BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES
 WHICH SHOULD REGULATE
CORRECTIVE CHURCH DISCIPLINE
With Special Reference to a Particularly Challenging Case

                              

 

 

David Merck

 

                       

 

 

 

                 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                        

 

                                

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                    

 

 

 

 

 


                                                      PREFACE

 

 

The study which follows reflects the basic contents of a Joint Lord's Day Bible Institute class taught to the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan, by one of the pastors of the church, David W. Merck, on November 19, 2000.  More material is given here than was presented in class due to the limited time available for the class, and also because of later expansion following the class as a result of further study and interactions with brethren.

 

Forming the backdrop of the original class and of all the material in this study has been a unique and difficult disciplinary case.  This case, which of necessity has become widely known among sister churches, involved the founding pastor of the church who had labored among God's people for 26 years and then been sent out as a missionary of the church for two additional years.  This man was, after a difficult investigation, discovered to have been involved in a pattern of adultery and extensive lying for at least the previous four years, raising serious questions regarding the genuineness of his previous, long-standing and seemingly sterling Christian profession while laboring as a useful and influential minister.  On the other hand, once his sin began to be exposed, he immediately confessed far more than had been discovered, sought to communicate his repentance to all he had wronged, and appeared before the church to confess his sin with a promise of financial restitution to the extent possible.  Thus, there were, in the judgment of the pastors of the church, somewhat hopeful signs of repentance.

 

This emotionally-laden case has revealed both within the church and also among brethren in sister churches an at times strong disagreement regarding the meaning of 1 Corinthians chapter 5.  Does this passage call for excommunication in the case of open, scandalous sins regardless of whether or not there are professions of repentance, or does it speak of excommunication due to impenitence even as Matthew chapter 18 clearly does?  Closely-related have been wrestlings over whether or not the professed repentance in this case should be regarded as genuine, since it came only after the sin began to be forcibly exposed, and from a man who had long been lying profusely and skillfully in order to cover his sin.  Also related have been questions as to whether or not we must extend immediate forgiveness when a profession of repentance is first made in such a heinous, long-standing case involving inveterate deception.  A final, related issue has been whether or not in such a case it is biblical to suspend a man from some of the privileges of membership instead of excommunicating him immediately, thereby providing time to determine whether or not the initial profession of repentance of such deep and scandalous sins is genuine before his final removal from membership.

 

This study represents an attempt to address these and related issues from the context of just having wrestled through them.  It is presented with a real sense of inadequacy, and with a disposition of openness and desire to be corrected from the Scriptures regarding such difficult matters.  However, this study is also presented with the hope that perhaps some of the good which God has promised to work from all that He brings into the lives of His called ones - including even the most heart-rending of circumstances - might be a growing and strengthened understanding of His ways and will for His church.

 

                                                                                                                        December, 2000


 

 

 

                                          TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                Page

 

Introduction                                                                                                                              1

 

 

Part One - Two Key Passages of God's Word:                                                                          1

 

I.          Matthew 18:15-18                                                                                                          2

II.        1 Corinthians 5:1-13                                                                                                    11

 

 

Part Two - Some Remaining Objections:                                                                                24

 

I.          Raised due to concerns regarding too much leniency                                      24

II.        Raised due to concerns regarding too much severity                                       33

 

 

Appendix One - Other Sources Indicating that Excommunication                             46

            Should be Immediately Enacted in the Case of Open, Scandalous

            Sin Regardless of any Profession of Repentance

 

 

Appendix Two - Other Sources Indicating that Excommunication                             49

            Should Only be Enacted in the Case of Impenitence

 

 

 

 

 

 


               BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES WHICH SHOULD REGULATE

                              CORRECTIVE CHURCH DISCIPLINE

 

 

Introduction.  We find ourselves in an unusual season as a church during which we are having to grapple in a new way with the biblical principles which should regulate corrective church discipline.  Therefore, it is my purpose in this study to take up the subject of corrective church discipline (as opposed to direct divine discipline or ongoing formative discipline).  As I do so, I want to make it clear that I will not in any way be comprehensive, and will purposefully be focusing on passages of Scripture and general biblical principles which I believe are specially relevant to our present situation.

 

In approaching the subject of corrective church discipline in the Bible, it is important to up front recognize that we are not provided in our Bibles with a detailed manual of how to carry out church discipline.  Rather, we are given a number of passages where we find more specific examples of corrective discipline cases.  From these examples we are left as local churches to glean the general biblical principles which should regulate church discipline cases, and then to apply those biblical principles to the specific cases which confront us - cases which may not exactly parallel any of the biblical examples which have been provided.  One writer has correctly observed:

 

            It would be impracticable to attempt to specify all possible occasions when labor might be called for in this line of irregular Christian conduct.  The Church must judge each individual case on its merits, and decide whether discipline be needed, and if so, to what extent.[1]

 

In our church constitution we have sought to outline some of the key biblical principles which should regulate corrective church discipline and to set up a general framework for applying those principles based on the past experiences of ourselves and others.  However, it is impossible in a constitution to anticipate every kind of corrective discipline situation which may confront a local church, and thus it is very possible that our constitution may at points fail to adequately provide for the handling of specific discipline cases which we face.  Here is a further reason why we are seeking to afresh return to consider general biblical principles, since the Scriptures alone, and not any man-made document, must always be our final court of authority for our faith and practice.

 

 

Part One.  As we take up our study, I am going to first of all be directing your attention to two key passages of God's Word and asking and answering questions as we seek to open up and understand those passages.  When we think of corrective church discipline, the two key passages in the New Testament which generally spring to mind are Matthew 18:15-18 and I Corinthians 5:1-13.  We are especially going to focus upon these two passages, drawing upon other passages as well where appropriate.  So let us take up the first one:

 

 

I.          In Matthew 18:15-18 we read:

 

            If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

 

Let us consider a number of questions about this passage.  First:

 

            A.        What kind of sin is here in view?

 

                        1.         It is a definite sin - a violation of the moral law of God - although its exact identity is left vague and general.

 

                        2.         The offense is possibly one personally against the one called upon to first address it, depending on what we conclude about the textual variant at this point.  This issue is not totally clear.

 

                        3.         What is clear is that the offense is a more private one as opposed to a public one, meaning that the knowledge of it is more limited.  Calvin provides a helpful description of this distinction:

 

            . . . some sins are public; others, private or somewhat secret.  Public sins are those witnessed not by one or two persons, but committed openly and to the offense of the entire church.  I call secret sins, not those completely hidden from men . . ., but those of an intermediate sort, which are not unwitnessed, yet not public.[2]

 

This all leads to our next question:

 

            B.  On what basis do we conclude that this was a private as opposed to a public offense?

 

                        1.  There is the obviously widening scope of those involved in trying to bring the offense to biblical resolution, beginning with the one man aware of the matter going alone, continuing, if necessary, with his taking one or two more as witnesses, and ultimately leading, if necessary, to telling it to the entire church.

 

                        2.         Especially the step of telling it to the church implies that before this time the church more generally was not aware of the offense.

 

            C.        What is the ultimate or strongest punishment which the church may have to give in the case of offenses which originally were more private?

 

It is described in the words, "Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (vs. 17).  I.e., he is no longer a member of the church of Christ, but is placed among the lost outside the church - that which is often called "excommunication".

 

            D.        If the ultimate and solemn punishment of excommunication must be enacted, what is the reason or cause which makes it necessary in this example?

 

It is, in one word, impenitence.  The offender will not hear the brother who first comes alone, or the brother who returns with one or two others, or the entire church.  He does not repent.  Therefore, it is not the sin itself which here brings about excommunication.  It is rather the fact that the offender, when confronted, does not repent.

 

            E.         When, during the process outlined in Matthew chapter 18, does the offense clearly move from being a more private offense to being a more public one?

 

Once it has been told to the church.

 

At this point, there are some practical questions which arise regarding the making of sins known in a more public way to the church.  Let's briefly consider three of them here:

 

            F.         Is it necessary that every initially more private sin which would be scandalous if publicly known, be told to the church and thereby become more public knowledge?

 

                        1.         No, not necessarily.  We must again remember that the language describing the offense or sin in Matthew 18:15-18 is quite general, so serious sins which could be scandalous if known are not necessarily excluded from the procedures here outlined.  We must also not forget the principle of love covering sin to the extent possible, a theme which we will mention again in a little bit.

 

Let me mention our own practice in the past, underscoring that the examples I am about to mention involved people who for a long time have not been members of this church.  There is the example of a young, unmarried dating couple who are guilty of secret fornication, and then in some way or other end up confessing it privately to a pastor.  There is also the example of the husband who has visited prostitutes secretly for sinful sexual interaction short of intercourse who on his own comes forward and confesses his sins to his wife and a pastor, giving hopeful signs of repentance.  In such cases in the past, your elders have believed that the principles and procedures of Matthew chapter 18 did apply.  Therefore, they have concluded that they were not required to bring such more private sins to the attention of the congregation as long as there were good reasons to believe that there had been repentance and as long as the sins did not become public knowledge, even though these sins were serious sins and would have been scandalous if known publicly.  I.e., our past practice has indicated that at least on some occasions there is room to view more private, potentially scandalous sins as fitting under the framework of Matthew chapter 18.

 

                        2.         However, if the originally more private, serious, potentially scandalous sin continues to be repeated after the initial hopeful signs of repentance, then the genuineness of the previous repentance is gravely in question, and the sin will have to be brought to the church.

 

                        3.         Also, if the previously more private, potentially scandalous sin becomes, or will become, publicly known - then it must be brought to the church.  Examples would include a case of fornication between a younger, unmarried couple which leads to a pregnancy which soon will be public, or where a man who was visiting a prostitute is arrested for soliciting a prostitute and his name ends up in the newspaper.  In such cases, not only must the church be told.  There will of necessity need to be a measure of more public corrective church discipline (at least a public rebuke) for the sake of the name of Christ and the testimony of His church among those who know the details, even if there are hopeful signs of repentance.

 

            G.        Are there some sins which, though previously more private and not widely-known, must be told to the church no matter whether the person has repented or not?

 

                        1.         Yes, where an officer of the church has sinned in such a way that he has violated the trust and duties of his office - especially when that sin brings into serious question his any longer continuing in office.  There is on the one hand the Old Testament example of David who horribly abused his authority as a king in Israel in order to commit both adultery and murder - the latter clearly being a civil crime.  This was a sin which could not remain hidden from public view, and God Himself exposed it.  Also, there is the New Testament example of Diotrophes in 3 John 9-10 who was abusing his office in the church including abusing church discipline (at least some of which surely was more public in nature).  John there said regarding this man, ". . . if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does".  Such abuse of church authority by her leader demanded a public unveiling of and dealing with such sins. 

 

                        2.         A further case where revelation is necessary no matter whether or not there is repentance is where the offense has been against a wider group of people, including cases where lies were told to this wider group which were initially unknown to them.  On the one hand we could consider the Old Testament example of Achan whose sin brought God's judgment on the whole nation, and whom God exposed before the entire nation.  There is also the New Testament example of Ananias and Sapphira whose lies to the whole church were again publicly exposed - in this case by divinely-wrought discipline.

 

In such cases as those outlined above it is not possible to keep the sin private, even if there are hopeful signs of repentance, because the very nature of the sin, combined in some cases with the identity of the sinner, requires public dealings.

 

            H.        Once the church has been told of the previously hidden sin and in this way it has become more public, does this mean that the members should feel free to tell others outside the membership about it, no matter what?

 

No, the church should still be careful to not broadcast the offense beyond its membership any more widely than necessary, for the sake of the name of Christ in the world,[3] and in order to biblically cover the sin as much as possible (more in a moment).

 

            I.          Once the previously private sin (including possibly, as we have observed, behavior which would be scandalous if openly known) has become more public by telling it to the church, does this mean that excommunication should immediately and automatically follow?

 

No, at least not according to Matthew chapter 18, for there is still opportunity given to hear the church and repent before excommunication takes place.  Furthermore, Matthew chapter 18 clearly implies that if the offender hears the church, excommunication should not follow.  So the fact that a sin - even a previously more private, potentially scandalous sin - has become more public, does not automatically mean that excommunication should take place, if we are referencing Matthew chapter 18.

 

            J.          If the last step in our text before excommunication is for the offender to hear the church, in what way(s) should the church speak?

 

There are at least two possible ways indicated in Scripture:

 

                        1.         A public rebuke and call upon the offender to repent may be adequate in some cases.  Here 1 Timothy 5:20 provides perhaps the clearest example in a case having to do with sinning elders:

 

            Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.

 

                        2.         However, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 10-15 identifies another possible church action which is also less severe than excommunication, and which might be a way in which the church speaks:

 

            Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

 

            For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order:  if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.  For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.  Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.  But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good.  If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.  Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

 

These disorderly brethren were to suffer social avoidance in addition to rebuke or admonition, but were still to be regarded as brothers in the Lord.  In other words, they were still viewed as church members, and not as excommunicated individuals.[4]  Yet there was a stricture or punishment of corrective church discipline - that of social avoidance here - in order that the disorderly ones might be put to shame.  One of the privileges of church membership - intimate fellowship socially - was here being suspended awaiting repentance.

 

Such a half measure short of excommunication has provided a basis for our practice of the suspension of some of the privileges of church membership in a number of cases where full excommunication does not yet seem warranted, but some form of stronger corrective discipline is in order.  Such a suspension of membership privileges, we believe, could also, in addition to rebuke, constitute the church speaking to an offender one last time before excommunication is actually enacted.

