Brother Beebe: Will you please give your views on the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, particularly on the subject of church discipline? Can a member of the church be lawfully excluded, except it be done according to the rule laid down in that chapter? Some think it unnecessary to take labor in all cases, especially cases where the offence is committed in the presence of the church. Your views on the subject will be kindly received.
Yours, with esteem,
C. B. Fuller. Roxbury, N.Y.,
January 17, 1862.
REPLY: We do not feel competent to explain all the questions which may be suggested upon the subject of church discipline, still it appears to us that the subject is very clearly laid down in the New Testament. We have observed in our fifty years membership in the church of Christ, that as a general thing the greatest discrepancy in opinion in regard to the laws of Christ have been where churches have been least inclined to be governed by the word and Spirit of our divine Lord and Master. We do not feel sure that what is said by our Lord on the subject in this chapter (Matthew 18) was designed to embrace all cases of discipline that should ever occur, but rather to cover the ground embraced in the subject on which our Lord was at that time instructing his disciples, for we find other portions of the New Testament devoted to an extended view of the same subject, and particularizing many cases in which individual christians and whole churches are required to act in obedience to the laws of Christ. Still, it seems to us that no action of a church or of a member of the church can be valid where the general instructions of this chapter are not observed and practiced.
The time and circumstances attending this instruction show that an unbecoming ambition to excel each other was betrayed by at least some of the disciples, and to settle the matter they brought the subject to Jesus, and put the question in undisguised terms to him, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” This kind of ambition lies generally at the bottom of most, if not all, the dissensions which divide churches, and individual saints, and is prolific in the production of disaffection and alienation; and as that ambitious fiend is still alive, and sometimes harbored in the breasts of christians, it will be well for us all to observe carefully the instructions given in this case. Jesus set a little child in the midst of them. What an example! What a volume of much needed instruction is here! “And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And who shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Here are the primary instructions in regard to discipline. Deep humility is the very first requisite, and it is indispensable as a qualification to transact the business of Christ’s kingdom. Without this childlike spirit the gates of the kingdom are barred against us. The profession of this meek and humble spirit is a passport to the kingdom, and such an humble little child that believes in Christ cannot be rejected or excluded without rejecting and excluding Christ himself. How fearful, too, to offend one of those little ones who believe in Jesus. The term here rendered, offend, has a broader signification than merely to ruffle the feelings, or excite the resentment. We understand it to be in the sense that Peter was on one occasion an offense to Jesus; that is, when he savored the things which be of men, and not the things which be of God. To offend may be understood to mean to lay a stumbling block in their way; to deprive them of their sacred rights in the house of God; to grieve their childlike spirit by unbrotherly conduct, or to overturn their faith, as did Philetus and Hymeneus the faith of some. The church as a body, and every member should be solemnly impressed with the weight of these instructions, or they cannot be competent to administer the discipline of the church of the living God. Beware then, brethren, how you attempt to meddle with the discipline of the church if actuated or even influenced by a haughty spirit that would strive for the mastery. We answer, therefore, one of brother Fuller’s questions. No member of the church can be lawfully excluded from the church without a strict conformity of this rule. Where the supremacy of this rule enjoining a childlike humility on each acting member of the church is not regarded, it were better that they were drowned in the sea, than under any other rule to expel from the privileges of the church of God one of his humblest disciples. Where this rule is observed, and the church is solemnly impressed with a sense of their responsibility, they feel that to expel from communion any who should be retained in fellowship, is to reject the Lord Jesus; there will be no room for thrusting the side and shoulder, but an ardent desire to restore the erring in the spirit of meekness, and in the bowels of Christ.
