Brethren Archive

Discipline in the Assembly: Its Use and Abuse.

by William John McClure

IF it were our object to write upon a subject which would interest most of the people of God, then we surely would not have chosen Discipline in the Assembly.  But while we hope to interest believers, we know only the Holy Spirit can enable the child of God to read with pleasure and profit what is written on this most important though somewhat neglected subject.
It is a conviction, strengthened by years of observation, that a more intelligent apprehension of the subject would have saved the Lord's people from many of the assembly troubles, through which they have passed.  In saying this, we do not refer to recent years only, but to the sad consequences of an unscriptural discipline which marred that wonderful movement which began in the early part of the last century.  Were we more in the mind of Christ, we would weep yet, for the havoc then made by men who believed they were pleasing God, when they sought to carry out an unscriptural discipline on fellow saints.
Indifference to and lack of knowledge of the subject of discipline has resulted in the acquiescence by many of the Lord's people, in what would not stand the test of God's Word, to the dishonour of Christ and spiritual barrenness of their own souls.  It is only when the action of an assembly is in accord with the Word of God, that it is "Bound in Heaven."   If it is unscriptural, God does not ratify it, and no assembly should bow to it.  But suppose the case of a man being put away in a scriptural way from the assembly at B_____, that action is bound in Heaven, and if the assembly at C_____ receives that one before he has sought restoration to fellowship at B_____, and their judgment lifted, it is distinct denial of the authority of Christ as Lord.  That this is frequently done, and few seem to think much about it, in nowise lessens its gravity.
To require other assemblies to accept without question the action of an assembly just because it is the action of an assembly, is entirely wrong.  The mutual confidence which assemblies should have in each other, ought to lead to the acceptance of the judgment until it has been made clear that it was an unscriptural judgment, then loyalty to Christ forbids bowing to it.  A man-made unity requires that that judgment be bowed to in order to preserve it.  But to endorse an unrighteous decision, is to condone sin, which the Lord would not have His people do.
RECEPTION INTO THE ASSEMBLY is not the act of the elders, nor of a majority, but of the assembly.  It would be manifestly wrong to receive a person against the objection of a number in the assembly.  By the same token, it is not the elders who put away, nor a majority in the assembly.  In putting away, all must act.  Unless it is the assembly who puts away, it is a mere travesty of discipline, nothing more.
But it may be asked, what is to be done if all are not of one mind in regard to some case of discipline?  Wait upon God and have patience with those who are not clear that the case calls for putting away.  If this is done, the case explained, and the Scriptures given that bear upon it, in by far the greater number of cases, the judgment of all will be carried, and the danger of division averted.  No single cause has produced so much trouble as hasty discipline.  More prayers and patience would have brought unity of mind.  And this would not have meant laxity, or fellowship with sin.  Haste in judgment is very often a sign of weakness, while patience indicates strength and ability to deal with sin.
Scriptural discipline can be carried out in a godly way, and if it cannot be done thus, there must be something wrong, and the question may well suggest itself.  Should it have been done at all?  What we mean is this.  If a person must be put away, the Word of God compelling such an action, then He can be counted on to enable the assembly to do so without having to use physical force, as has been done, or calling in the police, which we have known also to be done.
Such discipline as this is enough to cause us to blush, and yet it has occurred again and again to our knowledge.  But suppose the excommunicated one says he will come in spite of the excommunication, what then?  No physical force.  1 Cor. 5. 4 is all the power that is needed.  But if he will come, though we have prayed that God would not let him come.  It is not at all likely that God would let him, but if he did, there must be no physical force used.  Suppose he forced his way to the table, there would be no fellowship, any more than if a burglar were to break in to a home and with the family at meat, would persist in helping himself, and they powerless to prevent it.  For believers to keep calm and wait on God under such circumstances, if they ever did arise, would be to see God act and give effect to discipline which was of Himself.
