Ever wrestled with the role of church authority in the life of the individual Christian? If so, you’re not alone. A pastor friend in the area e-mailed me a few weeks ago to get my thoughts on church government. Specifically, he was asking about the hotly debated “keys of the kingdom” passages like Matthew 18:18 where Jesus says of the church, “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (see also Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23).
His trouble was that each of these passages speaks to church government and authority in a way that stands in direct confrontation with modern sensibilities. Does God really mean that the church has been given the authority to open and close the kingdom? Commenting on this, Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn says, “Church governors have power from Christ to ‘respectively, retain and remit sins.’ The elders of the church guide the body of Christ in determining whether someone is to be treated as a brother, as an erring brother, or as what Jesus called a Gentile or tax collector” (Confessing the Faith, p. 403).
Though disturbing for some, Van Dixhoorn’s comments are consistent with what our Reformed church fathers understood to be the authority entrusted to elders through membership, discipline, and excommunication. That is to say, church officers, though not perfect by a long shot, are charged by God to open and close the gate to the Kingdom of God. As the Westminster Confession of Faith asserts, “…[elders] shut the kingdom against the unrepentant both by the Word and censures, and open it to repentant sinners by the ministry of the gospel and by releasing from censures, as occasion requires.” This is essentially what Cyprian of Carthage intended, which John Calvin later reiterated, by the saying, “You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the church as your mother” (see Institutes 4.1.1).
At first blush, this may seem like an overreach of church authority, but it’s hard to get past if you’re giving Scripture’s teaching an honest shake, especially when it comes to the subject of church discipline (shriek!). In all seriousness, does the mention of church discipline send shivers up your spine? If it does, do you have the same response at the mention of disciplining a child? My guess is you don’t. That’s because discipline is part and parcel of a healthy family life and the expectation of loving parents. Keep that analogy in mind as we turn our attention to “the family of God” (Ephesians 2:19-20). We have a loving Father who has made us His children (John 1:12), and His faithful parentage of us includes His discipline (Hebrews 12:10) through the church (1 Peter 5:1-5, Matthew 18:15-20).
I once heard a pastor decry the loss of the biblical practice of church discipline in our day saying, My guess is that most of us wouldn’t think much of a parent who only told their children how wonderful they were but never lifted a hand to correct and discipline them when they did wrong. I suggest we not think too much of churches that act the same way.
Church discipline is the natural outflow of the church’s ministry to “…speak the truth in love” that God’s people might “…grow up in every way into him who is the head, in to Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Just as Scripture is designed for both instruction and correction (2 Timothy 3:16), the discipline of the church is both positive and negative but in every way remedial and redemptive—that we might “come to our senses” (Luke 15:17) and run to our Father for forgiveness and recommit our way to following our Elder Brother and Savior, Jesus Christ.
If your head is reeling, stay with me. More on this subject next week.