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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15


Public Offences or Church Discipline

A. W. Chambliss

From The Baptist Preacher, 1845

"Now, I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause division and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them: for they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ."—Rom. 16:17, 18.


In a former discourse, we labored to show the distinction between public and private offences; and we hope we were not unsuccessful in explaining the divine law in relation to those who have trespassed against us, in our private capacity.


The offence was between us as individuals, and we had the right, nay, it was our duty, to settle the matter between our­selves. We may not, until every other expedient has failed, introduce it before the public. To bring it into the church is the very last resort. The language of the "Baptist Confession of Faith” (1699) is, "should any private matter be brought into the church, before the previous steps (described in Matt. 18) have been taken, the person that brings it in ought to be severely reproved and admonished, and that publicly, before the whole church, for his irregular and injurious con­duct therein,"(p. 221). "Let all things be done decent­ly and in order."


Having, therefore, disposed of private offences, we shall in this, and the following discourse, invite your attention to those that are public. To such, our text has allusion. "Now, I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them: for they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ." Or to use the paraphrase of the learned and pious Dr. Scott, on this place, "those persons must be marked with decided disapprobation and avoided, who aim to prejudice believers against each other — to draw them off from faithful pastors,—or to seduce them into strange doctrines and practices, contrary to the simple truths of God's Word."


The discipline of the church, in primitive times, was exceedingly strict. In the estimation of the apostle, who was inspired to prescribe rules for the regulation of the house of God, it was a sufficient ground to put out a member who was the cause of dissentions and factions in the church: or that his deportment was calculated to bring scandal and reproach upon the cause of the Redeemer. Nor could it have been otherwise with him, who charged it, as a crime, upon the Jews, that "the name of God had been blasphemed through them."


In the apocalyptic vision, the Spirit said to the Ephesian church, by way of commendation, "thou canst not bear them which are evil." (Rev. 2:2) This was honor enough for one church; and it formed a striking contrast to the rebuke which the same spirit administered to the church at Pergamos. "I have a few things against thee, because thou hast them there which hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which things I hate." (v. 14, 15) In this church were some base, mercenary souls—of a covetous, temporizing spirit, similar to ancient Balaam, who, for the sake of gain, did not scruple to sacrifice the best interests of the people of God. Also, were retained in the communion, some, who, under the notion of "Christian liberty," did not hesitate to run into licentious indulgences—a set of antinomians, who "despised all rules and authority"—or to use a modem phrase, who; because "they were free, claimed the privilege to do just as they pleased."


The retention of such characters in the church, the Son of God said, "I hate." "Such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ." "Wherefore," said he, “repent, (that is, reform, turn them out) or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth."


It is a striking fact, which has doubtless occurred to every one familiar with ecclesiastical history, that the periods of the declension of pure and vital religion in the church, in all ages, and in all countries, have been characterized by a corresponding laxness in discipline; and that the revival of religion, has been similarly characterized by a revival of the wholesome-discipline which God has instituted for the government of his house.


An example of this, worthy of attention, is recorded by Milner, the historian, in relation to the condition of the church in the third century. "It de­serves to be remarked," says he, "that the first grand and general declension, after the primary effusion of the divine Spirit, should be fixed about the middle of this century." (Vol. 1, p. 165)


The cause of this declension was the neglect of church discipline, as the Decian persecution was esteemed by Cyprian to be its chastisement. Cyprian was elected bishop of Carthage, A.D. 248. He found the church, at that time, in a wretchedly lapsed and declining condition; and in a treatise concerning the lapse, he said:


"If the cause of our miseries be investigated, the cure may be found. The Lord would have his family to be tried. And because long peace had corrupted the discipline divinely revealed to us, the heavenly chastisement hath raised up our faith, which had almost lain dormant: and when, by our sins, we had deserved to suffer still more, the merciful Lord hath so moderated all things, that the whole scene rather deserves the name of a trial, than a persecution." (ibid. p. 165)


Here was the cause of the persecution; and here the consequences of inattention to the discipline of the church. Let it be neglected, and a blighting and a mildew will result, which will not fail, ere long, to induce the divine judgment upon us.


