i

Chapter I
The Nature and Purposes of Discipline

1. Ecclesiastical discipline is the exercise of that authority which the Lord Jesus Christ has committed to the visible church for the preservation of its purity, peace, and good order.

Comment: As we saw in the FG, the Lord Jesus Christ is the only head and king of the church. No earthly ruler has proper authority over the church (no monarch, e.g., is properly styled “head of the church”). Since Christ is the only head of the church, he has committed to the visible church both the government and the discipline of the church.[1] It is important to note that not only the government of the visible church is committed to it by Christ but also the discipline: in the Reformation, in reaction to the maladministration of discipline by the church’s clergy (especially the papacy), some civil leaders and others sympathetic to the Reformation claimed that the exercise of church discipline ought not to be in the hands of the clergy but in the hands of the civil magistracy.

We as Presbyterians, however, strenuously oppose this Erastianism, part of which, in asserting that the state is over the church in some ways, is the notion that church discipline is within the civil rulers’ discretion; we argue, rather, that all discipline in the church is properly in the hands of those who, by Christ’s appointment, are the due and rightful governors in and of the church: the ministers and ruling elders that co-jointly rule the church in all her judicatories. This was an important contention of Calvin, Knox, and the Reformed and Presbyterian stalwarts that followed, especially in resisting the attempts of civil authorities to usurp that which has been committed to the special office-bearers to whom the rule of the church has been entrusted.

The last phrase (“for the preservation of its purity, peace, and good order”) reflects that the purpose of church discipline, within the visible church that is governed by her own office-bearers, is three-fold. As noted in the preface and below, the three-fold purpose of church discipline is often said to be the honor of Christ, the purity of his church, and the reclamation of offenders. Here we see three purposes set forth that overlap with those three but are put in slightly different terms. By such discipline the church secures her purity, censuring the wicked and encouraging the good. This purity makes for her peace insofar as a proper dealing with sin is necessary for peace in the body, both by rendering justice to victims and helping to free sinners from their slavery to sin. This obviously has to do with the reclamation of offenders and care for those sinned against. And all of this makes for the glory of Christ, which is part of good order: all glory goes to the one who is the Lord and King of the church, and when this occurs, the well-being of all and good order in all things, which redounds to his praise, is secured.

2. Administrative discipline is concerned with the maintenance of good order in the government of the church in other than judicial cases. The purpose of its exercise is that all rights may be preserved and all obligations faithfully discharged.

Comment: Our Book of Discipline classifies all ecclesiastical discipline as being one of two types: either administrative or judicial discipline. Here, administrative discipline is delineated. Administrative discipline concerns itself with the maintenance of good order in the government of the church. In other words, administrative discipline is in view in the actions of judicatories engaged in the ordinary government of the church; when a session or presbytery, for example, takes an action (adopts a motion or motions) that a party having standing (as defined in BD 8.1–2 and 9.1) regards as unbiblical or unconstitutional (the latter being a violation of the doctrinal standards or the church order), the party alleging an error or delinquency on the part of said judicatory may record a contrary vote, file a protest, or file a complaint. This is administrative discipline, and it is to be distinguished from judicial discipline. The details of these matters will be commented upon at the proper places below. Suffice it to say for now that administrative discipline is what is in view when dealing with alleged errors of judicatories, and judicial discipline is what is in view when dealing with alleged offenses of individuals.

The last sentence of the section gives the purpose of administrative discipline. Recorded votes, protests, and complaints are all for the purpose of preserving rights and seeing that the obligations of all judicatories are faithfully discharged. This means that a protest or a complaint, on the one hand, makes sure that all the rights of parties with standing are preserved by being given due consideration. On the other hand, administrative discipline concerns itself not only with the rights of aggrieved parties but also with the obligations of all judicatories to carry out all their duties in a biblical and constitutional fashion. So administrative discipline concerns itself with attending to those who believe a wrong has occurred and making sure that judicatories can have such wrongs called to their attention so that they can duly and properly attend to them.

It is the case that both administrative and judicial discipline should be pursued formally only if and when all informal exercises of such have proven fruitless. Let us suppose a minister believes that his session or presbytery has erred by not following the provisions of the Form of Government. He may, and would be advised to, do whatever he can, short of a complaint, to resolve the matter. This might include, but not be limited to, talking to individuals, writing a letter, even filing a protest. All this is noted here because it is the case that someone filing a complaint, as will be seen in the commentary below (in comments on BD 9.1 and the forms provided for the BD), must affirm that they have done everything to remedy the situation, short of filing a complaint.

3. Judicial discipline is concerned with the prevention and correction of offenses, an offense being defined as anything in the doctrine or practice of a member of the church which is contrary to the Word of God. The purpose of judicial discipline is to vindicate the honor of Christ, to promote the purity of his church, and to reclaim the offender.

