Democratic Church Discipline?

The Church is not a democracy. The Church has a King, Jesus Christ her head and Lord. In North American Lutheranism, we seem in some ways to be confused about that matter. The problem of the view of the Church as a democracy is most manifest in the common view that it takes the congregation acting as a voting majority to practice church discipline.

There may be areas in North America where this is less prevalent, but what seems to be very common in congregational constitutions is a clause approximating the following: “Excommunication requires a unanimous vote of the eligible voters present at the voter’s meeting.”

Jesus said to those He sent as His ministers, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld if you can get the voter’s assembly to agree unanimously or at least with a two-thirds majority.” No, that’s not quite what He said.

That church discipline is necessary is clear from Scripture. God in fact commands church discipline.  Ignoring excommunication is ignoring half of Christ’s instituted keys – “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” (SC 5) Paul exhorts the church in Thessalonica to have nothing to do with those who persist in not obeying what he wrote in the letter (1 Thess. 3:12). The glorified Son of Man rebukes the church in Pergamum for not dealing with those in their midst who hold to false and pernicious error (Rev. 2:14 – 16). God warns Ezekiel that if he does not give the wicked a warning, nor speak to warn him from his wicked way in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood will be required at Ezekiel’s hand (Ez. 3:18).

That God calls His ministers to exercise the Office of the Keys is told us in Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions give witness to this Scriptural truth.

According to the gospel the power of the keys or of the bishops is a power and command of God to preach the gospel, to forgive or retain sins, and to administer and distribute the sacraments. For Christ sent out the apostles with this command (John 20[:21 – 23]): ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you…. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (AC XXVIII, 5-6)

Not many paragraphs later, again, “Consequently, according to divine right it is the office of the bishop to preach the gospel, to forgive sin, to judge doctrine and reject doctrine that is contrary to the gospel, and to exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose ungodly life is manifest – not with human power but with God’s Word alone.” (AC XXVIII, 21)

In the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope is written that all pastors have the common legal authority to excommunicate those guilty of manifest crimes (Tr 24) and that those who preside over churches are bestowed with “the charge to excommunicate those whose crimes are public knowledge and to absolve those who repent.” (Tr 60) Paragraph 74 also states, “It is certain that the common legal authority to excommunicate those guilty of manifest crimes belongs to all pastors.”

The pastor should no more ask for a vote to retain sin than he asks for a vote to absolve sin. He is called by God to do both, to forgive the sins of the repentant, and to retain forgiveness for the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. This is the called duty of one in the pastoral office.

There really is no benefit of going into distinctions about not admitting to communion and removal from the congregational membership list. Having your sins retained and being barred from the Lord’s Table remove one from fellowship with the Christian Church. It can hardly be argued that the removal of the name from the membership list is a greater discipline!

All this does not mean that the congregation is uninvolved in church discipline.

First of all, there are cases where one brother sins against another, and such a situation is to be handled according to Matthew 18:15-20. Luke 17:3 and Gal. 6:1 also instruct believers to rebuke sinning brothers so that they might repent.

Secondly, where an impenitent sinner has been declared to be out of fellowship with the Christian Church, it also affects the relationship of the congregation to the one outside the Church. Thus, such an expulsion is done in the public assembly (I Cor. 5:3-5). There is also punishment by the majority (II Cor. 2:6) as the congregation is to treat such a person as a Gentile and tax collector (Mt. 18:15 – 17), is not to associate with him or eat with him (1 Cor. 5:11), and is to have nothing to do with him (II Thess. 3:14).

Finally, the pastor is the steward of the mysteries of God (I Cor. 4:1), but this does not mean that he can act according to personal whims or fancies. The congregation has a duty to hold the pastor accountable for practicing church discipline faithfully as they must hold him accountable for teaching the Word of God in its truth and purity. The congregation must beware of false prophets and can recognize them by their fruits (Matt. 7:15-20). Where a pastor is erring in his exercise of the Office of the Keys, he must be called to repentance by the congregation.