 

By way of summary, public rebuke and the suspension of some of the privileges of membership are two biblically-based ways in which the church may speak to the offender without advancing immediately to excommunication.  And if the offender hears the church, as evidenced by responding with clear fruits of repentance, no excommunication is warranted according to the text before us.

 

Before moving on to the second major text, let me try to summarize at least three general biblical principles which should regulate the exercise of corrective church discipline according to Matthew 18:15-18 (although more could be derived as well):

 

1.         We should seek to limit the knowledge of the offense in view to a circle no larger than the particular case demands.  Hopefully this is abundantly clear in the only gradually-widening circle of those aware of the offense laid out in our text.  This is but a specific application of the basic biblical principle contained in the following verses:

 

            . . . love covers all transgressions (Proverbs 10:12).

 

            . . . a prudent man conceals dishonor (Proverbs 12:16b).

 

            He who conceals a transgression seeks love . . . (Proverbs 17:9)

 

2.         Either the threat of a wider revealing of one's sin, or, failing that, the actual reality of the wider revealing of one's sin, is a powerful motivation to repent of one's sin.  Public shame and embarrassment are biblical and powerful motivators to repentance.  This is another striking indication of the steps laid out in Matthew chapter 18.  When individuals implement the first step, and then if necessary, the second step laid out here, and at the same time let it be known that this is the process being begun, the offender knows that if he does not repent and get serious while the matter is more private, it will become more public.  This is a powerful motivation to get right with God and men.  Furthermore, if the matter has to come before the entire church, and the entire church speaks to the offender about his sin, the fact that his sin has now become publicly known to the whole church bringing its reproach is also a powerful motivation to repent.

 

Someone may say, but is not the repentance of someone suspect if they had been covering their sin and then only repent once it has actually become public knowledge?  In order to answer that question, let us briefly notice two Old Testament examples where grievous sin was covered and then exposed to public view:

 

            a.         First, consider Achan as recorded in Joshua 7:1, 16-21:

 

            But the sons of Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the things under the ban, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, took some of the things under the ban, therefore the anger of the LORD burned against the sons of Israel

 

            So Joshua arose early in the morning and brought Israel near by tribes, and the tribe of Judah was taken.  He brought the family of Judah near, and he took the family of the Zerahites; and he brought the family of the Zerahites near man by man, and Zabdi was taken.  He brought his household near man by man; and Achan, son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, was taken.  Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, I implore you, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and give praise to Him; and tell me now what you have done.  Do not hide it from me."  So Achan answered Joshua and said, "Truly, I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel, and this is what I did:  when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it"

 

Here Achan clearly covered his sin of taking some of the devoted things from Jericho, but the Lord used a crowbar to uncover the truth and expose it to all of Israel.  The crowbar which God used here was direct divine revelation in the form of a lot.  Only after this powerful crowbar was used did Achan admit that he had sinned against God and divulge the facts of his sin.  Did Achan here genuinely repent of his sin?  Although we are not for certain, if his words here reflect all that was in his heart, then he did not truly repent, but instead died in his sins.  This was because he did not admit that he deserved God's wrath for his sins, he did not indicate that he wanted to turn his back on his sins, and he did not ask God to forgive him and have mercy on his soul.  Based on this example, someone might say, See, here is apparently proof that a constrained admission of sin should be regarded as not being genuine.  But there is a second Old Testament example which also must be considered:

 

            b.         David as recorded in 2 Samuel 12:1, 5-15a:

 

            Then the LORD sent Nathan to David.  And he came to him and said,  "There were two men in one city, the one rich and the other poor.  . . ."

 

            Then David's anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die.  He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion."  Nathan then said to David, "You are the man!  Thus says the LORD God of Israel, `It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I also gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!  Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight?  You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon.  Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.'  Thus says the LORD, `Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes and give them to your companion, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight.  Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.'"  Then David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD."  And Nathan said to David, "The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die.  However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die."  So Nathan went to his house.

 

David had long sought to cover up his sin of adultery and murder, for Nathan says in verse 12 that he did his sin secretly.  The crowbar that the LORD used here to uncover the truth of David's sin and to ultimately expose it before everyone in Israel was the same basic powerful crowbar He had used to uncover Achan's sin - direct revelation from God through His inspired prophet crystallized in the words, "You are the man! (vs. 7).[5]  I.e., it took no less of a crowbar to uncover David's sin and to bring him to admit it than it took to do the same with Achan.  Interestingly, David's admission that he had sinned, as recorded, was actually shorter than that of Achan's.  Yet he apparently genuinely repented of his sin here, because according to verse 13, the Lord, who could perfectly see his heart, had taken away his sin.

 

In summary, although the excruciating pressure of the public exposure of the truth of one's awful sins probably did not bring about true repentance on the part of Achan, it definitely did do so on the part of David.  Therefore, it is wrong to just write off the professed repentance of one who is constrained to it by the pressure of the exposure of his previously-covered sins.  Such a public revelation is intended by God to be a powerful motivation to repent.

 

However, we are in some ways at a disadvantage in our era of redemptive history, for we do not see the heart as God sees, and we are no longer receiving direct revelations from God to tell us if the constrained professions of repentance by church members are genuine.  Therefore, while we on the one hand cannot just write off the professed repentance of the church member caught red-handed in serious sin after long covering it up, we on the other hand cannot rush to judgment and need time to evaluate the professed repentance, since it may not be genuine.

 

It is for this reason that we have provided in our constitution for the suspension of some of the privileges of membership in cases where there has been a scandalous sin, yet now are hopeful (although not conclusive) signs of repentance:

 

            If a member has sinned scandalously but shows hopeful signs of repentance, including submission to the elders, it may still be prudent to suspend him for a time so that he may clearly manifest repentance (Matt. 3:8), so that reproach not be brought upon the Name of Christ and the church (2 Sam. 12:14; Rom. 2:24), and so that others may not be emboldened to sin (1 Tim. 5:20).  If fruits worthy of repentance are not forthcoming, the elders may recommend to the church at a later date that this person be excommunicated according to the procedure outlined in Paragraph B, 4, b of this Article.[6]

 

Because of the gravity of the sin, combined with the fact that it is too early to conclude whether or not the professed repentance is genuine, some form of corrective discipline may be in order even when there is an initial profession of repentance.  Remember that David, even after genuinely repenting, still experienced severe consequences for his serious sins, although they were less than the ultimate penalty of death.

 

3.         From what we have seen thus far, it appears that the ultimate punishment or stricture of excommunication is warranted only where there is no repentance for the sin(s) at issue.  At this point there are those who would disagree, and especially point to the other key passage dealing with corrective church discipline - 1 Corinthians chapter 5 - as an example of an alternative where there may be excommunication without regard to whether or not the offender has at least professed repentance.  We will look at that important text shortly.

 

But let me at this point turn you to two other passages first which show that this principle of no excommunication unless there is impenitence is not just limited to the case of private sins as outlined in Matthew 18:15-18, but is actually a more extensive principle of the Word of God.

 

            a.         Titus 3:10-11 directs:

 

            Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.

 

Is being a factious or divisive man in Christ's church a serious sin in the eyes of God?  It certainly is, for if you remember, the Lord in 1 Corinthians 3:17 in a context where strife and division were a problem declares:

 

            If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

 

However, serious as being a factious or divisive person is, it is not a reason for immediate excommunication according to Titus 3:10-11 until there has first been a first and second warning.  This reality implies that, if the factious man repents after receiving either of the warnings and stops being a factious person, the rejection of excommunication would not be necessary or appropriate.  Here the principle of excommunication only where there is impenitence is again underscored.  But notice another interesting passage as well:

 

            b.         2 Corinthians 12:21 - 13:2:

 

            I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced.  This is the third time I am coming to you.  EVERY FACT IS TO BE CONFIRMED BY THE TESTIMONY OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES.  I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone.

 

First of all, it should be noted that here Paul apparently was speaking as an Apostle of Jesus Christ regarding church discipline which he would take the lead in enacting, if necessary, when he arrived.  Corrective church discipline is clearly in view, since Paul in an epistle to a local church quotes in 13:1 the same legal principle for establishing facts by two or three witnesses which was referenced by Jesus regarding church discipline in Matthew 18:16, and since he speaks of not sparing when he comes (13:2).  This discipline was to be worked out in a Corinthian church which apparently was still in some ways negligent in carrying out corrective church discipline (cp. 1 Corinthians 5:1ff).

 

What then were the sins which were especially a concern here?  The Apostle Paul indicates that he feared there would be those still practicing the sins of impurity, immorality and sensuality which some of them had formerly been practicing (12:21; cp. 1 Corinthians 6:15-20).  At least some of these sins surely would have been scandalous sins if they were known publicly, for the second word, "immorality" (translated "fornication" in the old King James Version) stands for sexual immorality more generally considered, and can include such vile forms as incest, prostitution and adultery.  Interestingly, this term is the same word found in 1 Corinthians 5:1 (2 times) and 6:13 & 18.  Notice further that these Corinthians had not yet been excommunicated for these sins.  Otherwise, "sparing not" according to 13:2 would have no meaning, since excommunication is the most severe punishment available in corrective church discipline.  Also observe the clear indication that Paul would be kept from "sparing not" in discipline when he came if they repented before that time (12:21).  Let me underscore here that, regarding sins which surely in some cases would have been scandalous if known, Paul did not say that he would excommunicate them when he came, no matter whether they professed repentance or not, since they had sinned scandalously.  Rather he here warned them to repent before he came so he would not have to deal more severely with them.  The mere fact that a scandalous sin had taken place did not cancel out the general biblical principle of Matthew 18:15-18 that excommunication is to take place only where there is impenitence.  So we have further confirmation of our third general principle.

 

With this data before us, let's now take up the second major text in our New Testaments having to do with corrective church discipline:

 

 

II.        1 Corinthians 5:1-13:

 

            It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife.  You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.  For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.  In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

 

            Your boasting is not good,  Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?  Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened.  For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed.  Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.  But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one.  For what have I to do with judging outsiders?  Do you not judge those who are within the church?  But those who are outside, God judges.  REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.

 

Here we will once again consider a number of questions.  First:

 

            A.        What is the punishment of church discipline which is here in view?

 

It is clearly excommunication as indicated by the following phrases:

 

                        1.         "removed from your midst" (5:2)

 

                        2.         "deliver such a one to Satan" (5:5)

 

                        3.         "REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES" (5:13)

 

            B.        What is the primary example of sin here which is the focus in this excommunication?

 

It is a form of immorality or fornication - incest - where a man has his father's wife.

 

                        1.         This woman was probably not the man's biological mother, but rather a different, perhaps later, younger wife of his father's (Leviticus 18:7- 8).  I.e., she was his step-mother.

 

                        2.         This man's father probably was still alive in light of 2 Corinthians 7:12 which speaks of the one who had been wronged (assuming the same sin is in view there), and also since the woman is referred to as his father's wife and not his widow.

 

                        3.         Again, since this woman was described as being his father's wife, and since such incestuous marriages were not lawful under Roman law according to Lenski[7], the man in question apparently was not married to her, but instead living in an immoral relationship with her.[8]

 

                        4.         Since no discipline was prescribed for the woman, she probably was an unconverted woman who was not a member of the church at Corinth.

 

Such a sexual relationship with one's father's wife clearly was sinful according to the Word of God, and subject to the death penalty in Old Covenant Israel (cp. Leviticus 18:8; 20:11; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20)

 

            C.        What are some other examples of persons characterized by sinful behavior who should be excommunicated?

 

According to 5:11, the immoral person, covetous, idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler.

 

            D.        Is the procedure leading up to excommunication in 1 Corinthians 5 the same as that outlined in Matthew 18:15-18?

 

No.  In the 1 Corinthians passage there is no expanding series of steps leading to excommunication with exhortation to repentance and opportunity to repent at each step along the way.  Paul simply tells the Corinthians that they have been negligent in carrying out church discipline, that he as an Apostle has already judged the matter, and that they should immediately gather together and deliver this man to Satan in an act of excommunication.

 

            E.         Why does Paul command a different procedure in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 from that in Matthew chapter 18?

 

Notice two, closely-related elements here:

 

                        1.         One part of the reason why there is a different procedure in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is that the sin here was a particularly heinous, grievous sin.  This reality certainly is prominently highlighted in our text when Paul indicates in verse 1 that this example of incest by a church member is a form of immorality or fornication which "does not exist even among the Gentiles".  Such a statement was striking, considering that he was writing to Christians living in the city of Corinth, for Corinth was known as "the city of vice par excellence in the Rom. world".[9]  Its name was a byword for immorality because this sin in its various forms was so common and accepted in the city - even being incorporated into their pagan religious exercises including ritual, temple prostitution.  So the sin of 1 Corinthians 5:1 was incredibly heinous to be unknown in a perverted city like Corinth.  It was scandalous or shocking in a peculiarly heightened way.  This is indeed part of the reason for the different procedure in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 as compared with Matthew chapter 18, for if the sin had been significantly less heinous in degree, such a swift movement toward excommunication surely would not have been in order (cp. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 again).

