Book of Discipline
68. Church censures and discipline, for judging and removing of offences, are of great use and necessity in the church, that the name of God, by reason of ungodly and wicked persons living in the church, be not blasphemed, nor his wrath provoked against his people; that the godly be not leavened with, but preserved from the contagion, and stricken with fear; and that the sinners who are to be censured may be ashamed, to the destruction of the flesh, and saving of the spirit in the day of the Lord Jesus.
69. Church discipline is regarded as belonging to that government which Christ has instituted in the visible order of his kingdom. It does not apply to every kind of sin, but to those sins only which occasion scandal, or tend, by their character, to bring open reproach upon the cause of Christ, or to interfere manifestly with spiritual edification. Inquisitorial watching of private conduct, ultroneous intermeddling with family concerns, or attempts to drag secret sins of the heart into light, are not encouraged by it. Nothing ought to be admitted by any church judicature as the ground of a process for censure, but what hath been declared censurable by the word of God.
70. In all ordinary circumstances it lies with the session exclusively to take the first steps with reference to any occasion for the exercise of discipline over the ordinary members of a congregation. Inasmuch as all baptized persons are members of the church, they are under its care, and subject to its government and discipline. The process may go on, either by the accuser or accusers maintaining the charge before the court, or by the court itself investigating the charge or public report in the faithful discharge of duty. Before the witnesses be judicially examined, the accused person is to be called, and the relevancy of the libel discussed. The relevancy includes two things: whether the offence or offences referred to be truly or not a subject of church censure, inferring the indicated penalty, and whether the facts specified really amount or not to the offence or offences charged. If the party cited appear not, there ought to be a second, and then a third citation given, before the judicature declare the person contumacious. The witnesses are to be examined in presence of the accused party, if appearing. No offence shall be considered as established by a single witness. If the party cited be found innocent and acquitted, those who informed the judicatory ought to be noticed, for either their calumny or imprudence, as the judicatory shall find cause.
71. The depositions or solemn declarations of witnesses are taken down in writing, and signed by them and the moderator and clerk. When evidence is brought forward, all documents produced and admitted must be recorded. The whole procedure must be carefully minuted. It is expedient that it should be kept in a separate record, lest from any cause a superior court should order the whole or any part of it to be deleted or destroyed; but it must be considered in the meantime as an integral part of the minutes. By referring in their ordinary minute to this separate record, they may sufficiently authenticate it.
72. In practice, the rules as to the citations of parties and witnesses, and for the taking of the evidence, are often greatly modified. When the parties are truly desirous of enabling the session to discover the truth, such evidence may be gathered by what may be considered preliminary investigation, rather than judicial trial, as may suffice either to establish or rebut a charge, and thereby to effect the acquiescence of all parties in a sessional deliverance concerning it. The object of a session should always be to bring out the truth, so as to adjust a matter at once in a scriptural and in a peaceful manner. But if friendly dealing with the heart and conscience fail in settling the question raised, through acknowledgment, either by the accusers or by the accused, of sin or error; and if a party stand upon his rights, then the cause of justice requires that the most exact forms of procedure be adopted. For no member of the church can be deprived of his privileges as such, except by the establishment of his guilt with reference to a relevant charge, proved by competent evidence, before a competent court, and by means of a regular and fairly conducted trial.
73. When a case of charge or public report has arisen, the party involved may voluntarily appear before the church court having jurisdiction over him, either with the view of confessing the truth of the charge, or with the view of demanding investigation for the vindication of his character. He may even be himself the first person to bring the matter under the notice of the court.
74. It is laid down, as a practical principle of Christian judgment, that while the several judicatories of the church ought to take timely notice of all scandals, an offence committed which shall happen not to be noticed in order to censure for the space of five years should not be again revived, so as to enter in a process concerning it, unless it be of an heinous nature, or become again flagrant; but that the consciences of such persons ought to be seriously dealt with in private, to bring them to a sense of their sin and duty. No case of discipline, upon which a final decision has once been pronounced in regular form by a competent church court, can be renewed again by any process, unless it can be shown that new grounds of action have arisen which were not before that court.
75. The effect of a session’s judgment upon an ordinary member may be the infliction of one or more of four censures. It may be (1.) Admonition, involving affectionate warning of sin and danger, and exhortation to greater circumspection; or (2.) Rebuke either before the session alone or before the congregation, after confession or conviction of a scandalous offence; or (3.) Suspension from privileges for a longer or shorter period, or indefinitely, as the result of a confession or conviction, which is called the lesser excommunication; or (4.) What is termed the greater excommunication. Excommunication cannot be adopted without the express authority of the presbytery, which is also requisite for the removal of that sentence by absolution. A sentence of censure shall be published only in the church or churches which have been offended. Or, if it shall appear most for edification not to publish it, it may pass only in the judicatory. No person under the censure of the church because of any scandalous offence is to be admitted to have hand in the election of church officers.
