Alan D. Strange
Ordained Servant: August–September 2023
Also in this issue
by Calvin R. Goligher
by Gregory Edward Reynolds
by T. David Gordon
by An Older Elder
by T. David Gordon
by William Edgar
by Andrew Marvell (1621–1678)
1. In judicial discipline there are five degrees of censure: admonition, rebuke, suspension, deposition, and excommunication. Censures shall be pronounced in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as an act of the whole church, by the moderator on behalf of the trial judicatory.
Comment: Now we come in the BD to what is to be done in the case(s) of a party that has pled or been adjudged guilty at trial, has come as his own accuser, or is subject to the summary judgment described in BD 3.6. Different books of church order designate censures in various ways. The OPC designates five censures—admonition, rebuke, suspension, deposition, and excommunication. These censures, whether pronounced by a session or presbytery, are pronounced in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, in keeping with Matthew 16 and 18. All valid church power is only and entirely a ministerial and declarative act (FG 3.3), based on the Lordship of Christ, and of his calling and committing such power to ministers and elders in the joint governance of the church. The church has no inherent or unqualified power; it has only the power that Christ has given it (which is moral and suasive, not legal and coercive). This power is to be exercised in the way that Christ calls for it to be exercised as the one who is gentle and lowly in dealing with sinners, firm and decisive in dealing with sin.
It should also be noted that this act is an act of the whole church. It is not merely an act of a local session or a particular presbytery. It is pronounced as an act of the whole church, either because it was not appealed, or, if appealed, it was upheld as a censure on appeal. To be sure, censures are always first proposed and reported to the guilty party. This gives an opportunity for such a party to appeal the proposed censure (as well as the verdict, if he chooses). If the censure is overturned or modified, what was proposed as an act of the whole church is not such an act; if overturned, this is not the position of the whole church, or if modified, some lesser censure is the position of the whole church. In this way, then, every censure, either because not appealed or upheld on appeal, is properly said to be a censure of the whole church. It ought to be regarded by the whole church as such (by other sessions and presbyteries) and by those churches with which the OPC enjoys fraternal ecclesiastical relationships.
The first two censures conclude a case, i.e., if a judicatory admonishes or rebukes a guilty party, no further censure may be had without further judicial process. For example, if someone comes before a judicatory as his own accuser, and, based on that, a session determines to propose a censure of rebuke, that censure, when pronounced, concludes the case. The judicatory cannot proceed to suspension or excommunication after the censures of admonition, rebuke, or definite suspension without further judicial process. Some churches regard these lesser censures as graduated, so that they begin with admonition/rebuke (or their equivalent in that church order) and proceed, without further process, to more serious censures if those lesser censures are deemed insufficient or ineffective for the case. This is not the way that we have agreed together, which is what the Book of Church Order is, to operate when proposing and pronouncing censures.
Rather, if someone is rebuked for sin X in keeping with the OPC BD, then the judicatory should be as sure as it can be that he is repentant of the particular sin, since that rebuke concludes the case, and any further censure will require some sort of further judicial process (trial or coming as one’s own accuser). This is why judicatories that are uncertain, especially in the cases of more serious sin, of the repentance of a censurable party might wish to consider indefinite suspension, which is generally the proper censure in cases in which the judicatory either sees clear impenitence or remains unsure about clear repentance.
2. If a person who has been adjudged guilty refuses or fails to present himself for censure at the time appointed, the trial judicatory shall cite him to appear at another time. If he does not appear after this citation, the censure shall be pronounced in his absence.
Comment: Similar to proceeding with judicial process in the case of someone who refuses to appear for trial, a judicatory may also proceed to censure in the case of one who fails, or refuses, to appear to hear his censure pronounced. The judicatory is to follow this procedure: cite the person adjudged guilty to present himself for censure at the time appointed; if he refuses or fails to appear at the appointed time, cite him to appear again at another time. If the party does not appear when cited a second time, the judicatory should proceed and pronounce the censure in his absence.
B. Degrees of Censure
Admonition consists in tenderly and solemnly confronting the offender with his sin, warning him of his danger, and exhorting him to repentance and to greater fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Comment: This is the lowest degree censure. As discussed above, it concludes a case. An admonition seems most fitting when someone has come as his own accuser, is clearly penitent, and the judicatory wishes to speak firmly yet gently to the penitent sinner. The sinner is to be tenderly and solemnly (this is a judicial censure, after all) confronted with the particular sin(s), warned of the danger in living and walking this way (of impenitence and repeat offense), and exhorted to repent (repentance is something that grows; true repentance does not repudiate itself on subsequent reflection but intensifies, seeing the sin as more and more heinous) and to walk with Christ with greater faithfulness.