 

However, the great heinousness associated with this sin is not the whole of the reason for the different procedure in 1 Corinthians chapter 5.  In fact, I do not believe that it is even the primary distinction between our two major texts, for, as we saw earlier, the relative heinousness of the sin in Matthew 18:15-18 is not specified, but rather a general term is used.  As we considered before, it appears that grievous sins of immorality may at times fall under the procedures of Matthew chapter 18 when they have not yet become openly known.  So the key difference between the sins in view in Matthew chapter 18 and that in 1 Corinthians 5:1ff is that:

 

                        2.         This peculiarly heinous sin was also a widely-known, open sin (as opposed to the initially more private, not widely-known sins of Matthew chapter 18).  This was clearly an openly-known, public sin.  The fact that the Corinthians should have mourned over this sin among them and removed the incestuous man from their midst indicates that his sin was widely-known among the members of the church.  Indeed, the report of this had even reached a distant Apostle Paul.  Since this man was "shacking up" with his father's wife, this shocking sin was also probably widely-known among onlooking unbelievers as well.  I.e., this man was continuing in a pattern of a sin shocking even to the immoral Corinthians in a flagrant, open way - knowing that everyone around knew what he was doing.  This is why Paul said to cast the man out right away.  Wilson writes, ". . . to justify his verdict he (Paul) has only to point to the shamelessness of the sinner . . ., and the abominable nature of his sin . . ." (p. 79).[10]

 

This all brings us to a final question which will occupy more focused attention:

 

            F.         What relationship, if any, did the different procedure of 1 Corinthians 5:1ff have to repentance of the offender?  Here we will spend  more time since this is an issue which is debated, and which is very relevant to our present situation.  Notice first of all:

 

                        1.         Two very different, totally opposite answers which have been given to this question by good men - even by Reformed Baptists:

 

                                    a.         There are those who declare that in the case of such open, heinous sins, excommunication should be enacted immediately without any regard to whether or not the person who has sinned is now professing repentance.  The argument is that Paul here, unlike Matthew 18, says nothing about first admonishing the offender and seeing if he repents before proceeding to excommunication.  This was true even though no admonition had apparently been previously given by the Corinthian believers, since the whole matter had been neglected by them.  Furthermore, when Paul wrote the first epistle to the Corinthians, he was located some distance away - apparently in Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8).  So he wrote with his final judgement of excommunication even though some time would have passed since those bringing him the report of the incestuous man had left Corinth, and more time would pass before his letter arrived in Corinth.  During this time lapse, could there not have been the awakening in the incestuous man of hopeful signs of repentance, and yet Paul does not qualify his judgment in this matter by saying that there should be excommunication except if the man has shown encouraging indications of repentance in the meantime.  Also, since the incestuous man still was called a brother, he may very well have been in the church meeting when Paul's letter was read there (assuming that custom elsewhere was also followed in Corinth - compare Colossians 4:16).  If the letter was read in a church gathering, and if the incestuous man was present (neither are definitely known, and are merely educated guesses), the first part of 1 Corinthians chapter five would have been an admonition to the man which conceivably could have begun to work repentance in him, and yet Paul does not qualify his command to excommunication with an admonition to forbear if the reading of the letter constrains a profession of repentance.  Based upon such a line of reasoning concerning the contents of 1 Corinthians chapter 5, the matter of whether or not such an individual is repenting (or at least professing to repent) does at first glance appear irrelevant to the matter of excommunication in such cases.

 

Such a conclusion was indeed held and articulated by an American Particular Baptist of the 18th Century, Benjamin Griffith, who wrote:

 

            Excommunication is a judicial act or censure. . . which a gospel church ought to put in practice . . . when a member hath committed a gross sin, which is directly against the moral law, and being notorious and scandalous, and proved beyond dispute, . . . then a church is immediately to proceed unto censure, notwithstanding any present signs of conviction or remorse . . . 1 Cor. 5:1-13.[11] [12]

 

Griffeth declared that even if the person who has openly committed such sins is now confessing his sins and professing that he is repenting of them, a church should pay no attention to that reality and should immediately excommunicate him anyway.

 

                        b.         On the other hand, there are a number of others who teach that excommunication always should be limited to only impenitent persons, and that 1 Corinthians chapter 5 actually teaches this.  Included among their number is no less than the Congregationalist, John Owen, who wrote:

 

            . . . that which was directed by the apostle Paul to be done towards the incestuous person in the church of Corinth is express, 1 Cor. v. 1-7 . . . .  The whole of what we plead for is here exemplified; as (i) the cause of excommunication, which is scandalous sin unrepented of. . .[13] [14]

 

Owen here is arguing that the reason why excommunication was to be enacted in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 was actually the same basic reason found in Matthew chapter 18 - impenitence in sin - here open, scandalous sin.

 

Who is right?  Before giving my response, I want to first of all underscore:

 

            2.         An important observation regarding the relative seriousness of the issue before us.  We must not forget, in wrestling with the question of the relationship, if any, of repentance to the excommunication of 1 Corinthians chapter five, that good and godly men may disagree regarding this issue.  A limited survey of good men who have written on the subject of corrective church discipline has revealed that there have been a number of differences in perspective regarding the general subject of discipline over the centuries, and that the church has only gradually been advancing in her understanding of it.  Such a reality should make us walk humbly and carefully when we venture into a disputed area such as the specific question which is before us - especially when we are dealing with an emotionally-laden case of discipline.

 

Surely one's conclusions regarding this specific question should not be made an occasion of division and separation among sister churches, so that we have in the same city or region the First Reformed Baptist Church - Penitence Irrelevant where Scandalous Sin, and the First Reformed Baptist Church - Impenitence Required for Excommunication, standing in arrogant opposition to one another with their respective shibboleths.  Furthermore, although there is possibility that those holding Griffeth's position might err in excessive severity, while those holding Owen's position might err in being too lax in dealing with scandalous sin,[15] we must beware that we do not hastily begin to thus automatically label the motives and heart of each person holding the position opposite to my own.  Such a response would be uncharitable and often contrary to truth.

 

However, the question before us is practically important for the actual working out of corrective discipline regarding specific cases within the context of any particular local church.  So let me give:

 

            3.         A response to this debated point.  Although some difficult questions may still linger, I believe that Owen's position that excommunication should only be implemented where there is impenitence has the most biblical weight behind it.  This conclusion is drawn for the following reasons:

 

                        a.         As we have already sought to establish, impenitence in sin is a repeated reason given for excommunication where it is explicitly stated in other passages of Scripture (Titus 3:10-11; 2 Corinthians 12:21 - 13:2).  Therefore, I believe that the burden of proof more strongly rests on those who would establish a distinctly different cause of excommunication - open, heinous sin regardless of a subsequent profession of repentance - when we come to 1 Corinthians chapter 5.

 

                        b.         As we already saw in 2 Corinthians 12:21 through 13:2, when Paul as an Apostle was preparing to, upon his arrival, lead in the discipline of Corinthians who continued in sins of immorality which at least in some cases were surely scandalous, he still conditioned the discipline upon whether or not they repented.  Therefore, we must be careful that we not make Paul contradict himself within his two epistles to the Corinthians.  For the God who spoke through Paul does not contradict Himself.

 

                        c.         The incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5:1ff was peculiarly hardened in his impenitence for his sin.  At this point let me remind you of the second general principle which we drew from our study of Matthew 18:15-18:

 

            Either the threat of a wider revealing of one's sin, or, failing that, the actual reality of the wider revealing of one's sin, is a powerful motivation to repent of one's sin.

 

Owen puts it a little differently:

 

            There are few who are so profligately wicked but that, when the sin wherewith they are charged is evidently such in the light of nature and Scripture, and when it is justly proved against them, they will make some profession of sorrow and repentance.[16]

 

Remember how both Achan and David, once their sin was exposed, at least openly confessed that they had sinned against God.  But not the man of 1 Corinthians chapter 5.  His sin certainly was, in a way obvious to all, vile in light of both nature and Scripture, for even the fornicating unconverted Corinthians were shocked by his incest.  And the sin was certainly justly proved against him.  Everyone knew about it.  It was being openly, shamelessly paraded before men.  Therefore, this man who professed to be a Christian was obviously among the few who are profligately wicked as Owen describes them.  The incestuous man was especially hardened in his impenitence.  And thus there clearly were no hopeful signs of repentance.  That's the whole point.

 

Please note, brethren, that here in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 was a very different and much worse case than the fornicator who is so ashamed of his covered sin that he will lie to keep it covered, and who, under the shame of the exposure of his sin, blurts out a professed repentance for his sin.  Such an ashamed, exposed man immediately blurting out the confession of his sin upon its exposure is a strikingly different case from that of the hardened, openly-flaunting, impenitent man before us in 1 Corinthians chapter 5.  It is vitally important that we remember this and use care that we not wrongly apply the greatly abbreviated procedure of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 where it does not rightly apply.  For the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 was one who was peculiarly hardened in his impenitence for his sin.

 

                        d.         There are several indications that the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1ff assumed that this man would still be impenitent when he was excommunicated:

 

                                    (1)        As we have just established, this man was in a peculiarly hardened state of impenitence - openly parading one of the most heinous of sins before all.  More preliminary steps of attempts to recover him through admonition were irrelevant, and there was no real reason to expect that anything would change in the immediate future before excommunication was enacted, since public shame apparently carried no weight with his conscience.  From all appearances there was only one possible option - one last ditch effort - left in order to recover this man - the ultimate church act of excommunication as a public challenge to his profession of being a brother.  The reality of this man's peculiarly hardened, impenitent state is at least in part an answer to those who would point to the absence of any call for a preliminary admonition to the incestuous man or of any qualification regarding hopeful signs of repentance which might appear by the time the church met to enact excommunication in response to the arrival of Paul's letter. 

 

                                    (2)        Paul indicated that the sin of incest committed by this man in the past[17] was one which was continuing, for he declared that he "has (present infinitive, continuous idea) his father's wife".  This was not viewed as a sin which this man had ceased committing, even though some time would have already passed since those bringing Paul the report of this man had left Corinth.  It was assumed by Paul that this man continued in his incestuous sin even as he wrote, which I believe also indicates that Paul assumed that the sin would still be continuing at the time of this man's excommunication as well.  The man to be excommunicated would be one of whom it could truthfully be said when the church met to consider his case that he in a continuing way has his father's wife.

 

                                    (3)        Paul indicated that this act of church discipline was necessary "so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (5:5).  I.e., it was to be enacted so that he might be brought to repentance - not so that the genuineness of his already professed repentance could be proven and tested.

 

                                    (4)        Paul declared that the one they would be removing in excommunication was a wicked man (5:13).  Notice two issues at this point:

 

                                                (a)        First, this word "wicked" is elsewhere set in contrast with a righteous man (cp. Matthew 13:49; also 5:45).  The righteous or just are clearly identified by this same Paul elsewhere as those who were natively sinners and not righteous (Rom. 3:10, 23), but who live by faith in a righteous, propitiating Savior (Rom. 1:17; 3:23-26), and therefore now do God's law, thereby bearing fruits of repentance (Rom. 2:13).  If we especially remember that faith and repentance are Siamese twins which are always found together, then the opposite of a righteous person - a wicked man - is by definition one who is both impenitent and unbelieving. But there is more.

 

                                                (b)        The word translated "wicked" in 1 Corinthians 5:13 (poneros) is widely recognized to have a special, more focused meaning than the other common synonym (kakos).  Lenski writes:

 

            Poneron is "wicked" in the active sense, it is not merely kakon, morally inferior.  "Wicked" connotes pernicious, malignant, destructive.  "The Wicked one is Satan, Matt. 13:19; Eph. 6:16; I John 2:13, 14; and the whole world lies in the wicked one . . .[18]

 

Lenski elsewhere writes:

 

            "Evil one" in our versions is not as good as "wicked one," for poneros = actively, viciously wicked.[19]

 

Vine echoes this observation:

 

            Kakos stands for whatever is evil in character, base, in distinction (wherever the distinction is observable) from poneros . . . which indicates what is evil in influence and effect, malignant.  Kakos is the wider term and often covers the meaning of poneros.[20]

 

            Kakos has a wider meaning, poneros a stronger meaning.  Poneros alone is used of Satan and might well be translated `the malignant one'. . .[21]

 

Vincent as well notes this special sense:

 

        Evils (poneron).  Of several words in the New Testament denoting evil, this emphasizes evil in its activity.  Hence Satan is . . . the evil one.  And evil eye (Mark vii. 22) is a mischief-working eye.[22]

 

            . . . Wickedness (poneriai).  . . . From ponein, to toil.  . . .  As ponos means hard, vigorous labor . . . so the adjective poneros, in a moral sense, indicates active wickedness.[23]

 

What is the point of all this?  When the Apostle Paul spoke of removing the wicked man from among them in 1 Corinthians 5:13, there is the implication that such a man would still be actively wicked - persisting in the sin which brought the church to the point of excommunication.  It is hard to interpret such language to refer, for instance, to a man who had already professed repentance and, from all that can be ascertained, has ceased living his openly wicked lifestyle.

 

Therefore, for the two reasons given above, I believe it is fair to conclude that Paul's identifying as being a wicked man the one who was to be excommunicated was a declaration that he assumed that at his excommunication he would still be an impenitent man.

