The Reformed have long held that scripture teaches us that a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ will manifest three definite marks by which all men might know that it is truly a church. The Belgic Confession summed up these three marks this way:
“The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” (The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article XXIX )
Now in the present day if we look at the problems of the evangelical churches, we would have to say that gospel preaching is at a low ebb, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the administration of the sacraments has fallen into a sad state in many a church. For instance, I heard one brother say that at one church he visited in California, they served the Lord’s Supper by putting out juice and crackers on tables on the sides of the auditorium and then flashed an invitation for people to take some when they wanted to on the screens up front.
But as badly neglected as the first two marks of the church may be, surely it is the third mark of the true church – the biblical exercise of church discipline – that has fallen into almost total neglect. These days it is becoming hard to find churches that exercise it at all, and generally if you bring up the subject, everyone has a reason for not implementing it. Some of the more common I hear are that times have changed and while it was once possible to expect a standard of faith and practice from members of the church it isn’t any longer, or that if we started to exercise church discipline people would leave the church.
Now regarding the first of these, that times have changed and that it was once easy and now is difficult, I’d say read some church history, church discipline has never been easy or popular as Richard Baxter made clear in his book The Reformed Pastor written in 1656:
My second request to the ministers in these kingdoms is that they would at last, without any more delay, unanimously set themselves to the practice of those parts of Church discipline which are unquestionably necessary, and part of their work. It is a sad case, that good men should settle themselves so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty. The common cry is, “Our people are not ready for it; they will not bear it.” But is not the fact rather that you will not bear the trouble and hatred which it will occasion? If indeed, you proclaim our churches incapable of the order and government of Christ, what do you do, but give up the cause to them that withdraw from us, and encourage men to look out for better societies, where that discipline may be had? For though preaching and sacraments may be omitted in some cases, till a fitter season, as may discipline also, yet it is a hard case to settle in a constant neglect, for so many years together, as we have done, unless there were an absolute impossibility of the work. And if it were so, because of our incapable materials, it would plainly call us to alter our constitution, that the matter may be capable.
Regarding the idea that it will drive people out, yes it might cause those who are members of the church, but who refuse to obey the commands of Christ to leave, but then again isn’t that merely a separating of wheat from chaff, and one the purposes of church discipline? What do we think happens to a church full of apostates anyway? Do we believe Paul was kidding when he warned “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6)
Sadly in Baxter’s time as in ours, there is plenty of talk and debate in magazines, presbyteries, and conferences about the best way to compassionately implement church discipline, but it’s actual implementation hardly ever seems to occur. This appears to be one form of biblical reformation that churches, regardless of their polity, are loathe to institute. Baxter’s comment on this point seems to be applicable to the church in every age:
Lastly, We are sadly negligent in performing acknowledged duties; for example, church discipline. If there be any work of reformation to be set afoot, how many are there that will go no further than they are drawn! It were well if all would do even that much. And when a work is like to prove difficult and costly, how backward are we to it, and how many excuses do we make for the omission of it! What hath been more talked of, and prayed for, and contended about in England, for many years past, than discipline? There are, in fact, but few men who do not seem zealous in disputing for one side or other; some for the Prelatical way, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Congregational. And yet, when we come to the practice of it, for aught I see, we are quite agreed: most of us are for no way. It hath made me wonder, sometimes, to look on the face of England, and see how few congregations in the land have any considerable execution of discipline. And to think withal what volumes have been written for it, and how almost all the ministry of the nation are engaged for it. How zealously they have contended for it, and made many a just exclamation against the opposers of it. And yet, notwithstanding all this, they will do little or nothing in the exercise of it. I have marveled what should make them so zealous in siding for that which their practice shows their hearts are against. But I see a disputing zeal is more natural than a holy, obedient, practicing zeal.