The Church is not a democracy. The Church has a King, Jesus Christ her head and Lord, who sends His ministers to do as He commands. Christ commands His ministers to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from the repentant as long as they do not repent. It is not a matter of voter’s assemblies or democratic majorities. It is a matter of following Christ’s command so that all people might be brought to repentance and come to the knowledge of the truth.


Democratic Church Discipline? — 63 Comments

  1. Thank you Pastor. Too many churches hog tie their Pastor in this regard and subsequently fail to execute any kind of Church Discipline, either through Gospel reduction-ism or in fear for the collection plate.

  2. Thank you for posting this Pastor. Too many churches hog-tie their Pastor and fail to exercise any church discipline; either as a result of Gospel Reductionist or in fear for the collection plate

  3. Walther covers this topic extensively in Church and Ministry, Part Two, Thesis IX, C: “The minister has no right to inflict and carry out excommunication without his having first informed the whole congregation.”

    There is some disagreement in the various citations about whether or not a vote is to be unanimous, but the majority of the citations favor a unanimous vote. I strongly recommend that the brothers and sisters on BJS read this section from Church and Ministry before commenting on the subject.

  4. From the 1985 CTCR document Church Discipline in the Christian Congregation, page 22:

    3. Does excommunication have to be unanimous? Our synodical fathers argued in the affirmative, pointing out that since such a verdict, reached on the basis of a clear Word of God and representing God’s own judgment on the sinner, must be accepted by every Christian and that any who might vote against such action be dealt with (if necessary, excommunicated themselves) before the matter in question is resolved.

    Although ideally all members will see the justice of what has been resolved (assuming that the congregation has acted on the basis of the Word of God, and the lack of repentance on the part of the one being dealt with is evident), we believe that excommunication may be carried out without unanimous vote. Shall the ignorance and/or weakness of any dissenting member invalidate either the verdict of the Lord through His church or their own eternal salvation? In all such instances, of course, those not in agreement should be dealt with evangelically in the hope of persuading them that the action of the congregation was truly Scriptural. And if it is evident that a congregation is not sufficiently instructed, with the result that a considerable number would at the time not be ready to favor excommunication in any case, the action should be postponed until such instruction can have its good effect.

  5. This is a difficult area to deal with for many people, mostly because it is hardly ever done and is not well understood. Perhaps even some seemingly conflicting instructions exist on the proper course of action. Recall that the main concern of the Saxon Lutherans in the post-Martin period was to instill a set of checks and balances to preclude any abuse of power in their new organizational structure.

    If the pastor is a part of the equation trying to be resolved the matter then has an additional complication. For example, if the pastor withholds communion from an individual because of an offense to someone the pastor is close to, does so unfairly, or he has a bias against that person, then an injustice will be the result. If there is no resolution how long does the withholding of communion last? When does it become excommunication?

    Certainly, the pastor should make a recommendation concerning any proposed excommunication following unsuccessful Scriptural attempts for repentance. First to the Elders and then if still no resolution, take it to the Voters. The Voters are the corporate body of the congregation and thus the legal body for excluding someone from their midst. Thus the excommunicated person would no longer have any right to the property and other assets of the congregation according to the constitution of the congregation. Excluding someone by action of an individual, be it pastor or not, would not fulfill this legal requirement. Legal issues could and most likely would, result.

  6. Doesn’t your church, the LCMS, vote on doctrine???? Also, being essentially congregationalist, wouldn’t this whole matter be part of the DNA of this version of Lutheranism? I agree with your points, but find them pointing at a greater problem in US Lutheranism generally.

  7. @Rev TLH #7

    We don’t vote on doctrine. In my LCMS congregation the very attempt becomes null and void. Our congregations and pastors subscribe unconditionally to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confession (Book of Concord).

  8. @Rev TLH #7

    We don’t vote on doctrine. In my LCMS congregation the very attempt becomes null and void. Our congregations and pastors subscribe unconditionally to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions (Book of Concord).

  9. @Timothy C. Schenks #8

    That’s one question. Another is “What are the seminaries teaching now concerning the ministry?” It doesn’t seem to be what Walther taught:

    THESIS IV The ministry of preaching is not a peculiar order. set up over and against the common estate of Christians, and holier than the latter, like the priesthood of the Levites, but it is an office of service.

