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CIRCULAR LETTER, 1861
Northamptonshire Baptist Association

"The True Purpose and Spirit of Church Discipline"
Written by Mr. Gough

     CHRISTIAN FRIENDS,
     The subject of our annual address to you on the present occasion is "The True Purpose and Spirit of Church Discipline" - a subject of no slight importance to the healthful and peaceful condition of our churches. The statement of our subject implies the possession, by the Christian church, of a right to exercise discipline over its members. This could scarcely be denied it, were it regarded as a merely human institution. Every society, union with which is supposed to be based upon the adoption, by its members, of some common principle, or which has been formed for the promotion of some particular objects, must be regarded as at liberty to withdraw from any of its members who disown these principles, or neglect or frustrate the attainment of these common objects. Supposing that, in such a case, the offender were desirous of retaining his connection with the society, his associates might justly complain that his presence compromised themselves; and might refuse, therefore to gratify his wish. But the Christian church is not a human, but, like the family, a divine institution. It received its constitution and laws from its Heavenly Founder; and we cannot fail to perceive in the New Testament that the right, which is inherent in every society, of expelling unworthy members, has been recognized, and the use of it regulated by Him. And we must further remind you that not only does the New Testament, in many cases, recognize the right, but solemnly enjoins upon us the maintenance of a godly discipline. The principal passages in which this obligation is laid upon us will occur in the course of our subsequent remarks. We only observe, now, that what would have been, without these injunctions, a right, now becomes our bounden duty. The correctness of this view of our subject is, indeed, generally unquestioned, except, occasionally, by those whose faults have subjected them to the censures of their brethren. No doubt, it must be exceedingly unpleasant to an offender that a Christian church should withdraw from him. or even reprove him. The proceeding may lower him in general estimation. He may be thought less of. even in the world, because he has been disowned by the church. One design of church discipline, however, is to render the offender "ashamed." This feeling or shame may, in cases of the worst description, he associated with indignation and resentment; but, in reality, no cause for complaint exists. We join the Christian church voluntarily, with a full knowledge of our liability to this discipline. The supposed advantage resulting from this liability may have operated even as an inducement to join the church; and no man can justly complain, if he unhappily furnish the occasion, that his brethren perform their painful duty, and exercise their undoubted and, until it touched his own case, their admitted right.

     But what, it is asked, is the purpose of church discipline? What are the errors which demand the exercise of it? and what are the ultimate ends contemplated? This part of our subject is not free from difficulty. A change of opinion has often been deemed sufficient to warrant exclusion from a Christian society - and that, too, when the opinions deemed unsound have been merely speculative, involving at least no direct practical result, or at most relating to the rules or the constitution of the Christian church. Now, he would be a bold man who should say that no change of opinion should be thus visited, since opinions may be held which are utterly subversive of what we deem the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. And these opinions may he held without any unfavourable moral change becoming apparent; and yet, since faith and holiness combined form the foundation on which Christian fellowship reposes, since we "love each other for the truth's sake which dwelleth in us, and shall he with us for ever," it is difficult to see how we can retain in our communion one who has adopted such views as we have supposed. Toleration of diversities of opinion must have its limits, even in a society the members of which are to be "every one persuaded in his own mind." On the other hand, we should take care to deal wisely and very tenderly with cases of this kind. These who depart very widely from the truth will soon depart from us; but there may be others who can speak less approvingly of what we deem undoubted truths, who, after all, do not so much deny as doubt - who, in reality, are dissatisfied, unawares to themselves, rather with the form of expression we employ, than with the meaning we intend to convey; or who have been attracted by the independence of such as have broached novelties, or by the freshness with which these novelties have been invested. Cases of this kind require, to say the least, great forbearance, and they will often justify and reward it. Many a young disciple, unwilling that his faith should "stand in the wisdom of men," has sometimes been led to speak less respectfully of generally-received opinions, and has, apparently, proceeded to the very verge of unbelief, who afterwards, taught by painful experience, and led through many fierce spiritual conflicts, has returned to the old belief with a deeper and fuller conviction than before, and with more than his first love.

