Where Did Discipline Go?
by Nick Monsma
When Synod 2023 ended with work delayed until 2024, some were left wondering: What happened to discipline? Although an advisory committee recommended appointing a team to engage in correction and discipline with Neland Ave CRC and Classis Grand Rapids East, Synod was persuaded to vote down this recommendation and move on to other matters. Where did discipline go?
Many have asked that same question in their own congregations. The marks of the true church are (1) the preaching of the gospel, (2) the pure administration of the sacraments, and (3) church discipline. Preaching and the sacraments receive a lot of time and attention in many churches, but discipline is rarely discussed. Where did discipline go?
To answer that question, we could start by asking: Where does discipline come from? Discipline has two meanings. Discipline often refers to the practice of correcting someone who is in error, but we also use the word positively to describe someone who is diligent and careful: they are disciplined.
The practice of church discipline is a recurring theme in the New Testament. Jesus describes the process of corrective discipline in Matthew 18, and Paul commands those who are spiritual to engage in this process in Galatians 6, for example. Even so, early Protestant confessions identified just two marks of the true church: preaching and sacraments (see, for example, Augsburg Confession, Article VII, 1530). Some confessions also mentioned the necessity of excommunication, but it wasn’t until the 1550s that church discipline began to be widely recognized as a mark of the true church, as it is in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession from 1561.
“But the Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.” -Augsburg Confession, Art. VII, 1530
“The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.” -Belgic Confession, Art. 29, 1561
The London Strangers’ Church, a church for “strangers” like Dutch Reformed refugees, seems to have popularized the idea in the 1550s that church discipline should be recognized as a mark of a true church. As a church for refugees, the London Strangers’ Church was a largely independent church. This was unusual at the time, and it had been granted a remarkable level of freedom to govern itself with relatively light oversight from King Edward VI. It’s possible that being an isolated church with a lot of autonomy contributed to the officebearers of this church recognizing that discipline was as much a mark of a true church as preaching and the sacraments. The ministers, elders, and deacons had a big responsibility, and they realized just how important this responsibility is in every church.
It might even be said that church discipline has its earthly origin in the discipline and diligence of the officebearers in each church. John á Lasco, the head pastor of the Strangers’ Church, described how church discipline is integrated with pure preaching and right administration of the sacraments—they are mirror reflections of each other. Lasco subsumed these marks under one theme: the church’s profession of true faith. The church’s profession of faith is both public—preaching and sacraments—and private in the personal sanctification of each member. However, even the personal sanctification of each individual member is a concern for the whole church, since they are one body. Because discipline in word and deed hangs together with pure preaching and right administration of the sacraments, officebearers who are truly concerned about the former are concerned about the latter, and it is the responsibility of the officebearers to be diligent (disciplined) in overseeing all of it. In fact, that is their discipline in the positive sense: to oversee the marks of the true church. Where does church discipline come from? In an earthly sense, it comes from the discipline of officebearers.
If you are concerned about discipline in the CRC, from your local church all the way to Synod, and especially if you are an officebearer yourself, be concerned with discipline in the council room, in both the corrective and positive sense. Start with a rigorous practice of mutual censure. Sometimes, mutual censure can seem like nothing: four times a year, if you’re following the church order, each officebearer in turn indicates they have no criticism of any officebearer, and that’s it. Do better than this. Here are some suggestions for ways to begin digging deeper, making the council room the venue where diligence and discipleship first originates in your church:
Go around the room, naming each officebearer, and then pause to allow other officebearers to encourage that officebearer in the execution of their duties. For example, the chair starts by naming Eric, and one elder might say: “I’m glad Eric is here early every Sunday morning so that he can help some of the older members get to their seats.” Another might say, “Eric does such a good job remembering the prayer requests people share with him and asking about them later.” After a few comments like this, the chair says, “And now, how about Dan. Does anyone have anything to say to Dan as a matter of encouragement or challenge?”
Go around the room and share a personal struggle—temptation or trial—and encourage one another. I remember when an elder suggested we do this during a particularly difficult time for the council. It was a great way to engage in the work of ministry together not simply as “board members,” but as fellow disciples.
Divide mutual censure into two parts. First, have the elders offer encouragement and suggestions to the deacons for ways they could improve and be more diligent in their work. Then, have the deacons do the same for the elders. (Exempt the pastor from this one. The pastor likely gets this kind of “encouragement” all the time!)
Mutual censure can also be a time for studying a book or God’s word—just make sure there is ample time to give encouragement and challenges to each other.
“London Confession of John a Lasco (1551)”. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, Vol ii. Ed. James T. Dennison. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2008. 551–583.
Springer, Michael S. Restoring Christ’s Church: John a Lasco and the Forma ac ratio. London: Routledge, 2007.