[It is well to note that this short paper, printed from notes of a discourse at a meeting (1841), refers to the spirit animating the individual in dealing with evil. The putting evil out is assumed; as the word of God expressly commands it. We are bound to keep God’s house clean, to look diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God, lest there be amongst us such or such, to judge them that are within, and put out the wicked. But this is a proving of ourselves to be clean. God will have the place of His dwelling clean. The question of withdrawing from evildoers, a positive commandment of the word, is not touched. The object of the tract is the spirit in which discipline is to be exercised.]
We ought to remember what we are in ourselves, when we talk about exercising discipline—it is an amazingly solemn thing. When I reflect, that I am a poor sinner, saved by mere mercy, standing only in Jesus Christ for acceptance, in myself vile, it is, evidently, an awful thing to take discipline into my own hands. Who can judge save God? This is my first thought.
Here I stand, as nothing, in the midst of persons dear to the Lord, whom I must look upon and esteem better than myself, in the consciousness of my own sinfulness and nothingness before the Lord; and to talk of exercising discipline!—it is a very solemn thought indeed to my own mind; it presses on me peculiarly. Only one thing gets me out of that feeling, and that is the prerogative of love. When love is really in exercise, it cares for nothing but the accomplishment of its object. Look at it in the Lord Jesus, no matter what stood in the way, on He went. This is the only thing that can rightly relieve the spirit from the sense of an altogether false position in the exercise of discipline. The moment I get out of that, it is a monstrous thing. Though the subject-matter of conduct be righteousness, that which sets it going is love—love in exercise, to secure, at all cost of pain to itself, the blessing of holiness in the church. It is not a position of superiority in the flesh. (See Matt. 23:8-11.) The character of discipline as “master” we have not at all. Though influenced by love to maintain righteousness, and stimulated to a jealous watchful care one over another, we must ever remember that, after all, “to his own master” our brother “standeth or falleth,” Rom. 14:4. Love alone guides it, and the service of love displays it. We do see that character of discipline in the Lord Jesus, when He took a scourge of small cords to drive out the desecrators of the temple (Matt. 21; John 2); but it was anticipative of another character of Christ, when He will execute judgment.
There are two or three kinds of discipline, full of comfort as shewing the association of the individual with the whole body, and with God, which have been ordinarily confounded amongst Christians.
There is, in this country, a great deal more difficulty connected with the question of discipline, than elsewhere, because of certain habits of action, whereby discipline has come to be looked at merely as a deliberative and judicial act. Persons have been voluntarily associated, and there has been a habit of legislating for the credit of the voluntarily associated body. Because people must secure themselves, each society makes its own rules. Now that principle is as far from the truth as the world from the church, or light from darkness. One cannot admit of any principle of voluntary association at all, or of preservative rules of one’s own. Man’s will is that which brings in everlasting destruction. It may be modified, but the principle is altogether false. There is no such thing as voluntary action on man’s part, in the things of God; it is acting under Christ, by the Spirit. The moment I get man’s will, I get the devil’s service and not Christ’s. This has occasioned a mass of practical difficulty, that those abroad do not feel. When I get the notion of a judicial process going on, for the trial of crime, by certain laws, I find myself altogether off the ground of grace; I have confounded all sorts of things.
The developed statement of Matthew 18:15-17, though often cited, does not seem to touch the matter. It is a question of wrong done to a brother; and it is never said, concerning the one who has done the wrong, that the church is to put him out; but, “Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” This may have to be the case, as to the church subsequently, but it is not its character here; it is simply, “Let him be unto thee” etc.—have nothing more to do with him. It supposes a case of wrong done to an individual, as in the trespass-offering, where it is said, “If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbour,” etc.103 There is the sovereignty of grace to forgive, even to the “seventy times seven”; but “thou shalt in anywise rebuke thy neighbour, and not surfer sin upon him.” An individual has wronged me: how am I to act? I go not to the Father’s discipline, nor to the Son’s discipline over His own house; but, acting towards him in the love of the brotherhood, I go and say, “Brother, thou hast done me wrong,” etc. There is, first of all, this remonstrance in righteousness; yet the path is such that it may not get out of the scope of grace. Having done this, if he will not hear me, I take with me one or two more, “that in the mouth of two or three witnesses,” etc. If that fails, I then tell it to the whole assembly. If he refuse to hear the church, “Let him be unto thee,” etc. The thing prescribed is a course of individual conduct, and the result, individual position towards another. It may come to a case of church discipline, but not necessarily. I go hoping to gain my brother to repentance, to replace him in his right relation in fellowship with myself and God (where there is failure in brotherly love, it necessarily affects communion with the Father): if my brother is gained, it goes no farther; it ought never to pass my lips; the church knows nothing of it, or any other creature, but we two. If there is failure, I act to restore him in fellowship to all.