Rebuke is a form of censure more severe than admonition. It consists in setting forth the serious character of the offense, reproving the offender, and exhorting him to repentance and to more perfect fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Comment: Rebuke is more severe than admonition, though it too, as noted above, concludes a case. It sets forth in its expression to the guilty party the serious character of the offense, confronting him with the heinousness of the sin and reproving/rebuking the offender. The offender is to be further exhorted to repentance (perhaps this is a sin for which he came as his own accuser but is deemed more serious, or the circumstances make it such, as the sin in view for admonition) and to a fuller and more mature faithfulness with respect to the Lord Jesus Christ.
a. Suspension is a form of censure by which one is deprived of the privileges of membership in the church, of office, or of both. It may be for a definite or an indefinite time. Suspension of an officer from the privileges of membership shall always be accompanied by suspension from office, but the latter does not necessarily involve the former.
b. An officer or other member of the church, while under suspension, shall be the object of deep solicitude and earnest dealing to the end that he may be restored. When the trial judicatory which pronounced the censure is satisfied of the penitence of the offender, or when the time of suspension has expired, the censure shall be removed and the offender shall be restored. This restoration shall be accompanied by a solemn admonition. Restoration to the privileges of membership may take place without restoration to those of office.
c. When a minister has been indefinitely suspended, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.
Comment: Whereas admonition and rebuke conclude a case—nothing further can be done in such cases without further trial or the equivalent—suspension may or may not do so. In the case of a definite suspension, no additional censure may be added without further trial (or coming as one’s own accuser). This is why when there is not repentance or repentance is unclear (perhaps requiring a better manifestation), indefinite suspension is customarily what the judicatory adopts; otherwise, the judicatory, in cases of definite suspension, will have to engage in further trial to increase censure. In any and all cases, suspension (definite and indefinite) involves a higher degree of censure than admonition or rebuke: when suspended one is deprived of the privileges of membership in the church, or of office in the church, or both.
Suspension from the privileges of membership would mean that during the time of suspension—whether for a definite period, say six months, or indefinitely, until one clearly repents—the member cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper, vote in congregational meetings, teach Sunday School, or engage in anything that requires active membership in the local church. They may certainly attend church and should be encouraged to do so, even the local church that has suspended them, if they properly behave themselves and are not a threat to any of the members of the local church. There are circumstances that warrant their attending another church (such as the presence of parties in their home church that they have abused or otherwise sinned against in a threatening way) or not attending at all if they are determined to disrupt the public worship of the church (sometimes people become disruptive who are under suspension or have been excommunicated, and they must not be allowed to disturb other worshippers). Suspension for a definite time may be the censure for someone who has committed a grave sin but appears repentant, and the session thinks that a consequence for sin greater than rebuke is needed. Suspension from office means that the one suspended neither possesses the privileges nor performs the duties of office during the time of his suspension.
The last sentence of 3.a. is quite important. One who is an officer may never be suspended from membership without first being suspended from office. In other words, the membership of an officer should never be touched without first touching his office-bearing. So, if an officer is to be suspended definitely or indefinitely from membership, he must first be suspended correspondingly from office. It is the case that proper censure in judicatories sometimes misfires at this point. For instance, a minister may commit a sin or sins deemed worthy of censure, but the presbytery only touches his office (by way of suspension or deposition), failing to touch his membership. The same may happen at the sessional level with the elder or deacon. This is particularly egregious when the sin committed would, in the case of a member, have received, at least, the censure of suspension from membership.
An officer should not have only his office touched and not his membership in cases in which the membership of the member would have resulted in censures like suspension from the privileges of membership. Suspension or removal from office may involve not touching the officer’s church membership when the reason for such has to do strictly with his performance of office (perhaps he departs from the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the church in a way that unfits him for office, but he refuses to leave office). An officer being disciplined, though, for something that would result in censure for the member should be censured in both his office and his membership. Otherwise, it may appear to the membership that office-bearing inures one from proper discipline as a member, and this must not be the case. Officers must be disciplined in both their office and their membership when such is warranted.
When an officer, or member, is under suspension, he shall be “the object of deep solicitude and earnest dealing” with the goal of full restoration to office and/or membership. This BD directive means not only that the judicatory should be much in prayer for the one suspended from office or membership, seeking to deal sincerely with him, urging repentance and hoping for restoration, but that the membership of the broader church, as appropriate, should likewise pray for and labor with the suspended party as circumstances allow with a view to his restoration. This next clause is crucial: “when the trial judicatory which pronounced the censure is satisfied of the penitence of the offender,” in the case of indefinite suspension, “the censure shall be removed, and the offender shall be restored.” It is not in the discretion of the offender, or even of those against whom he has sinned, that the determination of his penitence resides; it is in the determination of the judicatory that pronounced the censure.