If, therefore, the apostolic injunction—if the authority of the Son of God—if the testimony of ecclesiastical history—if all these together, have any weight—then, by them, "I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them: for they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ."


We propose, in this discourse, to describe the characters whom the Scriptures represent as public offenders; and in the next, to inquire what discipline the Scriptures prescribe for such.


I. We are to describe the characters whom the Scriptures represent as public offenders.  In the text, a general description of two classes of these is specified: those who produce anti-scriptural schisms in the church, and those who occasion scandal to the cause of Christ. "Mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned."


1. Captious and contentious persons cause divisions contrary to the gospel.


"Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and faith unfeigned: from which some having swerved, have turned aside unto vain jangling, desiring to be teachers of the law understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm."


"If any man consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings—from such withdraw thyself." (I Tim. 6:4, 5)


Seest thou a man heady and high-minded? Seest thou one who refuseth to submit to the authority of the great body? Seest thou one whose whole spirit and deportment are an everlasting protest against the decisions of the majority? One who loveth to have the pre-eminence in all things, who would sooner rend the peace of the whole body, than yield the most trifling matter? Such an one causeth division, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.


The entire spirit and letter of the sacred volume, so far as relates to the demeanor of Christians, is that of mutual forbearance, concession and submission. In all questions of mere opinion and education—of mere policy and custom—of mere pleasure and expediency—in all questions where it is perfectly immaterial to our innocence which side we adopt: as whether we eat one thing or another—whether we follow one fashion or any other, in our dress—whether we worship God in a finely finished house or a log cabin—whether we adopt one mode or any other in the defrayment of our church expenses—whether we assemble on Saturday or any other day, for the transaction of the business of the church—in all such questions as these, the law of charity, and the voice of the majority, are to be the rule; and any dissention from this, which is persisted in to the grief and annoyance of the body, is a violation of the principles which Christ has laid down for the regulation of his church.


Yes, we repeat it, to adopt any indifferent opinion or practice; that is, any opinion or practice which we may either hold or let alone, and still be innocent, and to maintain and pursue this, to the pain and injury of the church, is not only an infringement of the laws of republicanism, which the Bible teaches, but is in fact a sin against Christ. "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not, judge (or condemn) him that eateth."…"But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably."…"It is good neither to eat flesh, nor drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth or is offended, or is made weak."…"When ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak consciences, ye sin against Christ."…"Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself."…"Submit yourselves one to another, in the fear of the Lord."…"But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God." (Rom. 14:3, 15, 21; I Cor. 8:12; Phil. 2:3; Eph. 5:21; I Cor. 11:16)


2. There is a class of persons, a little dissimilar from these, whom, for the sake of distinction, we denominate, factious. All factious persons cause divisions, contrary to the gospel.


The distinction which we draw between a "captious" and a "factious" person, is this: The one is a man of mere prejudices and prepossessions—the other is a man of party. The one would exclude himself from the society of the faithful, on account of some favorite notion of his own—the other would lead away as many as possible with him. To the latter, allusion is made in the Acts of the Apostles (20:29, 30) in these strong and impressive words: "I know, that after my departure, shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your ownselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them."


Not satisfied to occupy their position alone, they will lead away captive as many souls as may fall under their influence. They are men of sour and bitter spirit, and who strive to infuse the same malaria into other hearts also. Their work is discord; and unless restrained, they will diffuse "the leaven of malice and wickedness into the whole lump." Unless suppressed, their evil communications will corrupt the entire body.


Perhaps a faithful minister is the object of their malignancy. In this event, nothing will escape their observation, which may serve to destroy his influence—render useless his preaching—or weaken the force of his example. Haman like, nothing can satisfy their hatred, until they have alienated all hearts, and even compelled the removal of the man of God. Their distempered senses can see nothing good in his best example, nor hear anything good in his soundest doctrine.


