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Conflict Resolution in the Church, Part 1

Alan D. Strange

We might properly think of conflict resolution in the church in two main ways—informal and formal resolution of difficulties. Informal resolution of conflict is what ordinarily does and should occur, needing no elder intervention, private parties resolving matters among themselves. Formal resolution is what occurs in church discipline, which itself has its ordinary and extraordinary expressions: the former occurs in the ongoing making of disciples through a use of the ordinary means of grace; the latter occurs when there’s been a breakdown of ordinary discipline and the church must resort to censure, such as rebuke, suspension, and excommunication.

Conflict arises due to our sin. In the garden before the Fall, there was neither conflict between our first parents nor between them and their maker. But when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit, all of that dramatically changed. The once innocent pair now covered up, each seeking to hide from the other in newly-discovered shame, and both hiding from the God whom they had formerly adored and welcomed as he walked with them in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 1–3).

Now man in his sin is in rebellion against God and at war with each other. It’s hardly a surprise that if fallen man is in conflict with God, his maker and ruler, he would be in conflict with his fellow fallen man. We’ve witnessed this conflict through the ages both between persons and within the institutions of the family, the state, and even the church. Conflict has characterized our race since the Fall as Paul’s indictment in Roman 1–3 proves.

Christ came to set to rights all that Adam and we, as his guilty and polluted offspring, have marred (Rom. 5:12–21). He kept the whole law for us, never at fault in any situation of conflict, perfectly patient, perfectly honest, and, in fact, perfectly righteous in all things. He lived for us, as we say. One can think of Christ as the one who truly embodied all of the virtues of the righteous man in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms (He is the righteous man of Psalm 1; the one who “speaks the truth in his heart” of Psalm 15, and so forth).

And he died for us, to pay the penalty for all of our rebellion against God and conflict with each other (Rom. 5:1–11) and to break the power of reigning sin in our lives so that we begin to live, though but a small beginning even in the godliest, according to all his commandments (Heidelberg Catechism, 114; Rom. 6). Those who trust in Christ alone can begin to move away from conflict as those in Christ and no longer in Adam. Because of remaining sin, however, we still have rebellion with respect to God and conflict with each other (Rom. 7).

Much of the hortatory material of Scripture deals with this, calling us as believers to die to all that separates us and to live to that which makes for our peace and unity. Our Lord (in passages like Matt. 18 and Luke 17), Paul (in passages like Rom. 12, Gal. 5–6, Eph. 4–6, Col. 3–4, etc.), and others exhort us to live at peace as believers, and to resolve any conflict that we have by repenting of our sin against one another and by forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave us (Eph. 4:32).

This informal conflict resolution that is to be a regular part of the Christian life, because of the strength of remaining sin, needs supplementing with more formal conflict resolution; this is the concern of what we commonly refer to as church discipline. The rest of this essay will concern itself with the workings of church discipline, both as that is expressed in the ongoing exercise of the ordinary means of grace and in the more extraordinary censures of the church, when the ordinary means proves insufficient to resolve conflicts among the saints in the church. The word “discipline” seems formidable to many, evoking for even some, perhaps, abusive connotations. But discipline is one of the three marks of the true church (along with the pure preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments), and is not a mark of God’s disfavor, but of his love for his people.

What is discipline? It comes from the Latin word “discipilus” (with its cognates/derivatives): It means to be a disciple, follower, pupil, student, etc. We use it today when we ask someone at university, “What is your discipline?” It is that to which one gives oneself, as in “My discipline is history.” Thus a disciple of Christ is one who is (as Matt. 28:18–20 indicates): baptized (initiated into the faith); catechized and further trained; taught to obey whatsoever things the Lord has commanded. In short, a disciple is one who gives himself to Christ, who trusts and obeys, who believes the gospel and walks in obedience to Christ. Discipline, then, is the act of such self-giving and believing obedience.