Restoration both to membership and to office is to take place accompanied by a solemn admonition. This admonition is along the lines of the admonition that forms the lowest degree of censure, in which the now penitent sinner is to be exhorted to greater fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ. Such restoration takes place, in the case of definite suspension, at the end of the time determined for such, even as it does for indefinite suspension, upon the determination of the trial judicatory that repentance has occurred. One may, of course, be restored to the privileges of membership without being restored to the privileges of office, although the reverse is never the case. Whenever a minister is indefinitely suspended from office, his presbytery, as the judicatory that took such action, shall notify all the presbyteries of the OPC of its action in thus censuring one of its ministerial members.
a. Deposition is a form of censure more severe than suspension. It consists in a solemn declaration by the trial judicatory that the offender is no longer an officer in the church.
b. When a minister is deposed from his office, the presbytery shall erase his name from the roll of the ministerial members of the presbytery and dismiss him to a particular church or enroll him as a member of the regional church without membership in a particular church.
c. Deposition of a pastor or his suspension for an indefinite time involves the dissolution of the pastoral tie. The sentence of deposition or suspension shall be read before the congregation, and the pulpit shall be declared vacant. In case of suspension for a definite period the presbytery, after giving the session an opportunity to be heard, shall decide whether the pastoral relation shall be dissolved.
d. When a minister has been deposed, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.
Comment: Deposition is the action that a session takes to remove one of its local officers (deacon or ruling elder) or that a presbytery takes to remove one of its ministerial members. This is a form of censure more severe than suspension, because it involves the complete removal from office of one who is a minister, ruling elder, or deacon. It occurs upon the conclusion of a judicatory that the officer should no longer hold church office because of some error in doctrine or sin in life that merits removal from office. The judicatory coming to such a determination solemnly declares that the guilty party is no longer an officer in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When a minister is thus deposed, or removed, from his office, the presbytery of which he has been a ministerial member shall erase his name from its roll of ministerial members. When his name is removed from that roll, it is to be placed on some other: either the roll of some particular church, in that or another presbytery, or on the roll of the regional church without membership in a particular church; in either case, it should be with the agreement of all the proper parties. The deposition, or indefinite suspension, of a minister who is pastor of a particular church, involves the dissolution of the pastoral relationship.
When a pastor is deposed or indefinitely suspended, the sentence of such shall be read before the congregation, and the pulpit shall be declared vacant. If the judicial censure of a pastor is definite suspension, the presbytery, after giving the session an opportunity to be heard in the matter, shall determine whether the pastoral relation shall be dissolved. When a minister is deposed, as when he is indefinitely suspended, the clerk of the judicatory taking such action shall immediately notify all the other presbyteries of the OPC.
Excommunication is the most severe form of censure and is resorted to only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence. It consists in a solemn declaration by an ecclesiastical judicatory that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ.
Comment: Excommunication is the most severe form of censure available to the church. Even as a suspension from all the privileges of membership entails that one may not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, vote in congregational meetings, etc., so excommunication involves the extension of such a censure, rendering what was definite or indefinite, in the case of suspension, permanent in the case of excommunication. This does not mean that one cannot repent and be restored to full communion in the church. This, in fact, is the goal and desire of excommunication, part of which involves the reclamation of the offender (as well as the promotion of the glory of Christ and the purity of the church).
It does mean that one is outside the visible church, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, until the church readmits one into its communion. The church is to resort to this censure only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence, suggesting that it is not the first censure to be resorted to, even in the cases of serious sin; rather, a record of impenitence should be in view for the one to be excommunicated. This is because the judicatory, in such cases, solemnly declares that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ, the most fearful declaration that can be made on this earth, even more so than any declaration of a civil court.
C. Procedural Considerations
1. Pronouncement of Censure
The indefinite suspension, deposition, or excommunication of an officer or other member of the church shall be announced to the church in which the officer holds office, or in which the member holds membership. These censures shall always be accompanied by prayer to God that he may graciously use the discipline for the restoration of the offender, the edification of the church, and his own glory.
Comment: If a member or an officer is indefinitely suspended, an officer deposed, or a member excommunicated, such censure(s) shall be announced to the church in which the officer holds office or in which the member holds membership. This assumes, it should be noted, that all appeals have been exhausted or not resorted to, as in all cases of proposed censures. The relevant bodies should have this information both for the purpose of knowing the status of such parties (and to know how to treat them as those under such censure—solicitously and earnestly, laboring with and for them for their restoration) and especially for the purpose of knowing how to pray for them. Such announcements of censure should always be accompanied by prayer, asking God to graciously use the discipline for the three-fold purpose of discipline: the restoration of the offender, the purity and building up of the church, and the glory of Christ.
