Where Has Church Discipline Gone?

“If you were the pastor of a paedobaptistic church, and an unmarried couple asks you to baptize their infant child, would you?” I asked this question to my students at the Bible school.

Six out of eleven said no, for various reasons. The other five said they would, also for various reasons which include: if the parents were Christians; if the parents were members; or, the child is holy because one parent is a Christian (1 Cor. 7:14). One was very creative: since Jesus blessed the little children (Mark 10:14)1, the child should be baptized.This is appalling. If this was a scientific sample, it means that only about 55 percent of Presbyterian evangelicals know anything about church discipline. But how is this related to church discipline? So, here’s what I’m writing to my students as a handout.

First of all, only the covenant people of God are to participate in the sacraments instituted by Christ – water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Can those who are living together outside of marriage be included as members of the covenant people of God? The apostle Paul says no: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Is this couple committing sexual immorality? Yes, the Bible says so. A sexual relationship is acceptable to God only when it is within the divinely-sanctioned institution of marriage (Gen. 2:24). Any sexual relationship outside of marriage (Greek porneia, “fornication” or “sexual immorality” in 1 Cor.5:1; 6:13; 6:18; 7:2) – unchastity (between two unmarried persons), adultery (a married person with another), homosexuality (between two persons of the same sex), and incest (between two persons of close kinship) – is sexual immorality.

Then, in 1 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul commands the churches to “purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13). Are couples who live together outside of marriage “evil”? Paul says yes, those who commit “sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler” belong to this category (v. 11). He even forbids church members from associating with these people, “not even to eat with such a one” (v. 13), and to “deliver [these people] to Satan” (v. 5), a reference to excommunication. They are to be considered unbelievers.

And since they are unbelievers, they do not belong to the covenant people of God. As such, they are forbidden from participating in the Lord’s Supper, and their children are not to be baptized as covenant children. Sacraments are signs and seals of God’s promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the cross; unbelievers are not recipients of this promise.

Sadly, church discipline is unheard of in many churches today. But all throughout church history, church discipline was taken very seriously. In the early church, false teachers such as Marcion, Montanus, Arius, and Donatus were condemned and excommunicated. During the 16th century Reformation, John Calvin was thrown out of Geneva for his strict views on church discipline. And in the 18th century, the great preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards was deposed from his own church because he wanted to exclude unrepentant members from the Lord’s Supper.

For the Protestant Reformers, church discipline was one of the three marks of a true church. In the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Question 83 says that the keys to the kingdom of heaven are “the preaching of the holy gospel, and Christian discipline, or excommunication out of the christian church; by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers, and shut against unbelievers.” In Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561), a true church “practices church discipline for correcting faults.” And in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) Chapter 30 Article 2, church officers “have authority to retain and to remit sins, to shut the kingdom against the unrepentant both by the Word and by censures, and to open it to repentant sinners by the ministry of the gospel and by releasing from censures.”

In the Philippines, many excuses are put forth for couples living together outside of marriage. The most common excuse is the absence of a legal divorce. Many married couples are separated, contributing to the ever-increasing number of couples living together, because they can not be married (that would be polygamy). Another reason is the lack of money for a wedding; this is why unmarried couples with “families” abound in the slum areas. But whatever the excuse, the Bible says that living together is sexual immorality, and those who practice such have no place in the kingdom of God.

1 Regarding Mark 10:13-16, the little children Jesus blessed belonged to the Old Testament covenant people of God, Israel. Certainly, Jesus would not have blessed them if they were children of those outside the covenant community, such as pagan Romans and Greeks. Shall we now baptize children of Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus because Jesus blessed the little children?


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11 thoughts on “Where Has Church Discipline Gone?”

  1. That’s fine – I didn’t think you would have been placing these standards over Scripture itself.

    The obvious reason why we need a confessional standard is that every group, including heretical cults, will claim that they believe the Bible. We need some way of stating what we as a Church or as individuals believe that the Bible teaches, and this is what a confession is – a statement of the things most surely believed among us – what we believe and understand the Bible to be teaching.

    This is why people who say that they have ‘no creed but the Bible’ really do have a creed, because when you ask them what does the Bible teach about Christ, or salvation or any other point, they will be more than happy to say that the Bible teaches this or that. This is exactly what a confession does for us.

    And as you mention, a minister, pastor, or elder etc who signs a confession at his ordination, and then teaches contrary to that confession, ought to be dealt with in terms of church discipline.