 

All of the above arguments together I believe go a long way in answering the fact that Paul did not in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 require preliminary admonitions to repentance or qualify his command for excommunication upon the presence of hopeful signs of repentance.  He assumed that this man would be impenitent when he was excommunicated, which brings us to a further possible argument:

 

                        e.         It may possibly be (although my argument does not depend on this point) that the Apostle Paul had received a special, direct revelation from God regarding the spiritual condition of this man and the resulting measures of corrective discipline which were required.  Verses 3 and 4 of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 clearly indicate that Paul, while located at a distance geographically, was here assuming a uniquely apostolic role and authority in this case of corrective church discipline, although he still left it to the entire church to actually enact the excommunication when they were assembled and he was with them only in spirit.  He indicates his judgment of the matter and gives command as to how they as a church were to proceed.  In evaluating his words here, we must never forget that the Apostle was writing by direct, divine, inerrant inspiration.  He in this same book indicated that his commands should be viewed as the commands of the Lord Himself (14:37) (in careful distinction from matters of his own personal opinion (7:25)).  Therefore, although we do not know it for certain, and although the passage may be understood without Paul's having received a special revelation concerning the spiritual state and treatment of the incestuous man (since the facts of his open, heinous sin were already quite apparent and could have easily been established by two or more witnesses (2 Corinthians 13:1)), there is a real possibility that the Apostle Paul did receive a special word from God indicating that the hardened, brazen, continuingly impenitent state of this man demanded immediate excommunication.  Matthew Henry argues for such a special revelation as follows:

 

            We have the apostle's direction to them how they should now proceed with this scandalous sinner.  He would have him excommunicated and delivered to Satan (v. 3-5); as absent in body, yet present in spirit, he had judged already as if he had been present; that is, he had, by revelation and the miraculous gift of discerning vouchsafed him by the Spirit, as perfect a knowledge of the case, and had hereupon come to the following determination, not without special authority from the Holy Spirit.  He says this to let them know that, though he was at a distance, he did not pass an unrighteous sentence, nor judge without having as full cognizance of the case as if he had been on the spot.[24]

 

If Paul did receive a special word from the LORD regarding this matter, it would certainly further help explain why he did not command preliminary admonitions in this case, nor qualified the commanded excommunication based upon whether or not there was a professed repentance, for he already knew perfectly the state of the man's soul and what must be done.  Furthermore, if Paul received a special divine revelation from God regarding this incestuous man's case, it would underscore and help explain why we who are pastors presently find it essentially impossible to properly deal with such scandalous cases of sin today without at least attempting to first give some form of admonition to the offender because of his sin (recognizing that in some cases the offender may refuse to read our correspondence or talk with us).  For, as we noted earlier in the case of David and the prophet Nathan, we do not receive such direct divine revelations today.[25]

 

                        f.          More definite is the reality is that this man apparently was indeed impenitent when he was excommunicated, for 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 implies that only later did he repent, as indicated by his genuine sorrow for his sin and the commanded response of forgiveness and restoration.[26]

 

By way of summary, I believe that Griffeth goes beyond Scripture when he writes that "a church is immediately to proceed unto censure, notwithstanding any present signs of conviction or remorse . . ."  There is absolutely no evidence that there were ever any present signs of conviction or remorse in the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5 before he was excommunicated.  Rather the evidence is to the contrary.  Furthermore, I believe that one will look in vain in Scripture for one example of an excommunication immediately carried out without further consideration despite the fact that the guilty party was earnestly professing repentance.[27]  In fact, it is my personal conviction that such an action would be in direct contradiction to the gospel spirit of the father in the parable of the prodigal son who was scanning the horizon earnestly, looking for some sign that the prodigal was returning home, that he might respond to it.

 

Therefore, for the reasons given, I agree with Owen that the excommunication of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 in the case of open, heinous sin was to be upon the same basis as that in Matthew chapter 18 - impenitence in sin.  The procedure leading to excommunication in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is different and much swifter than that in Matthew chapter 18 because the sin is an open, heinous sin.  But the cause of the excommunication remains the same in both passages.

 

It should be underscored at this point that this is not just my personal view as one pastor of this church.  Nor is this a new position to this church.  This view has long been embodied in our constitution as the biblical approach and has therefore long been the official position of this church:

 

            In addition to the excommunication of those who have been previously suspended, some expressions of sin (ethical or doctrinal) are so gross and heinous in nature that preliminary actions like public reproof and suspension are inappropriate.  In such cases, the guilty member may be immediately excommunicated by the church (1 Cor. 5:1-4).  This severe measure is to be employed when both aggravated lawlessness is discovered, and there are no hopeful signs of repentance.  This severe measure is designed to purge the lawbreaker of his lethal attachment to his sin, unto a sincere and enduring repentance (1 Cor. 5:5; 6:9-11).  The elders, therefore, having made earnest but unsuccessful efforts to bring the offender to true repentance and reformation, shall report the same to the church and recommend that the offender be excommunicated.[28]

 

At this point, having sought to open up the two key passages of Scripture dealing with corrective church discipline with special reference to the special discipline case which we face, we will next proceed to the second major portion of our study:

 

 

Part Two.  Some remaining objections which have been raised to the position adopted in this study - of impenitence being the only cause for excommunication coupled with the provision for suspension of some of the privileges of membership in the case of scandalous sin where there are hopeful but not yet proven signs of repentance.  Objections to the above position have been raised from two different directions - by those who view it as too lenient in the case of open, extremely heinous sin where they believe immediate excommunication is required; and by others who view it as possibly too harsh where there are hopeful signs of repentance.  We'll deal with each direction of objection in turn.  First, consider:

 

 

I.          Objections raised by those viewing the position adopted in this study as too lenient.  There are two lines of objection which have been raised and to which I will respond:

 

            A.        First of all, let us consider a response which has been raised to my earlier statement that I believe one will look in vain in Scripture for one example of an excommunication immediately carried out without further consideration despite the fact that the guilty party was professing repentance.  It was pointed out to me by one pastor friend that, although not excommunications per se, there are a number of biblical examples where there was somewhat of a profession of repentance, but where the sword of punishment still fell.  Could these not, it was argued, provide support for immediate excommunication without regard to a profession of repentance in some circumstances?

 

First of all, since it was acknowledged by my friend that these biblical examples are not of actual excommunications by New Covenant churches, I believe that my original statement still stands.  This is important, since the New Covenant church has special house rules which are to be followed within her which do not necessarily apply outside her boundaries (1 Timothy 3:14-15).

 

However, lest I be misunderstood, I do want to clarify several things which I am not saying in making my statement or drawing my conclusions.

 

                        1.         I am not saying that every profession of repentance is necessarily genuine.  Scripture provides many examples of professions of repentance or at least of remorse for sin which were not genuine.  They include:  Pharaoh (Exodus 9:27-35), probably Achan (as we have already noted) (Joshua 7:19-21), definitely King Saul (once to Samuel and twice to David - 1 Samuel 15:24-31; 24:16-22; 26:21-25), Ahab after Elisha pronounced coming judgment (1 Kings 21:27-29), Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:1-5), and possibly Simon, although his seemingly more softened-in-heart request for prayer seems far short of even a profession of the repentance to which he was called (Acts 8:18-24).  Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:10 speaks of a sorrow of the world which is a false repentance.  This reality means that assessing the genuineness of professed repentance in church discipline cases, especially where there has been gross and prolonged sinning with aggravated lying, is often difficult for creatures like us who are not omniscient.  Therefore, such an assessment will often require the passing of time during which there is the bringing forth of observable fruits of repentance.  This again is why we believe that the suspension of some privileges of church membership is an appropriate way to provide time for assessment in such cases where needed.

 

                        2.         I also am not denying that there often has been an element of punishment still experienced in biblical examples where there have been previous professions of repentance.

 

Achan still was stoned with his family after confessing what he had done as sin against God.  In his case he probably had not genuinely repented toward God.  However, it must be noted that Achan's case was in the civil (more literally, theocratic), not ecclesiastical, churchly realm.  Achan sinned in a realm where men still must be punished for their civil crimes of which they have been declared guilty in order to satisfy civil justice, even if they have truly repented toward God and man.  The death row inmate does not get off death row just because he has genuinely repented.

 

Judas Iscariot also still died even after expressing remorse and seeming to bring forth a fruit of repentance by returning the blood money.  However, it should be noted that he died at his own hands and not at the hands of another, and all because his supposed repentance was not genuine and instead was the sorrow of the world which leads to despair and death instead of salvation.  In a real sense, it was his own false repentance which judged him, which shows that God will not let sinners ultimately get away with false repentance.

 

Pharaoh, Saul and Ahab all eventually were judged for the sins for which they at one point professed repentance.  But it should be noted that the sword of God's judgment did not fall immediately, but was mercifully long-delayed in the case of Saul, providing plenty of space for genuine repentance.  And in the cases of Pharaoh and Ahab, there were actually reprieves granted for a time from more immediately threatening judgments because of their professions of repentance - even when they were not genuine - manifesting God's regard and mercy which often are extended even toward only outward motions of repentance.

 

Finally, it should also be noted that God's true saints still experienced God's chastening punishments at times even after they had genuinely repented.  Just consider David, which brings me to a further point.

 

                        3.         I further am not denying that there often should be a more immediate element of punishment by a local church, even if there is a professed repentance for a heinous, open sin which eventually over time proves to be genuine.  Our constitution, seeking to follow the principles of Scripture, provides for public rebukes.  It also provides, where there has been scandalous sin followed by hopeful signs of repentance, for the immediate suspension of some of the privileges of membership.  These suspended privileges include not partaking of the Lord's Supper and, at least some of the time, social avoidance - paralleling excommunication in these limited ways.  There is punishment available in such cases - just a lesser form than the ultimate form of excommunication until the genuineness of the professed repentance can be better evaluated.

 

                        4.         I also am not declaring that a profession of repentance could never be followed by excommunication.

 

First of all, our constitution indicates that there are only two ways in which a suspension of some of the privileges of membership due to hopeful signs of repentance after sinning scandalously may be removed - either by way of restoration upon the proving of repentance, or by way of excommunication where the profession of repentance is shown to be false.  So again, a suspension of membership privileges to provide time for assessing a professed repentance of scandalous sins is not a letting the sinning member off the hook.  It is simply providing space to show whether or not excommunication is still necessary due to remaining impenitence despite a professed repentance.

 

Furthermore, there may be times when the professed repentance is so clearly and immediately revealed to not be genuine that no further assessment is needed and a church may properly move immediately to excommunication, as long as we do not adopt what I believe to be a faulty mind-set that a scandalous sinner can never bring forth hopeful signs of repentance prior to excommunication.

 

            B.        A second objection which has been raised to the position of no excommunication except where there is clear impenitence has to do with the significance of the Old Testament quote in 1 Corinthians 5:13 which reads, "REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES".  This is possibly the strongest objection to the position which I have taken which could be raised by those favoring immediate excommunication without regard to professions of repentance in certain cases of notorious, heinous sin.  Notice first of all:

 

                        1.         This objection outlined.  The exact Greek text of "REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES" in 1 Corinthians 5:13 (with the single exception that the verb in 1 Corinthians 5 is now plural instead of singular) is found six times in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy in the ancient, pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.[29]  There are two other places in the Septuagint's translation of Deuteronomy where very similar language is used, except, instead of reading "purge the evil from among you, they read, "purge the evil from Israel".[30]  Interestingly, in seven of the eight close parallels in Deuteronomy, there is a clear reference to the carrying out of the death penalty for violations of the judicial laws of the theocracy, including idolatry, rebellion by an older son, fornication by an unmarried daughter or with a betrothed virgin, and kidnapping followed by violent treatment or selling of the victim as a slave.  The eighth reference (Deuteronomy 19:19) clearly includes the death penalty as a possible application.

 

The person arguing for immediate excommunication in the case of open, heinous sin without regard to professions of repentance might point to the fact that the Apostle Paul was clearly thinking of the Old Testament sources of the language which he quoted in 1 Corinthians 5:13 when he quoted it.  And when we go back and look at the eight close references in Deuteronomy which he must have had in mind, we find commands to carry out capital punishment without any indication that such final punishments should be withheld if there was a credible profession of repentance.  Therefore, we should proceed likewise in a case like that found in 1 Corinthians chapter 5.  One dear pastor friend has adopted such a view as indicated by his following words after quoting most of the relevant passages from Deuteronomy:

 

            There are some transgressions that are so heinous in nature that excommunication is warranted and necessary no matter what the offender's present profession may be.  If a person is guilty of cold-blooded, pre-meditated murder involving 20 different victims, he should receive capital punishment even if he comes to profess repentance over his crimes.  In a similar way, the gravity of _______'s iniquities are such that he should be removed from the congregation of the saints.  Such action is even more justified in light of the incredible duration of his sins.  The issue is not to make a judgment on what his present spiritual condition MAY be.  The issue is to "judge" (I Cor. 5:12) his conduct over the last . . . years.  ____ has certainly and unmistakably been living in gross wickedness.

 

Having sought to lay out this objection, notice with me next, before directly responding to this objection:

 

                        2.         A preliminary issue.  This has to do with the exact meaning of the words "THE WICKED MAN" in the quote of 1 Corinthians 5:13.  In the original Greek text, we find simply the definite article (the) and an adjective (wicked) with no specific noun or pronoun given as the word being modified.  This means that the adjective is being used as if it were a substantive - a person, place or thing.  But to what is this adjective actually referring?  The New American Standard Bible translation has supplied the word "man", indicating that the translators understood this substantive use of the adjective to refer to a person.

 

However, a case could be made for this adjective referring instead to things or deeds, so that the Corinthians were being commanded to remove the wicked things or sins from their midst.  If such an understanding were true, the relevance of this Old Testament quote for the question before us would be somewhat lessened, and the objection which we are considering would be muted.  So let me briefly lay out some of the basis for considering the Old Testament quote in 1 Corinthians 5:13 as commanding the removal of wicked deeds or sin instead of a wicked man.

