Monday, November 25, 2013

Church Discipline: an opening response

This blog post will be the first in a series in which I interact with the writing of the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle regarding the marks of the church generally and the issue of church discipline in particular. He is addressing these issues as an American Anglican with historically Reformed commitments; I write as a Presbyterian with the same commitments. Both Presbyterians and Anglicans were present and engaged at the assembly which created the Westminster Confession of Faith, so those who adhere to our historic faith commitments have much in common.

He has started the discussion with two posts here and here. In those posts, the blogger outlines a bit about how our discussion came about, points to the significant areas of agreement that we have theologically, and provides detailed information regarding the Anglican understanding of church and worship. I learned a great deal about his Church through those posts, especially the second of the two. All of this will serve as important background as we get into the nuts and bolts issues of church government and discipline.

The origins of our discussion go back nearly two years, when that blogger and I met at a conference devoted to a discussion of a need for another Reformation comparable to the one that occurred in the 16th century. That he and I were both in attendance at the conference is an indication of our shared theological beliefs, and in his first post, he does an excellent job of emphasizing that this is an intramural disagreement among friends. Thus, while we may decide to take off our gloves and spar vigorously, onlookers should recognize this discussion for what it is. We debate and discuss as brothers in Christ with a shared interest in and passion for the glory of God and the Gospel of Christ. The matter that we are discussing is not a difference between apostacy and orthodoxy. That is not to say that it is unimportant, either. Nonetheless, I would expect these conversations to be vigorous, yet respectful. If we don't ultimately find agreement on all things on the other end of our debates (and because we both have spent coniderable time arriving at our present positions, that is the likely outcome), we will have nevertheless, I trust, sharpened our own respective views while also understanding each other's positions more clearly. Understanding Christ's glory as our ultimate end, these are worthwhile goals.

At that conference of nearly two years ago, one of the suggestions that arose regarding the needs of the modern church concerned church discipline, which is rarely practiced and widely misunderstood these days, and on that issue there was disagreement between those coming from a Reformed perspective and those operating from a Lutheran or Anglican understanding. The other blogger and I debated this issue over dinner during those meetings. As he outlines in the first post linked above, our discussion was recently renewed when I posted definitions of legalism and antinomianism on another website. The definitions I posted are as follows:

Definition of legalism: any attempt to use the moral law as a set of requirements by which a person can attain favor with God; or, for a Christian, any attempt to use the moral law as posing a threat to the believer or creating a system of punishment and rewards.

Definition of antinomianism ("no law") -- failure to recognize the moral law as a universally valid measure for human conduct before a holy God, by which measure we all fall short; or, for the Christian who has been delivered from condemnation, the failure to recognize the moral law as a guide for how we can show gratitude to God.

I was attempting to offer definitions related to these two misunderstandings of the nature of the law by importing what is often referred to as Calvin's first and third uses of the law. According to Calvin, the first use of the law, or the so-called pedagogical use, is to make so clear our sinfulness as to drive us to faith in Christ as our only hope. Thus, the first use of the law relates to issues of sin and guilt with condemnation as an end. The third use of the law is that of an encouragement and a guide as to how the justified sinner can show gratitude to God for his amazing power and grace. To mistakenly apply the first use of the law to a believer is to attempt to bring him back into a state of condemnation and to deny him of the joys of peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and freedom from condemnation (Rom 8:1), as well as the assurance that nothing can separate him from God's love (Rom. 8:39). To deny the third use of the law is to abandon the way that the biblical writers use the law as a guide for those who no longer are under the law as an instrument of condemnation (see Galatians 5, for example). This is a common understanding of Reformed Christians, sometimes actually heard in churches, and the other blogger amplifies these points nicely in his first post.

Nonetheless, the other blogger suggested that my definitions, while agreeable, presented the appearance of legalism when churches exercise discipline toward their members. That brought us to this discussion of the marks of the church. As he pointed out, in the Presbyterian understanding, a church is said to exist where the Word of God is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is exercised. That last point is the one that we are going to look at.

Before delving into the issue of discipline a little more deeply, I want to say a bit about the sacraments, as I think that some disagreements on those issues result in downstream differences on church discipline. If I understood the Anglican position correctly -- and I am asking for clarification here -- what is being affirmed is baptismal regeneration. That is, in baptism, the Holy Spirit works to actually regenerate the recipient of the baptism. While that regeneration is not ex opere, meaning a mechanical operation, as in Catholic theology, it is the means by which regeneration is effectuated. If that is correct, this would differ markedly from Presbyterian theology, which would consider that to constitute confusion between the sign and the thing signified. It is true that in Scripture -- and in our confessions, that the sign and thing signfied are often so intertwined that the sign is sometimes referred to as effectuating what it signals, but it is nonetheless important not to confuse the two. If baptism brings about regeneration, one is left with choices which don't seem to be biblical, as it seems to follow that either 1) all of those who receive the sign of the covenant are elect; or 2) some are regenerated but not elect. Without getting into a litany of texts at this point, neither of those options seems biblical to me. Nonetheless, this difference may account for the allegation at the end of the first post that church discipline assumes "an implied ability of a person to fall from grace." I don't agree at all that is the case, but will look forward to further discussion.
The other sacrament that Presbyterians recognize is Communion, and the other blogger rightly understands that we give much attention to what we call "fencing the table," that is, explaining who should participate in it, with I Corinthians 11 providing the primary authority. Presbyterian practice on this and other issues related to the Lord's Supper varies significantly from congregation to congregation. Generally, Presbyterians will say that Communion is open to baptized persons who have made a credible profession of faith in Christ and are members in good standing of an evangelical church. Those who have known sin that they refuse to repent over are urged not to participate. The point of that is not to exclude Christians from Communion, but to urge them to repentance.

The other blogger mention that Anglicans recognize a total of seven sacraments, with five additional ones often relegated to the status of "sacramental rites." I hope that he will pardon me for thinking this to be evidence that the Anglican apple did not fall far enough from its Romish tree. Similarly, Anglicans have an episcopal form of government complete with claims of apostolic succession. Presbyterian government has courts made up of representative elders while affirming the parity of all ordained elders and denying apostolic succession. This last matter may have important implications for the issue of church discipline.

The Nature of Church Discipline

I will close this post shortly in order to give the other blogger an opportunity to respond, but I want to say a bit about our main subject concerning the nature of church discipline. First, while even Presbyterians tend to use the term entirely in the negative sense of sanctions imposed by a church court, in fact the term "discipline" embraces both positive and negative aspects. Thus, the PCA's Book of Church Order (Chapter 27) states the following:

Discipline is the exercise of authority given the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ to instruct and guide its members and to promote its purity and welfare.

The term has two senses:

a. the one referring to the whole government, inspection, training, guardianship and control which the church maintains over its members, its officers and its courts;

b. the other a restricted and technical sense, signifying judicial process.

Because the term "discipline" includes both positive and negative aspects, having as their goals the glory of God, the purity of the church, and the repentance of sinners, it is considered as "a benefit" to which church members are "entitled." Thus, discipline should not be understood in just a negative sense.

With regard to judicial process, our Book of Church Order specifies five types of censures. Two of those are related to the suspension or removal of ordained officers from their positions. The three which are applicable to laymen are:
  • Admonition, which is a formal reproof
  • Suspension from sacraments, which is temporary exclusion from the ordinances; and
  • Excommunication, which is only to be exercised in instances of gross sin or heresy.
I am going to stop at this point. I will look forward to questions, comments, and even snide remarks.

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