This consideration is enforced on our minds by a beautiful illustration in the same connection: “How think ye? If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, He rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.” A brother who has given us the evidence that he has been converted and become as a little child has been accordingly received into fellowship, but subsequently he is overtaken in a fault. Shall he at once be killed? Shall he be rudely thrust out? No, “Ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:1,2) Go in the spirit of humility into the mountain and search diligently for the strayed sheep, remember that it is the will of your heavenly Father that he shall not perish. You cannot fulfill the law of Christ if you do not desire his restoration to the fold, and after all your toil and labor in searching the mountain, if you succeed in reclaiming the wanderer, if you possess the Spirit of Christ, it will afford you more joy to see him reclaimed and brought back to his privileges in the church, than to see all the other members, which have not strayed, in their place in the church. It is not the will of God our Father which is in heaven that he shall perish, and should it be your will to consign him to perish in the wilderness? “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones.” Christ would not charge us to take heed if there were no liability of our doing so. Do not under rate them, they are precious in the eyes of him who came from heaven to save that which was lost; and in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. Yet, notwithstanding the full force of all this admonition, there are cases in which exclusions are unavoidable. Woe unto that man by whom the offense cometh! “Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee.” “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” We are the mystical body of Christ, and members one of another. No sane man would consent to the amputation of a healthy and sound member of his body, for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ does the church. Should a hand, or foot, or any other member become diseased, bruised or painful, all the sound members would sympathize with the diseased member, and before we could consent to amputation we would exhaust all the healing medicines within our reach; but if mortification sets in, and the inflammation is actually spreading to the centre of vitality, to the heart, as a last painful and dreaded resort we apply the surgical knife. So in the church, if the hand or foot, or even the eye, however useful these members may have been, or may be deemed, as indispensable for usefulness or convenience, if the law of Christ requires us to cut them off and cast them from the body, it must be done, for it is better to enter into life halt, maimed, or with but one eye, than, retaining all these disordered and incurable members, to be cast into hell fire. That is, into confusion, in the sense in which James speaks of the tongue as an unruly member, setting on fire the course of nature, and it is set on fire of hell. The discipline of the church of God must be enforced strictly according to the law of Christ, without partiality; but it must be done as well in the Spirit of Christ as in strict obedience to the letter of his precepts, for his word and his Spirit always harmonize and go together. The most essential point is to be guided by his Spirit, for that Spirit will lead us into the truth. Whenever we are led by the humble, loving, tender, forgiving Spirit of Christ, and the law of Christ and health of the church demand that we should pluck out right eyes, or cut off right hands, there will be deep lamentation and mourning, certainly not exulting, and boasting, that we have carried our points. Who ever exulted that he had lost an eye, or suffered the amputation of a hand or a foot? When we see brethren or churches exulting that they have carried their points, and procured the expulsion of any of their members, we feel confident that the law of Christ has been violated.
Brother Fuller asks our views on this chapter, and we have endeavored to state as plainly as possible what are our views on the first fourteen verses, for we do not believe any brother or any church can possibly obey the remaining part of the instructions unless they are governed by the instructions thus far considered.