    THESIS VI The ministry of preaching is conferred by God through the congregation, as holder of all church power, or of the keys, and by its call, as prescribed by God. The ordination of those called, with the laying on of hands, is not by divine institution but is an apostolic church ordinance and merely a public, solemn confirmation of the call.

    [emphasis added]

  10. Bit of a grim subject. I think excommunication needs to be exercised very judiciously. I don’t believe one would need some sort of vote to effect; however, it seems to me it would be wise to involve elders and church council from the congregation, as well as receive input from the district. This sort of thing can definitely be abused. I have not personally witnessed a case where an individual was actually ex-communicated, but I am in close contact with some pastors who have, and have seen cases where it was attempted but did not come to fruition simply because it was an abuse of church discipline in that particular case. I won’t go any further than that since this is not something I have experience with. Interesting topic choice here.

  11. @Rev. Robert Fischer #3

    Of course I am familiar with Walther’s arguments and the CTCR document. How well do they align with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions cited? We have a quia subscription to the Confessions, not to Walther, as beneficial as it is to read his writings, nor to CTCR documents.

  12. @Gene White #5

    Certainly one can come up with complicated scenarios of pastoral abuse, but those are not the point of the article.

    My question for you: Is removal from a congregation’s membership list a bigger deal than having your sins retained and being banned from the Sacrament of the Altar?

  13. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #11

    Every thesis in Church and Ministry is supported by Scripture and the Confessions. That’s why:

    The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Official Position on Church and Ministry
    As Reaffirmed by Resolution of its 2001 Convention


    WHEREAS, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) has experienced during its history confusion with regard to the doctrine of church and ministry; and

    WHEREAS, Dr. C. F. W. Walther addressed this confusion in 1851 through his Theses on Church and Ministry which was subsequently presented as the position of the LCMS in 1851; and

    WHEREAS, The book The Voice of Our Church on the Question of Church and Ministry,by Dr. C. F. W. Walther, was published in 1852. The LCMS in convention declared this book to be pure doctrine (reine Lehre) of church and ministry; therefore be it

    Resolved, That The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod meeting in convention in the year of our Lord 2001 affirm the above referenced writings of C. F. W. Walther as the definitive statement under Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions of the Synod’s understanding on the subject of church and ministry; and be it further

    Resolved, That the LCMS in convention re-affirm the decision of the 1852 convention in recognizing C. F. W. Walther’s book, The Voice of Our Church on the Question of Church and Ministry,as the official position of the LCMS; and be it further

    Resolved, That all pastors, professors, teachers of the church, and congregations honor and uphold the resolutions of the Synod as regards the official position of our Synod on church and ministry and teach in accordance with them; and be it finally

    Resolved, That all action taken in this resolution be used to help carry out “The Great commission” and shall not in any way detract or distract from the primary mission of God’s kingdom here on earth. We will remember 1-02!

  14. Nieminen needs to recant this article lest he be accused and held accountable for false doctrine.

  15. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #12

    Thanks for the question, pastor. Actually, I am in much favor of both things happening, as I don’t regard them as being mutually exclusive. I do see a significant problem with pastors alone holding this authority aside from the laity. The biggest one being checks and balances, not to mention equality in administering the ban. Additionally, how then could a congregation hold their pastor to repentance for his sins without having the Circuit Visitor try to do it? I know it good to think that pastors sin less than the laity, but sometimes I am not so sure that is a good assumption. And we are the worse for that situation.

  16. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #12

    I think that this may be the fundamental problem here. Pastor Nieminen wrote, “Is removal from a congregation’s membership list a bigger deal than having your sins retained and being banned from the Sacrament of the Altar?”

