February 12: Van Horn on Westminster Doctrines

“To God’s Glory” : A Practical Study of a Doctrine of the Westminster Standards.
by Rev. Leonard T. Van Horn

THE SUBJECT : Church Discipline

THE BIBLE VERSES TO READ : Acts 2:41-47; Rom. 15:14; Gal. 6:1; I Cor. 5:1; I Thess. 5:14; I Tim. 5:20; Heb. 3:12-13; James 5:19-20; Matt. 5:23-24; 18:15-17.

REFERENCE TO THE STANDARDS : Confession, chap. XXX; Larger Catechism, Q. 63.

The Presbyterian and Reformed system has always held that the three marks of a true church are the proclamation of the Word, the correct administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline. And yet in so many churches there seems to be a strange lack of discipline. Biblical discipline is sadly missing.

Note the terminology used above. Biblical discipline. Possibly this is why there is a lack of discipline. Whenever members of the church today think of discipline, they immediately think of punishment and want nothing to do with it. But discipline, Biblical discipline, is much more than punishment.

An excellent definition of church discipline is given by Johannes G. Vos :

“The exercise of the authority which Christ has committed to His Church for reclaiming members who fall into scandalous sin, and for guarding the purity of the Church by excluding those who cannot be brought to repentance.”

To help us in our consideration of church discipline, let us note two key words in the above definition : “reclaiming” and “purity.” Both of these words are so central to church discipline. These must always be involved. Discipline must be concerned about the purity of the church and discipline must be educative.

A basic principle regarding the work and worship of the church is that the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice. Therefore, when we speak of church discipline we must be involved in both doctrine and life. The thinking and the doing of the believer must be consistent with the Word of God.

This can be seen in such passages as Acts 20 as Paul gives his charge to the elders. The elders are to exercise supervisory and disciplinary care toward the members of the church. Paul did not expect to do it all by himself. Each believer should really be involved in being concerned with the purity of the church and the reclaiming of those who have gone astray.

Let us see if we can establish some basic principles regarding discipline so that we might be faithful in our following God’s Word.

First, discipline is necessary. Too many churches today ignore discipline. The truth of God’s Word must be reflected in the church. The Bridegroom is jealous for the Bride He has purchased with His own blood. Therefore, God has established that discipline is necessary in the church. It can be a powerful source for good in the church as well as in the family.

God has made it plain in His Word that there should be discipline and even how it is to be carried out. As we read the messages to the seven churches in Revelation and as we read such passages as Matthew 5:23-24 and 18:15-17 we can see how disagreements are to be handled. If such passages were followed immediately it would not be necessary for the more serious aspects of discipline to take place. 

Second, discipline must be motivated by concern for, and care of, the erring believer. If we have concern for our fellow believer there can be no attitudes of hate, or anger, or vengeance, or we will not be prompted by pride. Rather, our concern will show itself in love by the help of the Holy Spirit. If love is missing, discipline will not be educative.

Third, discipline should always be carried on within the framework of Ephesians 5:21. Submission one to another is a necessary part of correct discipline. This means that communication is important. As we are willing to submit one to another there will be a willingness to listen and to examine our own hearts regarding the matter involved.

Fourth, there should always be preventive discipline in action. That is, we should be careful regarding our acceptance of members, our calling of Pastors, our selection of church officers, and our attitudes toward each other. This will help to keep the purity of the church.

God’s Word teaches us that it is a responsibility of the church to exercise discipline. If the church is to be concerned over the spiritual state of its members, if the church members are to be shepherded and guarded, a certain amount of discipline must take place. Discipline is an integral part of church government. 

May we not ignore discipline. May we practice it because it is Biblical, all to the glory of God.


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