his company and conversation, that he may he ashamed, and that others may he preserved from the contagion of his example. The wholesome discipline which Christ instituted in his church at the beginning, was rigorously and impartiality exercised by the primitive christians toward their offending brethren, and with the happiest success in preserving purity of manners among themselves." In modern times, however, this salutary discipline bath been much neg1ected in the church; but it hath been taken up by gaming clubs, who exclude from their society all who refuse to pay their game debts, and shun their company on all occasions as absolutely infamous. By this sort of excommunication, and by giving to game debts the appellation of debts of honor, the winners on the one hand, without the help of law, and even in contradiction to it, have rendered their unjust claims effectual; while the losers, on the other hand, are reduced to the necessity, either of paying, or of being shunned by their companions as "infamous." The true spirit to be cherished, is that of tender compassion. The members of the church should feel that Christ has suffered in the unworthy conduct of his professed disciple. The whole community has been wronged by the act of one individual. There should therefore he no doubt in the mind of the offender that the sympathy of the brotherhood is with the purity of the church, and the honor of the Redeemer. It is of consequence that the testimony of the church should be thus unequivocal and emphatic. There should be no contrariety between the action of the whole community and the conduct of individual members. Let the heart be poured out in fervent prayer for the conversion or restoration of the offender; let earnest, faithful, solemn expostulations be addressed to him; but let your conduct prove that you have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness.
There is a point closely connected with the foregoing, on which it will be pertinent to offer a reason. We mean the relation which churches, and especially associated churches, sustain to the disciplinary acts of each other. We address you now in this character, and every association must devolve reciprocal obligations upon those who constitute it. The constitution of our churches, while we believe it to be divine, is not without its temptations and perils. One temptation to which they are exposed is to admit into their fellowship unworthy characters from other communions. False tenderness and weakness, without inferior and sordid motives, will sometimes lead to this. We ought to understand our relative position. We claim to be independent communities, self-governed, and repudiate all external authority. Even in our associate capacity we still claim to retain our independence. But each church is bound to respect and uphold the discipline of its fellow communities. A church that admits into its communion an individual expelled from another church, becomes a partaker of his sin, and by the very act, [is] unworthy of association with other churches. It neutralizes all gospel fellowship, sanctions iniquity, and dishonors Christ. It becomes the patron of vice and the antagonist of holiness. It converts the church of the Redeemer into a spiritual court of bankruptcy. It will make the church like the cave of Adullam, into which every one that was in distress, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves together. Ichabod may be inscribed over the gates of the sanctuary where it assembles.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to exaggerate the solemnity of the functions which are here assigned to the church of Christ. The very terms in which its highest act is expressed are of the most solemn character. Cut off - Delivered unto Satan - Let him be as a heathen and a publican - are inspired phrases not to read without awe. The authority with which Christ has invested his church has been well described by a writer who touched no topic without adorning it, and who discussed no theme without exhausting it: "I am far from thinking lightly of the spiritual power with which Christ has armed his church. It is a high and mysterious one, which has no parallel on earth. Nothing in the order of means is equally adapted to awaken compunction in the guilty, with spiritual censures impartially administered. The sentence of excommunication in particular, harmonizing with the dictates of conscience, and re-echoed by her voice, it is truly ter[r]ible; it is the voice of God speaking through its legislative organ, which he who despises or neglects, ranks with heathen men and publicans, joins the synagogue of Satan, and takes his lot with an unbelieving world, doomed to perdition. Excommunication is a sword which, strong in its apparent weakness, is the sharper for being divested of all sensible and exterior envelopements; lights immediately on the spirit and inflicts a wound which no balm can cure, no ointment can mollify, but must continue to ulcerate and burn till it is healed by the blood of atonement, applied by penitence and prayer. In no instance is the axiom more fully verified, 'The weakness of God is stronger than man, and the foolishness of God is wiser than man,' than in the discipline of his church."
The motive by which a calm, impartial, and faithful maintenance of church discipline may be enforced are the most powerful that can be addressed to the christian mind. We can only suggest them for your serious and devout consideration.
Our fidelity to Christ demands it. He has entrusted to his disciples the maintenance of the purity and honor of his church. No trust can involve greater love, confidence, and responsibility. The enforcement of his laws is an honor put upon him as the lord of his church. It is an act of homage rendered to his authority. It is an emphatic acknowledgement of his right to reign over us. It is a distinct recognition of our responsibility to him in our church relationship. We are his friends only we do whatsoever he has commanded us.
The prosperity of the church requires it. The exercise of wise and scriptural discipline is essential to the prosperity of the church of Christ. The offender is to the church what Achan was to the hosts of Israel. He troubles, weakens, and disgraces the whole community. His presence excludes the Holy Ghost from the temple in which he delights to dwell. As long as the accursed thing is in the camp, the defeat of the host is certain. The example and influence of an unworthy member is contagious. Insensibly they lower the tone of the entire brotherhood. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. It would not be difficult to cull from the history of our churches illustrations which show that when Achans have been cast out of the camp, peace and prosperity have ensued. Those who stand are led to take heed lest they fall. The plague has been stayed. The departed glory has returned to the spiritual temple.
The welfare of the offender necessitates it. Criminal neglect of discipline is no true tenderness. It is the highest act of cruelty that can be performed. Enlightened christian love dictates the opposite course. It will bear long; it will remonstrate often and earnestly; but when these have proved in vain it will act. Not to do so would be to partake of the guilt of the offender, and be accomplices to his ruin. The censures of the church have awakened the conscience, produced a deep sense of guilt, and issued in penitence and restoration. It is like the voice from heaven which addressed the angel of the church at Ephesus, Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works.
And now, beloved brethren, we affectionately command these thoughts to your serious consideration. We speak as to wise men, judge ye what we say. It has not been a pleasant theme to us. It has been no labor of love to write this epistle to you. It has been imposed upon us by a deep sense of our duty to you, and to our blessed Redeemer. May He enable you to be faithful in all things. Those that honor him He will honor. Be deterred by no fears from performing your duty to your Lord. Let no considerations of expediency over rule the dictates of your conscience and the requirements of divine truth. Be you faithful to your Lord's will, and commit, without alarm, all consequences to his care. Better that a church be extinguished than that the Lord's name be reproached by those whose walk prove that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. Cultivate confidence and mutual love. Let there be no suspicious and unkind whisperings tolerated among you. Discourage talebearers of every kind. Where difficulties arise, seek immediate and frank explanations. Cherish the love which beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Watch over one another affectionately in the Lord. Be helpers of each other's faith, piety, and joy. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things we honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever thugs are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things we of good report: if there he any virtue, and if there he any praise, think on these things; and may the theme of your meditations be reflected in the purity, devotion, and usefulness, of your lives. Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
[This Circular Letter was photocopied at the Regents Park Baptist College, Angus Library, Oxford, England. The Letter is on pp. 3-13 in the original Minutes. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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