We now come to the portion of the chapter to which we suppose Elder Fuller more particularly refers, in which our Lord says, “Moreover,” that is, what he is now about to say is added to what he has said, and is to be taken in the same connection; these instructions are not tobe separated, divided, garbled, nor handled deceitfully: “Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee.” Let us observe as we read, he is thy brother who has trespassed, he is still to be recognized in that relation until the whole course of discipline has been faithfully pursued; under no circumstances then is the laboring brother or the church at liberty to apply to him offensive epithets, such as heretic, drunkard, liar, thief, fox, crafty, disorderly, etc., terms which are only calculated to excite angry passions and render a reclamation more difficult, if not impossible. Although you feel certain he has trespassed against thee, still regard and treat him as a brother, and as a brother dearly beloved, whom you desire above all things to reclaim. Keeping this in view, you cannot go to any one else without trespassing against him, and becoming guilty of the same wrong which you hold against him. Nothing can more clearly violate the laws of Christ than to publish your complaints to others before you have pursued the course here enjoined. Under no pretence are you at liberty to get up a prejudice against him, by whispering, hinting, or in any way insinuating your complaint to others. The instruction is plain: “Go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” If you succeed in gaining him, no other person under heaven should ever know that he has ever trespassed against thee. How often have churches been thrown into disorder and confusion by an aggrieved or an offended brother disregarding and disobeying this divine rule. Instead of going to the erring brother alone, how frequently nearly the whole church, and perhaps the world, become familiar with the matter before the offending brother has been visited alone. After going to A, B, and C, asking their opinion on the merits of the case, relating to them the circumstances, exciting their suspicions against the brother, under the pretence perhaps of asking their advice, it is too late to go to the offending brother alone, unless it be to confess your own wickedness in divulging the matter. The object of the private interview is thwarted by your own disobedience to the law of Christ. But supposing you have not communicated the matter to any one, now you are required to go to him. Your errand is to reclaim him in the spirit of meekness; you are not to go as a lion, but as a little child, considering your own infirmities and liability to err. And as old father Thomas used to tell us, “Mind and go alone. Try and leave the old man behind, he will be greatly in your way.” You are on the King’s business, therefore put off the old man with his affections and lusts, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness; then you will not seize the offending brother by the throat and demand immediate payment, but you will remember how much your Lord has forgiven you, and how much your brethren have to forgive you; then will ye be kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. If you fail to gain your brother, then take the next step, in the same kind and humble spirit, and if in this the brother cannot be reclaimed, tell it to the church. There leave it with the church, do not try to raise an unjust prejudice against the brother, but let the church carefully investigate the matter, and in the spirit and temper of the gospel make a decision. If all this be done in the manner directed, what the church shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and what she shall loose on earth is loosed in heaven. Heaven has ratified and established this course. But it is wicked and impious to pretend to administer the discipline of the house of God in any other way, or when influenced by any other spirit. We conclude, therefore, and answer brother Fuller, that no member can be lawfully excluded from a church, except it be in conformity to this rule. But while we say this, we do not intend to be understood that private steps of labor are by this rule required in taking cognizance of offences which take place in open church meeting. A disorderly member is to be called to order by the church, when he acts disorderly in the presence of the church, as we understand this rule. But this must be done between him and the church alone. No member is at liberty to publish or even mention it out of the church; and the same childlike meekness is to be felt and exercised by the church as is required by the individual member. As we have before said, there are further instructions contained in the New Testament on the subject of discipline beside those in this chapter, but none which are not in perfect harmony with what Christ has here given. The apostles were inspired to set all these things in order, and to sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. It is perfectly safe then to follow their directions, and not only safe, but imperative; we cannot disregard them without involving disobedience to our King. Every instruction we can require is clearly presented by Christ and his apostles, to apply to all cases that can possibly call for the exercise of gospel discipline among the children of God. The greatest difficulties we meet arise from a lack of that childlike spirit which is enjoined by Christ in this eighteenth chapter, rather than from any lack of clearness in the law of Christ; for when christians are in that humble and spiritual frame they seldom, if ever, fail to settle all their differences; but in absence of that spirit their efforts are vain, for holiness becomes the house of the Lord forever.
The point on which we understand brother Fuller to desire us to be more definite is, whether there are any cases in which exclusion of members is lawful, where private labor in the first and second steps, according to the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, have not been formally taken. We answer, We think there are. For instance, “A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” (Titus 3:10,11) An heretic is one who holds and utters heresy. The church is authorized to judge in this matter. One member shall speak in the church at a time, and the rest shall judge. That is, the church shall judge of what is said by each one, whether itbe sustained by the Scriptures and by the experience of the saints; if it be contrary to the word and spirit of truth, admonish him. The church should admonish him, and all who hear him utter heresy should admonish him, tenderly and in love; and if he heed not the admonition, admonish him again, labor to convince him of his error; but after the first and second admonition reject him, if he be not reclaimed. A man that is an heretic may be a preacher, or he may be a private member in the church, but in either case he should be first admonished faithfully twice, and then if not reclaimed, reject him. We do not suppose that each member of the church should be required to go personally and separately to tell him of his faults between the two alone. If the heresy be known only to one, then let that one take the first, and if need be, the second step of gospel labor, and then tell it to the church. But if the heresy be uttered before the whole church, then let the whole church admonish him, between her and him alone, once, and then again, and if he persists in his heresy, reject or expel him from fellowship.