     Practical errors, then, form the chief occasion for the exercise of Christian discipline; doctrinal errors rarely, except when they happen to be identified with the former.

     The New Testament furnishes us with not a few directions on this subject; all which directions, however, were occasioned by particular irregularities and offences at that time transpiring. We have nothing like a code of laws on church discipline, and must, in some degree; be guided by the inferences which these cases suggest.

     Every practical error, however, is not to be regarded as furnishing an occasion for church discipline, nor should all offences he similarly treated. Christian fidelity and affection will deem no departure, in word or deed, from the requirements of the gospel undeserving of a wise and kind admonition We are to "exhort one another daily, lest any be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin." But the action of a Christian church gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, either to pass censure or to excommunicate, is a much more serious matter. Were it possible for a church to animadvert on every trifling offence (which, yet, is plainly impossible), the interposition would lose its power. It would soon fail to impress or improve. The New Testament does not draw any line by which offences that ought to be officially reproved are distinguished from others. Perhaps it was impossible to do so. Hence arises the necessity for much practical wisdom in our pastors and deacons. To know what to notice and what to pass by is a matter of no little difficulty in a family, much more so in a church. "Regard not every word that is spoken." So much perplexity is occasioned by some cases that we are relieved by hearing the Master say - "Let both grow together until the harvest." For our guidance, due regard should be paid to the nature of the offence, as involving greater or less guilt, or as indicating more or less of depravity. It may be well to ascertain how far it may have been the result of sudden and surprising temptation, or the breaking forth of long-indulged but artfully-concealed iniquity. In the investigation of doubtful charges something is due to the previous reputation and position of the party accused. "Against an elder receive not an accusation but upon two or three witnesses." It is evident, too, that, when guilt is proved, different cases demand different treatment. Just as private expostulation is to be preferred, in cases to which it is appropriate, to public rebuke, so excommunication should never be resorted to where reproof and admonition will be effectual. On the whole, it is plain that there is room, very often, for the exercise of a wise discretion, which, taking into consideration all the circumstances of the case, can, alone, decide on the propriety of submitting it to the judgment of the church, and on "the punishment to be inflicted by the majority."

     It will not be in vain, brethren, that we have made these few somewhat vague remarks, should they impress our minds with a conviction of our need of wisdom from above to teach us "how to behave ourselves in the House of God."

     Some aid may be obtained, in our end endeavours to ascertain our duty, if we inquire into the ultimate ends contemplated in the exercise of church discipline.

     One of these ends is the reputation of the Christian church; we mean, of the particular community to which the offender belongs. In some situations, we might go much further than this, and say that the end of church discipline is the vindication of the honour of our gracious Lord and the character and tendency of His gospel. This would be the case in a heathen land, or in a neighbourhood in which great ignorance exists of scriptural Christianity. In the former of these cases Christ Himself might be blasphemed; in the after, the gospel be misunderstood and despised. In our days, and in the situations in which our churches have been planted, there is little reason to fear these results. Men read the Bible. They know from it that, whatever His professed servants may be, Christ "is holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." They know that his gospel inculcates "whatever things are honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report." But, unless a godly discipline be maintained, the character of a particular community may he grievously injured. To do the world justice, it must be admitted that its demands on the consistency of Christ's disciples are not extravagant or unreasonable. Men of this world do not expect a sinless perfection. They know well, and are often ready to distinguish between sincerity and earnestness in our aims and perfect success in realizing those aims. There is a class of minor offences which mar the beauty of Christianity, without furnishing any reason for supposing that it is pretended, not genuine. But there are offences which, either in their own nature, or by the frequency of their occurrence, do more than cast a doubt on the reality of religion. They lead to a direct and bold denial of its existence. Under such cases, should we connive at the sin; should we, through fear or favour, allow the offender to remain unrebuked; we shall share, and justly share, in his disgrace. In such a case, we lose our power. Nothing is more essential to the preservation of it than the vindication of ourselves from all sympathy with evil-doers. A church sustaining its moral reputation always exercises a wholesome influence on those around. Such as are not attracted towards it will yet respect it. Gainsayers will be silenced and hypocrites will he repelled.

