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.

About Pastor Johannes Nieminen

Pastor Johannes (John) Nieminen serves St Andrew's Lutheran Church in the Atlantic provinces of Canada, with Divine Service held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Middleton, Nova Scotia, Charlottetown, PE, and other locations on occasion. He attended Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St Catharines, Ontario, graduating with a Master of Divinity degree in 2014. He is married to Lydia and they have been blessed with three children: Ethan, Summerlee, and Jacob.


Democratic Church Discipline? — 63 Comments

  1. @john #50

    I don’t think the pastor was questioning that. We all know that the preaching office, the stewardship of the mysteries of God, the Office of Holy Ministry, the public ministry, etc. is a vocation performed by an ordained man on behalf of his Calling congregation. I had a question that the pastor was advocating arbitrary excommunication without the deliberation of the congregation; he stated that was not the case, so I really don’t understand the point if this thread.

  2. Here’s a helpful short (very short!) paper from Issues Etc. which distinguishes the Lesser Ban and Excommunication, something which Rev. Nieminen still seems to be confused about: The Lesser Ban

  3. @Timothy Schenks #51

    Ha! My sentiments to you exactly! 🙂 The only question I see is your question of whether or not our church fathers discussed these things theologically. I understood that to be rhetorical. Yes, I believe they discusses these things theologically.

    I keep asking you the same questions because I am trying to understand your point(s) of disagreement. I understand that you are saying the congregation is involved. I don’t know with what you are saying they are involved. I’m asking clarifying questions.

  4. @Rev. Robert Fischer #53

    Thank you for sharing that document. I agree with points 1, 2, and 3a. Points 3b and 3c conflict with points 1 and 2.

    From 2: “the bishop has also the power of jurisdiction, i.e., the authority to excommunicate those guilty of open crimes” (Ap 20)

    From 3b: “A pastor is not empowered to excommunicate anyone” (Fritz)

    Of course, the conflict is that they define excommunication differently. As the document you shared cites, our Confessions define excommunication “consists in this, that manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin.”

    Fritz (and Walther) define excommunication as being expelled from church membership. According to the definition of the Lutheran Confessions, Fritz and Walther agree that a pastor can excommunicate, but they don’t use the term, preferring to use “suspending a member.”

  5. @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #56

    @Pastor Johannes Nieminen #56

    It appears that people are working with two definitions of “excommunication”. If refusing the Sacrament to an individual for cause is meant, that is the Pastor’s responsibility, with the hope that the sin will be repented of and the individual brought back.

    We do seem to have the habit of presenting names of those to be removed from the membership rolls of the church to the Voters’ for approval. I have not seen an argument about it, although I know that some places keep members on the rolls who are not seen in church because their relatives don’t want to cut them off. [They are doing them no favor.]

    IMHO, the congregation holds the Keys for the purpose of presenting them to the Pastor, and while they have a Pastor he has the Keys, along with responsibility for preaching, teaching and administering the Sacraments. If the Pastor needs advice, isn’t that what Elders are named for in our system?

  6. @helen #57

    Casting out a member for manifest impenitent behavior is excommunication . Withholding the Lord’s Supper due to a member’s rotten behavior is excommunication. Removing a member from the roster via self-exclusion is excommunication. It’s all the same thing, Helen. This is the Lesser Ban described in the Book of Concord. The Greater Excommunication no longer exists. Some Lutheran pastors today refer to withholding Communion as a “Lesser Ban,” as if to differentiate it from actual excommunication, but it only confuses the term.

  7. @Timothy Schenks #58

    Tim, what you’re saying doesn’t seem to agree with what Walther (and the Lutheran Fathers he quotes) says in Church and Ministry, “Concerning the Holy Ministry”, Thesis IX, C, titled “The minister has no right to inflict and carry out excommunication without his having first informed the whole congregation.”

    There is repeated mention of a Greater and Lesser Ban (or Major and Minor Excommunication). This is reaffirmed by the CTCR document mentioned above (Church Discipline in the Christian Congregation) which states on pages 16 & 17:

    2. May a pastor suspend a person from communion? Although a pastor may not himself excommunicate without the congregation, he may, in the interest of a person’s spiritual welfare, refuse to commune one whose presence at the altar would be a source of offense to other members of the congregation, or one living in unrepentant sin who is still being dealt with on a personal basis by himself or others. If, for example, a member has embezzled church funds and the matter is known but the problem has not been resolved (there has been neither absolution on the one hand nor excommunication on the other), the pastor may insist that the party involved absent himself from the table of the Lord. This suspension must always be temporary, however until the matter has been resolved in one way or the other. Any appeal from such suspension must be acted on properly by the congregation, with the party involved, by virtue of the appeal thereby forfeiting any privacy that may have previously been his. Obviously the pastor has no right to suspend a member simply because the member has disagreed with him, for example in some matter of church polity where the Word of God has not spoken.

  8. @Rev. Robert Fischer #59

    The Book of Concord refers to the Greater Excommunication, which no longer exists. That was civil penalties and interdicion. The Lesser Ban is excommunication from a congregation.

    That aside, I will agree that we have adopted Kirche und Amt as being in agreement with Scripture and the Confessions and should follow it.

  9. @Timothy Schenks #60

    The greater excommunication, as the Pope calls it, we regard only as a civil penalty, and it does not concern us ministers of the Church. But the lesser, that is, the true Christian excommunication, consists in this, that manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin. And ministers ought not to mingle secular punishments with this ecclesiastical punishment, or excommunication.

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