2. Review of Suspension
a. In case of indefinite suspension, the judicatory of original jurisdiction shall review the suspension, not later than twelve months after imposition of censure, to determine whether or not the offender has shown repentance and may be restored.
b. When, in its review of suspension, the judicatory of original jurisdiction is not satisfied that the offender has shown repentance, the judicatory shall determine whether the suspension should be continued or increased to deposition or to excommunication or to both.
c. Continued suspension for an indefinite time shall be reviewed again within twelve months of the conclusion of the previous review.
Comment: In the case of indefinite suspension, there shall be a review by the judicatory of original jurisdiction of the censure no later than a year after its imposition. Review may take place any time short of a year (at say, three, six, or ninth months), but it must take place at a year if such suspension is still in place. The review shall be to determine the spiritual state of the one under suspension, particularly to ascertain whether or not the offender has shown repentance and may be restored. If, upon review, whether at a set time or because the offended party has made their penitence clear, the judicatory judges that repentance has occurred, the judicatory shall solemnly restore from suspension such a one to membership or office or both.
When, on the other hand, in its review of suspension, the judicatory of original jurisdiction is not satisfied that the offender has shown repentance, the judicatory shall determine whether to continue the censure of suspension from office or membership, or to increase the censure to deposition or to excommunication, or to both, as the cases may suggest or warrant. The point here is that with indefinite suspension it remains in the discretion of the judicatory as to whether the suspended party is repentant and whether or not they should be restored to all the privileges of office or membership. If the suspension is continued and not increased to excommunication or to deposition or to both, another review shall be held no later than twelve months after the last review.
3. Increase of Censure
a. No further trial is necessary to increase the censure of indefinite suspension from office to deposition or the censure of indefinite suspension from the privileges of church membership to excommunication.
b. If increase of censure is imposed, without further trial, it shall be the duty of the judicatory so acting to record the circumstances in its minutes.
c. The judgment to increase censure shall in any case be subject to appeal.
Comment: If the judicatory of original jurisdiction, having determined that the indefinitely suspended member remains impenitent, desires to increase the censure of indefinite suspension from the privileges of church membership to excommunication, it may do so without further trial. Further trial is also not necessary to increase censure in the case of the officer: the judicatory may go from indefinite suspension from office to deposition from office if and when it judges that to be appropriate. If the judicatory increases censure under this rubric (without further trial), it shall be the duty of the judicatory to record the circumstances of such increase in its minutes. In any and all cases, the judgment of the judicatory to increase censure shall be subject to appeal.
1. An officer deposed because of a commonly known offense shall be restored only after the judicatory has assured itself that the restoration will not be attended by injury to the cause of the gospel.
Comment: When an officer is deposed because of scandalous sin (as put here, a commonly known offense), he shall be restored only after a judicatory contemplating such has assured itself that his restoration will not also involve injury to the cause of the gospel. Such restoration is in the sole discretion of the judicatory contemplating such, not that of the formerly deposed or his friends. The judicatory must assure itself that any such restoration would not in any way harm the cause of the gospel. When such a determination is made, usually only after the passage of some time, it is often made by a judicatory in a location away from the place of the original offense. This is because, at least in part, it is often quite difficult to restore an officer, even when such may be thought proper, in the place where his offense occurred. Thus, restoration often occurs away from the time and space of the offense(s) that prompted removal from office. In any and all such cases, the judicatory should be quite certain of what it proposes to do and should do so only with great and evident support for the restoration of the one earlier deposed.
2. An officer who has been deposed cannot resume his former office without again being ordained.
Comment: When the restoration of a deposed officer is contemplated, such resumption of his former office can take place only by his being once again ordained, as if he had never before been ordained. There is no way to restore him after the fashion of an excommunicant, who upon manifest repentance is restored to all the privileges of membership; rather, the prospective officer who is to be restored must go through the process of ordination again, according to the discretion of the judicatory that contemplates his resuming his former office.
3. Restoration shall always be accompanied by a prayer of thanksgiving to God for his redeeming grace.
[Suggested forms to use for the public imposition and removal of censures can be found on pages 176-80.]
Comment: Restoration to membership in Christ’s church, as well as to church office, is always to be accompanied by a prayer of thanksgiving to God for his great and matchless redeeming grace. It is grace and grace alone that fits for membership and for office. It is grace alone that permits us to continue in either or both, and it is only the grace of God that restores us to such after a fall. All glory be to God alone. We are also here directed to the forms at the back of the book that may be used in imposing and removing ecclesiastical censures.
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 First Orthodox Presbyterian Church of South Holland, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, August/September, 2023. A list of available installments in this series appears here.
Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds
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Ordained Servant: August–September 2023
Also in this issue
by Calvin R. Goligher
by Gregory Edward Reynolds
by T. David Gordon
by An Older Elder
by T. David Gordon
by William Edgar
by Andrew Marvell (1621–1678)
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church