    Excommunication is not merely the “removal from a congregation’s membership list”, it removal from the Holy Christian Church. The title for the rite of excommunication in the current LCMS Agenda (page 35) is “Excommunication from the Holy Christian Church”. In that rite it is stated:

    In order to show the seriousness of his/her impenitence and, as a last effort to win him/her back to our Lord, I announce that name is now excommunicated from the holy Christian Church. Until he/she repents, name may not come to this or any other Christian altar for the Lord’s Supper. He/She is also not permitted to serve as a sponsor at Holy Baptism nor engage in any other rights or privileges of the Church, except to hear the preaching of God’s Word.

  17. @Gene White #15

    The congregation holds the pastor accountable for church discipline, the same as they hold him accountable for preaching pure doctrine. Where he is erring, the congregation is most certainly to call him to repentance. I’ll also add that a pastor being responsible for exercising the Keys does not mean that he sins less or more than anyone else; merely that he is then doing what Christ has called him to do.

  18. @Rev. Robert Fischer #16

    Rev. Fischer, I think you are right at seeing where we are saying different things, but I think you misunderstand me. Walther agrees that a pastor can retain sins without a congregational vote, and also that a pastor can ban an impenitent sinner from the Sacrament of the Altar without a congregational vote. What I’m saying that such an impenitent sinner is thus removed from the Holy Christian Church. Whether or not a congregation subsequently decides to have a vote to recognize this and remove him from the membership list is thus immaterial to the sinner’s status in the Holy Christian Church.

  19. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #18

    You said above that you don’t believe that Walther is necessarily Confessional: “Of course I am familiar with Walther’s arguments and the CTCR document. How well do they align with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions cited? We have a quia subscription to the Confessions, not to Walther…” But the position of Walther is that of the LCMS so you are saying that the LCMS isn’t necessarily Confessional either. Now you’re saying that the Major Ban and the Minor Ban are essentially the same thing. There’s more going on here than I believe can be dealt with in an Internet forum.

  20. What is this particular sinner unrepentant of? Is he unrepentant or unconvinced that what he is doing is a sin that the pastor is accusing him of? Can a pastor on his own ban a member from communion without public charges that can be verified? Is it an unrepented sin to disagree with the pastor?

  21. @Rev. Robert Fischer #19

    I have no desire to disparage Walther. However, you are not dealing with the Scripture presented, nor are you responding to what our Confessions say, which are clear on the matter. You’re just telling me to read Walther. Thus, my response.

    Where did I say that the major and minor bans are the same? Which definitions are you using for those terms? Do you agree with Walther that a pastor can retain sins without a congregational vote? Do you agree with Walther that a pastor can suspend from communion without a congregational vote?

  22. @Richard Lewer #20

    There is no particular sinner that is the topic of discussion. Repentance consists of contrition and faith. If one does not have contrition over his sins and refuses to turn away from them, he is impenitent. If he is sinning but is unconvinced by the Word of God that what he is doing is sin, he is impenitent, as he is hardening his heart to hear what God commands.

    You asked: “Can a pastor on his own ban a member from communion without public charges that can be verified?” If you see the article citations from Scripture and our Confessions, you will see that the answer is yes. I don’t believe that this is a point of dispute as Walther also agrees on this.

    You asked: “Is it an unrepented sin to disagree with the pastor?” This of course depends on the matter of disagreement! If the pastor calls someone to repentance who is shacked up with his girlfriend by showing him from Scripture how it is sin, and the guy says he sees no problem with it because everyone is doing it, that is impenitence. If a pastor wants white candles on the Advent wreath and someone else disagrees and wants three blues and a rose, that is not impenitence.

  23. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #21

    We’ve reached this point now (or a while ago). I’m telling you to read Walther because he (and his citations from the Scriptures, Confessions, and Church and Synodical Fathers) address all your questions and concerns. I’m not going copy and paste dozens of pages from Church and Ministry when you (presumably) have it on your bookshelf.

    You say you have no desire to disparage Walther yet you disagree with him (and thus with the LCMS) on the subject of church discipline. I don’t see what else can be done here.

  24. @Timothy C. Schenks #7

    No offence, but that’s not entirely accurate, historically speaking. Every Lutheran church claims the same thing- but some time ago matters were decided by vote. If I’m not mistaken the variances within US Lutheranism are based on differences of doctrine decided through some form of democratic process at some point. I think the minute one assumes a congregational polity there is always that risk. Doesn’t Synod vote on matters of faith?