 

The original adjective, poneros, is often used in a substantive way for wicked things or deeds[31], in addition to being used for wicked persons.[32]  Furthermore, although the excommunication of a wicked man is clearly in view in the context of 1 Corinthians 5:13, the issue of cleaning out sin using the picture of old leaven is also clearly present in the context in 5:6-8.  Also, one of the close parallel passages in Deuteronomy does not always have in view the capital punishment of a person.  Notice Deuteronomy 19:19 which, with its surrounding context is as follows:

 

             If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days.  And the judges shall investigate thoroughly; and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother.  Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.  And the rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.  Thus you shall not show pity:  life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.[33]

 

Here the false witness is to receive a punishment corresponding to that punishment which he sought to bring upon the person whom he falsely accused.  In some cases capital punishment would be enacted (life for life).  In other cases, something less than capital punishment would be enacted, which meant that this purging of the evil from among them was not always a purging of the evil person from the Old Covenant congregation by the death penalty.  In fact, the mention of "an evil thing" right after the key phrase, using the same article and adjective in the Hebrew original as is contained in the key phrase, actually points to the idea of purging evil things or sins rather than persons here.  So at least in one Old Testament passage to which the quote in 1 Corinthians 5:13 may be pointing, it is the removing or purging of sin instead of the sinner which appears to be in view, which raises the question if such an understanding may not also be true of the other Deuteronomy parallels and of the quote in 1 Corinthians 5:13.

 

As attractive as this alternative understanding of the Old Testament quote in 1 Corinthians 5:13 might be for someone holding my position of excommunication only where there is impenitence, I believe that the biblical data does not adequately support it for the following reasons.  First - although many of the key substantive uses of the adjective, poneros, in the New Testament have forms which could be understood as being either masculine or neuter - wherever the form is clearly neuter, it clearly refers to wicked things or actions[34]; and wherever the form is clearly masculine (beyond our text which is also clearly masculine), it clearly refers to wicked persons[35], just as the normal rules of Greek grammar would seem to direct.  Furthermore, Luke 6:45 acts as a sort of Rosetta Stone in understanding the significance of the gender of this adjective, poneros, since the neuter form is used substantively with reference to evil deeds and the masculine form is used substantively with reference to evil men within the same verse.  So the sheer force of Greek grammar and usage in the New Testament presses upon us the translation "THE WICKED MAN" in 1 Corinthians 5:13.

 

Also, the main theme in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is indeed the excommunication of a wicked man, not just the removal of sin from God's people.  Additionally, the seeming problem of Deuteronomy 19:19 can be resolved by understanding Paul to be referring to one or more of the other seven parallel uses of this phrase in Deuteronomy where the idea of removing a wicked man seems to be more clearly in view.  Finally, we must never forget that to remove a sinning man is to remove his sin as well, so closely are they connected together in Scripture.[36]

 

For the above reasons, I believe that Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13 was speaking of the removal of the wicked man in view in the preceding context when he quoted the book of Deuteronomy.  Having dealt with this initial issue, let's now take up:

 

                        3.  The obvious differences between 1 Corinthian 5:13 and the Old Testament parallel passages in Deuteronomy.  It is important to up front recognize that Christians are generally agreed about at least two obvious differences or changes between the purging of the evil in Deuteronomy and the removing of the wicked man in 1 Corinthians chapter 5:

 

                                    a.  First, there is general agreement that capital punishment is not to be enacted by the church as part of its corrective church discipline today.  The Old Covenant setting of the relevant parallel passages in Deuteronomy involved a theocracy in which the corporate worship of God and the civil government of the nation were bonded closely together under God's direct reign.  Thus there were civil punishments for the breaking of judicial laws including the death penalty implemented among God's Old Covenant people.  However, under the New Covenant, the church is carefully separated and distinguished from the civil government or state.  Therefore, her punishments are to be different from those of the state.  They are to be punishments having only to do with the God-ordained, divinely delegated sphere of the church (public reproof, suspension of membership privileges, or excommunication), and not with the state or the home or the business world.  The church has no authority to implement civil punishments of those she disciplines including imprisonment and death, any more than she has authority to demand in the sphere of the family that spouses divorce their excommunicated husband or wife (as some Anabaptists wrongly taught and practiced), or that disciplined parents forsake their parental duties.  The most that the church can do legitimately before God is to remove wicked men from her membership through excommunication, and to then continue to socially avoid such individuals except as the demands of the family or civil or business sphere may require.

 

Therefore, the quote from the Old Testament in 1 Corinthians 5:13 is not a declaration that the punishment should be the same under both dispensations.  It is rather an indication that excommunication in the ecclesiastical or churchly sphere is equivalent to the death penalty in the civil or judicial sphere as the most severe punishment directed by God in each respective sphere.  Excommunication is in one sense an ecclesiastical, but not a physical, death penalty.  But we must not stop here or we will miss a further important difference.  Not only is there a difference in punishment.  There is also:

 

                                    b.         A clear difference regarding the purpose of the punishment.  It should first of all be noted that there are two purposes which are basically the same for the relevant discipline enacted in Deuteronomy versus that in 1 Corinthians chapter 5.

 

The civil punishments mentioned in Deuteronomy were for the satisfying of justice in the civil sphere, while in a real sense, the church punishment mentioned in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is for the satisfying of justice in the ecclesiastical sphere, so that Paul speaks of the responsibility of the local church in Corinth to "judge those who are within the church" (5:12b), and he also refers to the punishment which was inflicted by the majority (2 Corinthians 2:6).  Certain open, heinous sins by members, along with impenitent persistence in other sins, demand some form of legitimate, more public punishment by the church, whether it be public rebuke, suspension of membership privileges, or excommunication.

 

Furthermore, the appropriate punishment in each sphere was also for the purpose of causing onlookers to fear and to avoid going down a similar path of sin.  This purpose is clearly implied in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 in Paul's exhortations to the Corinthian believers to clean out the old leaven including malice and wickedness (5:6-8) so that these sins would not leaven the whole lump of the church.  Church discipline was an important preventative for the spread of sin among the members of the church.  This purpose for corrective church discipline is more explicitly underscored regarding the public discipline of sinning elders in 1 Timothy 5:20 where we read:

 

            Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.

 

Interestingly, this same purpose was underscored twice as the reason for civil punishment in key parallel passages in Deuteronomy:

 

            . . . then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother.  Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.  And the rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.[37]

 

            Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.

 

Here then in these two parallel purposes are further explanations for Paul's Old Testament quote - to point out the need to satisfy the demands of justice within the church in a way appropriate for that sphere, and to indicate the importance of so acting appropriately in discipline that the rest of the church members are caused to fear and to keep from sin.

 

However, there is also an important and striking difference in the purposes for the church discipline of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 in comparison with those for the civil punishments of the key, parallel Deuteronomy passages.  For one of the explicitly-stated reasons for excommunication according to 1 Corinthians 5:5 is that the offender's "spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus".  A clear purpose of this excommunicative form of discipline is restorative.  It is to bring the sinner who has been a professing Christian to genuine repentance, to restoration to the membership of the church (2 Corinthians 2:5-7), and to ultimate salvation.  However, no such purpose to restore the offender in Israel to the Old Covenant people of God could have been in view where the death penalty was being enacted in obedience to God.  Once the death penalty was enacted, the man was dead, and there was no further opportunity for either repentance or restoration to the body of God's people on earth.[38]

 

These generally recognized differences between the parallel Deuteronomy passages and the Old Testament quote in 1 Corinthians 5:13 - one having to do with the nature of the punishment which is appropriate, and another having to do with a purpose for punishment, lead, I believe, to:

 

                        4.         A final difference between 1 Corinthian 5:13 and the Old Testament parallel passages in Deuteronomy.  If under the Old Covenant, the ultimate form of punishment - the death penalty - left no opportunity for further repentance and restoration, while under the New Covenant, there is a different ultimate form of punishment - excommunication - which does leave opportunity for repentance and restoration; and if under the Old Covenant, the death penalty clearly did not have as one of its purposes to bring the punished offender to repentance and restoration to the covenant people of God, while excommunication under the New Covenant does have such an explicit purpose, it stands to reason that the basis (or reason) for carrying out the ultimate form of corrective church discipline - excommunication - would also be different from that for carrying out the ultimate form of judicial punishment - the death penalty.

 

Under the Old Covenant, it was the actual committing of one of certain serious sins which was the basis, and the only basis for carrying out the ultimate death penalty.  In such cases, whether or not one afterward truly repented of such a serious sin was clearly irrelevant as far as receiving the required civil punishment was concerned.  Furthermore, it is also significant that the committing of lesser sins, even when repeated with apparent impenitence, did not provide a basis for the ultimate penalty of death.

 

However, as we have already extensively established, under the New Covenant, it is not necessarily the actual committing of one of a set list of serious sins which is the basis for the ultimate punishment of excommunication.  Rather persistence in impenitence for sins considered more generally - even more seemingly "minor" sins - is clearly a basis for excommunication.[39]

 

I.e., the issue of whether or not there is a changed basis for excommunication under the New Covenant compared to the basis for the Old Testament death penalty is beyond doubt when we consider God's Word.  There has clearly been a change - at least the addition of a new basis for the ultimate form of discipline under the New Covenant, if not the total replacement of one basis for the other.

 

Let me try to outline reasons why I believe we should conclude that the basis for the ultimate New Covenant discipline is totally changed from that for the ultimate Old Covenant discipline (i.e., the mere fact of the committal of a peculiar serious sin), instead of just having a new, second basis added to the old one which is also in some cases carried forward:

 

                                    a.         First, this understanding agrees in an obvious way with the new, unique purpose for excommunication (in comparison with the death penalty).  As was already mentioned above, if one major purpose of excommunication is that the one who has sinned might ultimately be brought to repentance, restoration to church membership, and eternal salvation, then there seems to be no apparent reason to implement the ecclesiastical death penalty (at least not immediately) if there are encouraging signs that the desired repentance has already begun and that spiritual life is indeed present in the soul.  Otherwise, one of the three reasons for excommunication already outlined is really treated as if it is irrelevant, and a harsher punishment is instituted than this purpose for excommunication would appear to warrant.

 

Furthermore, backing away from excommunication (at least for a time) when there are hopeful signs of repentance does not necessarily mean that the other two purposes of excommunication must be totally left unaccomplished or treated as irrelevant where there are hopeful signs of repentance.  A lesser form of punishment such as public rebuke and/or suspension of membership privileges still may be implemented in order to satisfy the demands of ecclesiastical justice and of causing others who know of the sin to fear.

 

                                    b.         Secondly, we must also remember that it is New Covenant legislation which should be most regulative for the church - not a more sweeping appeal to Old Covenant legislation because a small passage of it is quoted in the New Testament to make a limited point.  I've already indicated above what I believe were Paul's limited reasons for quoting Deuteronomy in 1 Corinthians 5:13, which are in my mind a satisfactory explanation of the presence of this quote there.  I've also already indicated the New Covenant evidence which causes me to believe that Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13 was teaching that excommunication should be for impenitence in sin, even as the New Testament teaches elsewhere.  Therefore, I believe that there are compelling reasons to not carry forward an Old Covenant basis for the death penalty - the mere fact that a serious sin had been committed without regard to repentance - as a second and alternative basis for the New Covenant's ultimate punishment of excommunication in addition to that of impenitence which is clearly established by New Covenant legislation.

 

 

II.        But now, let me deal with objections from those who would struggle with viewing the positions which I've adopted in this study as being too harsh or severe.  There have been at least two elements or degrees of these objections:

 

            A.        The first element of objection to the position for which I've argued is the more extreme, and has been raised by only a very few individuals.  It has questioned if there should be any corrective discipline whatsoever where there is a profession of repentance - at least if there should be a suspension of privileges of church membership - even where there have been long-standing, long-covered, heinous sins.  This objection has, I believe, sprung from at least two different questions.  First:

 

                        1.         Does the Bible teach that it is appropriate to enact the lesser form of corrective church discipline - the suspension of membership privileges - where there are hopeful signs of repentance for scandalous sin?

 

My first response to this question is to repeat a reality underscored at the beginning of this study.  It is that the Bible does not give us a comprehensive manual on corrective church discipline, and that we therefore must apply general biblical principles to any given case.  Our own confession of faith indicates:

 

            . . . we acknowledge . . . that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.[40]

 

What then are some of the general biblical rules and principles which should govern in the case of hopeful signs of repentance for scandalous sin?  First of all:

 

                                    a.         One legitimate form of corrective church discipline is the suspension of some of the privileges of church membership.  As we have already seen, 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 indicates this regarding one specific situation of discipline; and Matthew 18:15-18 provides a place for it more generally as an intermediate form of the church speaking and of determining whether the offender is hearing the church.

 

                                    b.         There is also the reality, established earlier, that professions of repentance are not always genuine.  This reality naturally raises the question if a mere profession of repentance should always mean that church discipline should never be enacted or should immediately cease upon such a profession.  Especially where there has been a long pattern of gross sin coupled with inveterate lying, I believe that sanctified common sense feels real pressure to provide a period of time for the evaluation of the professed repentance before the church ends any official disciplinary proceedings.  Otherwise, corrective church discipline would seem to be made a mockery by members who just mouth words of confession in order to totally avoid discipline only after they have been caught in a pattern of heinous, deceitfully-covered sin.  This pressure of sanctified common sense brings us to a third general biblical principle:

 

                                    c.         The Bible does indicate that there are situations - especially in more formal situations involving divinely-delegated human authorities, and where more heinous sins combined with an extended pattern of covering and deception are involved - where somewhat hopeful signs of repentance should be tested over time before there is full restoration and reconciliation.  It should again be noted that Matthew 18:17 does not put a time limit on how long it may take for a church to determine if the previously stubborn offender has truly heard the church and does not require the ultimate discipline of excommunication.  This issue of time is left somewhat open-ended in the New Covenant data which we have.

 

But there is more.  One pastor friend has helpfully pointed out that there is at least one Old Testament biblical example of that for which I believe sanctified common sense cries out - an example of the testing over time of some hopeful signs of repentance for heinous sin - before there was full reconciliation and restoration of relationship.  It is the example of Joseph's dealings with his brothers in his official capacity as a ruler second only to Pharaoh in Egypt.