This definition and understanding highlights something of a popular misconception of discipline. We tend to a reductionist view of discipline and automatically equate discipline with censure or punishment (as in “I am being disciplined”). But censure occurs only when discipline in this fuller sense has been absent and/or has failed in its intended purposes. Censure comes when one fails to walk in the obedience that discipline entails. Think of disciplining our children. Such discipline involves the whole task of filial training, not merely corporal punishment, which occurs when there is a failure of obedience. It is necessary to have this fuller view of discipline, that it means being a faithful disciple, as we seek to examine discipline in the church.

How then is such discipline, in this fuller sense, to be carried out in the life of the church member? Discipline is ordinarily effectual and formative in the lives of those who pursue and seek it—who want lives characterized by trust and obedience. The ordinary public means of the formation of Christian character are the public means of grace: The reading, and especially the preaching, of the Word of God (Westminster Larger Catechism 155); the sacraments, the improving of our baptisms, and the realization of the fellowship and communion of God with his people; and prayer, especially for the spiritual growth of ourselves and others (note especially the prayers of Paul).

Coupled with this is faithfulness in the private duties of religion, each in his own closet (personal devotions), as well as Bible reading and prayer in our families (family devotions). Deuteronomy 6 well illustrates this—“as we walk along the way”—parents talking to their children about school, church, relationships, and what they learn in personal and family devotions, etc. (address this all on elders’ visitation). Such private and public discipline forms Christian character and largely involves learning to live with each other so as both to avoid and resolve conflict.

Discipline can, and does, however, also include censure from others when disobedience manifests itself (thus not merely self-imposed and internalized, which is the goal of all training/discipline). This, in terms of church members, can occur at two levels. First, informally—a friend challenging, encouraging, even rebuking (“Should you speak to your wife that way?”), obviously with all the care encouraged in Matthew 7 and Galatians 6. Remember—do not seek to play the Holy Spirit. Or, an elder or pastor speaking in this way. This is still informal but carries a little more weight. Elders are to seek to resolve such matters before bringing them to the consistory or session. Even the elders, as a whole, speaking to an offending party is informal, as long as they are not in judicial session.

Second, formally, church discipline may be enacted by a court of the church, the consistory or session, acting in a judicial capacity. This generally presumes that informal approaches have failed or that it is a public sin of such consequence as to require formal action. From this point forward the OPC Book of Discipline (BD) will be regularly referenced in addition to the URCNA Church Order (CO), the latter of which devotes Articles 51–66 to Ecclesiastical Discipline. The OPC BD contains a fuller approach to church discipline than is found in the URCNA CO, and most other continental Reformed church orders have a fuller approach as well.

The judicatory (consistory or session) may issue lesser censures—admonitions and rebukes (these, as well as those that follow, are more fully described in BD 6; CO Article 55). Graver censure includes suspension in or deposition from office, and suspension of the privileges of church membership (CO Article 55). Finally, the gravest censure is excommunication, when someone remains persistent and impenitent in sin (CO Article 56).

Discipline throughout church history is itself an interesting study. It is, as noted above, one of the three marks of the true church, along with the pure preaching of the Word and a biblical administration of the sacraments. Church discipline is, as are the other two marks, a further incarnational reality of that church whose attributes are unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. The Reformation added the three marks of the church to the four attributes which, while necessary, were no longer deemed sufficient properly to identify a true church.

Church discipline as a mark of the true church means that the church is to be faithful to her Lord: each member personally and all the members together and as a whole are to live in submission to the Spirit of Christ. The body as a whole implicates itself when it fails to exercise discipline and censure sin (Josh. 7, 1 Sam. 2–4 and 1 Cor. 5); the body as a whole vindicates itself when it exercises discipline and censures sin (Josh. 8; 2 Cor. 7). This is no easy task, though, as seen in Galatians 6 and 2 Corinthians 2:5 and following, and must be done with great humility and charity.