Comment: Judicial discipline is the way that our BD describes how a trial judicatory handles the sins of a party or parties. While administrative discipline addresses errors or delinquencies on the part of judicatories, judicial discipline addresses alleged offenses on the part of specific person(s). It is concerned with the prevention and correction of offenses. In the first place, at a lower level, the prevention and correction of such offenses occurs in the ordinary exercise of the means of grace, in public and private. In preaching, in counseling, in the self-examination that occurs at the Lord’s Supper, in personal challenges issued by a Christian friend, all of this may involve, informally, the prevention and correction of offenses.

Offenses are described in the second part of the first sentence as “anything in doctrine or practice . . . which is contrary to the Word of God.” This highlights that offenses are not defined by societal norms, personal preferences, or anything else. An offense is that which violates God’s law as set forth in his Word. In other words, an offense as herein defined is not something that some person finds offensive, as a secularist might deem Christian opposition to same-sex marriage as harsh and unloving. The world, lying in wickedness as it does, regards some of what we know to be sin as good (same-sex marriage) and what we regard as good to be sin (opposition to same-sex marriage), even though we all, in some measure, know what a holy God finds offensive, as testified to by the revelation of the moral law in the Word and in our consciences (Rom. 2:14–15). Sinners, of course, suppress the truth of general and special revelation, as it testifies against sin, in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18) and often celebrate what should be repented of, particularly in the post-Christian West.

As in the case with administrative discipline—it ought to be resolved as informally as possible—so also in the case of judicial discipline: with respect to a charge of an offense, personal appeal to the party thought to have offended is appropriate in many circumstances. It should be noted that personal dealings may not be the best course in certain circumstances in which concerns about abuse or misuse of power, or like allegations, render contact of the offended with the alleged offender inappropriate. The security and well-being of offended parties must be secured during ecclesiastical discipline. Having acknowledged that, however, all things being equal, it is ordinarily advisable that matters be resolved “out of court,” as it were, which is to say, by informal process, before resorting to formal judicial process.

Before filing a charge, then, one ought to do what is within one’s power to rectify the situation, particularly with a view to making sure that Matthew 5, 18, Luke 17, and the like, are observed in the requirements of those passages that all dealings with an offending brother or sister should be handled as privately as possible and as locally as possible. Certainly, if one is offended by another, going to that one first (and perhaps several times) is in order, not “telling it on the mountain,” or spreading it digitally over the Internet. As Ephesians 4:25–32 would direct, we are not to attack the person but the problem, never acting in a way with each other that “tears down” instead of “builds up.” Pursuing judicial discipline both informally and formally with a humble spirit is part of proper building up, rather than tearing down, of the body (Gal. 6:1–5).

When informal attempts (like preaching and counsel) prove insufficient in addressing sin(s), then one becomes liable to more formal processes of church discipline. This is also the case when hidden sins are uncovered—whether by one coming as one’s own accuser or through the testimony of others—or sins are committed publicly. In all these cases judicial discipline may come into play, as judicatories may find it useful or necessary. The final sentence reflects the three-fold purpose of such discipline (as noted above and in the preface to this commentary): the vindication of the honor of Christ, the promotion of the purity of his church, and the reclamation of the offender. Note that Christ’s honor is the first purpose of discipline because sin besmirches his honor, and our chief interest and obligation is that all things are to be done to his glory, honor, and praise. Sin also compromises the church’s purity, requiring purging as it goes forward in its service to the Savior. Last, but quite important, is the desire not to crush the offender but to reclaim him for his good and God’s glory.

4. All members of the church, both communicants and those who are members by virtue of baptism only, are under the care of the church, and subject to ecclesiastical discipline including administrative and judicial discipline.

Comment: Only those who are members of local or regional bodies of the visible church are under the church’s care and subject to its discipline (including administrative and judicial disciple). This is because only those who take the requisite oaths for membership, together with their children (for whom they take baptismal oaths), or for office-bearing, are properly subject to formal discipline. Even regular attendants are not subject to discipline if they remain outside the local church they attend (and fail to “join”).

In addition to these communicant members of the local church (as just described), it is also the case that baptized youth who have not yet professed faith and been admitted to the Table of the Lord are also, by virtue of their baptism, members of the local church (though non-communing ones) and subject to discipline. Such discipline may include admonition or rebuke and, in cases in which baptized members fail or refuse to profess faith, may be disciplined by erasure or like actions. It is the case that at an earlier point in Presbyterian history baptized members that were not communicants were not subject to ecclesiastical discipline, but that error has been properly corrected.

Chapter II
Jurisdiction

A. General Provisions

1. Original jurisdiction over an individual belongs to the judicatory of the body of which the individual is a member. Original jurisdiction over judicatories belongs to the next higher judicatory.

