Heidelberg 85: Church Discipline Is The Second Key Of The Kingdom

In our late-modern (liquid), nominalist, it is widely regarded that truth claims and official acts are nothing but the exercise of power for personal gain. In other words, we live in a time of great suspicion. Whereas the dominant question of the pre-modern age was “What has God said?” and the question of the modern period was “Has God said?” The question of our age is “Who’s asking and what does it want?” The nominalism of this age assumes that there can be no necessary, divinely ordained relations between signs (words) and things signified (realities). It assumes that the relations between them is purely arbitrary. Thus, we speak of “gender” instead of sex. Human beings, of course, do not have genders. They ordinarily belong to one of two sexes. Gender is a grammatical category but the fact that we routinely and almost universally use gender and sex interchangeably signals how deeply influenced we have become by this notion that there is no fixed reality, no objective truth, no divinely ordered relations between signs and things signified.

Our setting then makes the process of church discipline very difficult because it is too easy even for Christians to assume that an act of discipline is not an official, churchly recognition of what is, i.e., an acknowledgement of God’s moral law, of the state of sin (transgression of God’s moral law), and the need for repentance but rather an arbitrary and unjust exercise of authority. To be sure, as I have been noting in this space recently, all church assemblies (courts) are composed of sinful, fallible humans. To be fallible is to be able to fail, to fall, to err, and even to sin. In this life none of us reaches sinless perfection. Nevertheless our Lord gave to the church an unambiguous charge to use the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16) and even an outline of how to use the second key, church discipline (Matt 18). Thus, the Reformed Churches confess that the use of church discipline is one of the marks of the true church (Belgic Confession art. 29). One of the marks of the “broadening church” (Loetscher) is her refusal to discipline heterodoxy and immorality while simultaneously prosecuting the orthodox for being orthodox. The abuse of the church courts in (what is now) the PCUSA against J. Gresham Machen in 1935 is a case in point. Machen’s great “sin” was to support the Independent Board for Foreign Missions. Looking back from 2015, when the PCUSA is openly flouting God’s Word on the most basic points of biblical teaching their rigor on what now, by comparison, looks like a fine point of Presbyterian polity is almost (but not quite) amusing. The courts and assemblies of the orthodox also err. Recently the General Assembly of a NAPARC denomination overturned the judgment of a presbytery and synods of overturned the judgments of classes (German Reformed and Dutch Reformed presbyteries or regional assemblies of pastors and elders). The good news is that the church courts and assemblies of the confessional churches, federations, and denominations usually, ultimately get things right.

Trusting our Lord enough to accept and to practice church discipline is an act of faith but it is to such faith that we are called by Scripture. Thus we confess:

85. How is the Kingdom of Heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?

In this way: that according to the command of Christ, if any under Christian name show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life, and after several brotherly admonitions do not turn from their errors or evil ways, they are complained of to the Church or to its proper officers; and, if they neglect to hear them also, are by them denied the Holy Sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian Communion, and by God Himself from the Kingdom of Christ; and if they promise and show real amendment, they are again received as members of Christ and His Church (Heidelberg Catechism 85)Matt 18:15-18. 1 Cor 5:3-5,11. 2 Thess 3:14,15. 2 John 10,11.

The catechism lists essentially two grounds for discipline: errors in doctrine or moral failure. Remember, private sins are addressed privately, public sins, publicly. Ordinarily, discipline begins with private admonition. It only becomes an ecclesiastical matter only after the first two steps listed by our Lord. If someone offends, you go to him. If he refuses, then you take a brother or two. This is the “two or three witnesses” principle from the Mosaic law, the “general equity” thereof (WCF 19.4) requires us to establish something by 2 or 3 witnesses. Only if he still refuses does a matter go to the visible, institutional church.