Discipline has often, in the history of the church, either been neglected or abused. Calvin lamented its neglect in Geneva where open adulterers were coming to the Lord’s Table. For barring the table to libertines, among other things, he was sent into exile from 1538–41 in Strasbourg. The reluctance of the Genevan council to leave the question of admission to the table to the consistory stemmed from medieval clerical abuse of excommunication/interdict, etc. Even as the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages claimed, ultimately in every sense, to be over the state (Caesoropapism claimed the opposite—the state over the church), so churches touched by the Reformation sometimes did the opposite and espoused Erastianism (a Protestant form of the state over the church).

Excommunication, as well as deposition from office, has been abused throughout the history of the church, used as a tool to get one’s political enemies. We see such political abuse even in the early church (Athanasius, Chrysostom) but particularly in the Middle Ages with the rise and zenith of the papacy. The pretense of the church to exercise hegemony over the state made many reforming princes and governments gun-shy and tending toward Erastianism.

We can do either—neglect or abuse church discipline—in our churches today. Winking at sin (as may be done in many liberal and seeker-sensitive Protestant churches) is one way to neglect church discipline. Alternatively, we can go after those we regard as our enemies, in a political use of church discipline, which is a manifest abuse of discipline. Rather we need a humble, godly use of church discipline.

The basis of church discipline: God himself chastens us (Prov. 3; Heb. 12), so it is appropriate that such discipline should appear in the life of the church. He chastens us so as to enable us to die to sin and live to righteousness; to put off the old man and to put on the new man (Eph. 4:17 ff; Col. 3:5 ff.). Without chastening we go astray, even as do our children. Without chastening, sin is not checked in our hearts and lives, and we are treated not as sons but as illegitimate children (Heb. 12:8—it is the legitimate sons who are groomed by chastening to receive the inheritance; no chastening, no such grooming, and thus no inheritance). No son is then without chastening.

Even the Lord Jesus was not without discipline (Heb. 5:8): As Charles Haddon Spurgeon said, “God had but one Son without sin but he never had a son without chastisement.”[1] This makes it unmistakably clear: God chastens us not because he hates us but so that we might be sanctified (Deut. 1 and 8). Thus we are to be disciplined: by the Lord himself working in us; by trials and afflictions; by the self-examination that he requires at the table; by enabling us to put sin to death (“have salt in yourselves,” Mark 9); by others in our lives, in the “one-anothering” of the church, formally and informally, and by private counsel.

We are also disciplined by the governors appointed by God in the appropriate spheres: in the family—fifth commandment; in the state—Genesis 9; and in the church—the Matthew 16 and 18 grant of authority to the governors of the church. In each of these spheres, God has appointed governors to act on his behalf.

The nature and limit of church power in its discipline, as well as the purpose, is ministerial and declarative. Positively, that means that the power given to the church is to serve and to teach, like our Lord in John 13. Negatively, that means the power is not magisterial and legislative (as in hierarchical or some fundamentalist churches). Church power is, in other words, moral and suasive, not legal and coercive. As moral and suasive, it is concerned with sin and righteousness and seeks to persuade unto obedience; unlike the power of the state, which is legal and coercive—concerned with crime and has the power to punish such with the sword. Church power is spiritual (CO Article 51), meant to minister to and recover the erring soul.

The limits, or boundaries, of church power are also important to understand: All earthly power, as seen in the WLC exposition of the fifth commandment (WLC 123–133), derives from the fifth commandment, but is differently held and exercised according to the grant and ordinance of God. The family is given the power of the rod, and not the power of the keys or the power of the sword. The state is given the power of the sword and not the power of the rod or the power of the keys. The church is given the power of the keys and not the power of the rod or the power of the sword.

In other words, the power of the family extends even to wisdom and discretion (certainly for minor children), and the power of the state extends even to the death penalty (but the state does not physically punish sin that is not crime: speaking hatefully, for example, may be a sin but is not a crime, although speaking hatefully, at least if it makes someone feel threatened, may punishable as a crime in some places.). Church governors are analogous to parents but have no power to compel with regards to discretion or wisdom as do parents: e.g., “no, you may not have ice cream; no, you may not purchase that car stereo.” Church governors are also analogous to civil rulers but do not spank, jail, or otherwise physically punish. Rightly understood, the spiritual power that the church exercises is the most fearsome and awesome power there is, even more so than the death penalty, because it is a spiritual death penalty, though there is always the prayer for and hope of restoration in the exercise of even the gravest of church censures.