 

If you remember, Joseph's brothers, out of jealousy and hatred over Joseph's favored treatment by their father, initially considered murdering their brother, but then instead cast him into a pit in the wilderness and finally sold him into slavery in Egypt - evidently assuming that in that state he would soon perish (Genesis 37:18-28 & 42:13 & 22).  Next they covered up their sin with the most cruel of lies to their godly father - a deception in which they evidently persisted for a number of years.  Heinous had been their sin indeed - and against their own flesh and blood - their brother.

 

Much later, when Joseph was ruler in Egypt and his brothers appeared before him, he recognized them, but they did not recognize him.  He continued to disguise his identity - at least in part by speaking through an interpreter (Genesis 42:23) - and accused his brothers of being spies in order to test them.  We pick up the narrative at Genesis 42:17-25:

 

            So he put them all together in prison for three days.

 

            Now Joseph said to them on the third day, "Do this and live, for I fear God:  if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die."  And they did so.  Then they said to one another, "Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us."  And Reuben answered them, saying, "Did I not tell you, `Do not sin against the boy'; and you would not listen?  Now comes the reckoning for his blood."  They did not know, however, that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between them.  And he turned away from them and wept.  But when he returned to them and spoke to them, he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.

 

            Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to restore every man's money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey.  And thus it was done for them.

 

Notice first of all that, although he had been so mistreated and wronged by his brothers, Joseph here clearly was not filled with bitterness and a sinful desire for revenge.  He did not treat them nearly as badly as he could have as one who held the power of life and death over them.[41]  Instead, he showed kindness and concern for their physical welfare and for that of their families by sending all but one brother back home with food for their needy loved ones.  He furthermore returned their purchase money by having it placed in their sacks, and provided supplies for their return journey.  However, even more powerful an indication that Joseph truly loved his brothers and greatly desired to fully forgive them for their wrongs to him and to be completely reconciled with and restored to them was the fact that he had to turn away from them to weep when he overheard them speaking of their guilt toward him - so did his heart run out toward them in their distress.

 

Still, Joseph did not at this point break down before his brothers, and reveal his heart of love to them, extending forgiveness.  He did his weeping in secret, and steeled himself to treat them in a manner which outwardly appeared very harsh instead of loving (42:7), taking Simeon from among them and binding him before their eyes.  He, in the language of Paul, came "with a rod" instead of "with love and a spirit of gentleness" (cp. 1 Corinthians 4:21), even though he indeed greatly loved them (cp. 1 Corinthians 4:14).  Why did Joseph do this?  Out of genuine love to his brothers in order to test if they truly had repented of their heinous sins against him.

 

At this point the hopeful signs of repentance were just that - hopeful signs.  It was still possible that the brothers were only sorry that they had been caught in sins regarding which they had long thought they had gotten away without punishment, and that they simply regretted the undesirable consequences of their sins, instead of truly being grieved over their offenses against God, His law, and His child, Joseph.  It was also possible that they had only repented of the more outward sins of kidnapping and intended murder, while the heart sins of jealousy and hatred which led to those outward sins had never been confessed and forsaken.  Only time, and in this case the right set of circumstances, would reveal if the work of repentance was genuine and thorough.

 

In fact, quite a bit of time evidently passed before Judah's offer to stay as a slave in Egypt in place of the other favored brother Benjamin[42] in order to spare His father potentially mortal grief showed the reality and thoroughness of the repentance of these brothers (Genesis 44:16-34, cp. 37:26-27).  Only then was Joseph able to reveal his tears to his brothers and to extend a heart of full reconciliation and restoration of relationship (Genesis 45:1ff).

 

This example indicates that there are times, especially in more official settings involving divinely-delegated human authorities, and especially where there have been heinous sins mixed with great deception, when a professed repentance must be tested and some punishment given in the meantime before there can be full restoration and reconciliation and forgiveness.  This is because professions of repentance, especially in such circumstances, are not always genuine.

 

Although not ultimately authoritative, such a conclusion is also borne out in church history.  A Puritan, Samuel Annesley, writes:

 

                        The discipline of the ancient church was such, that they did neither lightly nor suddenly re-admit unto communion those that denied the faith or sacrificed to idols in time of persecution, or those that at any time fell into heresy or any other scandalous wickedness, till the church was satisfied in the truth of their repentance.  To evidence which, they required such public, visible testimonies, such as, they judged, might most probably speak the grief of their heart for sin, the seriousness of their desire of reconciliation, and their full purpose of amendment.[43]

 

                                    d.  Finally, as we've already noted, others of the purposes for corrective church discipline - the satisfaction of ecclesiastical justice, the warning of other members, and additionally, the honor of the name of Christ before the watching world - often demand some form of discipline, if excommunication indeed is not an option - especially where there has been an openly scandalous lifestyle inconsistent with being a Christian.

 

For the four biblically-based reasons given - the fact that suspension of membership is a biblical form of corrective church discipline, that fact that professions of repentance may be false, the fact that there are appropriate occasions for the testing of a profession of repentance before full restoration and reconciliation, and the fact that there are purposes for corrective church discipline other than restoration which also need to be satisfied - I believe that the suspension of privileges of church membership where there are hopeful signs of repentance for scandalous sins is a biblically-warranted and necessary practice.

 

In fact, for me, if suspension is not an option in such cases, I would often be constrained by the last three of the general biblical principles above to opt for excommunication rather than have no continuing discipline at all.  However, for the reasons given, I believe that suspension is an option in such a case, and properly resolves the tension between not disregarding hopeful signs of repentance while still dealing seriously with grievous, open sin which brings reproach upon the name of Christ and upon His church.

 

But there is also a second question related to this suggestion that there be no corrective church discipline where there are hopeful signs of repentance:

 

                        2.         Doesn't the biblical duty of forgiveness where there is repentance argue against the exercise of any corrective church discipline where there are hopeful signs of repentance?  Did not our Lord Jesus command in Luke 17:3-4:

 

            Be on your guard!  If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, `I repent,' forgive him."

 

There we have it.  If our brother repents after he is rebuked for his sin (implying that in this case he wasn't repenting before we rebuked him), we are to forgive him, even if it means forgiving him seven times in one day after he returns and says, "I repent".  Case resolved, right?  Surely there cannot be any corrective church discipline if he's repented and we've been required to forgive him.

 

Now there are a number of issues regarding our duty to forgive where there are hopeful signs of repentance which we could consider here, but which we will wait to consider under our next heading below.

 

However, there are other biblically-based responses which are here especially relevant:

 

                                    a.         As we have already noted, there are at least three purposes for corrective church discipline in addition to that of restoration - purposes which I believe call for some form of discipline where there is a scandalous lifestyle inconsistent with being a Christian even where there are hopeful signs of repentance.  There are the demands of ecclesiastical justice, of causing onlookers to fear and be kept from sinning, and of vindicating the name of Christ before a watching, unconverted world.

 

                                    b.         As we have also already observed, the Bible indicates that there is such a thing as a false profession of repentance, and that therefore, especially when dealing in a more official way with long-standing patterns of scandalous sins accompanied with inveterate lying, it is not possible until some time has passed and definite fruits of repentance have been brought forth to determine whether or not repentance has indeed taken place.

 

                                    c.         However, there is a third important, biblically-based reality which we have not already mentioned which also needs to be underscored at this point.  Forgiveness in the Bible does not necessarily mean that there will be no earthly consequences for one's sin - even when God Himself has declared that He has forgiven a person.

 

We are told in 2 Peter 2:7 that Lot was a righteous man, which means that he ultimately repented of and was forgiven for his sinful compromises associated with living in Sodom.  Yet, there were certainly long-lasting fruits of his sin, nonetheless, including being a widower due to the loss of his wife, and the grief of the incestuous actions of his daughters toward him, with children as the abiding fruit and reminders of those awful acts.

 

Also, Samson is mentioned in Hebrews 11:32 as an example of one who exercised biblical faith, which means that by the time he brought down the Philistine pagan temple upon himself and all those in it, he had repented of his earlier sins of immorality which led to his downfall.  However, there was the enduring reality of his imprisonment and slave labor grinding at the mill which culminated in his death with the Philistines - all as the fruit of his now forgiven sin.

 

But perhaps the clearest example of the fact that there may be continuing consequences for sin even after one has been forgiven is that of David following his sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her loyal husband, Uriah - an incident which we considered earlier in this study.  May I remind you again of the words of 2 Samuel 12:9-14 which begin with an address to David by Nathan the prophet:

 

            Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight?  You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon.  Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.'  Thus says the LORD, `Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes and give them to your companion, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight.  Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.'"  Then David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD."  And Nathan said to David, "The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die.  However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die."

 

David confessed his sin, and the LORD proclaimed here that David's sin had been taken away.  I.e., he had been forgiven.  Furthermore, the ultimate civil penalty here which was deserved - the death penalty - would not be enacted by God in light of David's repentance.[44]

 

Yet the LORD did not take back his previous declaration that the sword would not depart from David's house, and that his companion would lie with his wives in broad daylight.  Nor did God's declaration of forgiveness keep Him from declaring that the child born as a result of David's sin would die.  Time would sadly prove that all these awful fruits, including the tragic deaths of a number of David's children, would still be experienced by a penitent and forgiven David.  The sparing of his own life must have in many ways seemed a hollow comfort in the face of the awful deaths of his own sons.  There were definite consequences of David's sins which he continued to experience after he was forgiven by God.

 

This reality means that we should not be kept from implementing some appropriate, biblical form of corrective church discipline just because the offender has professed repentance and may indeed be forgiven already by God.  As we have seen, in some cases a public rebuke may be sufficient.  In more scandalous cases, especially those involving deception, where the genuineness of the repentance is more in doubt, the suspension of some of the privileges of church membership until suitable fruits of repentance are more manifest may be in order.

 

However, at this point a further objection has been raised.  It has been noted that the painful consequences experienced by David (and we could include by Lot and Samson) following his repentance and forgiveness were brought about by God directly - not by lesser human authorities in a sphere of divinely-delegated, human authority like the state or the church.  So on what basis should we as men bring about negative consequences for offending members through corrective church discipline where there are already hopeful signs of repentance?

 

In response, it should first of all be remembered that there was no higher human power in the civil sphere to punish King David in the example we are considering, for he was the highest civil authority in Israel.  Only the God who had appointed David king had the authority to do it in this case.  So this was a peculiarly unique situation.

 

Furthermore, as we have sought to establish, punishment for wrong-doing is a legitimate purpose for corrective church discipline - one which is closely-connected with the purposes of causing other, onlooking believers to fear and of vindicating the name and honor of our Lord before a watching and often blaspheming world.

 

Finally, in biblical corrective church discipline, the local church is commanded by God to act in an official capacity in the behalf of God in a way in which ordinary, individual Christians are never warranted to act.  If you remember, in the key passage of Matthew 18:18, the Lord Jesus declared that when His church enacted biblical church discipline, ". . . whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven".  Furthermore, according to the other key passage of 1 Corinthians 5:4, the church was to act in corrective church discipline "In the name of our Lord Jesus".  When biblical, such actions of corrective church discipline involve a solemn acting in the place of God in a manner which no individual Christian may rightly act.  And for the reasons already given, I believe that the suspension of privileges of church membership where there are hopeful, but not yet proven, signs of repentance for scandalous sin is a biblical exercise of corrective church discipline.

 

In conclusion of the first major element of the objection of too much severity in the position which I've taken, in light of all we have seen, I believe that there is biblical warrant to implement corrective church discipline in a form less than excommunication when there has been scandalous sin - especially where it has involved lying - even though there may presently be a profession of repentance and other hopeful signs.  But now, let's press on to consider:

 

            B.        The second element of objection which has to do with the extending of forgiveness immediately upon a profession of repentance for long-standing, long-covered, heinous sins.  It should first of all be underscored that most of those raising this objection or question have not been arguing that there should be no corrective discipline or punishment in such cases whatsoever.  Rather, they have held that some form of corrective discipline should be accompanied by our immediate forgiveness (even as a forgiven David still suffered negative consequences due to his heinous sins).  Notice first of all:

 

                        1.         The issue of immediate forgiveness brought into focus.  These sensitive saints have rightly wrestled with the proper response of a Christian in light of the key texts in the Bible regarding forgiveness.  We earlier considered one such key text - Luke 17:3-4 - which reads:

 

            Be on your guard!  If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, `I repent,' forgive him."

 

We could also consider another key text on forgiveness which is interestingly located right after our first key passage on corrective church discipline - Matthew 18:21-22:

 

            Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  Up to seven times?"  Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.  . . ."

 

Nor is this matter of forgiveness a minor matter.  After going on to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23ff, Jesus concluded with these words in 18:32-35:

 

            "Then summoning him (the unforgiving servant), his lord said to him, `You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me.  Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow-slave, even as I had mercy on you?'  And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.  So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."

 

We could also add the words of our Lord in Matthew 6:14-15:

 

            "For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.  . . ."

 

And Christ's words in Mark 11:25:

 

            "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions."

 

Our own forgiveness and eternal salvation is at stake in our forgiving others in the way in which our God has commanded us.  This is no little matter, which brings us to the bottom line of the issue before us.

 

When a member of the church sins in a scandalous, long-term way while skillfully covering his sins with lies, and then, only when forcibly exposed, confesses his sin, says "I repent", and asks our forgiveness, are we then obligated to immediately forgive him or her - yea from the heart?  This is no little question, which brings us secondly to take up:

 

                        2.         The issue of immediate forgiveness expounded.  Although I've not yet been able to study this issue out as thoroughly as I would desire, and am open to further light which others may have on the issue, let me relate my own understanding at this point.  I'll do so by especially focusing upon Luke 17:3 & 4 and Matthew 18:21-22 cited above.  There are at least three basic issues which warrant further attention at this point:

 

                                    a.         The heinousness of the sin involved;

                                    b.         The nature of the forgiving party; and:

                                    c.         The genuineness of the professed repentance.