Like certain contemptible birds, they pass over all that is sound and wholesome, and alight only on such putrid matter as best suits a vitiated appetite. Ever seeking occasion, they delight to turn all hearts from the truths of his lips. To such, the rebuke of St. Paul, to Elymas, the sorcerer, is not too severe, " O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord." (Acts 13:10)


Perhaps the wholesome discipline of the church is the object of their rage. It may have fallen on them, as a chastisement of their own wrongs, or it may have touched some favorite friend. In either event, their malignant spirit is aroused, as the lion in his den, and nothing can be satisfactory but vengeance, wreaked in the injury of the church. They can see no reason—no justice—no religion, in the act. Their discontent is hastily communicated from soul to soul. They devise mischief on their bed; when they awake, they execute it. A faction to rescind that act is the object; and partly of weak members, and partly of men of the world, a faction, if possible, they will create, and labor to reverse the decision, at least in public sentiment. No expedient, that can be of the least avail, will be left untried, to rend the peace of Zion, or to stain the fair escutcheon of the church with disgrace.


My brethren, do not imagine that such men are the creatures of our idle fears. Would to God this were so! Would to God this had always been so! If you have no such characters among you at present, you know not how long it shall be e're such may arise. We have seen the church of God bleeding at every pore, under the ungodly deeds of such ungodly hands. We have seen the pious and faithful ministry crippled and cut down by such men. We have seen the unity and the peace of God's house laid waste by such unhallowed influence.


Need you, then, be told that such may arise again? Need you be told that they are grievous and dangerous wolves? Need you be told that you should strictly mark and avoid them? "Of your ownselves may men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." To retain such perverse speakers in the bosom of the church—to lend the weight of your fellowship to their pernicious course is to be partaker of their sin. No, my brethren; mark them who cause such divisions, contrary to the gospel, and avoid them.


But were we to confine this caution to those who are, or have been, members of the same church with yourselves, perhaps we should be unfaithful, both to you and to sense of the Apostle. Perhaps he would have you cautioned against the unhallowed influence of those without your communion also, by whom it is attempted to alienate your hearts from the right way. If the Apostle said, that of your ownselves would bad men arise to draw away many; he also said, that "grievous wolves would enter in among you, not sparing the flock." Against such you need to be admonished. For, although they may not now infest your fold, you can never tell how soon they may do so. These are strange times on which we have fallen.


The spirit of party is rife in the land; and it is the disgrace of the Christian name, that it is so common in the church of God. Every year attests instances, in which, from motives of jealousy or suspicion, or dread, some faithful minister is publicly or privately abused—the church of God abused—members set against their pastor, or against each other, and eventually, the harmony, the strength, and the success of the whole, impaired and destroyed. Mark those who perform such unholy deeds, and avoid them. "They zealously affect you but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them." (Gal. 4:17) It is not your good which such seek; it is not the good of your church which they seek. Yes, lay it down as a truth, when men whisper a word to the disparagement of the pastor of your church, when the drift of their words is to set brother at variance with brother, whatever may be their pretensions toward you or your church, they are insidious enemies to both. "Mark them and avoid them." But…


3. Our text has reference to heretics. Heretics cause divisions contrary to the gospel. By a heretic in this place, we mean those who would subvert the well-known and established doctrines and practices of the church.


Every society of Christians is formed upon the supposition of a certain unity, in regard to some leading points, both of faith and practice. "How shall two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3) And while, from the difference of education, and customs, and association, it can hardly be expected, that all should precisely agree in every little matter; yet, surely we have the right to expect those who connect themselves with our communion, to adopt all the leading, the essential and vital points, both of our practice and our doctrines.