Further examples may be found: I Corinthians fifth and sixth chapters. If it be known that a member be an adulterer, a fornicator, an idolater, a thief, a drunkard, a reviler, or an extortioner, or covetous, we are required to at once withdraw all association with such; and Paul commands, in the name of the Lord Jesus, that such be delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. ‘Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” But it is to be done when the church is gathered together, “and my spirit.” Let us be sure that the Spirit of Christ, which inspired Paul to lay down this rule, is with us, pervading the whole church; and he adds, “with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we have and are actuated by that Spirit that inspired Paul, we may feel an assurance that we have the power of Christ, the authoritative power of Christ, in delivering such unto Satan, or in other words, in putting such manifestly wicked persons away from among ourselves.
Finally, whenever a christian is offended or aggrieved with his fellow christian, so that his fellowship is marred, he is bound to regard it as a personal matter, and go privately and tell him his fault, between him and the offending brother alone, and labor to gain, not to destroy his brother, and pursue in the subsequent steps laid down, let the offence or trespass be what it may; and if a brother bring his gift to the altar, and there remember that his brother has aught against him, let him leave there his gift, (unoffered) before the altar, and go and first be reconciled to his brother, and then come and offer his gift. Christians and churches are sometimes too backward in attending to what they may regard as but small matters, and allow them to grow and fester until they learn, by painful experience, how great a fire a little matter kindleth. A faultfinding spirit is unbecoming our holy profession, but christian faithfulness is indispensable to the peace of the church, and as members we are required to watch over one another, to exhort and to admonish one another in love. Nor is this obligation limited to any particular branch of the church of God. Although the church is scattered in her locality, and there are many organizations, yet they are all branches of the one church which is the body of Christ. Much is said of the independence of churches; that is, of their independence of each other, and of any ecclesiastical court above the church. This independence should be carefully considered, for although we acknowledge no pope, or bishop, no synod or association, as having a right to lord it over the churches, we must contend that the whole church is the body of Christ; all who are members of that one body are members one of another, so that the hand cannot say to the foot, “We have no need of thee. It takes every member to make the body, and all the branches of the church to constitute the bride of Christ; and although all the several branches, if on gospel ground, have equal rights, still these rights are limited, for no church has a right to do wrong. All are bound to be governed by the law of Christ, and the several branches of the church are as vitally connected to each other as the members of a particular branch are one to another. Hence the duties of the churches of the same faith and order toward each other as churches do not differ essentially in this respect from the relative duties of members in a church. To illustrate: My two feet, though members alike of my body, claim to be independent of each other; one of them resolves to travel eastwardly, the other is equally determined to go to the west, how long can they maintain their independence and pursue their respective courses without dividing the body to which they both belong? A house or a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. How can two walk together except they are agreed? To maintain fellowship and harmony among the several branches of the church of God they all should be willing to compare notes together, to communicate with each other freely, to behold each other’s order, and their steadfastness in the faith. Our real fellowship demands that we should be fully satisfied that we are all led by the same Spirit, that we are pursuing the same course, that we, as one body, are of one heart and one mind; for what use has one body of more than one heart or one mind? When churches become reckless of the esteem and fellowship of sister churches, they speak loudly of their independence, and seem to have forgotten that a haughty spirit goeth before a fall; while churches walking more cautiously in the valley of humiliation feel that they need the fellowship, the sympathy and the prayers of all their sister churches.
But as we have already extended this article to considerable length, we will submit what we have written to brother Fuller, apologizing to him at the same time for delaying so long to answer his request.
May 15, 1862.
Elder Gilbert Beebe,
Editorials Volume 5
Pages 190 - 200