Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 3.4–6

Alan D. Strange

4. Offenses are either public or private. Public offenses are those which are commonly known. Private offenses are those which are known to an individual only, or, at most, to a very few individuals. Private offenses may or may not be personal, a personal private offense being one which involves injury to the person bringing the charge.

Comment: An offense, as seen in 3 (above), must be properly established as something that, if proven true, would be a violation of God’s Word, the secondary standards of the church, and of a serious character (to warrant a trial). Now BD 3.4 notes that offenses established to be of that sort—the kind that this chapter regards as properly chargeable and triable (most offenses, being more minor, are to be covered and/or simply forgiven, cf. 1 Pet. 4:8; Mark 11:25)—are either public or private; furthermore, it seeks to define those two adjectives that modify offenses. While it may seem common sense to say that a public offense is widely known and a private offense is known only to or by one or two, the careful definitions given here are more helpful than that, as they give the judicatory the necessary discretion in determining whether the offense is public or private.

Public offenses are those which are commonly known. It is important to note here that something may be commonly known sinfully, i.e., it may have been a private offense that the offended party proclaimed to all about him, making it widely known. This does not make it properly a public offense and may, in fact, make the person or persons who have needlessly made it public liable for charges to be brought against them. Having said that, a public offense proper is ordinarily something committed in the sight of more than one, being known by more than a few. This last observation—more than a few—also highlights that a private offense is not only necessarily restricted to the knowledge of one party but also may be known only to “a few,” which has classically been described in the three to five range.

Furthermore, a private offense, known to one or only a few, also has an additional element: it may be personal or not personal. A personal sin is one committed by a private person (not by someone acting in an authoritative capacity, like an office-bearer) against another person, an equal acting in their private capacity (not a sin by someone in their office-bearing capacity). For instance, this means that a sin of a pastor acting as a pastor against a parishioner, or vice-versa, is not what is in view in Matthew 18, in the first instance. What is in view here is the private act of equals sinning against one another personally and not in some corporate capacity. It should also be noted that a doctrinal sin is not regarded as a personal sin. To speak or teach falsely is a transgression against a holy God but is not a personal sin in the meaning of this passage. 

So to sum up all that has been established thus far in BD 3 about Matthew 18: Matthew 18:15–17 has in view, in the first and original instance, a situation in which someone alleges sin against them of another who is their equal; this sin is private, known to them alone, or only a few, and is also personal, both parties acting in their personal capacities as Christians. Matthew 18, to clear up pervasive misunderstandings of it, is not requiring a parishioner who alleges abuse to go alone to the pastor or the elder and “confront” him about it. Nor does Matthew 18 require “private confrontation” of a wife or a child to an allegedly abusive husband or parent. In such cases, a parishioner alleging abuse may come directly to the session and speak to it about the alleged abuse, as the session has direct oversight of all its members acting in their official capacities of pastor, elder, father, husband, and the like, even as a child may go to a receptive father in the case of the alleged abuse of his mother and is not required, under Matthew 18, to go to his mother privately. The idea here finds an analog in the military chain-of-command: a soldier alleging mistreatment by his sergeant does not go to the general but does go to the most immediate superior to the sergeant to report such.

Matthew 18 describes personal private allegations and not matters that involve officers of family or church in their official capacities. For instance, a parishioner may come to a pastor and say, “May I speak to you as one Christian to another and not as a parishioner to a pastor?” If the pastor says, “No, I am your pastor and must speak to you in that role in this conversation,” that sort of response should make clear that we are not then dealing in a Matthew 18 framework. It is impossible to describe every case here. This treatment is meant to be suggestive and not exhaustive. We want to be sure in all cases never to misuse Matthew 18, and we do when we insist on its usage when inappropriate (plain and simple, a frightened and/or intimidated inferior need not go to an overbearing superior—that is not what this passage describes or requires, and it should not be allowed by responsible parties to be misused in this way).

Matthew 18, then, in the first instance describes the allegation of a personal, private offense, one which involves injury to the person bringing the charge of an offense. Obviously, the one against whom the alleged sin was committed may bring a charge of an offense, or, occasionally, another party (say, one of the two or three witnesses of the second step) may also bring the charge instead, as the situation seems to warrant. In many cases, the judicatory, to whom the charge of a personal, private party is brought in due course (after exhausting steps 1 and 2, going alone and then with two or three witnesses), takes it up and brings the charge itself against the allegedly offending party (BD 3.8).

