Where Has Church Discipline Gone?

Where Has Church Discipline Gone?

October 5, 2007 @

“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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