This process is important. Over the years I’ve noticed two mistakes here. First, people rush the process by not following the first two steps. We go to the church, e.g., the consistory or session, only after the informal steps. These can be difficult steps. It is one thing to write an email to consistory. It’s another to go to someone to speak to them about their doctrine (what they confess) or their life (how they are living). People are often resistant to such correction. They often respond defensively or even angrily: “Who are you to talk to me?” That is a painful conversation. If two or three respected, responsible persons agree that one’s doctrine or life are a problem (which is an important step; perhaps one has been to zealous or has misunderstood things?) then there is some objective confirmation that there really is a problem present. Only if a person shows himself to be stubborn and impenitent should the matter go to the church and then the ministers and elders must work together, prayerfully, carefully to correct the brother. The hope is that the brother (or sister) will recognize his (or her) error or sin, repent, and be reconciled. That is always the goal of church discipline. We should not be misled by Schaff’s translation of Belgic Confession art. 29. The French and Latin texts say “for correcting vices” (literally) not “punishing sins.”

The other temptation, the one to which one suspects we give in most frequently, is to do nothing at all. This is the path of least resistance. There may be, at times, a fine line between neglecting duty and being a busybody. The question is whether there is really offense, be it doctrinal or moral. There are objective standards for these things. The moral is established by God’s holy law (e.g., the Decalogue, our Lord’s summary in Matthew 22:37–40; the Sermon on the Mount, or the detailed moral instruction in the epistles) and explained in the third part of the Catechism. As members of a Reformed congregation we are all bound to certain doctrinal standards taught in holy Scripture. They are summarized mostly briefly for us in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon and explained more fully in the Catechism, the Confession, and the Canons of Dort. These are not subjectively defined. Especially when it comes to matters of doctrinal orthodoxy, if one is concerned about another it is wise to consult the minister to see if there are grounds for concern. Not every doctrinal disagreement rises to the level of heterodoxy or error.

Exclusion from the Lord’s Table is the final step of discipline. We do not, however, follow the Anabaptist practice of “the ban.” That is, we do not cut off all contact. Rather, we do as Scripture says. We treat those who have shown themselves to be impenitent by treating them as they have shown themselves to be, as unbelievers. Unbelievers need to hear the law  and the gospel. Those who profess Christ but show themselves to be impenitent (i.e., refusing to acknowledge sin and refusing to repent) need especially to realize the greatness of their sin and misery under God’s holy law. Perhaps they think that they will repent later or perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that God approves of their error or sin? In any event they need to understand that God’s doctrinal and moral standards do not waver.  Of course, all this needs to be accompanied with prayer. Only God the Spirit can soften the heart of the unbelieving and stubborn. Further, we certainly do not exclude such a person from public worship, where the law and gospel are preached, where the Spirit works to bring new life and faith. When the table is administered and the impenitent person is excluded, we hope and pray that he or she will recognize how grave their condition is,

Finally, the goal of the process is repentance and restoration. When the impenitent person repents, we receive them with joy. It is an answer to much prayer. No one has “won” and no one has “lost” but grace has won and darkness has lost. This is why we leave the ninety-nine sheep (Matt 18:12) and go to great lengths to recover the one. We rejoice because heaven rejoices when they return. Perhaps you know one someone who living impenitently? Are you praying for him or her? The Spirit is powerful and he uses prayer to accomplish his purposes. Perhaps the Spirit will stir up that one and remind them of the great realities they once embraced? Praise God, it happens.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Psalm 84:

    1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
    Lord Almighty!
    2 My soul yearns, even faints,
    for the courts of the Lord;
    my heart and my flesh cry out
    for the living God.
    3 Even the sparrow has found a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may have her young—
    a place near your altar,
    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
    4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
    they are ever praising you.[c]
    5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
    6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.[d]
    7 They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.
    8 Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
    listen to me, God of Jacob.
    9 Look on our shield,[e] O God;
    look with favor on your anointed one.
    10 Better is one day in your courts
    than a thousand elsewhere;
    I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
    than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
    11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
    the Lord bestows favor and honor;
    no good thing does he withhold
    from those whose walk is blameless.
    12 Lord Almighty,
    blessed is the one who trusts in you.

  2. Thanks, RSC.

    1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
    2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1-2

  3. You make a good point that a true church must exercise discipline, but this presents a problem for most churches who have wandered away from orthodoxy. They usually attract your typical American who believes that they can join or leave a church for any reason; they can decide their own theology apart from the witness of the historic church; and determine their ethics apart from the law and gospel. These traits come down to us from the radical individualism of the Enlightenment, and make church discipline nearly impossible for a theologically wandering church.

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