Comment: Jurisdiction is the concept of “right to rule.” Thus, when the first sentence describes the scope of “original” jurisdiction as belonging to the body of which the individual is a member, this serves to highlight that every judicatory of the OPC does not have original jurisdiction over every member of an OPC congregation. For a member of the local church, only his own session has original jurisdiction over him, even as a presbytery has original jurisdiction only over its own members.[2]

A presbytery does not have original jurisdiction over all the members of the various congregations in the regional church, though it does have appellate jurisdiction over all the sessions and members of the regional church. The general assembly has jurisdiction over the whole church, even as does the presbytery over the regional church, but only the local session has “original” jurisdiction over the members of the church that session oversees. The last sentence reflects that original jurisdiction over a session belongs to the presbytery or original jurisdiction over a presbytery to the general assembly, the “next higher judicatory” in both cases.

2. All certificates of dismission shall specify the particular body to which the person is dismissed, and shall be sent directly to that body by the dismissing judicatory. The receiving body shall notify the dismissing judicatory of the fact of reception when accomplished.

Comment: Jurisdiction is transferred when someone moves membership from one body to another: a communicant to another congregation and a minister to another presbytery. This transfer of jurisdiction occurs when a certificate of dismission (a letter from the clerk of session) is drawn up and sent from the dismissing body to the receiving body. A certificate of this sort must specify both the current good and regular standing of the member being transferred and the body to which he is being transferred. The clerk of the dismissing judicatory shall send the certificate of dismission directly to the clerk of the receiving judicatory. The reception shall be considered accomplished only when the receiving body notifies the sending body (the dismissing judicatory) of the fact of reception on the part of the receiving body.

3. If a person charged with an offense requests that he be dismissed to another body within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the judicatory of jurisdiction shall grant this request only for reasons which it deems weighty. If the request is granted, it shall inform the judicatory to whose care the person is being committed of the charge which has been brought against him and also of any action which the dismissing judicatory may have taken with reference to the charge, and the judicatory which receives him shall conclude the case.

Comment: If a person, either a member of a local church or of a presbytery, is in judicial process, that is he is either in the beginning of such process, charged with an offense, or in a judicial trial for the offense(s), that process should normally proceed uninterrupted. If that person, either at the beginning or in the midst of judicial process, requests that he be dismissed to another body in the OPC, the judicatory that has jurisdiction over him shall grant this request only for weighty reasons. A dismissal to another body of a person involved in judicial process is considered irregular and should be accomplished only in a situation that involves what the judicatory being asked to transfer regards as sufficiently weighty reasons to merit such an action. Perhaps weighty concerns might include the nature of the charge(s), the state of the person charged, the removal of the person charged from the charging judicatory, etc. Sound (defensible) discretion must be exercised both by the dismissing and the receiving judicatories.

If the request for dismissal to another OPC body is granted by the dismissing judicatory, that judicatory shall inform the prospective receiving judicatory of all the circumstances of the judicial case against the member being dismissed. This means that the dismissing judicatory should minimally inform the receiving judicatory of what charge has been brought against the one seeking dismissal and any actions taken with respect to such charge(s): whether there was a preliminary investigation and, if so, what its outcome was, whether there has been a first meeting of the trial, etc.

In other words, the precise nature of the judicial proceedings must be laid before the judicatory that has in view the possible reception of one against whom judicial actions are in process. The receiving judicatory should proceed with the judicial case until its conclusion. It should be noted here that the matter of receiving a transfer under these circumstances always remains in the discretion of the prospective receiving judicatory. The would-be receiving judicatory is, of course, not obliged to do so; in any case, both the transferring and receiving judicatory should agree that the process herein described is beneficial to all parties concerned.

Endnotes

[1] For his comments on this section, see also Stuart R. Jones, “Ministerial Training Institute of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church syllabus, “Presbyterian Polity: Form of Government and Book of Discipline” (unpublished manuscript, 2020): 7–9. In his commentary, Jones, a careful student of the history of Presbyterian and Reformed books of discipline, deals with many of the ecclesiastical legal antecedents of the OPC BD. My commentary, while leaning on that work and engaging in some historical reflections, largely sticks to interpreting and applying the current edition of the BD (2020). Those interested in his work should consult Mr. Jones as to its availability.

[2] Stuart Jones, in his “Commentary on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Book of Discipline” (unpublished manuscript, 2020), 10–25, offers fairly detailed comments on BD 2, noting on page 10 that “Jurisdiction in the Book of Discipline particularly relates to personal membership and the entities having jurisdiction over individuals. That is to say, it does not concern itself at any length with the church’s spiritual jurisdiction over certain questions, per se, nor geographic and confessional considerations that define judicatories of jurisdiction. These are more germane to the Form of Government.” FG 12, for instance, on governing assemblies, treats jurisdiction in this latter sense.

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, October 2022. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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Ordained Servant: October 2022

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