    The Westminster Confession speaks about discipline in terms of “admonition, suspension from the sacrament… and excommunication… according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person” (Chp 30:4).

    I believe that church discipline actually begins with us speaking to an erring brother privately, before taking 2 or 3 witnesses, and then going to the Church, in accordance with Matthew 18:15-20

    The ultimate aim of all church discipline ought to be the repentance and restoration of the erring brother, the good of the Church, and the glory of God.

  2. Scott,

    I’m sorry. A slip of the sinful mind and tongue. The Bible is the supreme authority, over all of man’s creeds, confessions, and statements of beliefs.

    Thanks for the correction.

  3. Thank you for your blog and this post on Church Discipline, which is so lacking in general today.
    My only comment is in response to comment number 2, in which you state “church standards have to be adopted, whether it’s the Westminster or Three Forms of Unity, and then used as the only authority for teaching, preaching and discipline”.
    Although I highly value the Westminster Confession, I think that it is important to remember that these should be held as “subordinate standards”, and that our supreme standard, and only authority for teaching, preaching and discipline must be the Word of God.
    I’m sure you didn’t mean to put confessions in the place of the Bible, but its just the way it was expressed. I completely agree that churches need to adopt a confessional standard, and then act accordingly.
    May you know God’s blessing on your labours here.

  4. Pastor G.,

    Yes, the problem is not only the lack (or absence) of church discipline, but also the lack of unity in the Presbyterian doctrine.

    You mentioned the emphasis on growth in numbers. The church growth movement is, also, a curse on the church today. And I believe that the root of all of these is the love of money: the bigger the church, the more money comes in for the pastors.

    The situation with pastors who are Pentecostal- or Baptist-leaning should not be forever “awkward.” If the church decides that it should be a Presbyterian and Reformed denomination, the following steps are in order:

    (1) Adopt the historic Protestant confessions: the 1646 Westminster Standards (Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism) and/or the Three Forms of Unity (1561 Belgic Confession of Faith, 1563 Heidelberg Catechism, 1619 Canons of Dort) as the standards of the church. All present and future pastors should be rigorously examined and required to fully subscribe to these standards. All controversies in the church should be resolved by conforming to these standards.

    (2) Pastors who do not fully subscribe to these standards should be discharged from their duties. Any pastor, elder, deacon, or church officer who teach things contrary to the standards should be accountable to these standards.

    (3) Church discipline should be enforced to uphold these standards.

    If all of these are implemented, the church will be on its way to maintaining the purity of the gospel.

  5. Perhaps what I say will provide you with some food for thought, even though it may not seem to be a direct response to what you wrote.

    Years ago, in the late 1950s, that is, in the ear of the Korean Conflict, I was talking with a fellow Presbyterian Minister, and our primary subject was on marriage. I told him that I was rigidly opposed to performing a marriage for a couple one of whom had been previously married and divorced. If, for instance, a man called me on the phone and asked if I would marry him and his girlfriend, I would immediately ask if either of them had been married. If his answer was “yes,” then I would ask if the marriage had ended in death or divorce. If he acknowledged it was divorce, I would immediately end the conversation by saying, “Then I’m sorry; I can’t marry you. Good-bye,” and hang up.

    My friend posed a parable to me: Suppose a young man in your church got in the army and was sent to Korea. Naturally he was quite lonely there, and somehow got involved with a Korean girl. She got pregnant and later had a baby. The young fellow, being a pretty decent fellow, married her as the right thing to do. However, shortly after their marriage, the girl disappeared. After diligently searching for her, he couldn’t find her, so reluctantly he obtained a divorce. He repented for all he had done wrong. When he came home, he met a nice girl in your church and they asked you to marry them. Would you do it? My immediate answer was, “Of course not.” “Why not?” “Because he had been divorced.”

    Now suppose a young soldier had been in Korea and while there got involved with a Korean girl and fathered a child. He refused to have anything to do with the girl or the baby. When he came home, he met a nice girl in your church and they asked you if you would marry them. What would you say? I said I would be willing to marry them. He asked why? I answered because neither had been married before.