As to the discipline of the Father, there is a great deal more of individual prerogative of grace in this. I doubt whether it comes under the care of a body of Christians at all; it is the exercise of individual care. I do not see that the church stands in the place of the Father. The idea of superiority is true in a certain sense; there is difference of grace as well as of gift. If I have more holiness, I must go and restore my brother, Gal. 6:1. But then this individual action in grace is not church discipline. It is most important to keep these things clear and distinct, so that, while one is quite ready to be subject to the two or three, individual energy should not be at all restrained, but remain clear and untouched. The Holy Ghost must have all His liberty. I could suppose a case where an individual had to go and rebuke all round, as Timothy, “Reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering,” etc., 2 Tim. 4:2. That is discipline; but the church has nothing to do with it, it is individual action.
But again, the church may be forced to exercise discipline, as in the case of the Corinthians, 1 Cor. 5. The Corinthians were not the least prepared to exercise discipline; but the apostle insists upon their doing so. There is that which is the individual exercise of the energy of the Spirit in the ministry of grace and truth, and the like, on the souls of others; and church action not at all involved. It is a mischief to make church discipline the only discipline. It would be a most awful thing if it were necessary to bring every evil before all. It is not the tendency of charity to bring evil into public: “Charity covereth a multitude of sins.” If it sees a brother sin a sin which is not unto death, it goes and prays for him; and the sin may never come out as a question of church discipline at all. I believe there is never a case of church discipline but to the shame of the whole body. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Ye have not mourned,” etc.: they all were identified with it. Like some sore on a man’s body, it tells of the disease of the body, of the constitutional condition. The assembly is never prepared, or in the place to exercise discipline, unless having first identified itself with the sin of the individual. If it does not do it in that way, it takes a judicial form, which will not be the ministration of the grace of Christ. Christ has not yet taken His full judicial place. The moment it comes to that, the saying— “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still,” etc., the church has departed from its place altogether. Its priestly character in the present dispensation is one of grace.
What is the character of fatherly care and discipline? How does the father exercise it? Is it not because he is the father? He is not in the same place as the child. This is the principle of it. There is one superior in grace and wisdom; he sees another going wrong in judgment, and he goes and says to him, “I was once there,” etc.— “do not go and do so and so.” It is entreaty and exposing the circumstances in love; though, in case of hardness, rebuke may come in. The father can make all allowance for weakness and inexperience, as having passed through the same himself. Make yourself ever so much the servant, the principle of the father must be maintained; and it is a principle of individual superiority, however accompanied by grace. All the world should not stop me. It is the prerogative of individual love, to say, “Though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.” It flows from the father’s love, and leads me to the other, not to let him go on wrong, for love’s sake. It is not a case of trespass against me, but a case of walk or conduct against his place as a child. We fail, because we do not like to go through the pain and trouble of it. If a saint gets into trouble, he is Christ’s sheep; and I am bound, in whatsoever way I can, to seek to get him out of it. He may say, “What business have you to come?” and the like; but I ought to go and lay myself at his feet, in order to get him out of the net which he has got into, even though he dislike me for it. This needs the spirit of grace, and the seeking to bear the whole on one’s own soul.
The other kind of discipline is that of Christ, as Son “over his own house.” The case of Judas is of great value here. It will always be, that, if there is spirituality in the body, evil cannot continue long; it is impossible that hypocrisy, or anything else, should continue, where there is spirituality. In the case of Judas, the Lord’s personal grace overcame everything; and it will always be so, proportionably, and practically. The highest manifestation of evil was against this grace—“he that eateth bread with me, hath lifted up his heel against me… He then, having received the sop” (grace thoroughly came out, when the evil was shewn to be done against Himself), “went immediately out,” John 13.
