The Belgic Confession of Faith lists three marks by which one can discern the “true church.” The third of these marks is that “it practices church discipline for correcting faults” (Art. 29). It is this mark that serves as a particularly problematic point in the life of the church.
The Reformed Church has always had provisions for ecclesiastical discipline, because of the above article of the Confession of Faith. Because the Confession of Faith does not present a complete church order but only the most basic of foundations, it does not specify how discipline is to be handled.
In the Reformed Church, discipline has always been as local as possible. This means that members of churches are accountable to that church’s board of elders, a minister is accountable only to their classis, and consistories are accountable only to their classis. In all of these instances, discipline is as local as possible. Of course, discipline is not always handled in a just and proper way, and so there are procedures for redress if something is improperly handled or the presence of manifest injustice. But as a rule, discipline is intended to be local. This also means that the more local bodies (the board of elders and the classis) are the bodies charged with interpreting Scripture in its determination of what things are offenses and what are not.
This has been problematic for some within the communion. There are those who are bothered by the possibility that someone, somewhere might be doing or thinking something they don’t like, and if the proper assembly or judicatory does not see the actions in question as an offense, of if they choose not to administer discipline for any given reason, there is nothing that can be done by those who are accountable to other assemblies or judicatories. For those who insist on lock-step uniformity on all matters, this is troubling.
As a result, several attempts have been made to allow anyone to charge and discipline anyone else. All of these attempts have been rightly rejected. While it is true that this would create a nightmare scenario where everyone is suddenly judicially accountable to everyone else, this is not the most troubling aspect of this. These attempts stem from a gross misunderstanding of both the church and the nature of ecclesiastical discipline itself.
The Book of Church Order, when speaking of discipline, gives three purposes of ecclesiastical discipline: “to promote [the church’s] purity, to benefit the offender, and to vindicate the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2.I.1.1). Noticeably absent is punishment. Punishment is never a purpose or a goal of discipline, especially ecclesiastical church discipline. The ideology which underpins the civil justice system in the United States is fundamentally different and irreconcilable with the principles that underlie ecclesiastical discipline.
As we consider discipline, it is also worth looking at the word itself. Etymologically, the word discipline is related to the word disciple. Indeed, we still use the word discipline to speak of a field of study. So discipline has absolutely nothing to do with punishment, and everything to do with guiding and instructing. As such, the goal of discipline in the church is always restoration and reconciliation. An offense is not simply a break in a rule or a law, it is the break in covenantal relationships, and discipline is needed insofar as the relationship is still in need of mending. This, of course, requires effort by both parties.
And this is why discipline is always primarily local. Because it is those people with whom we live and minister. It is those people that with whom we share experiences, it is those people who are closest to us. It is those people who know the particular circumstances, who know what is going on, and who know what might be needed to bring reconciliation and restoration. If it became possible, for example, for an assembly on one coast to discipline someone on another coast, it would cease to be discipline and become simply punishment. It turns restoration into retribution and the church will have lost its way.
But what about those assemblies who do things improperly? Those who do not follow the proper legal procedures or are clearly unjust in their task? This is why there is oversight over the process of discipline, and why there are procedures for appeals and complaints. This allows for there to be accountability with assemblies as well. So while discipline, as a rule, is always local, the local assemblies are, too, accountable to the broader church in the exercise of its task.
Discipline in the church is based upon relationships and the goal of always healing relationships — punishment is never the goal. Indeed, neither the word “punish” nor any of its derivations occur even once in the church order. Discipline being local, then, is not a flaw in the order, it is actually the design of the order.