    Then my friend twisted the dagger in my heart. He asked, “Which of those two young men was the more righteous?” I said with some reluctance, “I suppose the one who was the more decent all around, and had repented for his sins.” “If he repented and asked God to forgive him, do you suppose God actually forgave him?” “Why, of course, the Bible says that if we repent and ask God’s forgiveness, He forgives us without fail.” “Then do you think you are more righteous than God, or a better judge of who should be forgiven, if God forgave the young man and you demonstrated your refusal to forgive him by refusing to marry him?”

    I guess the moral of the story, at least the one I got from it, was that sometimes we humans tend to set up rigid rules which are hard to reconcile with all God’s word. I think especially of what Jesus said to the Pharisees: “You give a tenth of your spices, mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law, justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23:23-24).

    So, would I baptize the baby you discussed? I really don’t know, given the limited information. We may not always judge righteousness by means of our not-so-righteous criteria.

  6. What can be done is this: teach, teach, and teach, patiently. And pray that God will enlighten minds to Biblical truth.

    As far as Pentecostal people discovering God’s truth: I’ve seen this happen at Westminster Seminary. A few of the students who enroll there are from Calvary Chapel congregations in the area. I believe that by the time they finish seminary, many abandoned their Pentecostal views and even became Reformed pastors. This might be happening within the Victory Christian Fellowship movement, as you’ve observed.

    We pray that someday, we might be able to establish a truly Reformed/Presbyterian seminary here in the Philippines, so all those who discover the Reformed/Presbyterian Christian faith will be able to continue their learning process.

  7. “First of all, only the covenant people of God are to participate in the sacraments instituted by Christ – water baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

    In my church, everyone receives the Lord’s Supper. No effort is done to determine whether the receiver is a true Christian or not. That is why even non-believers (especially “first timers” and little children who do not know anything about the Gospel) have the chance to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

    As I study the Reformed Baptist distinctives, I found out that there is something really, really wrong with the practice in my church (and with many other churches as well.) Is there any solution to this?

  8. Sorry Pastor Galying. I thought you were from a Pentecostal church. Thank you Kuya Nollie for the correction.

  9. Like Pastor Galying, I am also from a Pentecostal church. That is why infant baptism is not practiced there. Our senior pastor is an Arminian. And so are most, if not all, of the members. No one, except my parents, knows that I am reading Reformed literature. I am also in the process of loving the historic Protestant (Evangelical) Confessions (e.g. WCF, Three Forms of Unity, 1689 LBCF, etc.).

    I learned from a friend who also leaves comments here in this blog that there is a growing number of people in the Victory Christian Fellowship (http://www.victory.org.ph/), one of the most popular Pentecostal churches in Manila, who now believe in the Five Points.

    Thanks for the post.

  10. Pastor G.,

    “We are not united in our Presbyterian doctrine.”

    The questions here are: (1) What does your denomination believe in? and (2) Is church discipline implemented based on this body of beliefs?

    Here are a couple of typical scenarios that I often hear from my students regarding the first question: a member, who was already baptized as an infant, “accepts” Jesus as a teenager or adult, and is re-baptized; a pastor refuses to baptize the child of believing parents who are members.

    When I hear these, the question then is this: Is the denomination Baptistic or Presbyterian? You can’t be both; and if you are both, then the denomination has become eclectic/syncretistic.

    Regarding the second question, church standards have to be adopted, whether it’s the Westminster or Three Forms of Unity, and then used as the only authority for teaching, preaching and discipline.

  11. Dear Nollie:

    Where has church discipline gone? Nollie, in our church that is not the relevant question but rather, taking off from the title of your site, “we are not united in our Presbyterian doctrine.”

    We placed so much import on growth in numbers that we accepted members and even groups & churches that were obviously Pentecostal and have no Presbyterian roots at all. We therefore are now in an awkward situation where we have pastors who do not want to baptize infants but merely “dedicate” them. That is why 10 years ago I have written two pamphlets: “ANG BAUTISMO CRISTIANO” [”Christian Baptism”] and “KARAPATDAPAT BANG BAUTISMUHAN ANG MGA SANGGOL? [”Should Infants Be Baptized?”]”

    By the way, the next time you are in the Philippines please attend our Church services at Baclaran Unida Church, where I am now the Administrative Pastor. The good news is that by end of October our Sanctuary will be fully air-conditioned. Our church members no longer have to go to the churches in the malls for an air-conditioned worship. But do not worry, because we are one of the few Unida churches that sticks to the old Unida Liturgy in Worship, although we do have Praise & Worship…. See you then.

    Because Christ lives,
    Pastor Galying

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