The Limits of Discipline

S. Ridout.

By "discipline" we mean the general exercise of care in the government of God's house which He has committed to His people. It includes in this way the various forms in which that care manifests itself, from the simplest forms of brotherly interest and advice to the more public correction and reproof in the assembly, as well as the final, though sometimes necessary, exclusion from the fellowship of the saints. For the purposes of distinction we will gather what is said under the various heads indicated.

The object of the present paper is not so much to discuss the question of discipline in general as to ascertain the true scripture limits to what is done.

1. Brotherly care in general.

When our Lord had restored His wandering sheep Peter, He transferred, we may say, the expression of Peter's devotion to Himself, to love and care for His lambs and sheep. When the good Samaritan had found and ministered to the man who had fallen among thieves, he brought him to an inn and provided for his care. Salvation is the blessed beginning of a work to be carried on until its culmination at the coming of the Lord. This work includes instruction, care and correction in the power of the Holy Spirit, as ministered by Him through the various members of the body of Christ: "that the members should have the same care one for another."

We may say the primary exercise of this care is in the administration of suited food, suggested in the words of our Lord, "Feed My lambs." It proceeds from this to the putting forth of the safeguards of love suggested in the words, "Shepherd My sheep;" and, lest this should be thought to be the only exercise necessary for the welfare of the sheep, our Lord reverts, in His last response to Peter, to the simplicity of the first, "Feed My sheep."

Feeding them naturally occupies the first place. When a soul has passed from death unto life the first care is to see that it is built up by "the sincere milk of the Word." Thus growth is assured. How delightful a privilege it is to be permitted to exercise this care for the beloved lambs and sheep of the flock of Christ! We can covet no higher privilege than to minister the "portion of meat in due season" to the household of the Lord — ministry in which the great staple is the work and person of our Lord Jesus. It is a service in which all may have a share, while those who have special gifts in the way of teaching may rejoice to fulfil their ministry.

In the assemblies of God's people we need ever to remember that this care is the first necessity. Without it, it is well-nigh impossible to exercise discipline, even in its simplest forms. If saints are not properly nourished, they become so spiritually anaemic as to be oversensitive to the slightest form of brotherly admonition or rebuke. They are practically too weak to know the blessedness of the service of John 13 — "Ye also ought to wash one another's feet." Let us see to it then that there is a full, constant stream of supply of the pure milk of the Word, in suited ministry to the varied needs of the saints, so that they are built up on their most holy faith and nourished in the words of faith, thus increasing by the true knowledge of God.

We pass, however, from the discussion of this subject to the one which is much upon our hearts,

2. The exercise of brotherly care and oversight.

The young believer is exposed to special dangers in three directions: from the flesh within, from the world about, and from Satan, who is constantly seeking to make use of the flesh and the world to seduce the soul from the simplicity as to Christ. The very instincts of love will lead us to look after and care for the lambs of the flock. Indeed, these have been entrusted to us, and we may ask if one reason why more are not added to the companies of the saints gathered to the Lord's name may not be found in the lack of the exercise of that love which will care for them.

The first element of this care is suggested in the thought of watchfulness: "They watch for your souls as they that must give account." Every shepherd watches his sheep. Not to do so would be to open the way for the attack of the wolf. Care should be taken as to simplest matters; such, for instance, as the attendance of the saints upon the regular meetings, their personal walk and associations, and other matters of a similar kind. We realize at once that we are here upon delicate ground, which suggests a limitation to this form of care.

While watchful, we are not to be suspicious. A gracious and loving oversight is farthest removed from a restless, inquisitive, meddlesome spirit. We are not to suspect the existence of evil without proper ground and even in the brotherly intercourse suggested here we are to guard against the imputation of wrong motives or the suspicion of that which has not been manifested.

To be explicit, if a young saint is frequently absent from meetings it would clearly not be wise or right to suspect that the cause was a lack of interest. Rather, let the matter be approached in the spirit of confidence, in the love that thinketh no evil. Thus, instead of asking impertinent questions, it would rather be the way of love to keep in touch with the person about whose walk we were concerned, and seek to win the confidence. This will suffice to suggest the spirit in which a whole class of brotherly care should be exercised. We do not dwell further upon it, save to remind our reader that we are prone to swing to opposite extremes — of indifference on the one hand, or on the other to intrude into what we have no right, unless first approached by the one we seek to help.

3. This brings us to speak of the more positive effort at the correcting of manifest failure or weakness, suggested by the figure of John 13 "And thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him" was the command of the law. That which is here commanded, under grace will be the effort of a true love in exercise. Alas, how often are we occupied with evil in others without personal exercise; speaking about them rather than to them; so far from affording any help, alienating them, should they hear of our speaking behind their backs.

The simple courage of love will go to the brother who is in fault, first having sought the mind of the Lord in prayer for him and ourselves. Then, in the spirit of Gal. 6, "If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of meekness."