Has the blessed God laid down the same maxims for the whole human race—an innumerable multitude, and required all, upon the severest penalty, to adopt them? And shall not we require, at least those who connect themselves with our church, to adopt all the leading of those maxims? Surely this is not too much. "If then, any man come unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house; neither bid him God speed." (2 John 10)


Another thought presents itself here, which may well serve to impress upon your minds the importance of vigilance on this subject: it is the present condition of our churches. Large multitudes are joining us every year. Many of these bring with them certain peculiarities, which we do not admit into our creed, and which would be fatal if they were admitted into it. Not a few of our members are but partially instructed—some of our ministry, either for the want of education, or time to devote to it, fail, sufficiently to expound and establish some of the leading points held by us—we have, comparatively, but a few copies of our "Confession of Faith," where, in a small compass, an inquirer may learn what we hold, with the reasons of it—some there are who would destroy even those few: and from all these facts together, it must appear obvious that our whole body lies bare to heresies. But, brethren, let us not presume too far upon the goodness of God.


"Let us watch diligently, lest any root of bitterness springing up, trouble us."…"An heretic, after the first or second admonition, reject."…"His words will eat as doth a canker."…"With good words and fair speeches, he will deceive the hearts of the simple."…"Many shall follow his pernicious ways, by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of."…"Mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them: they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ." (Heb. 12:15; Tit. 3:10; 2 Tim. 2:17; Rom. 16:18; 2 Pet. 2:2)


Permit us, beloved brethren, before we dismiss this branch of our discourse, to call up again, to your recollection, the positions we have assumed, and the declarations we have made. We said that captiousness should not be indulged in members of the church; and that however trifling or indifferent might be the requisition of the church, if its peace and happiness depend upon it, the law of charity requires each and all of its members to comply, and that an obstinate refusal of any member to do so, would be censurable offence.


We said also, that factiousness must be guarded against, and that in all or every instance, either in the church or out of it, that person must be "marked" and "avoided," who should labor to prejudice the members of a church against their pastor, or against each other. And, lastly, we said we should use all diligence to suppress any heresies that may appear among us, whether they respect our established usages, or our doctrines: that no confidence—no friendship which we may entertain for the person, the motive, or the ability of the offender, can justify a neglect of duty in these things.


     II. Let us now proceed to the consideration of the second general description of offenders, specified in the text. They are such as bring scandal upon the cause of Christ. They are such as cannot be retained in church membership, but at the sacrifice of the reputation of the church. Whatever may seem to be the present and immediate bearings of such persons, on the cause of religion, they serve not our Lord Jesus Christ—their ultimate bearings are against Christianity.


The immediate and particular consequence of their retention, may be a larger number in the church, or some worldly influence to the denomination, but the general and remote consequence, will be the practical abolishment of the principle which requires all church members to live humbly, holy, and unblamably—to "let their light so shine before men, that others may see their good works and glorify their father which is in heaven." Therefore, mark them which cause offences, (scandals) also, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.


Under this general description, are included all those who openly and intentionally violate the principles contained in the Decalogue. The Ten Commandments embrace all the fundamental articles of the moral government of God. They are the basis—they are the rule and measure of all the moral and religious conduct in the universe. Hence they can never be abrogated. As a rule of action, they can never be abolished. Although the law is not the terms of salva­tion, still, all those who are redeemed, and those who are not, will be under perpetual obligation to observe it. Never can it be right to do what it forbids, or neglect to do what it requires. It can never be right to worship idols—to profane the name of God—to lie—to steal—to kill—to commit adultery—to desecrate the Sabbath—to covet that which belongs to another.


These principles are equally binding on Christians, as on others: and equally binding on all now, as though Jesus Christ had never come into the world to redeem mankind. No redemption price which heaven has bestowed on man—no price of redemption which heaven can bestow on man, can purchase for him the privilege to violate them. It is presumption—it is not piety, to say, that “inasmuch as we are not saved by works of the law, therefore we are under no obligation to keep the law."