First.  The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is linked up with the assembly; He is the One to who the assembly is gathered, and allowed sin brings a reproach on His name, and in judging sin and carrying out discipline, we proclaim the righteous character of the Head of the Church.  As in the past with Israel, and now in the Church, always, it will be true, "Holiness becometh thine house O Lord for ever."
Second.  Discipline is meant for the recovery of the sinning one.  Indeed, in each place where we have either internal discipline or the putting away from the assembly, the object clearly is the restoration of the one so dealt with.  It was never intended by God that it should be vindictive, though alas! it can easily become that with us.  One fears that the failure to apprehend this is too general.
If the sin to be dealt with is some moral lapse, which even the world would condemn, then there is the tendency to think and speak of the shame that has been brought upon us, rather than the reproach which has been brought upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, which ought to be our chief concern.
Then again, there is our attitude toward those under discipline.  There is just the danger that once out of the assembly, they cease to be objects of our solicitude.  May this not, at least partly, account for the fact that so many are never restored to the assembly?  Instead of making them feel that they are welcome to the meetings for the ministry of the Word, where their conscience may be reached and restoration to the Lord and His people brought about; often the frigid bearing of those who take the place of shepherds, the averted face and refusing the ordinary courtesies extended to the unsaved, chills any desire on the part of the poor backslider for restoration.  Such an attitude on the part of those who profess to care for the assembly, is tantamount to a notice to keep away.
We have known where a difference of judgment and failure to accept a decision rendered by some company of Christians hundreds of miles away, was sufficient to divide a family, so that the members could not share the same meal together, a course of conduct as unscriptural as it was un-Christlike.
The only thing which can justify such an attitude towards one under discipline, and which makes such an attitude imperative, is where they continue in the sin for which they were judged, whether that is the practice of moral evil or holding some blasphemous error as to the person of our Lord, or foundation truths. See 1 Tim. 1. 19. 20; 2 Tim. 2. 17, 18; 2 John 9. 10, 11; and 1 Cor. 5. 11.  Our course is very clear in this case, and in loyalty to Christ as Lord we must keep it.
Another very common danger against which we would utter a word of warning, and that is nullifying the discipline of the assembly by unduly fraternizing with one under discipline as if all were right. To keep up social intercourse with the excommunicated, even with the best of intentions is injurious to that one, and may foster the idea that the discipline was excessive, and that all did not agree with it.  In the case of members of a family, it is very different.  God never meant discipline in the assembly to set aside earthly relationships.  But much grace and wisdom is needed to maintain a correct attitude, fulfilling the obligations attaching to father, mother, brother or sister, husband or wife and yet not compromising the truth of God.  It is no doubt a difficult position to be in, but God can and will give grace to walk in it to His glory.
It is a great thing to have learned, that the assembly is not like a society of the world, which can make its own bye-laws, and to expel a member, they only need a majority.  The Word of God must settle everything, and any discipline which is not in accordance with the Word is not sanctioned by God and cannot command the respect and adherence of believers.  In a case of putting away, a brother was once asked what Scripture they had acted on in dealing with that person.  The reply was certainly very startling.  "We did not need any." I suppose by that, he meant that they all were agreed as to putting him away.  Another case came under our notice some time ago; it was the case of an old and very gracious brother, who had broken bread in a meeting from which a number had gone out and set up another table.  When he came to his home town, he was informed that he had cut himself off, and was not allowed to break bread.  The leading preacher remarking, "We have got him now where we want him."  As to discipline, only for the seriousness of it, we might say it was a joke.  More especially as those two assemblies are now united, but we never heard that the action in excommunicating that dear man has been revoked.  But it and many others will be at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
How very common it is to see a brother sitting back and refusing to break bread because of the presence of one about whom he has learned something, which should bring him under the discipline of the assembly, but which is unknown to the rest.  Some may ask, What should he do under those circumstances?  Most decidedly, keep his place at the Lord's table.  But how can he have fellowship with such a man?  He does not have fellowship with him, nor is the assembly guilty in such a case, as they cannot judge the sin of which they are in total ignorance.  But the act of that brother in refraining from breaking bread, judges the whole assembly.  A very solemn thing to do.
