How church discipline can lead to better spiritual health
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
28 Sep, 2023

Church discipline is often seen as distasteful for those on both the giving and receiving end. Few of us are used to seeing church discipline done well; there are too many examples of unfairness, harshness, hypocrisy and poor explanations. In the worst cases discipline can be used merely as a weapon to punish those who do not appear to give unconditional support to the leaders or agree with them on everything. But the reason why Christ gifted discipline to His church was for the purpose of edifying people, not damaging them. Like medicine, the dosage should be measured out for the specific individual in question, and although it may be temporarily unpleasant to take or administer, it should lead to better health both for the member and the body overall. James Durham wrestled seriously with the question of how church discipline can be done edifyingly. In the following extract from a new edition of his work, Durham sets out the goals of church discipline and explains how each case needs to be treated on its own merits. Rather than being heavy-handed, the church leadership should act with sensitivity, and rather than being punitive, discipline should be healing and restorative.

The gift of governing (if we can call it that) reveals itself especially in the right managing of discipline in reference to the various different temperaments and characters which church leaders have to do with. For as in physical diseases the same cure is not appropriate for the same disease in all constitutions and times, and as ministers in their preaching are to apply the same things in different ways for different audiences, so this cure of discipline is not to be applied equally to all persons, not even to those who are have created the same stumbling block. For what would scarcely humble one may crush another, and what might edify one might be a cause for stumbling to someone else who has a different temperament and personality.

Therefore, we suppose there is no peremptory determining of rules for cases here. Rather, how you proceed in the application of rules is necessarily to be left to the prudence and conscientiousness of ministers and elders according to the particular, real-life case they are dealing with, in all the details of its actual circumstances. Yet we may lay down some general principles.

The Goals of Church Discipline

All disciplinary procedures which the church follows with people who have caused stumbling must be done with respect to the ends and goals for which Christ appointed church discipline and so as to achieve these selfsame goals. This, I suppose, cannot be denied, for the means must be suited to its end.

Now the ends or goals of the censures administered in church discipline are:

1. To vindicate the honor of Jesus Christ, as this is what suffers when a member of Christ’s church goes astray.

2. To preserve the authority of Christ’s ordinances and to chasten disobedience to Christ’s authority. This is why church discipline is called the punishment that was inflicted (2 Cor. 2:6), and it is said to revenge all disobedience (2 Cor. 10:6), because it is appointed as a kind of ecclesiastical whip to maintain Christ’s authority in His house and so to identify those who are unruly in it (2 Thess. 3:6–14).

3. For the good of the person who is being disciplined. As it says in 1 Corinthians 5:5, church discipline is intended for the destruction of the flesh so that the spirit may be saved. By this discipline, admonitions, reproofs, and indeed threatenings may have the more weight to bring the person to humility and to stir them up and constrain them at least to a more orderly walk in the church, as the apostle says in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14.

4. For the good of the church. Church discipline should prevent the leaven of profanity from spreading, and it should teach others to fear. This reason is given in 1 Corinthians 5:6, 7, and so on, and 1 Timothy 5:20.

When we speak of the end or goal of investigation and censure in church courts, we are referring to all these but especially to the more public and general ends, yet without neglecting the edification of the individual undergoing church discipline. Therefore, in disciplinary procedures, particular and special respect should be had to the manner which will most successfully achieve these ends—that is, whether to proceed by meekness or rigidity, by forbearing or intervening.

A One-Size-Fits-All Approach Is Unlikely to Be Edifying

Following on from this, we say that the same stumbling blocks (as far as the matter is concerned) are not to be pursued with church discipline equally at all times, nor in all persons, nor, it may be, in all places in the same manner. And the reason for this is clear, because, according to circumstances, a manner of acting which is edifying at one time and in one case, may be destructive in another and so is not to be followed, because the power which God has given is for edification and never for destruction (2 Cor. 13:10).

