In treating this subject of the power of discipline in the Church, I have chosen to place it in the context of maintaining purity in the visible church. For this surely is one of the main purposes behind all ecclesiastical disciplinary practice. To this end we must first define our terms.
We are probably all familiar with terms like visible church, invisible church, church militant and church triumphant. Since the latter are not especially pertinent to our topic, we will restrict ourselves to the two former terms: visible church and invisible church.
By the term invisible church, we mean the entire Church comprised of the elect of all denominations. Since the term church triumphant is meant to refer to the saints who have already died, we restrict our meaning to the living saints. The invisible church is exclusively composed of true believers: God’s elect.
By the term visible church we mean the whole mass of individuals who attend church or are counted as members or attendees of any Christian congregation.
At this point a very important observation should be made: the invisible church is in the midst of the visible church. It is no secret that all congregations are a mixed crowd. Not everyone who attends Sunday worship is a true believer. We have a little saying in America that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going into a henhouse makes you a chicken! Any implementation of discipline in the Church should take into consideration this fact and conscientiously tackle this quandary.
This distinction is found repeatedly throughout Scripture. Paul tells us, “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel. 1 In fact, earlier in his Epistle, Paul says, “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” 2 Jesus himself declared, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord…And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” 3
Israel, even during its periods of spiritual declension, always had a small remnant of faithful souls. God told Elijah that He had preserved a remnant of souls who had not bowed to Baal 4 Isaiah speaks of a remnant of Israel sixteen times. Throughout the history of the Church, even in her darkest days of apostasy, there was still a trace of faithful souls represented by the likes of Bernard of Clairveaux, Savanarola, Jan Huss, John Wycliffe, Jerome of Prague and Martin Luther. Having seen that the distinction exists, we now proceed to argue its relevance to the issue at hand, viz., the implementation of discipline. We must also hasten to elucidate that by discipline we do not mean merely punitive measures. Discipline should, above everything else, mean the setting up of a structured program intended to establish order and to mold and shape character.
It should be fairly obvious, on the strength of the foregoing definition that church discipline is intended for the benefit of the invisible church, but that it is applied to the visible church. By this we mean to say that the unconverted members of the visible church are not, nor are they to be considered the beneficiaries of ecclesiastical discipline. The beneficiaries are always the true elect of God: the members of the invisible church. Christ is returning for a spotless bride, without wrinkle, 5 terms which can by no means be applied to the visible church. Nevertheless, we have a moral responsibility, in faithfulness to the Heavenly Bridegroom, to strive to maintain purity in the visible church.
In speaking of purity, I am primarily concerned with orthodox theology. I believe that this is the primary purpose of discipline. The Corinthian church is a case in point. St. Paul called for the expulsion of a sinning member, but his directive was couched in a long refutation of false theology.
In 1970, the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer spoke to a national congress of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod on the subject of simultaneously exhibiting the holiness and the love of God. 6 His message details the implosion of the Northern Presbyterian Church in the United States in the 1930’s, due to a lack of discipline against false teaching.
In the late 1890’s, Dr. Briggs was put out of the ministry of the Presbyterian Church for being the first person to introduce modern Liberal Theology into Union Theological Seminary. But by the 1936 the Liberals defrocked Dr. J. Gresham Machen and put him out of the ministry. Schaeffer argues that the reason for such a change within the denomination was the fact that the leaders of the church waited far too long to apply discipline. And when they finally got up the courage to do so, it was too late: the Liberals had won the day.
Schaeffer argues that the Liberals have no right to the Church. The Church belongs to those who adhere to its Creeds and Confessions. One has no right to the Presbyterian ministry if he disbelieves the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tertullian used a similar argument against the heretics of his own day. He said that we should not allow them to use the Scriptures because the Scriptures belong to the true Church, not to the heretics. He says, “If in these lie their resources, before they can use them, it ought to be clearly seen to whom belongs the possession of the Scriptures, that none may be admitted to the use thereof who has no title at all to the privilege.” 7
When discipline is not applied swiftly and consistently, it can only wreak havoc in the church. And the Northern Presbyterian Church is a perfect illustration of this fact. In January of 1924, 150 Liberal theologians signed the Auburn Affirmation, which was a declaration of war by the Liberals against historic Christianity. 8 The Conservatives believed that the way to meet this was to get a conservative elected as moderator of the General Assembly. Later that year, they got a Bible-believing man, the Dr. Clarence Edward McCarthy, elected as Moderator in the General Assembly. Instead of disciplining the Liberals, the church tried diplomacy. The Liberals simply consolidated their power in the church bureaucracy. Within only a few years, the Liberals had kicked Machen out of the ministry and completely taken over control of the church and the seminaries.