     For our own sates, then, and for the site of the credit of religion and the success of the gospel in oar several localities, let us shew that we cannot hear them which are evil, and that we regard, with the most entire disapprobation, the errors even of our brethren. The expression of our feeling must be unmistakably clear, that we be not "partakers of other men's sins."

     But the loss of reputation, and, therefore, of moral power, is not the only evil resulting from the presence of unrebuked sin. The infection spreads, and the disease of one is in danger of extending to others -- "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" Church discipline is intended, therefore, to be conservative of the spiritual healthfulness of the community. True, we have each of us the Word of God for our guide, teaching us what we ought to do and what to shun. Here, too, we are supplied with motives of every kind, fitted to deter us from that which is evil, and to purify and elevate our aims. But experience shows that our ideas of duty are often very considerably modified by the prevailing tone of morals. What those who have a reputation for religion do, and are allowed to do, without any protest on the part of their brethren, others are ready to think may not, after all, he so objectionable as they had supposed. Hence, they endeavour to interpret the precepts of the Bible in such a way as to allow themselves to go and do likewise. Or, perhaps, in such a case, the precepts of the Bible are not thought of at all. What one has done another does, expecting the same impunity. It is sad to think that, with professed Christians, the judgment of men should ever carry weight than the judgment of God; and yet this is undoubtedly often the ease. Who of us, brethren, has not often been made painfully aware of an "evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God?" How much more prone to imitate the evil than the good! How weak are we to resist the influence of evil example in the church! How ready to suppose that the observed fault towards which we ourselves secretly incline, may be reconcilable with the possession of true reunion, since we see it in the case of those in whose piety we have long believe. And in this persuasion we are confirmed by the guilty silence of the church. Can we wonder, then, at the sternness of the apostolic injunction - "Those that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear?" "We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly." None of us are so firmly established in holiness as to be able to encounter without hazard the presence of sin in the church of Christ. When the plague rages in the city we may yet escape; but who is safe when the infection enters his abode? "Evil communication corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness and sin not."

     Another design of church discipline is the correction of the offender. This is never to be lost sight of. Not only is it an end which it may be well to keep in view, but an end the disregard of which may be said to invalidate the whole procedure: for that can scarcely be called Christian discipline which is not intended, as well as fitted to bring the wanderer back to Christ. When Paul delivered the offender "to Satan, for the destruction of the flesh," it was that "his spirit might he saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Our object is, or ought always to be, to convince the offender of the of the evil of his conduct; to bring him to repentance; to break the power over his spirit of a particular temptation; to convince him of the fallacy of those excuses by which he has, perhaps. for a time succeeded in justifying to himself his evil course, or his evil act; and to urge him to seek restoration to the friendship of his forsaken Lord. Christian discipline, therefore, should be a means of grace -- an instrument of restoration and salvation. Nor can it be deemed but little adapted to this result. Let it only be characterized by the right spirit, and few things are more adapted than this to induce serious reflection and penitential feeling. Surely, that must be wrong which all our brethren condemn; and so unwelcome a task as our reproof or exclusion would not be undertaken by them without a deep conviction of its obligation and necessity.

     There is no part of our duty, as members of the church of Christ, for the efficient discharge of which we so greatly need the spirit of Christ, in all his subduing, controlling, chastening influences, as this. The aid of that spirit is, indeed, necessary in all we do in the House of God; but here it is peculiarly necessary, since success in some of the ends contemplated depends entirely on the spirit of our procedure. An act of Christian discipline may be performed - and that too, in a case in which it is undoubtedly demanded - in such a way as to bring reproach on ourselves, dishonour on the Christian profession, and irreparable injury on the offender. The treatment may be disgraceful to us, and fatal to the patient.