Accordingly, we see Paul in some cases censuring corrupt men, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20). In other cases, he threatens and yet spares them from censure, although the scandal in itself deserved censure, as when he says, “I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Gal. 5:12) and yet does not cut them off, because he found that that was what was required for the church’s edification in this case. So also he had “a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled” (2 Cor. 10:6), which yet he thought not appropriate for the time to do in case it irritated them to more disobedience and bred some greater division or schism or made the authority of the ordinances less weighty, and so would have spoiled the goal he was aiming at, which was in all things (including this forbearing) their edification. As he expresses it, “We do all things [and so this also], dearly beloved, for your edifying” (2 Cor. 12:19).

When I speak of edifying someone, I do not mean pleasing them (for it is often destructive to them, and to others also, to please them). Rather, I mean acting in a way that is most likely to benefit them spiritually and build them up, even if temporarily or counterproductively they find it displeasing. We need to weigh up in Christian prudence, considering the time and place we live in, the nature of the person we have to do with, and the nature of those also among whom we live, whether it is more fit to follow this way with such a person, at such a time, or another way. And accordingly, as it seems probable that this way will honor God most, more fully vindicate His ordinances, more readily gain the person from sin to holiness (or at least to a regular walk), and most edify others, so accordingly ought church courts to take the way that leads most probably to that end. And therefore it ought not always to be accounted unfairness or bias or partiality when such difference in church procedure is observed.

Avoiding Misinterpretation When Church Courts Use Different Methods in Different Cases

Yet although it may well be a desire for edification rather than an unfair lack of impartiality when church courts use different procedures with different persons who have apparently created the same stumbling block, certain things must by all means be guarded against.

First, nothing must be done with respect to persons or appear to be done with respect to persons. That is, church courts must never for outward, civil, or natural reasons be more gentle to one than to another. Nothing brings church authority into greater disrepute, and nothing causes people more stumbling, than this kind of discrimination.

Second, any difference of proceeding must be seen to be in the manner and circumstances of proceeding rather than in dispensing with what seems to be material in reference to the stumbling blocks. Differences in procedures should be followed only for such forms of stumbling where there is no settled rule and where ministers and elders have more latitude. For instance, some offenses, such as fornication or something similar, are of such a public nature that usually they are followed with a public reproof. This public reproof cannot be conveniently omitted in any ordinary conceivable case. Yet in the manner of calling the person to appear before the church court and dealing with the person, or the manner of expressing or timing the reproof, there may be flexibility to allow for sensitive handling. But to omit it altogether would run the risk of neglecting the ordinance of public reproof, which would harm the edification of the church more than it would advantage any particular person. For another example, other forms of stumbling are more occasional, such as speaking reproachful words about someone or about a church officer. There is no definite law or practice in reference to such offenses. Therefore, in such cases there is more liberty to be flexible about which way of proceeding may be most convincing to the person involved.

Third, in attempting to analyze what may be most edifying, we are not to look to one end alone (i.e., the particular person’s good only or the public good only, etc.), but we are to put it all together and to see how jointly all these goals may be best attained.

Ministers and Elders Carrying Out Church Discipline Should Aim for Restoration

From the goals of church discipline it will be apparent that ministers and elders ought to carry out church discipline with such tenderness, love, and sympathy that they will not only have a testimony in their own consciences that they are acting in the best spirit but also that those who have offended, and others who observe what happens, will also be convinced of this. For if this is not the case, what can their censure gain? And if it is needful for a minister in preaching to strive to be tenderhearted, loving, and sympathetic, it is in some respects even more necessary in church discipline because ordinarily people (because of their corruption) are more ready to mistake people’s intentions in discipline.

And we conceive that in this a church court’s procedure ought to be discernibly different from a civil court in that they are not only out of justice censuring the offending party with an eye to the wider public (for whose good in some cases even the most penitent member must be cut off and cannot be reprieved) but they are also endeavoring to make sure that the church is free from stumbling blocks so that in this way the offending member may with all tenderness be restored and cured. And in experience we see that often church censures have weight just in proportion as they are perceived to proceed from love.

This material has been extracted from The Scandal of Undisciplined Disciples, published by Reformation Heritage Books (2022).


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