To assume the liberty to sin, because "we are not under the law, but under grace," is to "turn the grace of God into lascivious­ness." Shall we “sin because grace hath abounded, or in order that grace may yet more abound?”…"This were ini­quity to be reproved."…"I have written unto you," said the apostle, "not to keep company, if any man that is a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner: with such an one, no not to eat." (I Cor. 5: 11)


Lewd and lascivious practices, in our intercourse one with another, are also forbidden by the Decalogue. If these crimes are not so common among Christian people, as some others, yet they have been too frequent, in some places of late, to be passed in entire silence. This was the leading sin of the Nicolaitans, "which thing," said the Son of God, "I hate." Fornication and adultery are crying sins, which it behooves every Christian and every good man, in the community, to frown down in the most uncompromising manner. Such offenders have no inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. "Therefore, put away that wicked person from among you." (I Cor. 5:13)


Drunkenness is another public offence that must not pass unnoticed. "Drunkenness," said the excellent Andrew Fuller, "is a sin which involves in it, a violation of the whole law, which requires love to God—to our fellow-men and to ourselves. The first as abusing his mercies; the second as depriving those who are in want of them, of the necessaries of life, as well as of setting a bad example; the third as depriving ourselves of reason—of self-respect—and common decency." (Gen. 9:20-23)


Idleness, laziness, neglect of business, is also a violation of the divine law. That law which requires us to do no work on the Sabbath, we nor our son, nor our daughter, nor our man-servant, nor our maid-servant, also commands that six days we shall work and do all our business. (Ex. 20:9) Under the new dispensation, the principle was repeated, thus: "Be not slothful in business." (Rom. 12:11) It has been quaintly said, "an idle man's brain is the devil's workshop"—and everybody knows the truth of the old adage, "idleness produces want, vice and misery."


Hence, in the apostolic style, to be an idler was to be "disorderly." "We hear," said he, "that there are some which walk disorderly among you, working not at all, but are busy bodies. Now, them that are such we command and exhort, that with quietness they work and eat their own bread." (2 Thess. 3:11, 12) It is true the Bible does not define the particular employment which each must pursue. This is left to every man's choice, and to every man's necessities. But it does require that every man, adopting some honest and moral pursuit, should "be diligent in business." "Let him labor, working with his hands, the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth." (Eph. 4:28)


Once more, extortion is a public offence, which requires the act of putting out. Extortion is to take advantage of a fellow-man's necessities, and compel him to pay more than is lawful for money, or to part with his property for less than its value. It is to take of thy neighbor without giving him an equivalent for that which you receive. It is "to grind the face of the poor"—"to oppress him in his cause," whether by usury or other means. The apostle says, "If any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat." (I Cor. 5: 11)


Such, then, are the public offences which the moral law and the whole Christian economy regard as sinful. Which of them is there, which a religious man may commit, and not bring scandal upon the cause of Christ? Is it idolatry? Profanity? Lying? Stealing? Murder? Lewdness? Dishonesty? Drunkenness? Extortion? Which is it that is not disgraceful to the Christian name? Mark them which cause such offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.


Nor is it necessary that all these sins should be found upon any one member of the church. If any one of them attach to his character, it is sufficient for all the purposes of discipline. Note how the apostle speaks, "I have written you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother, be a fornicator, or covetous, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, with such an one, no not to eat." This is the general style of the Scriptures. When they enumerate the virtues necessary to Christianity, they connect them by copulative conjunctions, but when they describe the vices to be avoided, they connect them by disjunctives. To be a good man, one must add all that is good in his composition, but to be a bad man, one evil is sufficient.


Nor is it even necessary that one offence be habitual. As in common life, one criminal act is enough to convict a man, so in religion. To kill once, to lie once, to get drunk once, to steal once, to commit any scandalous offence once, is sufficient to demand your action. The Bible nowhere rests the disciplining of a gross and willful transgressor upon habitual wickedness. But throughout, it inculcates the sentiment of the text: "Mark them which cause divisions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them: for they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ.