The question of church discipline in a Christian congregation does not come under the heading of things indifferent, as St. Paul shows in the chapter above, its use rather being enjoined and insisted upon in Scriptures in the most emphatic terms. The fact that very many congregations are neglecting this important part of the duties imposed upon them by the Lord of the Church argues for the increasing worldliness of the Church, is, in fact, in many cases an indication of disintegration. The teaching of Scriptures on this point is very plain.
The Lord, first of all, gives very distinct instructions as to the persons in whose case church discipline is to be exercised. These are the brothers and sisters that belong to the congregation, that have joined the congregation, either by baptism and confirmation, or on the basis of a letter of dismissal from another congregation, or by a profession of faith which indicated complete spiritual unity. As long as a person is in this sense a member of the congregation, so long he or she is under the jurisdiction of the congregation, as far as church discipline is concerned, Matt. 18, 15; 1 Cor. 5, 11. If a person declares that he or she is no longer a member of the congregation, and insists upon having nothing more to do with the congregation, then the latter can only make a statement, declaring that such a person belongs to them that are without, 1 Cor. 5, 12. It must be expressly understood, however, that the jurisdiction of the congregation is not limited to the voting members nor to the men, but includes all the members of the congregation, men and women, young and old.
To be liable to church discipline, a person must be a sinner, not, indeed, in the sense that we all fail, that we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment, that we find ourselves obliged to put off our sins by daily contrition and repentance, but in the sense of being a flagrant, open, willful offender and transgressor of the will of God. The sins with which we are here concerned are transgressions of an unmistakable word of God, sins which take away faith out of the heart and render a person a non-Christian. Some of these are mentioned 1 Cor. 5, 11. Others are: deliberate neglect of the Christian instruction of children, remiss-ness in the use of the means of grace, obstinate defense of an obvious heresy, enmity and implacableness, denial of a fundamental truth of Scriptures, and many more. If a member of the congregation becomes guilty of these and similar sins, as plainly prohibited in the Decalog, then he becomes liable to church discipline.
The Lord has also prescribed the form which church discipline is to take. As a rule, the steps given in Matt. 18, 15—18 are to be observed. He that knows of the sin that has been committed should first approach the sinner and should try to gain his brother. If all his efforts fail, then he should take one or two witnesses along with him and repeat his attempt. Loving patience is essential at this point. But if every endeavor meets with the same obstinate resistance, then the matter must finally be brought to the attention of the congregation. And here again, all long-suffering must be employed, as long as there is any hope whatsoever of gaining the erring member. It is only when every effort proves futile that the resolution of excommunication should be passed. Under circumstances, especially when the sin is known to the majority of the church-members, when it is a notorious infamy or scandal, this procedure may be suspended, 1 Tim. 5, 20. Even in this case, however, the wisdom of charity will usually find that it is better to treat the matter in a smaller circle first. At all times the members of the congregation must remain conscious of the fact that the mind of Jesus Christ must live in them, and that all their efforts must be guided by a truly evangelical spirit. For the object of church discipline is always to gain the brother, if possible, to bring him to a realization of his transgression, and to keep him in the midst of the congregation. And even when the decree of excommunication must be spoken, it should be done in sorrow and in the hope that, in the dispensation of God, the spirit of the offender may yet be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus, 1 Cor. 5, 5.
Church discipline is in charge of the congregation, Matt. 18, 20; 1 Cor. 5, 4. "It is true, our meeting of the voting members is not the entire congregation, but it represents the entire congregation and forms a meeting which is well adapted for the exercise of church discipline. It is perfectly evident that children and such as are not of age are not yet able to take part in the exercise of this power. For this presupposes a certain degree of Christian knowledge and a certain maturity of character. Furthermore, the Lord Himself has excluded the women from public speaking and voting in the congregation. And therefore it has become the custom among us to give to the male members of the congregation that have completed the twenty-first year of their life the right to vote, and to place the government of the congregation and the exercise of church discipline into the hands of these members. It may even happen that the exercise of the admonition in the third step is entrusted to a smaller circle. This is the case particularly when it concerns a person of the female sex, who might be too bashful to appear before a larger assembly of men. In that case the object of church discipline, namely, that of gaining the sister, may be reached more easily in a smaller circle." 36)