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New Horizons

Church Power

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

I stole a glance at the college newspaper when your folks had us over for dinner last week. It left me persuaded that the two constants in the story of my alma mater are the sorry fortunes of the basketball team and the dubious quality of student journalism. One feature of the latter that seems to be a rite of spring on many college campuses is the student uproar that ensues when a maverick though popular professor learns that his services will not be required the following year.

Of course, I cannot speak to the wisdom of the decision to terminate Dr. Donovan. But I was struck by how the editorialist described this miscarriage of justice. The writer ventured that this was far worse than excommunication, because Dr. Donovan's livelihood was at stake. This seems to be but one more example of how church power is underestimated in our day and age.

You will recall that the session excommunicated Mr. Taylor last summer. Understandably, that came as a great shock to you, given your pleasant memories of his high school Sunday school classes. Of course, I cannot go into any details about the situation, but I am sure you realize that the session took pains in seeking to bring Mr. Taylor to repentance and that we still pray for his restoration.

The reaction of many in the church owed to some popular misconceptions about church power. Church power is both real and spiritual—although that assertion strikes many Protestants today as an oxymoron. We tend to imagine that power is real only if it can be measured by worldly standards—if it grabs headlines or sends a signal to Washington, D.C. Yet church power is only spiritual. It has not been handed the sword (it cannot impose fines or organize boycotts), nor does it need the sword.

A recent writer has described the spirituality of church power as "toxic" because it renders the church functionally impotent. But I do not see how that complaint squares with a Reformed doctrine of the church. To transgress beyond our spiritual power is to succumb to a worldly and secularized mind-set. Still, I concede that for this very reason church censure is often treated with a yawn. Indeed, for all we know, Mr. Taylor may have already been entered on the rolls of another church, though he remains unreconciled with his former church.

So where is the power of church discipline? Consider this question: what happened to all the death penalties of the Old Testament civil code? These laws expired at the end of the Mosaic economy, according to our confession. But they did not completely disappear. If the church is the new Israel, the requirements for her holiness are no less demanding. Sexual immorality, murder, and theft are still serious sins that compromise the holiness of God's people, and we still practice capital punishment; excommunication is the death penalty. That is what excommunication entails, and for that reason we dare not take it lightly.

Of course, it does not help when other churches fail to take discipline seriously. A similar case arose in our session years ago, except that the individual left our church and reaffiliated (with a church with which we were not in an ecclesiastical relationship) before discipline could be completed. When the session sought to inform the pastor of the other church about the circumstances that prompted his new member to join, we were told (and I am not making this up) that this particular church chose not to involve itself in the personal affairs of its members!

Here is another common myth about church power: When Mr. Taylor was censured, some folks rose to his defense, arguing that the church had no right to bind his conscience. But of course it does. Whenever the Word of God is preached, and whenever the session deliberates on a church matter, consciences are inevitably and unavoidably bound. The real question is this: are we binding consciences by the Word of God or by the wisdom of men? Imagine a church where the session instructs parents to submit their children to infant baptism, and another that exhorts its flock to vote Republican. In both cases they have bound the consciences of their flocks. But sessions are required to do the former and forbidden from the latter.

Church power, as our Form of Government states, is "ministerial and declarative." Sessions are not free to legislate (that is, to erect new laws). The elders of the church are ordained by God to minister and declare the law that God has revealed in his Word. Take comfort in knowing that your session takes its use of "the keys of the kingdom" seriously.

And do not fear the discipline of the church. For one thing, it is a mark of the true church. Moreover, you yourself have been the object of church discipline all your life. The preached word and the sacraments are forms of discipline and so constitute those ordinances that Christ gave his apostles for the sake of discipling the nations.

Dr. Donovan has the unpleasant task of finding another employer in a difficult job market, and students have regrettably lost a favorite professor. But citizenship in the kingdom and membership in Christ's church fall in a far different category than tenure.

Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2010.

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