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.

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