Taking Action in Time

Thomas E. Tyson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 3-4

“When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).

One of the most difficult things that a session has to do is exercise church discipline speedily. This is so for several reasons.

First, a session needs to surmount the obstacle presented by members who do not think that the session ought to exercise discipline at all. It may appear surprising to say this, but it’s true. The session of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church served by this writer once faced a request by a member to have her name removed from the roll on the grounds that session had excommunicated someone! No doubt other sessions have faced similar situations. However, it is not the purpose of this article to lay again the biblical foundation for church discipline. I will assume that elders are well acquainted with their responsibility to exercise discipline.

Second, there is the objection presented not only by church members, but sometimes also by session members themselves, that church discipline ought not to be exercised speedily. Often this position is presented in the name of love and compassion. The thought is that offending members need understanding and time. Perhaps they will correct their way. Speedy discipline will only alienate them and maybe even tempt them to continue in their disobedient ways. So, a session ought to move very slowly, urging them to repent and praying for them, but moving on to formal discipline only when all else fails.

Third, there is the difficulty presented in each disciplinary case of knowing just how to proceed in a biblically ordered fashion. A session needs wisdom to discern how obedience to the Lord dictates both the session’s and the member’s behavior when an offense has been committed. Because that correct behavior is not always easy to discover, and because difference of opinion on questions of procedure may sometimes surface within the session, the temptation is always there to delay or postpone action. “We better not act hastily, especially when we don’t enjoy unanimous agreement on how to act!”

This article addresses particularly the second of these three difficulties, namely, to establish that the speedy exercise of discipline is not an optional matter but is rather mandated by God in his Word.

To this end it will be helpful for us to take a careful look at the very pointed statement of Ecclesiastes 8:11 quoted above. The human author of this book of the Bible, called “The Preacher,” or “The Teacher,” considers the character of human life and can conclude only that it is vain. The existence of man, sinful as he is, can only be characterized as a vicious cycle. Locked in evil and unrighteousness, he confronts futility everywhere. His only hope lies outside himself: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Consequently, it would be an understatement to say that the Preacher does not have much confidence in the likelihood of people doing the right thing naturally.

The truth of the matter is that people, left to their own devices, can be counted on to do the wrong thing. In fact, people keep on doing evil especially when they see that they’re not punished right away. That is precisely the point of the verse called to our attention. The Preacher tells us that “sentence” for a crime is not being carried out quickly. The word is pith-gam—not a Hebrew word, but one borrowed from the Persians. Ahasuerus’ edict regarding Queen Vashti, or Artaxerxes’ and Cyrus’ decrees regarding work on the rebuilding of Jerusalem, for instance. What is in view in this “sentence” is a word or a saying of a judge, king or other person in authority. It is, therefore, something that should, and (depending upon who is the authority!) will be carried out, or done. Here, it refers to the pronouncement of a judge—specifically, the sentence that he has prescribed for wrongdoing.

It is the delay in application of that sentence which the Preacher notices. And he warns us of an extremely disastrous result of such delay. It would not be an overstatement to describe it as a perversity that is inevitable: you can count on folks stepping up their sinning when they see that they’re not being punished right away. Their hearts “are filled with schemes to do wrong” when they think that they can get away with them.

The offender whose sentence is delayed thinks within himself: “I’m not punished yet—and maybe I never will be.” The prophet Isaiah had a similar message from the Lord: “though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and regard not the majesty of the Lord” (Isa. 26:10). Now, true it is: God often shows mercy in withholding punishment, and for this he is to be eternally praised. But this is no ground for us to fail to do what he has commanded.

God has commanded the elders of his church to discipline offenders for anything in their doctrine or practice which is contrary to the Word of God. “Are you not to judge those inside?... Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Cor. 5:12,13). The session “shall...exercise discipline over the members of the church” (Form of Government, XIII:7). Sentence for a crime needs to be carried out. Unrepentant offenders need admonishment, rebuke, suspension from membership privileges, deposition from office, or even excommunication. The sentence needs to fit the crime, of course. But it must be pronounced, and administered.

And, according to the Preacher, it must be administered speedily. For if it isn’t, this you can (should!) expect: offenders will use that delay as a base for carrying on their evil-doing. They just will. You have God, in his Word, to trust for that prediction.

Now, let there be no confusion on this matter. In nothing that we have said thus far have we intended to imply that elders ought to act in a rash, foolhardy, or capricious manner as they seek to exercise discipline in the church of Jesus Christ. Nor may the regulations of our denomination’s Book of Discipline—which regulations protect and preserve member’s rights—be either ignored or glossed over lightly. Wisdom, care, and painstaking attention to truthfulness must always characterize the session’s endeavors. And love. Yes, love.

But it is not loving to delay discipline. It is not loving for parents to delay discipline of their children and it is not loving for elders to delay discipline of God’s children. For, in both cases, the Preacher’s dire forecast may be counted on to come true: wrongdoers gather strength for their wrongdoing from namby-pamby treatment!

We have not answered all questions in this article. More may be said. But let this, at least, suffice for now: church elders need to exercise discipline speedily. God’s Preacher has told us.

Rev. Thomas E. Tyson has been a pastor in several congregations in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and has also served two congregations of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand. He is currently the General Secretary of our Committee on Christian Education and has given enthusiastic support and leadership at every step in the creation of Ordained Servant. This article is extracted from Ordained Servant, vol. 1, no. 1.