5. No charge of a personal private offense shall be admitted unless the judicatory has assured itself that the person bringing the charge has faithfully followed the course set forth in Matthew 18:15–17; nor shall a charge of a private offense which is not personal be admitted unless it appears that the plaintiff has first done his utmost privately to restore the alleged offender. However, even in the case of public offenses, it is not wrong to seek reconciliation in terms of Matthew 18:15–17 or Matthew 5:21–26 or Galatians 6:1.

Comment: For extended commentary on the circumstances of Matthew 18:15–17, particularly as applying to equals (and not, in the first instance, to inferiors and superiors), please see my commentary on BD 3.1 and 3.4, above. It should be noted here that nothing in any of these comments should be taken to suggest that Matthew 18:15–17 may not ideally be in view in healthy relationships, even between parties that are not equals. For example, one would expect that in a healthy marriage relationship the wife, though in some sense an inferior to her husband, as defined in WLC 127–128, is also, in another sense, his equal (WLC 131–132), and she should be able to speak to her husband openly and freely about any alleged offenses against her. However, this chapter of the BD, having in view charges and that which is preliminary to a judicial trial, generally has application in cases that are not healthy, e.g., in which the marriage relationship, e.g., has broken down. That which may characterize healthy relationships, then, cannot be insisted upon when those very relationships are in breakdown, central to which are often questions involving abuse of authority (WLC 129–130). 

This section, BD 3.5, makes clear that anyone who alleges that another has committed against them a personal, private offense should follow the instructions of our Lord in Matthew 18:15–17. Several points concerning this have already been established in the commentary on BD 3 thus far. A personal offense is one alleged to have been committed against the person who brings the allegation and not against another person or persons. A personal offense, in other words, is not an impersonal offense—an impersonal offense may involve an attack on others (i.e., not on oneself) or perhaps a doctrinal offense made by a minister in writing or in some public address, including a sermon. A private offense is one that is known either only by the person against whom the offense was allegedly committed or by a few others. A private offense is not a public offense—a public offense might occur when someone slanders another in a congregational meeting of the church.

These non-private, thus public, cases of alleged offenses do not require the employment of Matthew 18, but, as the last sentence of section 5 notes, it may not be ill-advised to seek reconciliation even of public offenses in terms of Matthew 18 (and other related places in the Bible). An example might be that the one against whom alleged slander occurred in the meeting of a congregation, which is decidedly a public offense, may speak to the offender and seek reconciliation with him, even though the alleged offense was public. Matthew 5:21–26 and Galatians 6:1 are also brought in here as other places that address restoration of alienated or sinning parties. They are generally understood to refer to private, personal sins, but they too, like Matthew 18, may be properly in view even with public sins.

The Matthew 5 passage reminds us that proper self-examination, such as one engages in preparatory to coming to the Lord’s table, might prompt a convicted party to recognize his own sin against another, even a public sin, and move him to seek the other to express sorrow for sin and repentance of the same, leading to reconciliation. Galatians 6 speaks about those who are “spiritual,” i.e., spiritually mature in some measure, who have an eye to their own propensity to sin, gently restoring someone caught in transgression, even applicable in some cases to a public sin. The emphasis here is that a humble, self-aware, ministering spirit is needed in addressing sin and restoring the sinner, even in public sin. Public sin should be handled as kindly and carefully as the situation may warrant, even as with private sin.

Thus, while it is not inappropriate to employ Matthew 18 (and other passages) even in cases of public sin, as noted immediately above, it is necessary that such be employed in cases of personal, private sin for those who wish to deal with their alleged offenders. This means that one may not simply bring a charge against an equal without having first sought to regain that one at the most personal and local levels. One is not simply, as a first step, to “take it to the church” if one alleges that one’s brother has offended personally and privately. One first goes to one’s brother. This does not necessarily mean only one time. One may, in earnestly seeking to win the other, go more than once, if the alleged offender is open to such, and one seeks genuinely to “win him over” by private appeal. In all cases, one must never view the first step as something to be dispensed with as quickly as possible so that the other steps can be brought into view as quickly as possible. Having said that, though, if the offended going to the alleged offender does not yield satisfaction, even at long last, then step two, taking one or two others along in seeking resolution, may be enacted.

Step two, taking another one or two to go with you and speak to the alleged offending party, may also be done more than once, particularly if the alleged offending party is open to multiple visits as part of an effort to persuade. Here some care should be taken in who the additional witness or two might be. They should not simply be a gang of friends of the offended who accompany him to, as it were, beat up the alleged offender. No, they should be, in keeping with Gal. 6:1, spiritual persons who have good discernment. All things being equal, it seems wise to secure office-bearers, especially ministers or elders, who have been already adjudged as spiritually mature, to help with this.