The confidence of the brother has been won; he has no thought that we wish either to humiliate him or to exalt ourselves. We bring him the simple word of God, applying it to the matter in question — of his walk, association, or whatever it may be. Our one object is his recovery; and in all the grace and yearning of a heart in communion with Christ we seek to shepherd His beloved sheep. This is indeed blessed and yet most delicate work, requiring nothing short of the grace of our Lord for its proper accomplishment. This is what He suggests in the words, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet."

There are here also manifest limits to the proper exercise of this responsibility. As before said, we are not unduly to suspect nor needlessly to accuse our failing brother of wrong which has not been manifested as such. For instance, injurious friendships and associations may have been begun. We must not go beyond what we know to be the fact. A young brother may have been seen walking and associating with ungodly young men; and we may be gravely anxious about it. We would not be justified, however, in accusing the brother of having gone with them to the theatre, or such like things. The limit is manifest. We deal only with what we know, pointing out the dangers that may be involved, and yet careful not to go beyond the simple facts as we know them.

Oftentimes, where a soul is dealt with thus in brotherly love and tender confidence, while the full extent of his declension may not be spoken of, the heart will be probed and self-judgment secured, when, had we given voice to our suspicions and accused him of that of which he was not really guilty, he would have at once resented it, and might have used this as an excuse for going on in the wrong way.

4. We pass now from the exercise of private care and brotherly oversight to that which is properly discipline by the assembly. As long as the evil is of such a nature that there is hope of recovery from it, and the name of the Lord is not being compromised, our private efforts to restore a wandering brother should continue. Indeed, when we have felt no longer able to say aught to him, we may show our concern by withdrawing ourselves from active association with him. "If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thess. 3:14-15). Sometimes a little silent neglect, of which no one but our brother may be aware, may be more effectual than a persistence in verbal admonition to which he turns a deaf ear, especially when such withdrawal is accompanied by tokens of manifest sorrow, together with manifestations of thoughtful love as occasion may offer. Our blessed Lord gave the choicest dainty of the dish to the poor wretch who He knew was planning to betray Him. Surely, if there had been one particle of tenderness in the hard heart of Judas, it must have yielded to such love.

Where one has been constrained to such an attitude of neglect toward his brother, great care should be taken that it is of a private character. Nothing so wounds pride, especially in one who is already away from God in his soul, as being put in the pillory.

5. But the time comes when the evil is of such a nature that love itself and faithfulness to the Lord are constrained to call the attention of the saints to that which no longer responds to private treatment. "Tell it to the Church." The brother's course is now before the assembly, which is therefore charged with the exercise of the various degrees of discipline required. There may be evident need for correction. The brother's course is manifestly wrong, and yet here too there are limits which Scripture evidently imposes. "Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee" (Deut. 25:3).

We have here a principle which even under the law guarded against undue severity. How much more should those who know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ temper chastening with mercy!

Assembly discipline may be divided into three general classes: private admonition, public rebuke, and putting away.

The whole spirit of Scripture serves to guide us, rather than isolated proof-texts. If the individual is to tell a brother his fault, "between thee and him alone," to gain if possible the brother, the same spirit should mark the assembly in its dealings. This is indeed implied in the words following the passage already quoted: "If he neglect to hear the church." At this point the attitude of the assembly is that of Gal. 6:1, "Ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness." Similarly the apostle writes: "We exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly."

6. The private admonition is so closely linked with personal dealing that little need be said of it. The assembly may be convinced that a brother has laid himself open to this, and charges one or two of their number, sober, godly men of weight, to go to the wrong-doer privately and admonish him on the part of the assembly. They would warn him that his course is of such a character that it has linked the Lord's name and testimony with it; that they cannot be identified in any way with this, and warn and entreat him to judge himself, to depart from evil. The limits here are obvious. It would not do, for instance, to administer this reproof in public. It would savor of haste and a desire to be rid of an unpleasant subject. Rather, special care should be taken that nothing more is done than to administer the admonition.

We might say here that perhaps some in the assembly might think that more is needed than this private dealing. They would be in favor of the more public rebuke, or, indeed, insist that the person should be put away at once. Let those who are so inclined remember that they cannot go beyond the conscience of the assembly. Much harm has been done by the insistence of a few upon an extreme of discipline when others have been convinced that the less severe course should have been adopted. A good surgeon is anxious to spare a limb. Amputation is his last resort.

7. We will suppose that the private admonition has failed to secure the desired end. Another step is indicated, that of public rebuke. The evil has grown to such a character that none can close their eyes to it. There is every indication that it is going on to something worse. Love now awakens to the need of radical action. If a brother is to be spared the shame and humiliation of a prolonged season of separation from fellowship he must be brought face to face with his wrong. A public rebuke is administered in the presence of the whole assembly. "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear" (1 Tim. 5:20). The saints, as gathered to the Lord's name, feeling the holiness of His presence, touched as well by His grace, are compelled to rebuke the wrong-doer. We would naturally think that the one to administer a rebuke of this kind would be known for his tenderness and gentleness (Phil. 3:18). Limitations naturally suggest themselves here. There should be no display of anger or resentment, nor a manifestation of a pharisaic spirit of self-righteousness. Sorrow surely is becoming those who realize that it is not they but their Lord who has been injured in the house of His friends.