This discipline never acts beyond what is manifested; and, therefore, we see the disciples questioning one another what these things meant, before the evil was done; it did not touch the conscience of the assembly. The Father’s discipline comes in, where there is nothing manifest, for that which is secret, or which may come out years after. If an elder brother, and seeing a younger one in danger, I ought to deal in this fatherly care, and tell him of it; but this is very distinct from church discipline. The moment I exercise fatherly discipline, it assumes a communion, in myself, with God, about the thing—a discernment of that working in another which may produce evil, that he has not—a perception which I have by my spiritual experience, which authorises and incites me to act in faithful love toward him, though without, perhaps, any ability to explain what I am doing to a human being.
The mixing up of these three things, individual remonstrance, the Father’s discipline in this fatherly care, and Christ’s discipline “as Son over his own house”—ecclesiastical discipline, has led to all manner of most dreadful confusion.
The great body of discipline ought to be altogether aimed at hindering excommunication, the putting of a person out. Nine-tenths of the discipline which ought to go on is individual. If it comes to the question of the exercise of the discipline of “the Son over his own house,” the church ought never to take it up, but in self-identification, in confession of common sin and shame, that it has come over to this. So it would be no court of justice at all, but a disgrace to the body. Spirituality in the church would purge out hypocrisy, defilement, and everything unworthy, without assuming a judicial aspect. Nothing should be so abhorrent, as that, in God’s house, such a thing had happened. If it were in one of our houses that something dishonourable and disgraceful had happened, should we go and feel as though we were altogether unconcerned, that we had nothing to do with it? It might be that some reprobate son must be put out, for the sake of the others—he cannot be reclaimed, and he is corrupting the family—what can be done? It is necessary to say, “I cannot keep you here; I cannot corrupt the rest by your habits and manners.” Would it not, nevertheless, be for weeping and mourning, for sorrow of heart, and shame and dishonour to the whole family? They would not like to talk on the subject; and others would refrain from it to spare their feelings: his name would not be mentioned. In the house of the Son, how abhorrent to be putting out! what common shame! what anguish! what sorrow! There is nothing more abhorrent to God than a judicial process.
The church is indeed plunged in corruption and weakness; but this is the very thing that would make one cling to the saints, and the more anxiously maintain the individual responsibility of those who have any gift for pastoral care. There is nothing I pray for more, than the dispensation of pastors. What I mean by a pastor is a person who can bear the whole sorrow, care, misery, and sin of another on his own soul, and go to God about it, and bring from God what will meet it, before he goes to the other.
There is another thing most clear. The result may be putting out; but if it ever comes to a corporate act in judgment, discipline ends the moment he is put out, and ends altogether— “Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth,” 1 Cor. 5:12.
The question whether I can sit down with this or that person who is within never arises. A person staying away from communion (because of another, of whom he does not think well, being there) is a most extraordinary thing; he is excommunicating himself for another’s sake. “For we, being many, are one bread [loaf], and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread,” 1 Cor. 10:17. If I stay away, I am saying, that I am not a Christian, because another has gone wrong. That is not the way to act. There may be a step to take, but it is not to commit the folly of excommunicating myself, lest a sinner should intrude.
All discipline until the last act is restorative. The act of putting outside, of excommunication, is not (properly speaking) discipline, but the saying that discipline is ineffective, and there is an end of it; the church says, “I can do no more.”
As to the question of unanimity in cases of church discipline, we must remember, it is the Son exercising His discipline over His own house. In the case in Corinthians it was the direct action of Paul in apostolic power on the body, and not of the church. The body claiming a right to exercise discipline! one cannot conceive a more terrible thing; it is turning the family of God into a court of justice. Suppose the case of a father going to turn out-of-doors a wicked son, and the other children of the family saying, “We have a right to help our father in turning our brother out of the house,” what an awful thing! We find the apostle forcing the Corinthians to exercise discipline, when they were not a bit disposed to do so. “Here (he says) there is sin among you, and ye are not mourning, that he that has done this deed might be taken away from among you (he is forcing them to the conviction that the sin is theirs, as well as that of the man); and now put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” The church is never in the place of exercising discipline until the sin of the individual becomes the sin of the church, recognised as such.