 

So consider first of all:

 

                                    a.         The heinousness of the sin involved.  When our Lord spoke of forgiving someone seven times in a day, and seventy times seven over a period of time, He clearly had in view everyday sins which we commonly commit.  Woe be to us if we do not repeatedly and quickly forgive from the heart such faults such as impatience and lack of kindness and sinful speech of many kinds when our brother repents of it.  We should forgive based upon the mere verbal confession of sin to us and request that we forgive the offender, without requiring anything more.  This is the clear indication of these texts.

 

However, there is reason to believe that Jesus did not intend to refer here to peculiarly heinous and aggravated sins like murder and adultery - sins which are completely inconsistent with a Christian profession, and therefore with a profession of repentance when quickly repeated.  For example, if a man was to murder one of my family members, come and ask forgiveness, go out and murder another of my family members the same day, and then come and ask for forgiveness again - still on the same day - I believe that immediate forgiveness clearly would not be required the second time.  Rather, we would rightly label such a repeat murderer a wicked, impenitent man until he over a significant period of time manifested genuine repentance (if the death penalty was not executed first, which it should be).  Furthermore, if a woman's husband committed adultery, came and asked her forgiveness, then went out the same day and committed adultery again, returning again the same day to declare repentance and to ask forgiveness, she clearly could not be required to immediately forgive the second time - since so radical a repeat violation of the marriage vows between them would have indicated that the first repentance was not genuine.

 

Therefore, I believe there is some warrant to view these key verses on forgiveness as somewhat conditioned by the relative heinousness of the sins in view.  But this in itself is not an adequate answer to the question which has been raised.  This brings us to next consider the matter of:

 

                                    b.         The nature of the forgiving party.  From my best understanding, Luke 17:3-4 and Matthew 18:21-22 especially have reference to personal daily offenses against me, and not to heinous, scandalous offenses which are in a real sense against the entire local church where the offender is a member, and regarding which that church must enact corrective church discipline.  Therefore, if a scandalous offender in the process of covering his sins over a period of time, outright lied to me personally in the process, I would normally feel obligated to immediately forgive him for his lie to me personally when he repented of it to me.  However, it would seem to me to be a somewhat different matter for the entire church including each individual member to feel obligated to immediately forgive him for his scandalous sin and pattern of lies requiring corrective discipline just because he professed repentance.  Let me try to explain why I say that.

 

We have already labored to biblically explain why there are times when the suspension of membership privileges may be warranted and required, even though there is a profession of repentance.  This is especially true where there has been a pattern of heinous, scandalous sin accompanied by deception, which was only forcibly exposed.  In such a case of suspension where there are now hopeful signs of repentance, there is no full reconciliation and restoration of the offending member to the membership of the church until his professed repentance has been proven genuine over time.

 

However, the Apostle Paul indicates in what is probably the key New Testament passage on the restoration of disciplined church members - 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 - that there is a close connection between forgiveness by a local church for sin requiring corrective discipline and the restoration of that offender to full fellowship as a member in the church.  Notice his words:

 

            But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree - in order not to say too much - to all of you.  Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.

 

Clearly implied is the reality that this man had by this time truly and obviously repented.  In fact, he now was in danger of being overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  Therefore, forgiveness clearly was in order, along with complete reconciliation and restoration to the body of believers at Corinth.

 

However, if restoration corporately to the membership of a local church is not possible for a time until professed repentance for scandalous sin can be adequately tested, then by implication, official, corporate forgiveness is also suspended until the professed repentance has been adequately tested.  In the case of a local church officially dealing with a long-covered, scandalous sin, forgiveness in its fullest and corporate sense is not immediate, even if there are professions of repentance.  This brings us to a third, closely-related issue in this matter of forgiveness which has already been mentioned:

 

                                    c.         The genuineness of the professed repentance.  Forgiveness is clearly conditioned upon the repentance of the offender in Luke chapter 17 (and many other places in Scripture).  Furthermore, as we saw in the example of Joseph, forgiveness accompanied with full reconciliation and restoration may at times be suspended for awhile, even though there are hopeful signs of repentance - especially when peculiarly heinous, deceptively-concealed sin is being dealt with in a more official capacity by divinely-delegated, human authorities.  This is because in such situations the genuineness of the repentance is more suspect, and therefore, there is often the need for time to prove the professed repentance before the granting of official, corporate forgiveness and restoration.  There is the need for time to determine whether the long deceiving offender is just sorry that he got caught and now faces negative consequences for his sins, or is truly sorrowful for what he has done, and has radically turned from those grievous sins.  And there is the need for time to determine if the repentance has been thorough so that there has been a radical turning, not only from the outwardly scandalous behavior, but also from the heart sins which led to the outwardly scandalous behavior.

 

However, an important word of qualification is in order here.  Although a church corporately, including each of her members, may feel biblically constrained to withhold the official granting of forgiveness and full restoration to a grievous offender for a time until his professed repentance is proven genuine, this does not mean that there is any excuse for an unforgiving spirit or a harboring of bitterness and resentment toward the offending party.  We ought to constantly have burning in our hearts a desire to fully forgive and restore the offending one as soon as possible.  We must never lose sight of the restorative purpose of all corrective church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:5).  We must maintain a truly hopeful disposition toward the professed repentance of such an offender who is currently under corrective discipline, as much as the facts allow us to do.  We should do so as those who understand and firmly believe that corrective church discipline is often a means ordained by God for the recovery of the offender (1 Corinthians 5:5; cp. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8).  We should do what we can to encourage the continued and thorough repentance of the offender who now gives hopeful signs of repentance.  We should definitely pray for him, and we should also exhort and encourage him in the paths of righteousness as we are able to do so.  We certainly should allow no room in our hearts for a proud, self-righteous attitude toward the fallen one, but instead should mourn and be humiliated before God and others for the grievous sins which have taken place within Christ's church.  And we should have renewed diligence to deal ruthlessly in purging out our own remaining sin (1 Corinthians 5:2, 6-8).

 

 

As I now wrap up this study of objections to the position which I have taken regarding corrective church discipline, it should be underscored that experience in this matter has shown that there is an error to avoid on both sides of what I believe to be the biblical approach.  May the Lord mercifully keep us out of the ditch to be found on either side of the practice of church discipline outlined in His Word.

 

 

By way of final conclusion to this entire study, there are many other matters regarding corrective church discipline which we could also consider unto edification.  May the Lord help us all to rightly divide His Word as we seek to work through the challenges facing us as members of His church in this area of church life in the days to come.


    APPENDIX ONE - OTHER SOURCES INDICATING THAT EXCOMMUNICATION

SHOULD BE IMMEDIATELY ENACTED IN THE CASE OF OPEN, SCANDALOUS SIN

                            REGARDLESS OF ANY PROFESSION OF REPENTANCE

 

 

1.         The northern American Baptist, Edward T. Hiscox, in his Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, p. 189, apparently took a position similar to that of Benjamin Griffeth's as follows:

 

            Offenses may, and not unfrequently do, occur, of such an aggravated character as to require, when confessed or fully proven, immediate exclusion,[45] without the need of further labor, and notwithstanding confessions, penitence and promises; though not without a hearing.  No temporizing or delay should be allowed, but the Church of Christ should show the world that it will not shelter in its bosom, nor hold in its fellowship, gross transgressors.

 

2.         Further study has revealed that this position was not limited to Baptists in America, but also had an early history among Particular Baptists in Great Britain.  Andrew Fuller who, as one so instrumental in overcoming hyper-Calvinism among Particular Baptists and in spurring on the modern missionary movement was no enemy to the spirit of the Gospel, writes:

 

                        IN CASES OF NOTORIOUS AND COMPLICATED WICKEDNESS it appears that in the primitive churches immediate exclusion was the consequence.  In the case of the incestuous Corinthian, there are no directions given for his being admonished, and excluded only in case of his being incorrigibly impenitent.  The apostle determined what should be done - "In the name of the Lord Jesus, when ye are gathered together, to deliver such a one unto Satan."  We cannot but consider it as an error in the discipline of some churches, where persons have been detected of gross and aggravated wickedness, that their exclusion has been suspended, and in many cases omitted, on the ground of their professed repentance.  While the evil was a secret, it was persisted in, but, when exposed by a public detection, then repentance is brought forward, as it were, in arrest of judgment.  But can that repentance be genuine that is pleaded for the purpose of warding off the censures of a Christian church?  We are persuaded it cannot.  The eye of a true penitent will be fixed upon the greatness of his sin, and he will be the last to discern or talk of his repentance for it.  So far from pleading it in order to evade censure, he will censure himself, and desire nothing more than that testimony may be borne against his conduct for the honour of Christ.

 

                        But allowing that repentance in such cases is sincere, still it is not of such account as to set aside the necessity of exclusion.  The end to be answered by this measure is not merely the good of the party, but the clearing of a Christian church from the very appearance of conniving at immorality, and which cannot be accomplished by repentance only.  Though Miriam might be truly sorry for her sin in having spoken against Moses, and though she might be healed of her leprosy; yet "the Lord said unto Moses, If her father had, but spit on her face, should she not be ashamed seven days?  Let her be shut out from the camp seven days; and after that let her be received in again," Numb. xii. 14.[46]

 

                        We do not suppose, however, the every notorious fault requires immediate exclusion.  The general rule given is that NOTORIOUS EVILS SHOULD MEET WITH A PUBLIC REBUKE.  "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear," 1 Tim. v. 20.  But this proceeding does not appear to amount to exclusion; it is rather of the nature of a censure or reprimand, accompanying an admonition.  To us it appears that the circumstances attending a sin ought to determine whether it require immediate exclusion or not.  If these be highly aggravating - if there appear to have been premeditation, intention, and perseverance in the crime - "put away from amongst yourselves that wicked person;" but if circumstances extenuate rather than heighten the evil, solemn admonition, accompanied with rebuke, ought to suffice, and no exclusion to follow but in case of incorrigible impenitence.[47]

 

By way of summary, it should be noted that Hiscox apparently did not distinguish the biblical provision for a partial step of suspension of membership privileges short of excommunication, while Griffeth and Fuller both did in very limited circumstances closely paralleling the circumstances found in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3.  Fuller describes the circumstances in which he believes this lesser degree of dealing is warranted as follows:

 

            There are also faults which do not come under the denomination of notorious sins, wherein directions are given for recovering the offenders WITHOUT ANY MENTION BEING MADE OF EXCLUSION, EITHER IMMEDIATE OR ULTIMATE.  There is perhaps in all the churches a description of men whose characters are far from being uniformly circumspect, and yet not sufficiently irregular to warrant their being separated from communion.  They are disorderly walkers; busybodies in other men's matters, while negligent of their own; in a word, unamiable characters.  Now those that are such we are directed to exhort, and charge that they conduct themselves as becometh Christians.  If after this they continue disorderly, observe a degree of distance in your conduct towards them; withdraw your intimacy; let them feel the frowns of their brethren:  yet be not wholly reserved, but occasionally explain to them the reasons of your conduct, affectionately admonishing them at the same time to repentance and amendment of life.[48] [49]


    APPENDIX TWO - OTHER SOURCES INDICATING THAT EXCOMMUNICATION

                    SHOULD ONLY BE ENACTED IN THE CASE OF IMPENITENCE

 

 

1.         Some parts of Owen's The True Nature of a Gospel Church (vol. XVI of his works), beyond that which has already been quoted, underscore his position, and also wrestle with elements of some related questions.

 

On page 164 & 165 we find that Owen (incorrectly) viewed 2 Thessalonians 3 as dealing with excommunication and not with suspension, but he wrestled with a practical sense of the need for suspension of membership privileges in some cases as well:

 

            Some suppose that there are two sorts of excommunication,-- the one they call the "lesser," and the other the "greater;" . . .  There is no mention in the Scripture of any more sorts but one, or of any degrees herein.  A segregation from all participation in church-order, worship, and privileges, is the only excommunication spoken of in the Scripture.  But whereas an offending person may cause great disorder in a church, and give great scandal unto the members of it, before he can be regularly cut off or expelled the society, some do judge that there should a suspension of him from the Lord's table at least precede total or complete excommunication in case of impenitency; and it ought in some cases so to be.  But this suspension is not properly an especial institution, but only an act of prudence in church-rule, to avoid offence and scandal.  And no men question but that this is lawful unto, yea, the duty of the rulers of the church, to require any one to forbear for a season from the use of his privilege in the participation of the supper of the Lord, in case of scandal and offence which would be taken at it and ensue thereon.  And if any person shall refuse a submission unto them in this act of rule, the church hath no way for its relief but to proceed unto the total removal of such a person from their whole communion; for the edification of the whole church must not be obstructed by the refractoriness of any one among them.

 

On pages 176 & 177, Owen took up and answered a very pertinent question:

 

                        FOURTHLY.  Whether, on the first knowledge of an offence or scandalous sin, if it be known unto the church that the offending party is penitent, and willing to declare his humiliation and repentance for the satisfaction of the church, the church may proceed unto his excommunication, in case the sin be great and notorious?