What that brother should have done on learning of the sin, was to have taken counsel with some of the leading brethren in the assembly, and put before them what he had heard, and get the matter investigated, and the suitable scriptural action taken.  But meantime, that believer should have gone on remembering the Lord, just as if that man had not been present.  The story is told of our late brother J. R. Caldwell, that he had a man in his employ, who was in the same assembly, and he knew that this man was robbing him, but he had not sufficient evidence to put before the assembly and carry their judgment.  So rather than spring the thing on the assembly on his own personal knowledge, and thus risk a division, by some taking the man's part, he continued to meet that man at the Lord's table.  By and by, all the evidence that was necessary, came to hand and the case was brought up, and the man confronted with it.  The result was that all were agreed that the action of putting him away was just, and thus trouble was avoided.  Our brother acted just as anyone who knows the truth ought to act.
It is very sad to see how easily some, yea even older brethren, can sit back because of some offence they have received, or something done, or not done according to their mind.  Thus, they judge the whole assembly, and if in the past they sought to guide, they now put themselves where they are powerless to help, just as the man who jumps out of the boat is where he cannot steer it.
Few Scriptures have been misused as this one has.  There are many things for which an assembly, subject to the Word of God, will have to exercise the extreme form of discipline, but all of these will fall under one of two heads, Doctrinal evil or Moral evil.  Indeed, we cannot conceive of any sin not embraced by these two words, for what the one leaves out, the other takes in.
But it has been taught by some, that Matt. 18. supplies a third cause for putting away, and this has been termed Self-will, or not hearing the church.  Now it is our conviction, that if self-will be a cause for putting away, there would be few left to carry out the judgment, as it is certainly in us all, but most manifest in those who urge this kind of judgment.  But we insist that there is no such thing as putting away from an assembly, save for acts of moral evil or unsound doctrine of a fundamental character.  No doubt, self-will, if unjudged, will lead to a fall into moral or doctrinal evil.  But it is perfectly ridiculous to speak of judging the thing before it thus manifests itself.  It may be in a man's heart to steal, but that does not give the officer of the law the right to arrest him; that thought in his heart must manifest itself in some overt act, and then the officer can arrest him.
This teaching of the third cause for putting away has been a most convenient method for getting rid of men whose lives were blameless and whose doctrine was sound.  But their offence was that they would not blindly follow men who were leading into a party, and insisting upon the acceptance of their interpretation of the Word of God, as if it were of the same value as the Word itself.  The ruin wrought, to our own knowledge, by good men being cut adrift from assemblies in this fashion, makes us sad.
Matthew 18. supposes the case of a man who has done a wrong to a brother, which he will not put right.  Two things will be very plain upon a very slight consideration of the passage.  First. Whatever the matter was, it was of such a nature that it could have been settled between the two themselves.  Now there are sins which cannot thus be settled, but must come before the assembly, and be dealt with in a public way.  Second.  The use of the word "trespass" forbids the thought that it was some trifling thing, some fancied slight which that brother imagined he had received.  We cannot think of God countenancing the setting of the whole machinery of the church in motion, to gratify the whim of some carnal man, who chose to regard himself as trespassed against, because his interference with the liberty of another brother was firmly and even graciously refused.
We submit the following case, which may help to illustrate how Matt. 18. may apply.  A great many different cases may occur, but this one will perhaps help.  A brother indorsed the note of another for $5000.  The note becoming due, he does not meet it, and the Bank calls on the endorser to pay. He in turn goes to the other, but he refused to pay it and left the endorser to do that.  What was to be done?  As he refused to even acknowledge the debt and would not promise to pay when able, he was put away from the assembly.  Now that trespass could have been made right between themselves, but it was not, nor did the help of some brethren settle it, so it became a matter for the church.
