Discipline in the Early Church

The subject of church discipline can be a touchy one. Part of the reason for that is the abuse of disciplinary authority in the hands of people who should never have been in such positions. Probably the greater reason for the suspicious attitude toward church discipline is the ever so subtle influence of moral relativism on the churches of Modernity. The excuse that "we're all just saved sinners" is used as a pretext to ignore serious sin in the Body of Christ. No one, after all, wants to have their sins pointed out to them and then dealt with affirmatively and biblically. It rubs against the grain of our Inherited Depravity. We also cannot discount the fact that many pastors and church boards feel compelled to operate the church as a corporation- a business- more than as the Body of Christ. Thus the lack of church discipline is due to a fear of the loss of tithes. Money talks, after all. How did the early church view the issue of church discipline, you ask? I am glad you asked.They took the issue very seriously, as the following will make clear.

"But it will be said that some of us, too, depart from the rules of our discipline. In that case, however, we count such persons no longer as Christians."- Tertullian

"He forbids us either to salute such persons or to receive them to our hospitality."- Clement of Alexandria

"These evidences, then, of a stricter discipline existing among us, are an additional proof of truth."- Tertullian

"Christians lament as dead those who have been conquered by immorality or any other sin. For they are lost and dead to God. At some future time if they repent, they receive them as being risen from the dead. However, this is after a greater interval than in the case of those who were admitted at first (the period of testing of a convert). However, those who have lapsed and fallen after professing the Gospel are not placed in any office or post of rank in the church of God."- Origen

"How can the medicine of permissiveness profit anyone? What if a physician hides the wound and does not allow the necessary remedy of time to close the scar? To not require repentance makes the way easy for new dangers. To do that is not curing someone. If we are to be honest, it is killing him."- Cyprian

Unlike the various churches of Modernity, the early church was not afraid to exercise its authority to discipline its members. These quotes are just a sampling of many others that all establish the authority of the church to discipline, and that this authority was understood to be a mark of possessing truth. That truth must be protected and defended, even against the sins of those in the Body of Christ.

But what of those who wished to repent of their sins?

The church clearly expected demonstrable repentance. What exactly do I mean by "demonstrable repentance"? Let me start by saying what it does not mean. The early church did not take the sins of Christians lightly, and they were not treated in the same manner as sins committed before baptism. They were considered a grave spiritual matter which demanded a grave spiritual remedy to assist one in eradicating that sin from one's life. Origen tells us that those who fell were never allowed in positions of authority, for example. This stands in stark contrast to the churches of Modernity, where leaders can be caught in grave sin and, if they cry a few public tears and sit under an oversight board for a period of time, they can be, and often are, reinstated to their pastoral positions. Not so in the early church. But back to question of repentance. Again, in the churches of Modernity, if one is caught in grave sin, they are likely just told to pray about it (a good start), or they are prayed with (also a good thing) and the matter is considered done with (not so good). The early church, however, expected something more. Repentance had to be proven by demonstrable change, and that change was guided by the church's disciplinary measures.


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