They need to be parties able to judge and assist in several respects: whether what is being alleged as an offense is truly an offense (i.e., a violation of the Ten Commandments) or just something that the offended party does not like; whether the alleged offending party seems sincerely repentant (perhaps the offended party wants a pound of flesh and refuses to accept evident broken-heartedness on the part of the offender); and other ways in which the “two or three witnesses” may seek to offer assistance in resolving the dispute between the two parties. The important thing here is that even as the first step of Matthew 18:15–17 should not be considered pro forma (“we all know that this is going to the session, but we have to go through the motions of the first step of Matthew 18”) so neither should the second step.

All this is to say, then, that personal, private parties at odds with each other must do all within their powers to effect reconciliation in the first and second steps of Matthew 18:15–17 before engaging the third step, which is to bring the matter to the church, i.e., to those who serve as the representatives and governors of the church, the session or the presbytery (as the case may be).[1] Congregationalists may believe that this means that the third step is to bring the matter to the whole church; Presbyterians do not agree with this, believing that the session of the local congregation acts on its behalf in governing the church. When that third step is engaged, however, the session—this is the burden of this section of BD 3—must assure itself that the person bringing the charge of a personal private offense to the session has done everything within his power sincerely and earnestly, not just nominally, to follow Matthew 18:15–17.

Matters in a case ought to be resolved as personally, privately, and locally as possible. Thus, even when a party brings a charge to the session of a private offense that is not personal (i.e., it is not an offense against the person bringing it to the church), the session must assure itself that the party bringing such a charge has done all within his power to restore the alleged offender privately. This is clearly the meaning of “nor shall a charge of a private offense which is not personal be admitted unless it appears that the plaintiff has first done his utmost privately to restore the alleged offender.” So much is it the case that it is worth trying to restore someone privately, not seeking needlessly to shame even someone who may have sinned publicly (as in a doctrinal case or public slander), that the principles of private restoration, present in passages like not only Matthew 18:15–17 but also Matthew 5:21–26 and Galatians 6:1, may be used when appropriate, even in cases of public restoration.

The genius of this whole line of argumentation is that, in those cases for which Matthew 18:15–17 is mandated (private, personal sins among equals), the judicatory must assure itself that every reasonable step has been taken by a person bringing a charge, short of bringing such a charge. In other words, the bringer of a charge to a judicatory must have done his utmost to reconcile with his alleged offender (if it is a proper Matthew 18 case) before he brings a charge to a judicatory and before said judicatory admits any such charge. And even in the cases that are not strictly Matthew 18 ones (the alleged offense is not personal), the judicatory must still insist on attempts to private restoration, recognizing that if such may even be appropriate in cases involving public sin, it certainly is required in cases of private sin, even when not personal.

6. When a member of the church is about to present a charge, he shall be solemnly warned by the judicatory that he may be censured if the judicatory, after conducting the preliminary investigation defined in this chapter, Section 7, determines that judicial process with respect to such charge may not be instituted. No censure stronger than a rebuke shall be pronounced without a trial.

Comment: This section reflects that in the case of a charge being brought to the judicatory by a “member of the church,” which is to say, by a private party (this does not apply, to be clear, in the case of a judicatory bringing a charge, as described in BD 3.8), such party is to be “solemnly warned” by the judicatory. The warning is to be issued to the bringer of the charge at the point in which he is presenting it to the church (i.e., when it is being received as part of correspondence and judged properly a charge), though it has not yet enjoyed a preliminary investigation. The warning should ordinarily be done with the person being warned personally present unless the party is providentially hindered from being present at the relevant meeting of the judicatory. A judicatory should ordinarily postpone action on receiving a charge if it is not able in some fashion (in person or by some telecommunication means) to bring the warning at this point. It may choose to notify the bringer of the charge of this warning by correspondence, but, in any case, the judicatory should not proceed unless and until it knows that the bringer of the charge has heard this warning and still wishes to proceed with the charge(s). It is crucial that a private party bringing a charge receive the warning at the point of presenting so that he is fully cognizant of what is at stake in bringing a charge to a judicatory and indicates his desire to go forward with the charge.