76. The session absolves from scandal and restores to privileges, when it sees sufficient ground for doing so, after hopeful evidence of penitence has been exhibited. The effect is simply to remove the sentence of suspension, or the sentence of greater excommunication. Confession, and an apparently sincere profession of repentance, when duly weighed by the session, and found to be satisfactory, so far as man’s fallible judgment can reasonably go, form a sufficient ground for removing a sentence of suspension, and restoring the party to the full communion and fellowship of the church. Suspension from privileges as a censure arising at the close of a judicial investigation ought to be carefully distinguished from the suspension which takes place while a party is only under a charge of sin, which has not yet been proved. The latter suspension is not of the nature of a censure at all. It is simply a step which cannot be avoided in the circumstances, and to which the party must submit, because it would not be for edification that he or she should partake of privileges while subject to a charge of scandal.
77. The session have power, in the exercise of discipline, to pronounce sentence of suspension or deposition from office against either an elder or a deacon, when they find it necessary to do so, in accordance with the word of God, as them that teach erroneous and corrupt doctrine, that be of scandalous life and after admonition desist not, that be given to schism or rebellion against the church, manifest blasphemy, perjury, whoredom, and theft.
78. If a charge be brought, or if a public report arise against an elder or a deacon, until a judgment has been arrived at, besides being in the meantime suspended from privileges, he is also ipso facto suspended from office. If the result of the investigation be that the party is suspended from privileges in the way of censure, or that he is excommunicated, he is ipso facto suspended or deposed from office. But the offence may appear such in the view of the session as to necessitate his suspension or his deposition from office, even when they see no cause for depriving him of privileges, either for a longer or a shorter period. A deposed elder or deacon may be restored to his office upon good cause shown, but the cases are very rare indeed in which such restoration is thought to be for edification.
79. The rights of appeal and complaint from a session to its presbytery are specially applicable to matters of discipline. Herein the presbytery is to exercise great prudence, doing justice to the innocent, yet so as not to weaken the session’s authority in that congregation, if in justice it can be avoided. The presbytery are called upon to be very careful in the entertainment of the appeal or complaint, lest the orderly course of sessional discipline be frequently interrupted in an untimely and needless manner. On the other hand, if the presbytery find that the session have done injustice to an accused party who has appealed, it is their duty not only to free that party, in a formal way, from scandal, and declare his innocence, but to take such methods within their jurisdiction as they may judge proper and effectual for vindicating his character, and wiping off the scandal taken at him. If the presbytery do not sustain the appeal, and find there hath been some fault, passion, or culpable mistake, in the appellant, the presbytery is to inflict some censure, such as a reproof before the presbytery, or appoint an acknowledging of their precipitancy before their own session, or suchlike, on these appealers they find to have been malicious and litigious, thereby to prevent unnecessary appeals.
80. The chief action of a judicature higher than the presbytery with relation to discipline lies in the exercise of its powers as a court of review. The most serious questions as to the relevancy of libels, as to the competency and effect of evidence in cases of libel, and as to the procedure of inferior judicatures, may come up to synodical assemblies by appeal, complaint or reference. A synodical assembly cannot have the witnesses personally before it, so as to judge of their statements by seeing and hearing them while they deliver their testimony orally. It must form the best judgment it can from the recorded evidence transmitted to it by the clerks of presbyteries, and from the pleadings of parties at its bar.
Offenders who before Excommunication Manifest Repentance
81. When the offence is private, the order of admonition, prescribed by our Lord, Matthew 18:15 , is in all wisdom and love to be observed, that the offender may either be recovered by repentance, or, if he add obstinacy or contempt to his fault, he may be cut off by excommunication. Members of sessions are wisely to consider the information they get of scandals, and consult with their minister about it, even before the same be communicate to others, that thereby the spreading of the scandal may be prevented; and it may be removed by private admonition, which, if amendment follow, is the far better way of gaining and recovering a lapsed brother, whereas the needless spreading of a scandal does sometimes harden the guilty, grieve the godly, and is dishonorable to religion. In cases where no palpable scandal has come into public notice, the rule laid down by our Lord fully justifies the exclusive use of an affectionate and faithful dealing by a pastor or ruling elder with an offending party, when the conspicuousness of the offence is not such as to make public or judicial action requisite for the vindication of truth or purity. It is felt that a spirit of love and tenderness is essential to the efficacy of discipline.