     To avoid this, let us always act in a spirit of obedience to the Divine authority. We have to do the will of God - not our own. It is not from our church that we are excluding an erring brother; but from the church of Christ. And, when we pass censures, we are to endeavour to echo the words of his mouth. We are performing a solemn act "in the name of the Lord Jesus." We may be tempted to feelings of indignation - peradventure, even of resentment, when we reflect on the particular offence, so mortifying to our pride, because it is so injurious to our reputation. To suffer reproach for mutual faults is a cross which we are called frequently to bear, and it may be very irksome. But the less we think of these things the better, when church censures are to engage our attention. Or we may have been injured in our interests, and may thus retaliate. But we have simply to do the will of Christ, and to forget any injury, real or fancied, which we may have to suffer. We are not to avenge ourselves; but to administer Christ's ordinance; not to expel an offender from the fold because we can no longer feel at ease in his society; but because Christ bids us put him without the camp. The Lord's will is to he our guide: his honour our chief end; and his authority our justification. This reference to the Lord's will is likely to be of great service to us in suggesting the course we ought to pursue towards the erring. The penitent He has no where taught us to expel; and no custom of the particular church, no uneasiness we may feel in the presence of our brother, no injury we have received from him, will justify us in withdrawing from him; because Christ has not authorized us thus to act. "If thy brother repent, forgive him." Undoubtedly, we ought to clear ourselves from all participation in his guilt, by any implied approval of his conduct, or connivance at his error; but it does not appear to be the will of the Lord that we should withdraw from any who are living in reconciliation with Him; and this in the case with every sincere penitent.

     In the administration of church discipline, we should cherish a spirit of tenderness towards the offender. It may be granted that cases transpire in which displeasure is not out of place, and in which stern rebuke may be merited. But ought we not to be pained at heart to think that a brother has incurred such a liability? The worse the case, the deeper should he our sorrow. Our hearts should not be hard, even if that of the offender be obdurate. And nothing is so likely to soften his heart as our tears. But, if he do not mourn, so much the greater reason why we should be sad. And, in every case, a brother or a sister has fallen. Shall we be in haste to disown them? Jehu-like, shall we summon others to witness our zeal for the purity of the church of God, when that zeal is to effect the humiliation, or the entire severance from our society, of those who have been our fellow-disciples? This would be indeed, to "treat such a one as an enemy," and not to "admonish him as a brother." Let us not appear to be ready to proceed to the utmost lengths permitted by the law of Christ and even to transgress, if it were possible, the limits Re has prescribed. He who would proceed to excommunicate, where a censure or expostulation might prove sufficient, shows that he is not actuated by that compassionate, loving spirit which the gospel inculcates. Mercy should he our delight; judgment our strange work. The worst cases are those in which it becomes but too plain that we have been deceived by hypocrites. But, even in these cases, sadness should chasten our wrath. We do not mourn over a fallen brother: for a brother the hypocrite never was; but we mourn over the depravity of a fellow-sinner who has not only lied unto men, but unto God. How dreadful his guilt! How awful his doom! Shall we not pity him, and mourn even for him?

     But, whilst we avoid all approach to a harsh and angry spirit, let us be careful that all our proceedings be characterized by fidelity. As members of the church of Christ, we have incurred obligations to our Lord, and, also, towards his people. Let us be faithful. The Head of the church has associated us in separate communities for our mutual advantage. Let us keep in view this design. We are to share in the watchful, faithful care of our brethren; and we are, also, to contribute our part towards the joint superintendence which the church exercises over each individual. None of us may ask - "Am I my brother's keeper?" We are not, therefore, to be negligent; nor are we to refuse to act, leaving the censure to be administered by a part of the church; and thus depriving the act of much of the weight with which it would otherwise he attended. Church discipline is the function of the body, not of its officers, nor of its most active members. Least of all, are our pastors to be left to bear this burden principally, or, as in smite cases, alone. "Let every man bear his own burden." Great wisdom is, indeed, required - as has been already remarked - and very painful is the duty we have to discharge: but we are not to shrink from it on these accounts.

     Fidelity in the discharge of this duty will preserve us front all respect of persons. When the apostle Paul had been giving certain directions to Timothy relating to the subject now under consideration, he adds: "I charge thee, before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality." The claims of friendship and consanguinity of long-standing and former usefulness - of wealth, or worldly station - are to he held in entire abeyance. They will avail nothing at the last day; and, in judgments which are to be confirmed then, they should avail nothing now.

