The Most Extreme Form of Church Discipline

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1994)

February 5, 1993

I am most appreciative of Geoffrey Smithís excellent article “Discipline Is Not a Dirty Word” in Vol. 2, No. 1 of Ordained Servant. I do, however, raise a question regarding a statement he makes on page 23. “Consider the most extreme form of discipline: denying the Lordís Supper (i.e. excommunication) to an impenitent church member.”

My question: Is the denial of the Lord’s Supper the most extreme form of discipline the church administers? While it is true that non-participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a “non-communing” activity and to be barred from such activity by a judicial action of the local session is indeed grave, I think we need to be careful not to equate this censure as being the most extreme form of discipline.

In this area of church censures I have found Robert Shaw’s An Exposition on the Confession of Faith (Christian Focus Publications, 1980) on the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter XXX, “Of Church Censures,” sections II, III, and IV to be most helpful. Section IV of the Confession states, “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 Confession differentiates between suspension and excommunication. Shaw’s commentary on this section is beneficial.

The censures of the Church are spiritual in their nature and effects. They are appointed by Christ for the benefit of offenders, and have a tendency, as means, to promote their recovery, and not their destruction. As offenses differ in degrees of guilt and circumstances of aggravation, the Church is to proceed according to the nature and degree of the offense committed. In some cases a simple admonition will suffice (Tit. 3:10). A greater degree of guilt will call for a rebuke, solemnly administered in the name of Jesus Christ (Tit. 1:13; 1 Tim. 5:20). Scandals of greater magnitude will require the suspension of the offender from the sacrament of the Lord’s supper for a season (2 Thess. 3:14). This is called the lesser excommunication; and the highest censure which the Church has the power to inflict is called the greater excommunication (Matt. 18:17). We have an example in the case of the incestuous man, who was delivered “unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). It does not, according to the Popish notion, consist in literally delivering up the offender to the devil, but in casting him out of the Church into the world, which is described in Scripture as Satan’s kingdom.

Shaw speaks of a lesser and greater excommunication, the “lesser” being the suspension from or denial of the Lord’s supper and the “greater” being the removal from membership in the visible church.

The “greater” excommunication is the removal of one from the care and discipline of the Church of Jesus Christ. The New Testament describes this action of the termination of one’s membership in the visible church as “removal from the midst” (I Corinthians 5:2), “clean out the old leaven” (I Corinthians 5:7), “deliver such a one to Satan” (I Timothy 1:20), and “treat him as a heathen and a tax gatherer” (Matthew 18:17). This excommunication is the removal from the midst of the covenant community. It is to be “put out of the fellowship.” One is no longer considered a member of the visible church of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, in conclusion, I think it will serve us well if we keep these distinctions in mind when we speak of church censures and recognize that this “greater” excommunication is the most extreme form of discipline.

Sincerely in Christ,
Rev. Peter Stazen II
Pilgrim OPC
Metamora, Michigan