There is all this, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20), “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such,” etc., and the like; but, if evil has arisen of such a character as to demand excommunication, instead of the church having a right to put away, it is obliged to do it. The saints must approve themselves clear. He forces these people into the recognition of their own condition, gets them ashamed of themselves— they retire from the man—and he is left alone to the shame of his sin. (See 2 Cor. 2 and 7.) That is the way the apostle forced them to exercise discipline. The conscience of the whole church was forced into cleanness in a matter of which it was corporately guilty. And what trouble he had to do it! That is, I think, the force of, “To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also: for if I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the Person of Christ; lest Satan should get an advantage over us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.” What the devil was at was this—the apostle had insisted upon the excommunication (1 Cor. 5:3-5); and the church did not like it. He compelled them to act; they did it in the judicial way, and did not want to restore him, 2 Cor. 2:6, 7. Then he makes them go along with him in the act of restoration: “to whom ye forgive,” etc. The design of Satan was to introduce the wickedness, and make them careless about it, and, afterwards, judicial; and then to make it an occasion of separation of feeling between the apostle and the body of saints at Corinth. Paul identifies himself with the whole body, first forcing them to clear themselves, and then taking care that they should all restore him, that there should be perfect unity between himself and them. He goes with them, and associates them with himself, in it all; and so, in both excommunication and restoration, he has them with him. If the conscience of the body is not brought up to what it acts, to the point of purging itself by the act of excommunication, I do not see what good is done: it is merely making hypocrites of them.
The house is to be kept clean. The Father’s care over the family is one thing; the Son’s over “his own house,” another. The Son commits the disciples to the care of the Holy Father (John 17), this is distinct from having the house in order. In John 15 he says, “I am the true vine,” “ye are the branches,” “my Father is the husbandman,” etc., it is all the Father’s care. The Father purges the branches, to the end they may bear as much fruit as possible. But in the case of the Son over His own house, it is not individual, but the house kept clean. “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be
judged,” etc. There are then these three kinds of discipline:—
(1) That of brotherly relationship. Here I go as a person wronged, but it must be with grace.
(2) That of fatherly care—the Father exercising it with loving-kindness and tenderness, as over an erring child.
(3) Where the Son is over His own house, and where we have to act in the responsibility of keeping the house clean, that people should have their consciences according to the house in which they are—not only the individual, but the house, the body: the conscience of the body must act. The effect may be, graciously, that the individual is restored, but that is a collateral thing. When you come to that point, there is something besides restoring; there is the responsibility of keeping the house clean—the conscience of all there; and that may sometimes give a great deal of trouble.
As to the nature of all this, the spirit in which it should be conducted, it is priestly; and the priests ate the sin-offering within the holy place, Lev. 10. I do not think any person or body of Christians can exercise discipline, unless as having the conscience clear, as having felt the power of the evil and sin before God, as if he had himself committed it. Then he does it as needful to purge himself. It will all be for positive mischief—the dealing with it, if not so. What character of position does Jesus hold now? That of priestly service. And we are associated with Him. If there were more of the priestly intercession implied by eating of the sin-offering within the holy place, there would be no such abomination as that of the church assuming a judicial character. Suppose the case of a family, in which a brother had committed something disgraceful, would it not be for bitterness and anguish of the whole family? What common anxiety and pain of heart it would occasion! Does Christ not feed upon the sin-offering? does He not feel the sorrow? does He not charge Himself with it? He is the Head of His body, the church: is He not wounded and pained in a member? Yes, it is so. If it be a case of individual remonstrance with a brother for a fault, I am not fit to rebuke him, unless my soul has been in priestly exercise and service about it, as though I had been in the sin myself. How does Christ act? He bears it on His heart and pleads about it to draw out the grace that will remedy it. So with the child of God: he carries the sin upon his own heart into the presence of God; he pleads with the Father, as a priest, that the dishonour done to Christ’s body, of which he is a member, may be remedied. This I believe to be the spirit in which discipline should be exercised. But here we fail. We have not grace to eat the sin-offering. I come to church action and there I find yet more: it should go and humble itself until it has cleared itself. This is the force to me of “ye have not mourned,” etc.; there was not sufficient spirituality at Corinth to take and bear the sin at all; “You ought to have been bowed down there, broken-hearted, and broken in spirit at such a thing not being put out—concerned as to the cleanness of Christ’s house.”
