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Question and Answer

Elders' Authority

Question:

What is our Biblical basis for the authority of elders in the church, and especially their authority to deny the Lord's Supper to someone in serious sin and unrepentant?

Answer:

Your question is a good one and deserves a biblical response.

The sacraments were given to the church, not to the family, state or private individuals. Only the church has the authority to dispense the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper (Matt. 16:18-19; 18:15-20; 28:16-20).

Jesus Christ is the only king and head of the church. He rules it by his word and Spirit. He has granted authority to ministers and ruling elders (always a plurality, never single individuals) to rule in the church. When these church officers rule in accordance with Scripture, their rulings have the authority of heaven itself (the literal translation of Matt. 18:18 is "whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven," cf. NASB). Study the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXX with its proof texts (find the link on the page http://www.opc.org/documents/standards.html).

Here is the text:

"Chapter XXX.
Of Church Censures

"I. The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.

"II. To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed; by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.

"III. Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.

"IV. For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person."

The purposes of church discipline are (1) obedience to the Word, (2) the honor of Christ, (3) the purity of the church, and (4) the restoration of the offender.

In 1 Corinthians 5:1-7 the apostle Paul directs that the church deliver an incestuous member over to Satan (church discipline) "for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." In 2 Corinthians 2:6ff. he reports that the discipline had had its intended salutary effect and the penitent sinner should now be restored to full fellowship.

Many churches take the easy way out and avoid discipline altogether. This is frequently considered to be the loving thing to do. But we cannot be more loving than the Lord Jesus Christ. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth" (Heb. 12:6; cf. Prov. 3:12). If a church does not discipline its members it fails to love them.

The Reformers taught that church discipline was one of the three marks of the church. This teaching is summarized in the Belgic Confession, Article XXIX:

"The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself."

If a church utterly fails to discipline members living in flagrant sin it forfeits its right to be called a true church.

Hope this helps. Feel free to follow up with further questions. God bless.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

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