  25. Another article that essentially clamors for the bishop contrary to the Scriptures and the Confessions. At least Loehe, was honest and said Walther’s position was that of Luther. As matter of fact, it was the position of Chemnitz and Gerhard too. The Confessions and Scripture are quite clear that the laypeople have a right to judge doctrine and participate in calling pastors and deciding things that are adiaphoria. Democracy is not the boogeyman but it is pastors who think they are something (spiritual lords) when they are not.

  26. While I don’t think the church was meant to be “democratic”, I do think Christ intended the church to be Congregational– namely, the body works together on their governance.
    No, I don’t think a vote should be taken on excommunication– it should be a behavior agreed on by the body.

    BUT I REALLY don’t see excommunication to be a power solely in the hands of the Pastor. Having lived through a period of an abusive, out-of-control, and adulterous pastor who effectively “dismissed” members and elders who tried to get him under control, I think Pastors cannot alone makes these decisions. Should it require a Unanimous vote to excommunicate a member? No– but neither should it require a unanimous vote to revoke the call of a Pastor. In our case, he was finally caught charging his motel he used for his “dalliances” on a church CC and the Trustees had legal cause to remove him– but it should have not taken that much.

    So, no, it should not take unanimity in ANYTHING in a Congregation to guide the body. But it should also not be left to one man to make that same decision.

  27. @John H #25

    Your pastor was totally out of line and should have been reported to his Circuit counselor and DP for discipline. He should not have been allowed to “dismiss” anyone who tried to call him to order.

    But we can’t make the rules as if his behavior was ordinary. Christ told the apostle to forgive the sins of penitent sinners and to retain the sins of the impenitent so long as they do not repent. Excommunication is the last resort for impenitence, and it is still hoped that the sinner will repent and return. No responsible pastor does it lightly and most pastors are responsible. Also, if a situation gets to that point, they will usually inform the Elders, at least.
    I do not think the congregation has to vote.

  28. @helen #26

    Yes, Helen, he was out of line– but he had selected the elders, and told them “your job is to defend the Pastor” so the Elders had become totally ineffective as an oversight method. The only reason the District acted was that the DCE called them (and was hounded out by the elders for that) and THEY acted.

    No, it shouldn’t take a vote, but it should also not be the decision of just one man (or a group). I needs to be handled more biblically– “treat him as you would a tax collector”– namely disaccomodation by the body….

  29. In my earlier posts I advocated for a vote on excommunication by the Voters for two reasons, Confirmation of the failure of discipline efforts and “secular” reasons. One secular reason being legal action to exclude the person from membership for any future property rights claim. Perhaps a more important secular reason is to protect the public reputation of the congregation. Would you rather have the errant sinner be quietly expelled from their midst or publicly expelled? In the latter case it would quell rumors that “nothing was done about the sinner in their midst, he/she just disappeared from view.” I believe the public reputation of a congregation to be an important element in their outreach efforts to their community. To not deal publicly with public sinners is to the congregations’ hurt and the hurt of the church at large.

  30. @John H #25

    There is a saying, “abusus non tollit usum” meaning, abuse does not cancel use. The misuse of the Office of the Keys by the one in the Office of the Ministry is no argument against its proper use. If it were a good argument, there are certainly many more cases of congregations misusing their democratic system of discipline.

    We must always go back to Scripture for answers. If we get our theology from our experiences, feelings, or reason we will wander away from God’s truth. Thus, we should not say, “I feel that it is not right…” “I think it’s wrong” “In my experience it wasn’t good.” When it comes to theology, it must be, “Thus says the Lord.”

  31. One of the earliest (1847) Missouri Synod doctrinal resolutions, old enough that it would also cover the Lutheran Church—Canada and Pr. Nieminen, was that excommunication may not be employed without judgement of congregation. If they considered it to be in line with Scriptural and Confessional principals back then, then you should consider it to be so now.

