To suspend a preacher from the ministry is an act of coercion. It is to force him to stop teaching in the name of the church. I have heard people argue that because suspending false teachers is an act of coercion, then it is therefore not the act of the Word of God, since the Word of God doesn’t coerce. Of course, the gospel doesn’t coerce. The gospel enlightens and awakens to new life and understanding, just as Jesus did with his disciples (Luke 24). But it is an act of the law. The law does not awaken (Sorry pietists!), nor does it enlighten. It coerces and threatens and drives to repentance. True repentance can’t exist, of course, without faith in the gospel. And faith is given by the gospel. So the distinction is this: The law drives to repentance. The gospel actually gives the repentance by giving faith to the broken heart.
So suspending pastors is indeed an act of the law. But here is another question: Does the law guard our doctrine? Certainly, the law does not give a desire for pure doctrine. Certainly, the law does not achieve pure doctrine. Pure doctrine is an act of God’s grace. It is his gift to us. Pure doctrine is essentially gospel, as it saves us by giving us faith in Christ (1 Tim 4:16). But can the Christian use the law of God to guard pure doctrine?
Yes. He must. Let’s use an example. We practice closed communion because St. Paul teaches us that we must be united in doctrine and love if we commune together (1 Cor 11:18). The Lord’s Supper is an act of confessing the doctrine of Christ (1 Cor 11:26). Practicing closed communion is the confession that we not only must agree on doctrine but can, by God’s grace. Those who commune those who disagree on God’s Word are confessing that they don’t believe that God gives the gift of unity in his Word. This unity in doctrine is a gift of God by his gospel. Closed communion is a confession of this gift, and an optimistic pursuit of this gift in faith and prayer and instruction.
So let’s say a pastor practices close or open communion, communing those who are “close enough” or are baptized, or whatever the standard he might find fit. He is denying that unity in confession is possible. By his practice, he says it is unreasonable, and he, therefore, refuses to confess it. Of course, the gospel is unreasonable to our sinful reason. But the Christian confesses what is foolishness to the world (1 Cor 1:18).
So let’s say a faithful layman of this congregation goes to his pastor and tells him that he needs to practice closed communion. This faithful layman knows that closed communion is evangelical, since it confesses the gospel of the unity of doctrine, which is part and parcel of the unity Christ earned for us with God (Eph 2:14). This is the gospel. But his pastor will not heed this gospel. So this faithful layman reminds his pastor of what Christ has commanded him: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matt 28:20).
The faithful layman reminds his pastor of the law. As a Christian who is not under the law, this faithful layman uses the law to curb the sinful practice of his pastor, just as he would curb his own sinful flesh. We use the law to curb our sinful flesh so that it does not carry our hearts and minds away from the gospel. The Christian uses the law to guard the gospel. He does not do this as someone who is under the law, as if the law can give any life at all. But he uses the law knowing that a stubborn hypocrite must be rebuked. Of course, he does this in love. His goal, after all, is for the purity of the gospel.
Now, this faithful layman calls another neighbor pastor. Let’s say it is the circuit visitor. Suppose that this circuit visitor is also faithful, and he talks to the pastor practicing open communion. He tries to persuade him by appealing to the unity of the gospel. The erring pastor is not convinced, so the circuit visitor takes it to the District President. The District President is not convinced either. So the faithful circuit visitor takes it to the Synodical Presidium. The erring pastor is disciplined. Refusing to repent of his sin against the office of the gospel, he is suspended. This is the act of the law. But again, it is not the use of the law from a slave to the law. It the use of the law from a Christian who loves and desires to guard the gospel.
Those who dismiss suspension of impenitent errorists as coercive, thus not evangelical, and therefore not according to the Word of God, assume that the law can not be used unless the one using the law is under it. They assume, in other words, that if we use the law to discipline those who are stubbornly in error then we are under the law. Think about this! They are assuming that the only way for us not to be under the law is if we do not use the law.
But Christ didn’t forget about the law. Instead, he fulfilled it (Matt 5:17-18). He saw the divisions of the children and fathers, and he sent his servant John to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers in repentance to prepare his way to establish eternal peace before God and one another by his blood. He fulfilled the law. This means that when we, his Christians, led by the Spirit, use the law, then there is no law against us (Gal 5:18-23). If we are automatically under the law whenever we use the law, then this means that we are still under the law. But if we are not under the law, but under grace, then we can use the law freely to curb false teachers. If we are afraid to use the law for this, then we are demonstrating that we are under it. A slave runs away from his master and tries to avoid him. But a son uses what his Father gives him. He makes use of all things, with the full confidence that he is not a slave to any of it.
So let us use the law to guard our doctrine against false teachers! This is our standing now as Christians. When we pursue, among the other fruits of the Spirit, peace and concord, then there is no law that can accuse us. When people accuse us of being legalistic for insisting on pure doctrine and practice, then they are, ironically, binding us to the yoke of the law. But we are not under the law. Therefore, we will use it to the glory of the gospel. Even while we use it to drive ourselves to repentance as we examine ourselves according to our station in the Ten Commandments every day, we do so that we may find our only comfort and joy in the gospel, the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, which the world cannot give (Eph 4:3; John 14:27).