     Nor ought we to wish or expect partiality or indulgence should we unhappily incur the censures of our brethren. They have a solemn duty to discharge, for the faithful performance of which they are accountable to God. Can we expect them to barter His approbation for our society, countenance, or contributions?

     But, in the discharge of this duty, let us be very humble. Who are we that we should be entrusted with the discharge of it? And, when we are called upon thus to act, what a strange want of harmony often exists between our functions and our character! Upheld by the grace of God from "great transgression," or shielded by His providence from overwhelming temptation, we have, yet, abundant reason for shame and confusion of face. How near have we often approached to the edge of the precipice! "As for me, my feet had almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped." What would be the feelings of our brethren towards us, did they know all to which our own hearts are privy? How ready would they be to withdraw from us, and how justly would they do so! And "God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things." With what humility, then, should we censure the fellow-sinner, between whom and ourselves so slight a difference exists! Little, perhaps. are we superior to him, except in the "very act" - and scarcely in that. He, too, although he has fallen, may still be characterized by some excellencies of which we are almost or quite destitute. "Consider thyself, lest thou also be tempted." In this imperfect state, our time, alas! may soon come. We may soon incur the displeasure of our Master and our brethren, and we may have to appeal to his mercy - to their charity.

     An earnest desire to effect the restoration of the offender ought always to be cherished. In order to this, let us take the most favourable view which truth will allow, both of the error itself; and of any intimations of penitence which may transpire. The fold is the right place for the sheep; and none the less so because the sheep has strayed. Let us endeavour to bring it back. There is reason to fear, brethren, that we have sometimes been more ready to excommunicate than again to receive. The memory of the fault and of the mortification it caused lurks within. How little, in this respect, does the church on earth resemble the church above. "I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." May we participate oftener in this joy! "Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him, let him know that he that converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins."

     For ourselves, brethren, let us take heed lest any fail of the grace of God. Let us not think ourselves safe because we are permitted to retain our places in the church. Let us not suppose that we are commended of tile Lord because we are not censured by His people. And let not the fact that our brethren do not censure us be supposed to imply that they feel no painful anxiety on our behalf. The question often arises in the mind of the faithful pastor - "What is to be done with those who, although in the church. furnish no tokens of spiritual life?" How many there are who, although they entered the church under a profession of repentance and faith, bring forth no fruit unto holiness. They have only a name to live. Amongst the living in Jerusalem, they are dead. The question will sometimes occur - "Ought those who evince no tokens of spiritual life to be permitted to remain in a society, admission into which was granted on a profession of conversion to Christ?" However sad may be the condition, and how gloomy soever may be the prospects of such persons, and how injurious soever may be their influence (and, often, it is very injurious) on their brethren, it does not appear that we have any warrant in the New Testament for withdrawing from them until some overt act shall transpire, to make the path of duty clear. Generally, some such act does occur. Secret sins become manifest, or dormant depravity is, by the circumstances of life, aroused into activity. Of this, we may he sure that a lukewarm Christian is not safe. "I will spue thee out of my mouth." And, certainly, those who have never been vitally connected with Christ shall not be retained in the vine. We may not always remove the barren branches; but every branch in Christ "that beareth not fruit He taketh away." Oftentimes does He effect this severance here; but, if not here, certainly hereafter. "I will say to the reapers, 'Gather ye the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them.'" Brethren, "let us judge ourselves as those who are to be judged of the Lord."

     Amidst all the manifold errors and temptations of the church on earth, let us find relief in the assurance of upholding grace granted to all who humbly seek it. "He will keep the feet of His saints." To accomplish this, He may employ the agency of our brethren, or of ministering angels, or of the word of His grace; but anyhow, "He is faithful that promised." Victory, perfection, await the struggling, patient, prayerful followers of the Lamb. "He will present His church to Himself not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing." Brethren, let us ponder our path; let us exhort one another daily; let us pray always. The danger will soon be passed, and we shall repose in the heavenly fold under the eye of the Chief Shepherd. Censure shall never be heard in heaven, nor exclusion incurred. "I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God, no more to go out."

JAMES MURSELL Moderator.
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[From photocopies of the original at Regents Park College, Angus Library, Oxford, England. Transcribed and formatted by Jim Duvall.]



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