82. It may fall out that one single act of drunkenness or breach of the Lord’s day, disobedience to parents, or of swearing, cursing, scolding, fighting, lying, cheating, or stealing, may be clothed with such circumstances as may be a just ground of process immediately, and even bring the persons guilty under the censure of the lesser excommunication, and suspension from the benefit of the sealing ordinances, and require their appearance in presence of the congregation to be rebuked, before relaxation; but the weight of this is duly to be pondered, and church judicatures, and members thereof, are to consider whether private admonition of the persons alleged and found guilty of the above offences, if not clothed with such circumstances, or bringing them to the public, will tend most to edification, and proceed accordingly.
83. But ordinarily, in all such offences, the guilty, for the first fault, should be spoken to in private by the minister or an elder, and admonished; and on promise, from a sense of guilt, to amend, they may stop there. But if the person relapse, he should be called before the session, and if found guilty, may be there judicially rebuked, where the session, on promise, from a due sense of sin, to amend, may again stop there. If no confession be made, but the party profess innocence, the nature of the charge must be distinctly defined. He may object either to the relevancy of the charge, or to the force of the proof by which it is supported. But if all objections be overruled, and the party be found guilty in the judgment of the session, it may be sufficient in the meantime that a rebuke be judicially pronounced.
84. If after a rebuke for the kind of offence referred to, no profession of repentance, and no promise of amendment be tendered within a reasonable time, the session should orderly proceed, till they inflict the censure of the lesser excommunication, and suspension from the benefit of the sealing ordinances, under which the censured are to lie till amendment and reformation. If, after a rebuke for this kind of offence, and after a profession of repentance with promise of amendment, it shall appear that the profession is not borne out and the promise not kept, and that the party may be reasonably charged again with the same or with a similar offence, the session must proceed in regular form with a view to the lesser excommunication. Even if confession be made and repentance appear, they ought not at this stage to prevent a temporary suspension of the party from the benefit of sealing ordinances. In the case of any charge or public report, which involves an allegation of fornication or of adultery, if the party be found guilty, the sentence of lesser excommunication or suspension from the use of sealing ordinances must follow.
85. In all cases where the inconsistent conduct of a member of the church in any position has been flagrant, where a prejudicial report is public and wide-spread, and where scandal has been raised, it is held necessary for that church court which has at the time the most immediate jurisdiction over the party, to take steps for the formal exercise of discipline. When the sin becomes public and justly scandalous, the offender is to be dealt with by the eldership, to bring him to repentance, and to such a manifestation thereof, as that his repentance may be as public as the scandal: but, if he remain obstinate, he is at last to be excommunicated, and, in the mean time, to be suspended from the Lord’s supper.
86. As there shall be cause, several admonitions shall be given to the offender (if he appears) and prayers made for him. When the offence is so heinous, that it cries to heaven for vengeance, wasteth the conscience, and is generally scandalous, the censures of the church may proceed with more expedition. In the admonitions, let the fact be charged upon the offender, with the clear evidence of his guilt thereof: then let the nature of his sin, the particular aggravations of it, the punishments and curses threatened against it, the danger of impenitency, especially after such means used, the woeful condition of them cast out from the favor of God and communion of the saints, the great mercy of God in Christ to the penitent, how ready and willing Christ is to forgive, and the church to accept him upon his serious repentance. Let these, or the like particulars, be urged upon him out of some suitable places of the Holy Scriptures. The same particulars may be mentioned in prayer, wherein the Lord is to be entreated to bless this admonition to him, and to affect his heart with the consideration of these things, thereby to bring him unto true repentance.
87. If the sin be publicly scandalous, and the sinner, being examined, be judged to have the signs of unfeigned repentance, and nothing justly objected against it, when made known to the people; let him be admitted to public confession of his sin, and manifestation of his repentance before the congregation. When the penitent is brought before the congregation, the minister is to declare his sin, whereby he hath provoked God’s wrath, and offended his people; his confession of it, and profession of unfeigned repentance for it, and of his resolution (through the strength of Christ) to sin no more: and his desire of their prayers for mercy and grace to be kept from falling again into that or any the like sin; of all which the penitent also is to make a full and free expression, according to his ability. Which being done, the minister, after prayer to God for the penitent, is to admonish him to walk circumspectly, and the people to make a right use of this fall and rising again; and so to declare that the congregation resteth satisfied.