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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Disciplined Church
August 1, 2013

According to the Book of Order, the true church is present wherever the Word of God is preached and heard, sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is uprightly ministered. (F-1.0303) John Calvin lists only preaching and sacraments as markers of the true church, but the Scots Confession adds a third note - administration of discipline. (Book of Confessions 3.18) The Reformers were all committed to faithful discipline in the church, but putting it on a level with Word and Sacrament as essential to the church’s authenticity is a move that only some made. Our Book of Order does retain Discipline as an essential mark of the true church, and embodies that commitment by devoting nearly one-third of its pages to the “Rules of Discipline.”

While Calvin does not place Discipline on a level with Word and Sacrament, he considers it essential to the church’s health. He holds that “as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together.” (Institutes IV.12.1) Discipline keeps the members of the church in proper relation to each other, much as good physical exercise maintains balance and vigor in a human body.

The goal of church discipline is not the perfection of individual members, but the enablement of members to work together effectively in proclaiming the Gospel. Nor is discipline’s purpose to render the collective body faultless. When we make purity the aim of our discipline, we misunderstand its real objective. The purpose of church discipline is to assure that its members work together properly to God’s glory. A disciplined church is marked not by inner flawlessness, but by effectiveness in carrying forward the mission of Jesus.

Calvin sees much misdirection in the church’s practice of discipline, highlighting the ancient heresy of Donatism as a primary example of church discipline gone bad. (Institutes IV.12.12) The Donatists insisted that the church excommunicate members who continued to sin despite reproof, and when the church failed to do this to their satisfaction, they chose to leave the church for a purer fellowship – a response that Augustine, and later Calvin, deemed utterly indefensible. Donatists further held that sacraments administered by sinful pastors were not valid. The Reformed tradition has consistently countered that the effectiveness of the ministry of Word and Sacrament depends not on the purity of the “earthen vessel” that administers heaven’s treasures, but on the nature of the treasure itself. (See, for example, the Second Helvetic Confession, Book of Confessions 5.166.)

Calvin warns “against willful excess in demanding church discipline,” quoting with approval the ancient father Cyprian’s measured advice to church leaders in dealing with sin: “Let a man [that is, a church leader] mercifully correct what he can; let him patiently bear what he cannot correct, and groan and sorrow over it with love.” (Institutes 4.12.11)

Church discipline is meant not to punish or banish, but to restore the wayward. The apostle Paul urges us, “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Sprit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1) Discipline’s purpose is not to break but to strengthen the sinews that bind us together. Without discipline, the church’s connective tissues are so weakened as to make the body unable to fulfill its mission. Ironically, like the Donatists, many who charge the church with failing to discipline its wayward members adequately act out their displeasure by bearing themselves the fruit of an undisciplined church, namely, breaking the bonds by which we are linked together in Christ.

Discipline is the church’s act of nurturing a community where Word and Sacrament can have their full effect as means of divine grace. Discipline is a critical part of the church’s fulfillment of its baptismal promises to nurture those whom God has claimed for salvation and service. Is it essential to the church’s identity? In itself, perhaps not – but in its role of cultivating the growth of divine grace sown in us through Word and Sacrament, it is indispensable for the flourishing and fruitfulness of the church. We avoid the hard work of church discipline to the church’s great peril.

That the church may be fully readied to fulfill its calling,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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