It is another part of priestly service to separate between clean and unclean. The priests were not to drink wine nor strong drink, that they might keep themselves in a spiritual state, by the habits of the sanctuary, being able to discern between clean, etc. This is always true. We must take as our object, in dealing with evil, God’s object. God’s house is the scene and place of God’s order. If it be said, that the woman must “have power [a covering] on her head because of the angels” (1 Cor. n:10), it is as the exhibition of God’s order. Nothing should be permitted in the house that angels could not come in and approve. All is in thorough ruin; the full glory of the house will be manifested when Christ comes in glory, and not till then; but we should desire that, as far as possible, by the energy of the Holy Ghost, there should be correspondence in spirit and manner with what shall be hereafter. When Israel returned from the captivity, after Lo-ammi had been written upon them, and the glory had departed from the house, the public manifestation was gone, but Nehemiah and Ezra could find that in which to act according to God’s mind. That is our present condition. But we have now what they had not: we were always a remnant, we began at the end— “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” Matt. 18:20. If the whole corporate system has come to nought, I get back to certain unchangeable blessed principles from which all is derived. The very thing from which all springs, to which Christ has attached, not only His name, but His discipline— the power of binding and loosing—is the gathering together of the “two or three.” This is of the greatest possible comfort. The great principle remains true amidst all the failure.
If we turn to John 20 we find that when He sent forth His disciples, He breathed on them and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” There is nothing like a corporate church system here; but the energy of the Holy Ghost in spiritual discernment in the disciples, as sent from Christ, and acting on behalf of Christ. Discipline is a question of the energy of the Spirit. If that which is done is not done in the power of the Holy Ghost, it is nothing.
In principle, what was needed has been said. I do not see any difference, whether it be in the hands of a remnant, or anything else; because then we get into the structure of a judicial process at once—sinners judging sinners. It is, first of all, a question what the energy of the Spirit is for ministry in God’s house. The unanimity is a unanimity of having consciences exercised and forced into discipline. It is a terrible thing to hear sinners talking about judging another sinner; but a blessed thing to see them exercised in conscience about sin come in among themselves. It must be in grace. I no more dare act, save in grace, than I could wish judgment to myself. “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” Matt. 7:1, 2. If we go to exercise judgment, we shall get it.
As to the difficulty of saints meeting together, where there is not pastorship, my prayer is, that God would raise up pastors; but I believe where there were brethren meeting together, and walking together on brotherly principles, provided they kept to their real position, and did not set about making churches, they would be just as happy as others in different circumstances. One thing I would pray for, because I love the Lord’s sheep, is that there might be shepherds. I know nothing next to personal communion with the Lord, so blessed as the pastor feeding the Lord’s sheep, the Lord’s flock; but it is the Lord’s flock. I see nothing about a pastor and his flock; that changes the whole aspect of things. When it is felt to be the Lord’s flock a man has to look over, what thoughts of responsibility, what care, what zeal, what watchfulness! I do not see anything so lovely. “Lovest thou me? … Feed my sheep—feed my lambs.” I know nothing like it upon earth— the care of a true-hearted pastor, one who can bear the whole burden of grief and care of any soul and deal with God about it. I believe it is the happiest, most blessed relationship that can subsist in this world. But we are not to suppose that the “great Shepherd “cannot take care of His own sheep because there are no under-shepherds. If there were those who met together and hung on the Lord, if they did not pretend to be what they were not, though there were no pastors among them, there would be no danger; they would infallibly have the care of that Shepherd. We must not impute our failure to God, as though He could not take care of us. The moment power in the Spirit is gone, power in the flesh comes in.
103 All acting against God’s commandments and doing that which was not to be done, was sin, and called for the sin-offering; but there were trespasses against the individual, wrongs done to the neighbour, by breaches of confidence and the like, and for these there was a trespass-offering. See the first seven verses of Leviticus 6.