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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Church: Its Discipline

Hezekiah Harvey

From The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances, 1879

Discipline includes all those processes by which a church, as entrusted with the care of souls, educates its members for heaven; such as their public and private instruction in the gospel, the maintenance of social meetings for their edification and comfort, and, in general, the cultivation of a spirit adapted to awaken and cherish the Christian life.

In this lies the chief power of a church. A pure and healthful tone of religious life in the body, an all-pervasive spirit of love and loyalty to Christ and the church, are the most effective means of securing a pure life in the individual members; for the church is then a spiritual magnet to draw and hold souls to Christ and to itself.

But discipline, in a narrower sense, denotes the action of the church, whether as individuals or as a body, in reference to offences committed against the laws of Christ. In this sense it includes:


This is individual and private, and is a preventive of offences. Were this done, and done in the tender, loving, earnest spirit of religion, few instances of further discipline would be required. A true Christian watch-care, or mutual helpfulness in the members, is the highest development of church-life. David said, " Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head." (Ps. 141:5)

And the gospel enjoins, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such as are in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself; lest thou also be tempted." (Gal. 6:1)

"Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness." (Col. 3:12-14)

Wherever the church-life approximates to this grand ideal the spiritual atmosphere is charged with such vitalizing forces that every soul within it is girt about with spiritual power, and is inspired to higher and holier living.


The following directions are here given by Christ:

"If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between him and thee alone: if he shall hear thee, thou halt gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." (Matt. 18:15-17)

Here mark:

1. The aggrieved party, if the other does not, is to take the initiative in seeking an interview; the subject and the interview are to be strictly private; the object of it is, not altercation, but to gain an offending brother.

2. If this fails, and the offence is susceptible of proof, then one or two judicious fellow-members are to be chosen as witnesses and mediators, and the whole case is to be considered before them.

3. If this fails, the case, after due notification of the parties, is to be laid before the church, the proof adduced, and opportunity given for defence; and if the offence is proven, the offender is to be required to make reparation or be excluded.

Several further points are to be noted:

1. The aggrieved person has no discretion whether to take this course or bear the wrong. It is obligatory, and he becomes an offender if he fails to do so. For this law is imperative, and even the Mosaic law enjoined: " Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him " (Lev. 19:17).

2. If in the private interview the offence is denied, and there are no witnesses of the offence, the second step cannot be taken; for in that case the complaining party would become an offender, having published a charge which is without proof. In the absence of proof, he has no resource but in private admonition, and the patient committal of the matter to Providence.

3. If the "one or two more" before whom, in the second step, the case is laid regard the grievance as not real or as satisfactorily removed, the aggrieved party, though unsatisfied, cannot take the third step; for the offender has " heard them," and the accuser ought to be satisfied with the judgment of brethren selected by himself.

4. It is plain that if this great law of Christ were perfectly executed, there could be no personal feuds in the church; its simple provisions completely banish them, and wherever intestine strifes are found destroying the life of a church, they only attest the disastrous results of disregarding the words of the Head of the church.


The Christian law, as given I Cor. 6:1-11, enjoins that differences among members be not carried before worldly courts, but be referred to the judgment of judicious members of the church. It has been objected that this course was required in the midst of a heathen civilization, but cannot be regarded as obligatory in a Christian land, and under laws and courts formed by a Christian civilization.

But the passage gives no intimation of the limitation of the rule to heathen countries; on the contrary, the reasons it assigns for the law are in their nature not transient and local, but permanent and universal.

These are:

1. That Christians, who are ultimately to judge the world, and even angels, are better qualified to adjudicate these differences than worldly tribunals, and

2. That the appearance of members of the church as litigants before a worldly court is itself unseemly, and is inconsistent with their professed relations and hopes as members of Christ's body. These reasons are of permanent force. Differences among men are often decided, in human law, not according to equity, but by legal technicalities; this rule was intended to secure a judgment according to equity and the spirit of Christianity.

IV. PROCEDURE IN CASES OF PUBLIC OFFENCE, EMBRACING ALL OFFENCES AGAINST THE FAITH AND LIFE REQUIRED IN A CHURCH MEMBER, such as immoralities, heresy, covetousness, the making of divisions, habitual neglect of covenanted duties, and persistent violation of church order.