Classically, church discipline has a three-fold purpose: The glory of God—scandalous sin not addressed and repented of detracts from the glory of God, bringing dishonor upon his sacred and holy name (Gen. 39:9, Ps. 51—it is God against whom we sin, above all, and it is he who must be vindicated); the purity of the church—scandalous sin that is tolerated in the midst of the congregation has the effect of contaminating the whole body (Acts 5); and the reclamation of the offender—we hand over to Satan, even, that the offending party may “learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1).

I think that a fourth reason is also significant though often overlooked: justice for the offended party. If a seriously offended party is faced with a judicatory that is unwilling to press for repentance on the part of the offender, this opens up the offended party to bitterness and rancor. It is not love for the victim on the part of the church to exhort him to “get over it.” Rather, we are the ones charged to carry out the vengeance of the Lord, as it were, in the sphere of the church (tempered with much mercy and grace, in the church setting especially), even as the state is in its sphere. We can properly counsel the offended that vengeance is the Lord’s only when we are thus willing to act to do our duty (Rom. 12:14–21). To fail to do so because of misguided sympathy for the offender is unloving and potentially quite destructive for the offended party (think of the innocent party in a divorce case).

One of the primary principles of church discipline is that offenses should be dealt with as privately as possible (CO Article 52). This is the dynamic that we see in Matthew 18:15–20 and Luke 17:3 and following: If your brother sins against you, go and seek to reclaim him. Let me urge a few considerations, though, even before the allegedly offended party goes to the offending party. Look to yourself (Matt. 7:1–5): What may be your part in this? Have you sinned against your brother (Matt. 5: 23–4)? Then, determine what the offense is: What commandment has the offender broken? How serious is this offense? Does it disrupt your fellowship and communion? Cannot love cover this sin (1 Pet. 4:8)? If it is a true offense that disrupts your fellowship and communion and thus must be addressed, then go in meekness and humility (the spirit urged in Gal. 6) and seek to regain your brother.

When dealing with Matthew 18, we are looking at an offense against you, not you seeking to play the Holy Spirit or otherwise set this person to rights (that is the job of the “spiritual” and of the governors of the church). One may, well before going, find it helpful to seek non-gossipy advice from your pastor or elders, who would be part of the solution. Resist the ever-present urge to gossip/slander/murmur/complain and be humbly ready to hear the answer of the alleged offender. Try your best to resolve the matter personally and do not count one visit as having necessarily “done your duty.” This should be done if at all possible in person and not by mail, phone, etc. This should be done as personally as possible and as locally as possible. Any desire on your part to tell the church, the Supreme Court, the world about alleged personal, private offenses (and even ones that aren’t “tell it not in Gath”) needs to be repented of. Stay local (CO Article 53).

If the private is not successful, ask local witnesses to accompany you, local witnesses who are spiritually discerning. Why would you not ask elders? Certainly the two or three witnesses spoken of in Matthew 18 are not a gang of your friends to accompany you to beat up your enemy. What is the purpose of the witnesses? To give an unbiased, objective hearing of, and to be able to give testimony to, what is said by all parties, and to facilitate communication if necessary (and possible) between the parties. Even to intervene and seek resolution: perhaps one (or both) of the parties manifests an unreasonable, uncharitable spirit; the witnesses may urge forgiveness if it is not properly being offered or otherwise help along to reconciliation.

If the offender will not listen even at this point to the offended (together with the witnesses), tell it to the church. That is to say, bring it to the consistory or the session, the governors of the church, who represent the church (CO Article 54). The elders then advise and act (the details of this will be discussed in Part 2, the final part of this article, which will be published next month).

Endnote

[1] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, sermon on Isaiah 42:18, “Joyful Transformations,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 14 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1868).

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, November 2019.

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