The justification for such a procedure arises from the general equity (WCF 19.4) of Deuteronomy 19:15–21, which sets forth certain rules concerning witnesses. Specifically, verses 16–19 set forth what is to be done in the case of a false, or “malicious” (ESV), witness who brings a spurious charge against the accused. Verse 19 makes clear that false charges come back on the heads of the bringers: “then you shall do to him [the false accuser] as he had meant to do to his brother [falsely accused].” We do not believe that general equity necessarily requires us in the New Testament era to mete out the same punishment upon the false accuser as occurred in the Old Testament; nonetheless, it is fitting that a warning be given to someone bringing a charge that proves ultimately not able to be duly processed (as set forth in BD 3.7). The warning to be given thus informs the one bringing a charge that if the preliminary investigation of BD 3.7 determines that there is no warrant to institute judicial process in this case, the bringer of the charge may himself become the subject of judicial proceedings.

These judicial proceedings may go in one of two directions if the judicatory finds that the charges brought to the judicatory merit dismissal: they may involve, in more serious cases, the bringing of a charge against the “malicious” bringer of a charge, something that may result in a trial for the false bringer (though not if they come as their own accuser, BD 5.1) and may involve, if he is found guilty, any censure up to and including suspension and excommunication. In less serious cases, the judicatory may determine that a charge and trial are not warranted and may issue what amounts to a summary judgment. If the judicatory takes this summary judgment path, involving no charge and trial, then it may issue a censure of admonition or rebuke—thus, the expression that “no censure stronger than a rebuke shall be pronounced without a trial.” Some readers of this expression have misappropriated it and mistakenly assumed that a judicatory in any case may issue an admonition or rebuke without trial, but this is restricted only to the cases in view in BD 3.6.

Perhaps a comment or two on what might constitute cases as more or less serious. The General Assembly in 1994 ruled, on appeal, that a rebuke proposed by a presbytery in a BD 3.6 case was out of order because the reason for the rebuke was that the charge itself contained “intemperate and disrespectful language.” The General Assembly opined that if the charge was indeed as characterized, that it was a serious matter, warranting charges and trials.[2] Charges of such were brought in their respective sessions against the parties who had brought the charges against their pastor, they were adjudged guilty, and the General Assembly subsequently upheld their more serious censures.[3] A less serious BD 3.6 infraction might be a frivolous charge that should never have been brought as a charge. In such a case, the lighter censures of admonition or rebuke, given in a summary fashion without trial, might be appropriate. Every case, of course, must be examined on its own merits, and no hard and fast rules can be laid down beforehand.

One of the questions that has confronted the OPC in recent years is this: which judicatory actually censures in BD 3.6 cases if the judicatory to whom the charge was brought is not the judicatory having original jurisdiction over the bringer of the charge?[4] The General Assembly ruled in 2010, by a slim majority, in a case in which the bringer of a charge was from a different congregation (of the same presbytery) than the session to which the charge was brought, that it was out of order for the trial judicatory to have proposed censure for someone not under its original jurisdiction.[5] The General Assembly, in a similar case, ruled in 2022, by a significantly wider margin, that the bringers of a charge, though under the original jurisdiction of a different judicatory, were liable to receive a rebuke from the judicatory to which they brought the charge.[6] The reasoning was that the judicatory to whom the charge was brought, in a BD 3.6 case and only in such a case, does assume a jurisdiction over all that come before it and thus can issue a censure if the charge is found not to warrant process and the censure does not exceed rebuke.

This remains then, potentially, a disputed matter among us. I believe that the most recent ruling of the General Assembly makes sense: the trial judicatory assumes jurisdiction adequate for a summary censure (admonition or rebuke) only in the BD 3.6 case of a charge that does not survive the preliminary investigation and thus warrants no process. If, of course, a judicatory believes that the charge contains more serious matters, then such would have to be handled by filing a charge in the judicatory of original jurisdiction, the sole judicatory which could try a member under its jurisdiction.


[1] The session has original jurisdiction over all the members of the local congregation (including deacons and ruling elders; BD 2.B); the presbytery has such over all the ministers in the regional church (BD 2.C.). Sometimes in this commentary session is used as the place to which charges are brought; this is true for all those whose membership is in the local church; in the case of ministers, they are brought to the presbytery.

[2] GA Minutes at https://opcgaminutes.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/1994-GA-61-red.pdf, 27–28.

[3] GA Minutes at https://opcgaminutes.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/1997-GA-64-red.pdf, 56–59.

[4] This is a matter about which this author disagrees with Stuart Jones; for Jones’s discussion of this, see his Commentary on the OPC BD, 52–56.

[5] GA Minutes at https://opcgaminutes.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2010-GA-77-red.pdf, pp. 40-48.

[6] GA Minutes at https://opcgaminutes.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/GA-Minutes-Yearbook-2022-Digital-Edition-No-CFM-Report-or-Ministers.pdf, pp. 43-44.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, January, 2023. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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Ordained Servant: January 2023

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