Note, he was put away for not making a trespass right.  But great stress is laid on not hearing the church.  There is something here that savours of Rome, who makes capital out of the words, "Hear the Church," thus really putting the Church in the place of Christ.  Take an illustration of the way in which Matt. 18 can be abused and the hardship it can work, and which we know it has wrought.  A few leaders may succeed in setting aside the baptism of believers according to Matt. 28. 19, 20, and whole companies may practice the one name baptism.  Some brother feels called upon to bring before them the scriptural order from Matt. 28.  We doubt his wisdom, but not the truth of his position.  He is informed that he must cease to teach that, and if he persists, he is told that it is the mind of the church that he be silent, and if that does not silence him, he is put out as a self-willed man, and for not hearing the Church.  But if one company can so use this passage, every other company can also use it.  So a company that is in sore need of some sound, healthy teaching along what is spoken of as "separation" lines, may resent some brother giving it to them.  It disturbs them, they want to go in the mixed way that pleases them.  This brother is told that his ministry is not acceptable, if he does not stop, he will be waited on and told that his place is outside.  Why?  Oh he would not hear the church.  In each case, to hear the church was to really countenance error.  The Word must judge the church. 
It cannot be too strongly insisted on, that excommunication can only be for scriptural reasons, the Word of God must be the authority for acting.  We have heard and personally known of numbers of cases, where those who put them out, regarded their action as "bound in Heaven."  It is an utter mistake; God never indorses a wrong judgment, and for ourselves, perhaps we would prefer to be those who were put out rather than those who put them out.
Some years ago, we visited a brother in Southern California, whose wife was a deaf mute.  I shall never forget how, on leaving, with a few expressive signs with her hands, she spoke of the Lord's coming, the trumpet sounding and the dead and living saints caught up together to meet Him in the air.  I felt how poor my words were in comparison with her signs and the joy that shone in her countenance.
When I went, the husband warned me not to speak of the present sad state of the church.  All literature on that subject had been kept from her and she was living in the early Acts.  I thought, what blissful ignorance.  Now, it is possible that some who will read this article, will just be in as great ignorance as to the abuse of discipline of which we shall speak, and we feel that, were it possible, we would rather they remain in that ignorance.  But this is not possible, therefore we seek to safeguard such, by pointing out how unscriptural it is.
The discipline, which we say cannot be found in the Scripture, is that of one assembly cutting off another.  That wonderful work of the Spirit of God, which began in the early part of the 19th century, in which believers got back to the principles and practices of the early church, in a way not known since the close of the apostolic age.  But alas, as at the first, the flesh soon marred that blessed work, and of the evils that afflicted that movement, the one that was to bear the most bitter fruit, was the forming a confederacy of assemblies.
In the Word, we find that each assembly is responsible to the Lord, who walks in the midst of the Seven Golden Lampstands, and reserves to Himself the prerogative of removing the Lampstand, when in His wisdom, He sees that it has ceased to serve its purpose. The Second and Third chapters of Revelation give us the Spirit's last messages to the church, and there we do not find a hint at a confederacy of assemblies, or of one assembly having jurisdiction over another assembly, but the very opposite to this.  The godly consideration of one another which is taught in Rom. 14. and 1 Cor. 8. will, if practiced, prevent assemblies, just as it will prevent individuals, from jeopardizing the fellowship which should exist between companies which mutually seek to own the Lordship of Christ.  And we regard it as a very heartless thing for a company to introduce innovations and practices which are sure to grieve other companies.  We have seen this done. Grace will often lead both individuals and companies to give up what they might claim as their right, just for the good of others. The unity for which our Lord prayed in John 17. was to be expressed in this gracious way, and unity maintained in any other way is mere uniformity.
Early in the history of the movement, some good but misguided men sought to maintain unity (really uniformity) by a confederation of assemblies.  Each assembly became a member of that confederation, and was bound to accept the decisions of the central assembly, not being allowed to ask a question as to whether or not it was according to the Word of God.  If they refused to bow to that decision, then they were cut off from that circle of assemblies.
