Assembly Discipline

1 Corinthians 5  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Q. 1 Cor. 5 Is the assembly competent and responsible to judge known evil? Or is it the function of elders or other rulers only, which the body is sound to carry out? Does the ruler's verdict bind all? Or is it open to discussion or reconsideration? How does the true principle differ from that of dissent on the one hand, and from clericalism on the other?
A. “I recognize that guides (elders, if you please, in principle) can inform and clear up the conscience of a body of Christians. No doubt, if they have, by reason of use, their senses exercised to discern good and evil, and are deeply acquainted with God's ways in the Scripture, and with the human heart, it is just their service in such case, and, I believe, God's order; and saints will be always thankful for it, as far as I have seen. One may have spiritual discernment to suggest what all may have spirituality enough to see is right when suggested, but never would themselves. have thought of. Now it is by no means necessarily a teacher that does this. But to impose a verdict which cannot be debated is the most monstrous thing that ever was heard of. It is pure, unmasked popery- the clergy dictating to the conscience of the church, which can only register and give their weight to its decrees. Is the conscience of the church to be disposed of thus by others, be they ever so wise? A thing may be urged on the church; may be insisted on; let it be that rebuke be given; but it is always to bring the conscience of the church up to the right level. This the Apostle Paul did with Corinth (where, note, elders never appear at all), but he never acts for them without it. “You have proved yourselves clear in this matter.” That is the principle the apostle goes on. No doubt he could guide and rebuke them too, and tell them he had judged the case already; but to impose a verdict on their consciences they could not debate, not an apostle even attempts. How could that be proving themselves clear? It is monstrous. No one who reads Scripture can question, however weak we may be now, that there were guides, leaders, who watched for their souls as accountable to do it, men of reputation, and at that time appointed elders. But it is a very different thing to govern or rule or guide the church, which is Scriptural, and to govern instead of and for the church, which is popish, and then call the Scriptural principles democracy. And even so the apostle declares he was as a nursing mother with the saints. And the government of the church is not a setting of points right, but of souls right, and therefore nothing is done unless the conscience of the church is carried into the act. It is evident that the apostle did bring the whole church round to separate from evil which he had already judged himself. Had he not done it, the Corinthians would not have been set right at all; they would have remained associated with the incestuous person. Had their consciences not heeded his appeal, he might, in the exercise of apostolic authority, have used severer means, and come with a rod. But he is anxious to show that whom they forgave he forgave; and if he forgave it was for their sakes, so that they might act together, and Satan get no advantage over them by dividing them from him about a point of discipline.
The principle of dissent, I believe, should be utterly and entirely rejected for the same reason that I reject the clerical one,—namely, that the presence of the Spirit in the body is not owned by it. Among the dissenters they vote, and though there may be happy unanimity and the Lord guide them, as I doubt not He often may, yet they do vote on the questions, and a majority determines the matter. Now it is quite evident a minority may be the most spiritual. In the case of Corinth, all, as far as appears in public, were gone wrong, and allowed, and were puffed up about evil. A majority, judging as such, cannot be said to have the Holy Ghost guiding them because they are a majority. This is quite manifest. It is a mere human principle, such as the world is obliged to act on, because it has no other way of getting out of its difficulties. But the Church of God has. It has the presence and guidance of the Holy Ghost. The dissenting principle (for I doubt not in practice they are often guided by the Spirit, according to the grace of the gospel), their principle, I say, denied this presence and guidance. They acted on another. The “Brethren” believed this guidance of God could be reckoned upon. Hence they denied the necessity of the other human extreme—the popish one of a clergy settling the matter among themselves and announcing it publicly, and the Church having nothing to do but add its weight by its acts to a decision pronounced by the authority of others, which they were bound to receive implicitly, and as a conclusion arrived at for them, which could not be debated.
The “Brethren” denied the necessity of this alternative. They affirmed that the presence of the Spirit of God was in the church, and that He would guide them in the faithful love of Christ to a right mind; that it might require, especially in the present state of things, patience, humble waiting in the sense of weakness, a working out as in the absence of apostolic power with fear and trembling; but they believed that that could be because GOD worked in them to will and to do. They did not deny in the least that that there were those among them, who, through greater spiritual wisdom and maturity, could help and guide them in this: it would have been quarreling with their own mercies. Nor would they refuse the help and godly assistance of any brother of spiritual attainments and wisdom from elsewhere: it would have been resisting the unity of the Spirit and body, and God's authority in the church, and the common comfort of the saints—the increase of God by what every joint supplied. They might not see clearly all at once, and they would have to wait in any given case, but they believed in the faithfulness of the Lord to guide them. Their being obliged to wait might show them the failure of their own state of conscience in spiritual power, and do them good. Now the clerical principles denies all this. It declares positively that this is the alternative, either the dissenting principle of debating, voting, and majorities, or a verdict imposed by the clergy without any debate at all. That is, it entirely denies the guidance of the body by the Holy Ghost—His presence there—the very point as to this, which the “Brethren” were called out of God to bear -witness to, alike against the dissenting and popish principles.
It is in vain to say that it is not denied. We have not the honest confession of this in terms, it is true, but we have the thing itself. The guides pass the verdict. The body are to register it without a debate. The judgment of their consciences is in the hands of a clergy. I can well suppose this reply to this plain and evident truth as to the case: “We do not deny the presence of the Spirit in the body. But, God having put this office into the hands of those who have addicted themselves to the ministry, the proof of the Spirit being in the body is their submission to the judgment of those whom God has placed over them. And thus the verdict is the verdict of the body by the Spirit.” Now, this is exactly Popery. The verdict there is alleged to be the verdict of the Church, and the body are called upon to act, and do act as a body upon it. But it is arrived at by the clergy. It is in vain to say that it is presented to the body when arrived at, which the Roman clergy do not. They must not debate their verdict. They must take what is given them. For, supposing they are dissatisfied with the verdict stated, what can they do? Debate it before they make it theirs? No, that is positively refused. Examine witnesses? No, that is denied them. What then? Submit, or leave. The answer will be: “But God is with His Church, and He will guide the leaders into a right judgment, and they will only propose clear, evident cases.” That is, the clergy are not only to be guides, but infallible guides; for they have come to the conclusion, which is to be taken to be the leading of God Himself! If the verdict be undebatable, it certainly ought to be infallible.
Is debate to be desired then! It is just this alternative which is denied. The word debate is just used as alarming a quiet, godly, conscientious mind—innocent in the hands of the leaders, where it is assumed to be a godly, spiritual weighing of the matter, and implying a discussion in the case of the assembly; but, guides or assembly, the godly weighing before God what is His will, where our conscience is concerned, is “debate” neither in one nor the other. The conscience of the church must be satisfied for it to act for God and before God. If it is not, the conscience of the body is not clear. It may be gracious to do some act not yet done. It may be right, at the suggestion of some, nay one godly brother, to prosecute the inquiry further. God is in the assembly without having any debate at all. The Holy Ghost may there suggest some step not yet thought of, the neglect of which would destroy the weight of the judgment, even if a right one. It is specially when speaking of discipline, and looking to the Lord for producing the unity of mind of two or three. That the Lord says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”