It got so bad that many Bible-believing men began to exit the denomination. And here is where the real trouble began. Not all of the true Bible believers left at the same time. There was now a tension created – a polarization – between men who had stood side by side and fought together for years. This is where the importance of simultaneously exhibiting the holiness of God and the love of God comes into play. If we do not exhibit God’s holiness, we will compromise on every side. But, if we do not at the same time show forth God’s love, we will alienate our fellow believers who have not yet seen their way clear to leaving a corrupt church. Worse than that, we send a very ugly message to the world. Jesus told His disciples that the world had a right to judge whether or not they were truly His followers based on their love for each other. 9 Even more sobering is Christ’s statement that the world may judge whether or not the Father has sent the Son based on our love for each other. 10
Returning to my distinction between visible church and invisible church, I now submit that ecclesiastical discipline should guarantee that the visible church does not override, outweigh or control the invisible church. Our example above shows that when false professors of Christianity are given freedom to speak in the name of the Church, from the pulpit or the seminary podium, it is the invisible church that suffers. The invisible church must always be in control and always apply discipline with consistency. If we stress only the holiness of God, we will present to the world and to our children something hard and ugly. We will be inflexible absolutists who will crucify each other over minor doctrinal differences. But if we stress only the love of God, we will compromise left and right to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. Both can be done in the flesh, but we cannot create and maintain the proper balance in the flesh. It is only by the work of the Holy Spirit within us that we can faithfully show forth both the holiness and love of God.
My guess is that we are all subconsciously aware of the initial negative reaction that a serious consistent disciplinary code would create. Accusations of uncharitableness and sanctimoniousness would fly. We would be called “holier than thou” and “Pharisees.” Worst of all we would probably be labeled “judgmental,” and be reminded that Jesus said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” And it is the fear of such initial reactions that hinders us from implementing any sort of systematic code of discipline in the church. Besides this, we are all too familiar with strange “control cults,” i.e., churches that psychologically manipulate their members by means of stern codes of behavior. The last thing we want is to be labeled a cult.
But on the other hand, what are our options? Will we ever be a church without spot if we refuse to punish false teachers? Will we ever present a credible witness to the world if we act as relativistic as they do? The Church has been infected by the Hegelian relativism that controls the world’s thinking. Modern man does not believe in truth. It is not that he does not believe that he has the truth; he does not even believe that such a thing as truth even exists. Then we come along claiming to know the truth, yet we act as if the truth weren’t binding upon us. When the chips are down, would rather compromise with error than to be accused of being bigots. This is the spirit behind the whole ecumenical movement. True believers should have no more to do with Open Theists or Papists than they do with Voodoo priests, yet, bound by the Hegelian spirit of the age, we form alliances with such blasphemers! 11
We have two opposite choices: destroy the beauty of the Church by presenting a caricature of God that is hard and unyielding, or destroy the purity of the Church by sleeping with the enemy. The only safe way through this mine field is applying discipline in love and holiness in order to maintain the purity of the visible church.
1. Rom. 9:6
2. Rom. 2:28. 29
3. Mat. 7:22, 23
4. 1 Kings 19:18
5. Eph. 5:27
6. The tape recording of this message is available from the tape ministry of Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, IL, from their “Voices From the Past” series.
7. Tertullian, Prescription Against the Heretics, XV
8. Auburn Affirmation, Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology
9. John 13:35
10. John 17:21
11. One such alliance is ECT – Evangelicals and Catholics Together. What we must realize is that the only thing we share in common with Rome is some terminology