In the apostolic churches the elders, as overseers—rulers —of the flock, had the special responsibility of maintaining the discipline of the church. This is implied in Paul's address to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20), and in the qualification for the eldership stated I Tim. 4:4, 5: "One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity: for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?"

The method of procedure indicated (Matt. 18:15-17), though there applied only to cases of personal grievance, is doubtless in spirit to be observed in all cases; for, in Titus 3:10, it is directed that the heretic be excluded only "after the first and second admonitions." The process, then, would be substantially this:

1. The officers, becoming aware of reports implicating a member, would proceed privately to investigate them, and, if found true, would endeavor to reclaim. This is the most important step, since, if taken tenderly and privately, it is generally effectual.

2. The first effort failing, another would be made with every additional appliance which Christian fidelity and kindness could suggest.

3. This also failing, they would bring the case before the church with all the evidence; and if their statement of the case was controverted, the accused would have full opportunity for defence. The church would then decide, and, if adversely to the accused, they would require reparation or would proceed to exclusion.

The following points are here to be observed:

1. The rules of evidence which obtain in courts of law, since they are founded on essential justice, must govern in the reception of evidence in a trial before the church, except that the witnesses are not placed under oath; no evidence, therefore, which would be rejected in a legal trial can be accepted by a church. The application of this rule is especially important, since in cases of church scandal the popular gossip is so often mistaken for solid evidence.

2. In case of gross immorality, where the evidence is public and unmistakable, the exclusion is immediate and without formal trial, and the steps to bring the offender to repentance and restoration are taken afterward. This is evidently the course pursued in the case of the incestuous person described I Cor. 5 and II Cor. 2:1-11. The ground of this summary procedure is that the circumstances are such as to make confession worthless as evidence of penitence; only a subsequent life of purity can furnish this evidence. The church, however, is bound to use every effort afterward to save and restore those thus excluded. In this duty there is too often a lamentable failure, and the offender, whom persistent love and kind-ness might have reclaimed, is left by neglect to perish in his sin.

3. In our churches, as now organized without a plural eldership, the initiation of discipline commonly devolves on the pastors and deacons, who constitute practically, for this and other purposes, a church presbytery. In some churches there is a standing committee of discipline, on whom this responsibility rests. In others no definite arrangement exists, and it is left to any member to bring offences to the notice of the church; too often, from lack of early and private attention to offenders, the case has gone so far that the public discipline, when instituted, is almost necessarily unavailing to reclaim.

Exclusion is the final act of church power. It is the solemn withdrawal of fellowship from the offender, by which he ceases to be a member and is placed back in the world. Its effect on reputation, however, is modified by the nature of the offence requiring it. Hence, a distinction is sometimes made in the form of the act.

In cases of vital error or immorality, involving the forfeiture of Christian character, the hand of Christian fellowship is withdrawn; while in cases of the violation of church order and of other offences, where the substance of Christian character may remain unimpeached, the hand of church fellowship is withdrawn. This, however, is a matter of mere custom; in any case, the formal relation of the excluded person as a member of the church is terminated.

The discipline of a minister is peculiar in two respects:

1. An accusation is to be received with unusual caution, both because his position creates a presumption in his favor, and because, as a minister, he is peculiarly exposed to malice. Paul enjoined: "Against an elder receive not an accusation but before two or three witnesses." (1 Tim. 5:19)

2. The action of a Council, as it was had to invest him with the ministerial office, should also be had to divest him of it. When, therefore, charges are preferred against a minister, it is the duty of the church so far to examine them as to determine whether the case is sufficiently serious to require an investigation; and, in the event of it so appearing, the church is then to summon a Council to investigate the charges.

If the trial results in a conviction, the Council first proceeds to withdraw from him what the ordaining Council had imparted—that is, the fellowship, on the part of the ministry and churches, for him as a minister of the gospel, and the authority to exercise among them the functions of the sacred office; and it then advises the church to divest him of his pastoral office, his license, and his membership. These, as they were originally conferred by the church, can only be withdrawn by it; in reference to them, the action of the Council is only advisory.

A scriptural discipline, administered with tenderness and fidelity, is of the highest moment for the welfare of the church. It is an urgent necessity alike for the help of individual souls and for the purity, peace, and moral power of the body. Disorderly, inconsistent life in the church paralyzes the power of the pulpit; no other cause, probably, is so potent for evil in the churches as the general neglect of a true church discipline.