Great care should be taken that in tracing the course of evil from the beginning, no exaggeration should be indulged in, nothing that is not fully substantiated by the facts, which should be presented in such a way that the wrong-doer, instead of showing self-vindication, could only bow in acknowledgment of the righteousness of the rebuke administered, feeling that it fell rather below than beyond what he deserved.

We mention in this connection, with some misgiving, a practice which has obtained among some of the Lord's people, familiarly known as requiring a person to "sit back." Some, indeed, have undertaken to prescribe this without even consulting the assembly, saying that they would not break bread if such a person were allowed to do so. This is really taking discipline out of the hand of the assembly and administering it by a private person. The result can only be to lay the assembly open to the charge of being ruled by a few, and perhaps effectually close the door against what otherwise might have been the beginning of recovery.

As the case grows more hopeless, our care should the more increase. We do not say that there may not be cases in which the assembly may feel that a brother should be "shut up;" but such cases are rare, and are indicated rather when there is grave suspicion that the evil may be worse than is now known, and which is in a fair way to be brought to light. Thus, a brother who has been reported to be in a course of sin might present himself at a meeting for the breaking of bread. The assembly could request such a one to refrain from doing so until there had been time to look into his case. We need not say that this should be done with all promptness. But we deprecate making the act of sitting back a grade of discipline.

8. We come now to the final act of putting away, and ask our reader to notice how much has preceded it. We fear that many of us have offended in this connection. We have neglected so completely the preliminary steps of brotherly care and oversight that the public sin may be attributed in part at least to our neglect, as well as to the wrong-doer. Of course, where evil has become manifest as of such a character that it cannot be borne with, such as is described in the 5th of 1 Corinthians, but one course is open — "Put away from among yourselves that wicked person." The reason for such an act, however, should be clear. There should be no room for suspicion of mere personal animosity, nor the hint that a party in the assembly has gained its point.

Evil to be put away must be of such a glaring character that it raises no suspicion in the minds of those who hear of it that undue severity has been used. We may be quite sure that if the common conscience of the saints fails to recognize a course as wicked, those who are seeking to inflict such discipline should ask themselves whether they are not mistaken. Indeed, have we not here one of those safeguards which divine love has given by which God's dear people are entitled to receive the advice and counsel of their brethren? Much might be said upon this point. We trust that there is no need for us to say more.

A wicked person who is put away is not only refused the right to break bread, but saints must separate themselves from his company; and yet even here there are certain limits to the discipline which we may suggest. Where the wrong-doer is a member of a Christian household, a husband or brother, it would be a mistake to apply literally the word, "With such a one, no, not to eat." A wife would not thus refuse to sit at the table with her husband under discipline, because to do so would ignore her responsibilities as a wife. She manifests her refusal of fellowship in other ways. It would be mere persecution to insist that she should not continue to perform the proper duties of the household.

We might also mention that when a person has been put out of fellowship, it is well from time to time to see him, in the hope that God is working in his soul; for even putting away has recovery in view.

In connection with this subject we add a word as to the corporate features of discipline. We need hardly say that the truth of the oneness of the Body and the endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit require that all true discipline exercised by one assembly be accepted and acted upon by all other assemblies. To fail to do this would be independency of the most glaring character; but this only emphasizes the necessity that the discipline should be such as we have indicated, of a proper and scriptural character.

As already said, if it has been so extreme that it fails to commend itself to the conscience of saints elsewhere, the local gathering may well question whether they have not made a mistake. In such event they should invite the fellowship and the examination of their brethren elsewhere who may have an exercise about what they have done. If we are conscious that we have acted for the Lord, we can be confident that our brethren, in whose spiritual integrity we believe, will, upon acquaintance with the facts, reach the same conclusion with ourselves. We will also, with that self-distrust which goes with true assurance, invite further counsel, and seek the fellowship of those who are equally bound with ourselves by our act of discipline.

Alas, how many of the divisions of the past have resulted from a failure to recognize the principle of which we have just spoken! Extreme acts of discipline have been forced upon the people of God in such a way that they have not been allowed to question the righteousness of those acts, but have been obliged either to bow to them or to retire from fellowship with the assembly which has exercised the discipline.

We need not be more specific here, for, alas, our hearts are sore with the thought of our failures in this direction! We would only ask, Is there not yet a remedy? Can we not still, in some measure at least, retrace our steps; and if we believe undue severity has been used in disciplinary action, shall we not, in the fear of God and in all simplicity, acknowledge and undo it, so far as we may?

This most important subject has been thus, in some measure, gone over. In closing, let us press it upon one another in all its various details. May there be an awakening among the saints, a true revival of grace in our hearts, which, while it seeks to carry out all proper discipline, carefully watches the limits which the word of God puts upon each stage; and may we guard ourselves from the dangers which we have pointed out.