This was surely a very strange way of keeping "the unity of the body" as they used to put it.  It is as if a man were to cut off arms and legs, and plead that he wanted to preserve the oneness of the body.  Such an one would not be long outside a certain institution.
There were some who saw the evil of this confederacy movement, and their scriptural stand was called "Independency."  And so for many years, the word "Independency" was made a sort of a scarecrow to frighten believers away from the simple scriptural thought of the church.  It is wonderful the terror some words inspire among believers, "Independency,"   "Bethesda," and, in our own day, "Tight," and "Loose," all have played a part discrediting those who seek to go according to the Word.
Time has, in a remorseless way, exposed the fallacy of what had been so widely accepted, because of the truly great men who sought to carry it out.  But the ruin it has left, survives these dear men, who were the authors of the confederacy, and will not be gotten rid of till the Lord comes.  One would have thought that the failure of this confederacy would have taught believers, who seek a path in separating the sects, to avoid the mistakes of Exclusivism, but in Needed Truthism, we have the same thing in principle, but lacking the glamour of great names; it never reached the same importance, and everywhere it bore the stamp of God's disapproval.
Notwithstanding, it seems to have a fascination for certain minds, and we meet it again and again, always bearing the inevitable crop of trouble and division.
Why is it that this thing crops up whenever and wherever God's dear people make an effort to carry out the simple principles of the early church?  To answer this fully is impossible, at least in the limits of this article.  But some reasons may be suggested.  Satan hates to see anything savouring of the early simplicity of the Church.  Man is very slow to apprehend the simple character of the church of God.  Man loves machinery, and is reluctant to be where he must depend on God in every emergency; he likes to have rules to guide him.  Man loves place and power, as seen in the various clerical grades of Christendom, which has led up to the pretensions of the Pope of Rome. As long as the New Testament character of the assembly is preserved, there is not the opportunity for man to become big.  But the confederation of meetings gives him the opportunity of ruling over a district.
Some time ago, some meetings in a certain town agreed to refuse their platforms to certain brethren, not because of any moral evil or unsound doctrine, no charge of these things was, at any time, made against these men.  The question was simply one of reception to the Lord's table.  It was not even hinted that these men would allow any person holding fundamental heresy, or living in the practice of sin, to come to the table.
Now in these assemblies, refusing to allow certain men to minister, we concede that they acted within their right.  If any assembly judges a man's ministry to be unprofitable, they may refuse it. Indeed, it would be a blessing if this right were more frequently exercised, as it would deliver God's people from profitless talkers.
But the sad mistake made by these assemblies, was that they insisted as the price of their fellowship, that every other assemblyrefuse the platform to these men.  Now many of the assemblies judged their ministry profitable, also in some cases the assemblies were the result of the labours of these men, so believers were asked to shut out their own spiritual fathers, and for no scriptural reason.  For their refusal to shut out these brethren, they were regarded as no longer in fellowship, and believers coming from these assemblies were given a back seat, even where they had been frequent visitors up till that time, and no charge whatever was laid against them.  Godly sisters were sent to the gallery to weep because denied a place which they had never before been refused.
The only ground on which such conduct could be justified, is that the church is a confederation of meetings, each one having to bow to some central authority, dominated by some man or men.  But each assembly stands on its own responsibility before the Lord, and loyalty to Christ forbids that it endorses the action of any assembly, if that action is clearly unscriptural.
At a meeting of leading brethren, the question of cutting off a certain assembly was being discussed.  Scripture was asked to justify such an act.  One who was most active in that sad business, gave Matt. 18. 15-18 which he declared could be carried out on a company as well as on an individual.  But this is a sample of the intelligence (rather the lack of intelligence) which we have found among the defenders of this unscriptural discipline.
To escape what is felt to be too grave a responsibility, we are told, "We don't cut them off, they cut themselves off."  But if refusing to allow even simple sisters to break bread, who come from those meetings, and threatening with exclusion any who will go to those meetings, is not cutting off, then we don't know what cutting off is. 
“The Believer’s Magazine” 1930


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