Church discipline and penitence–how it used to be done


Some snippets from lecture notes of mine–borrowed mostly from Dr. Garth Rosell, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I’d be interested to hear readers’ comments on church discipline: have you seen it exercised in good ways? bad ways? Do we need more? less? What stands in the way of biblical church discipline today? A “penitential lifestyle” is one of the five themes of my course (with Mark van Steenwyk) and possible future book (with same) on “resources for radical living.” What would a penitential lifestyle look like in your part of the 21st-century world?

Church discipline and the system of penance

This is another theme reflected richly in these early documents. You read these and you quickly find out that strict discipline very important to early church.

Its purposes

Preservation of the Church’s Purity

We often place this as central emphasis today. But a second purpose was . . .

Restoration to Spiritual Health of the Fallen Christian

Back to spiritual purity, life, vitality!

The Ultimate sanction:  excommunication

Exclusion from all rights/privileges of the faithful, those fallen through heresy, schism, murder, blasphemy, denial of Christ through persecution.  These were listed by Tertullian as mortal (as opposed to venial) sins.

The Means of Restoration:  penance

Through almsgiving, fasting, good works means of restoration.  Not a fixed system of penance until late 3rd c.  After that, though, there was a series of processes:

Stages in the Process:  Weepers, Hearers, Kneelers, Standers (whole service except communion)

Four classes of penitents.  Took 3/4 years to work through these stages!!

Some churches had special penance officers.  Purpose:  come to a service of reconciliation:  confession of sin, forgiveness, laying on of hand, benediction, holy kiss w/ congregation, and finally communion—to restore to full fellowship.

Martin Luther used this penance system to deal with the deep perplexing problem of sin, his sensitive conscience.  In the Reformation, this enormous superstructure of penance was dismantled.  But here at the beginning we see the roots of this pattern in a desire both to recognize the seriousness of sin, and to restore the sinner.

Today, we could stand to learn the importance of discipline for church purity and personal restoration.  Most churches seem to neglect discipline almost altogether. As a result, the fallen are restored all too easily w/ simple forgiveness—and this is not good for them. Without proper repentance and restoration, many never shake the sense of their own sinfulness.

Our churches filled with people struggling with sin. May we not forget the importance of offering to them the forgiveness purchased with Jesus’ blood—not cheaply, but through a biblical process of repentance, discipline, and restoration.

Clashing Perspectives on Access to Restoration

Hard-liners:  Montanists, Donatists, etc.

You’ve read about the Donatists. These were the “tough cops,” who wanted to exclude folk who had sinned, at least in a major way, from the church fellowship. They were of the opinion that even one major sin destroyed all the grace you had received at baptism and put you outside the fellowship.

Moderates:  The Emerging Mainstream

These folks opened the process of restoration.  They believed in at least one “second chance” after a baptized Christian fell into major sin. This seems the proper path.  When someone among us falls into sin, we should not wink or turn our backs on it, but we should find ways to offer forgiveness through Christ, and a process of restoration to full life and vitality in the congregation.

5 responses to “Church discipline and penitence–how it used to be done

  1. Pingback: Church discipline and penitence – how it used to be done - Matthew 25 – Rapture :) !!

  2. The Paedalion is hard to find. I had a borrowed copy for a couple of years; it is long out of print, last reprint I think was 1985. If you find a copy it will be expensive, sometimes in the hundreds of dollars for the old ones. Yes, it is drawn from earlier disciplines, mostly monastic, but many diocesan references as well. You could be excommunicate for decades, expected to stand at the back of church with the catechumens, even though they would be at the table long before the disciplined sinner!

    I don’t have a copy of the Ratio; some find it way too austere, so it appeals to me. Luther vacillated so much on discipline and even on justice. He could be a bit of a sell-out to the princes, I’m afraid.

  3. Luther said, when he read the Ratio, that we should all have such church structure and discipline–only he felt it was not practical to implement in a state church (something like that–I’m going from memory)

  4. I don’t have the Paedalion. Looks like an interesting Orthodox source. Was Nicodemus working from earlier sources? In other words, was he preserving the actual words of earlier disciplines?

    One of my faves is the Ratio Disciplinae of the Unity of the Brethren. Breadth of spirit, but suitably firm in the right places.

  5. magdalenaperks

    Do you have a copy of the Paedalion?(The Rudder.) You’ll find all sorts of early disciplines outlined there! It makes a little scared to step out of line,e ven by mistake.

    Yes, I’ve seen bishops misuse church discipline where errant priests were involved. There’s less of an issue for lay people in the Anglican Church.

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