 

                        Ans.  . . . whereas the inquiry is made concerning sins either in their own nature or in their circumstances great and of disreputation unto the church, I answer,--

 

                If repentance be evidenced unto the consciences of the rulers of the church to be sincere, and proportionable unto the offence in its outward demonstration, according unto the rule of the gospel, so as that they are obliged to judge in charity that the person sinning is pardoned and accepted with Christ, as all sincerely penitent sinners undoubtedly are, the church cannot proceed unto the excommunication of such an offender; for--

 

                        (1.)    It would be publicly to reject them whom they acknowledge that Christ doth receive.  This nothing can warrant them to do; yea, so to do is to set up themselves against Christ, or at least to make use of his authority against his mind and will.  Yea, such a sentence would destroy itself; for it is a declaration that Christ doth disapprove them whom he doth approve.

 

                        (2.)    Their so doing would make a misrepresentation of the gospel, and of the Lord Christ therein; for whereas the principal design of the gospel, and of the representation that is made therein of Christ Jesus, is to evidence that all sincerely penitent sinners, that repent according unto the rule of it, are and shall be pardoned and accepted, by the rejection of such a person in the face of his sincere repentance, there is an open contradiction thereunto.  Especially it would give an undue sense of the heart, mind, and will of Christ towards repenting sinners, such as may be dangerous unto the faith of believers, so far as the execution of this sentence is doctrinal; for such it is, and declarative of the mind of Christ according unto the judgment of the church.  The image, therefore, of this excommunication which is set up in some churches, wherein the sentence of it is denounced without any regard unto the mind of Christ, as unto his acceptance or disapprobation of those whom they excommunicate, is a teacher of lies.

 

The last quote above, whatever else may be said about it, clearly indicates that Owen believed it was seriously wrong to summarily excommunicate someone who has sinned greatly and notoriously (as in 1 Corinthians chapter 5) without any regard as to whether or not that person is repentant for his sins and therefore forgiven by Christ.  It is true that Owen does not indicate in the final quote what should be done in cases where it is difficult to determine whether there has been true repentance with its resulting forgiveness by Christ, such as a constrained profession of repentance following the forcible uncovering of a long-standing pattern of sin accompanied by aggravated lying.  (In such cases, there may be different assessments, at least for a time, as to whether or not repentance is genuine, although Owen certainly leaves no room for the attitude that in such a heinous and notorious case, any professions of repentance are to be rejected out of hand as false).  However, it does appear that the first quote above reflects Owen's attempt to deal with such a situation where more time is needed to evaluate the professed repentance.

 

2.         The American Congregationalist, Jonathan Edwards, agreed with Owen in a sermon entitled, "The Nature and End of Excommunication"[50].  In defining the proper subjects of excommunication, he wrote:

 

            They are those members of the church who are now become visibly wicked; for the very name and nature of the visible church show, that it is a society of visible saints, or visibly holy persons.  When any of these visible saints become visibly wicked men, they ought to be cast out of the church.  Now, the members of the church become visibly wicked by these two things:

 

                        1.         By gross sin.  Saints may be guilty of other sins, and very often are, without throwing any just stumbling-block in the way of public charity, or of the charity of their christian brethren.  The common failures of humanity, and the daily short-comings of the best of men, do not ordinarily obstruct the charity of their brethren; but when they fall into any gross sin, this effect follows; for we naturally argue, that he who hath committed some gross sin hath doubtless much more practised less and more secret sins; and so we doubt concerning the soundness and sincerity of his heart.  Therefore all those who commit any gross sin, as they obstruct the charity of their brethren, are proper subjects of discipline:  and unless they confess their sin, and manifest their repentance, are proper subjects of excommunication.--This leads me to say,

 

                        2.         That the members of the church do especially become visibly wicked, when they remain impenitent in their sins, after proper means used to reclaim them.  Merely being guilty of any gross sin, is a stumbling-block to charity, unless repentance immediately succeed; but especially when the guilty person remains obstinate and contumacious (rebellious); in such a case he is most clearly a visibly wicked person, and therefore to be dealt with as such; to be cast out into the wicked world, the kingdom of Satan, where he appears to belong.--Nor is contumacy in gross sins only a sufficient ground of excommunication.  In the text (1 Corinthians chapter 5) the apostle commands us to inflict this censure, not only on those who are guilty of the gross sins of fornication, idolatry, and drunkenness, but also on those who are guilty of covetousness, railing, and extortion, which, at least in some degrees of them, are too generally esteemed no very heinous crimes. . .  . . . every one who doth not observe the doctrine of the apostles, and their word contained in their epistles, and so, by parity of reason, the divine instructions contained in the other parts of Scripture, is to be excommunicated, provided he continue impenitent and contumacious.  So that contumacy and impenitence in any real and manifest sin whatsoever, deserve excommunication.

 

Although Edwards like others views 2 Thessalonians chapter 3 as referring to excommunication in the same way as 1 Corinthians chapter 5, and although there is still the difficult issue at times of assessing whether or not there is repentance in the case of gross and notorious sins, it is clear that Edwards viewed excommunication as appropriate only where there was impenitence, and that a professed repentance at least deserved consideration before proceeding to excommunication.

 

3.         The Congregationalists have not been the only ones holding this view.  Many Reformed Baptists do today as well, as reflected in their church constitutions.  One modern British calvinistic Baptist pastor has written:

 

        Excommunication, or putting someone out of church membership, is a very grave action.  It should be done only when no doubt of guilt exists and when there is no repentance.[51]



    [1]Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, p. 181.

    [2]Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter XII, Section 6, p. 1234.

    [3]"tell it not in Gath" (2 Samuel 1:20a).

    [4]At this point we differ from many earlier writers (Calvin, Owen, Edwards, etc.) who, we believe incorrectly, viewed both 1 Corinthians chapter 5 and 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 as referring alike to excommunication.

    [5]Compare the clear identity of Nathan as a prophet of God in 2 Samuel 7:2, 4 & 17.

    [6]The Constitution of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, Art. VI, B., 3., d.

    [7]The Interpretation of I and II Corinthians, p. 207.

    [8]Hodge in his commentary on I and II Corinthians, p. 81, argues strongly that the man was married to her from the other examples of places in the New Testament where the word "has" is used with reference to man having a woman (cp. Matthew 14:4, 22, 28; 1 Corinthians 7:2, 29).  However, he fails to mention that in a key place where the roles are reversed and a woman is spoken of having men - the interview of Jesus with the Samaritan woman in John 4:18 - the word "has" is clearly used of a situation where the couple was living together outside of the bonds of marriage as well as of married couples.

    [9]International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. II, p. 710.

    [10]One related question which confronts us is why Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 called upon the Corinthian church to immediately exercise excommunication (which they apparently did - 2 Corinthians 2), while in 2 Corinthians 12:21 - 13:2 he indicated that he would deal with those guilty of impurity, immorality and sensuality when he came, and did not call for the church to carry out an immediate excommunication where members were impenitent.  It may very well be that Paul at this point did not possess clear knowledge of any specific case of continuing immorality among their members as he had in 1 Corinthians chapter 5, since according to 2 Corinthians 12:21 he was speaking of what he feared might be the case when he came.  It also may be that the persistent immoral sins referenced in the 2 Corinthians letter were not characterized by the combination of open brazenness and heinousness characterizing the incest of 1 Corinthians 5.  In fact, if indeed the sins of 2 Corinthians were not in a similar way public and open sins, it would help explain why Paul may not have possessed specific knowledge of any one case, but had a general sense that concerns probably still continued in Corinth.

    [11]A Short Treatise Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church, p. 17.

    [12]See Appendix One for more quotes of those holding Griffeth's position.

    [13]The Works of John Owen, vol. XVI, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, pp. 160-61.

    [14]See Appendix Two for more quotes of those holding Owen's position.

    [15]For an excellent treatment of these two very real, opposite potential errors in corrective church discipline, refer to pp. 322-23 of Vol. III of The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller.  His treatment is contained in one of his circular letters entitled, "The Discipline of the Primitive Churches illustrated and enforced, 1799".

    [16]The True Nature of a Gospel Church, p. 169.

    [17]Note the aorist participles in both verses 2 and 3.

    [18]The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, pp. 766-67.

    [19]The Interpretation of I and II Epistles of Peter, the three Epistles of John, and the Epistle of Jude, p. 539.

    [20]An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. II, p. 50.

    [21]Ibid., Vol. I, p. 95.

    [22]Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume I, p. 286.

    [23]Ibid., p. 202.

    [24]Matthew Henry's Commentary, Vol. VI, p. 529, col. 1 bottom.

    [25]John Owen in his work, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, pp. 175-76, deals with this practical difficulty of proceeding with excommunication without any prior attempt at admonition in the following words:

 

            A THIRD inquiry may be, Whether, in case of any great and scandalous sin, the church may proceed unto excommunication without any previous admonition?

 

                        Ans.      1.          Persons may be falsely accused of and charged with great sins, the greatest of sins, as well as those of a lesser degree, and that both by particular testimonies and public reports, as it was with the Lord Christ himself (compare also Naboth in 1 Kings 21:8-13); which daily experience confirms.  Wherefore all haste and precipitation, like that of David in judging the case of Mephibosheth, is carefully to be avoided, though they are pressed under the pretences of the greatness and notoriety of the sin.

 

                        2.          There is no individual actual sin but is capable of great aggravation or alleviation from its circumstances.  These the church is to inquire into, and to obtain a full knowledge of them, that all things being duly weighed, they may be affected with the sin in a due manner, or after a godly sort; which is essential unto the right administration of this ordinance.

 

                        3.          This cannot be done without personal conference with the offender (where possible), who is to be allowed to speak for himself.  This conference, in case guilt be discovered, cannot but have in it the nature of an admonition, whereon the church is to proceed, as in the case of previous solemn admonition . . . 

    [26]Of course, this argument is relevant only if the offender in view in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 is indeed the same as the offender in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 - something which I believe to be likely.

    [27]See the first point under the following section on remaining objections for an objection which has subsequently been raised to this statement.

    [28]Article VI, B., 4.

    [29]Those references are Deuteronomy 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; and 24:7.

    [30]Deuteronomy 17:12 & 22:22.

    [31]With the definite article - Mark 7:23; Luke 6:45; and Romans 12:9.  Without the definite article - Matthew 5:11; 9:4; 12:35; Luke 3:19; and 1 Thessalonians 5:22.

    [32]With the definite article - Matthew 5:39; 13:19, 38, 49; Luke 6:35, 45; Ephesians 6:16; 1 John 2:13-14; 3:12; 5:18.  Without the definite article - Matthew 5:45.

    [33]Deuteronomy 19:16-21.

    [34]With the article - Mark 7:23; Luke 6:45; and Romans 12:9.  Without the article - Matthew 12:35.

    [35]With the article - Matthew 13:19 (cp. Mark 4:15 & Luke 8:12), 49; Luke 6:35, 45; 1 John 2:13-14; and 5:18.  Without the article - Matthew 5:45.

    [36]Notice how the same Hebrew adjective translated "evil" in one of the key parallel texts which seems to point to the removal of an evil person by death, Deuteronomy 17:7, is found referring to the evil deeds of that idolater in the preceding context in 17:2 & 5.

    [37]Deuteronomy 19:19-20.

    [38]If someone would (correctly) argue that the condemned criminal under the Old Covenant may have been encouraged to repent and be forgiven by God due to the reality of his imminent execution, this still would be quite different from the bringing to repentance and restoration through and following the actual carrying out of the punishment of excommunication which is clearly in view in 1 Corinthians chapter 5.  The purpose of the act of church discipline itself was directly restorative in a way not true of capital punishment under the Old Covenant which brought with it the end of opportunity to repent and which offered no possibility of restoration to the Old Covenant people of God.

    [39]Remember again Matthew 18:15-17; 2 Corinthians 12:21 - 13:2; and Titus 3:10-11.

    [40]The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, Chapter 1, paragraph 6.

    [41]We should remember that the later Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 24:7 commanded the death penalty when ". . . a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently, or sells him".  Joseph here in a technically pre-Old Covenant setting appears to have, on the one hand, deferred the deserved ultimate penalty of death (Genesis 42:19-20) while waiting for more definite proof of genuine repentance; but he still, on the other hand, enacted a more limited punishment while testing a repentance which seemed to be possibly present in at least seed form.  This appears to be a balanced and attractive Old Testament example of the very kind of practice in church discipline for which I am arguing.

    [42]Benjamin was Joseph's only full brother and the only other child of the favored and now dead wife, Rachel (Genesis 44:20, 26-28).

    [43]Puritan Sermons 1659-1689, Volume 6, sermon XVIII by the Rev. Samuel Annesley, LL. D., entitled "Of Indulgences", p. 319.

    [44]This reality naturally raises a question.  Why wasn't David put to death for his sins of adultery and murder, since the judicial laws of Israel clearly called for the death penalty in such cases?  Although I'm not ready to be completely dogmatic, it appears that David was a somewhat unique case because there was no higher civil power in Israel other than God Himself to enact such a commanded death penalty.  David was the God-appointed king over Israel.  Therefore, only God had the authority to enact the death penalty in David's case.  Evidently God would have directly enacted it if David had not repented.  But since he did repent, God did not cause him to die immediately for his sin - perhaps providing us through His own example a unique Old Covenant foreshadowing in the civil sphere of the reality that the ultimate penalty in Christ's New Covenant church - excommunication - was also not to be enacted where there was true repentance.

    [45]The term exclusion here is being used for the act of excommunication.

    [46]It should be noted that the use of the suspension of membership privileges as proposed in this study, if biblical, would answer, I believe, the point being made by the use of this Old Testament text.

    [47]The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Vol. III, a circular letters entitled "The Discipline of the Primitive Churches illustrated and enforced, 1799", pp. 336-37.

    [48]Following this is a quotation of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.

    [49]Ibid., p. 337.

    [50]The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Two, pp. 120-21.

    [51]Local Church Practice, Chapt. 8 on "Discipline in the Local Church" by Dic Eccles, p. 110.