  32. So far, no one who disagrees with the article has tackled a single word in the article. Not one Scripture passage cited. Not one citation from our Confessions. There has not even been a response to what I shared from Walther. If you want to have a theological discussion about the matter, then let us do so. To say that there are other theologians who have disagree is not a rebuttal.

  33. @Tim #17 “Nieminen needs to recant this article lest he be accused and held accountable for false doctrine.”

    A last name would help here. There are several Tims who reply on this site and this wasn’t me.

  34. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #41

    I have a problem with your assumption that the pastor can arbitrarily excommunicate someone who he considers to be an impenitent sinner (if I am mistaken then please correct me) without some sort of judgment from others among the congregation before he does this. Matthew 18 and Galatians 6:1ff for example, as due process. You seemed to refer to this in the article, but then dismiss it.

    Paul addressed the Corinthian epistles to the entire congregation. He tells the entire congregation to cast people out. He does not address the letter to a specific Pastor, as he had with Timothy. To me, that means there was some form of deliberation that would take place first.

  35. It bothers me that when I brought up the Synod’s historical position on these matters you brush it off and say you want to discuss this theologically. Did our church fathers not discuss this theologically when they made these decisions?

  36. From: Logia’s Continued Assault on Walther and Voters’ Assemblies

    Walther placed the final authority of the Keys in the Voters’ Assembly and not the pastoral office. Walther’s teaching that many make the decisions instead of one person is not democracy. The Voters are more in the order of a grand jury than a democracy. Democracy is about voting based on our own opinion while Voters’ Assemblies are governed by the Bible.

    Walther taught that an excommunication has to be unanimous, because it is not based on the pastor’s decision but the congregation’s. It is a test of the entire congregation as to their agreement with the Bible. Those who do not agree with the Bible, as understood by the Lutheran Confessions, must to be excommunicated.

    For example, if a congregation can’t get a unanimous vote on removing people who are living together without marriage, those who don’t support the excommunication are also to be excommunicated. The person or persons being excommunicated cannot vote. This is not about democracy and majority rule, but the Bible according to 1 Cor. 5 and Matt. 18:15-20…

    While the laity is being misinformed by the clergy about Voters’ Assemblies, the clergy are busily rewriting the theology to agree with Loehe instead of Walther. If the laity does not take action to preserve their Voters’ Assemblies, these Assemblies will soon disappear. Then they can let the clergy take care of all the church business and hire all the staff they need out of their own pockets.

  37. @Rev. Robert Fischer #45

    Thanks, Pastor Fischer, hopefully your comment will put this matter to rest once and for all and the good pastor from Canada will admit he has it wrong. One side effect from his position is that of encouragement to control seeking pastors who don’t have a servant attitude concerning their calling.

  38. @Timothy Schenks #43

    I have never said anything about arbitrary excommunication.

    Let’s take a step back. Do you believe that a pastor needs a voters’ assembly’s unanimous vote to forgive sins? Do you believe that a pastor needs a voters’ assembly’s unanimous vote to retain sins? Do you believe that a pastor needs a voters’ assembly’s unanimous vote on who to commune at the Lord’s Table? Or is a congregational vote only required for “casting people out”?

  39. @Gene White #46

    You can have control-seeking pastors and you can have control-seeking laymen. This is not a question of seeking control, but of the pastor doing what God has called him to do. What is more of a servant attitude? For a pastor to do the difficult things God has called him to do or to shirk that responsibility?

  40. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #48

    As I stated in a comment or two back on this topic, I am sticking with Walther and our historic LCMS polity. I appreciate that you were educated in a different way in Canada and that is okay with me. My objective is to see the public sin is treated with Scriptural integrity and in a public way so there is no question it has been dealt with. If the bylaws for a church say it must be a unanimous vote, then that is what is is. It is a joint action by the pastor and the congregation, which also has Office of the Keys responsibility, its not solely the pastor.

  41. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #48

    The Keys are still retained by the congregation otherwise how could a divine call be issued? The congregation then passes on the Office of the Ministry and it’s obligation and responsibilities to the called. If you had no divine call from a congregation of the Keys then you have no legitimate call except as a secular direction of some institution.

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