The doctrine of church discipline received public sanction early in the Scottish Reformation. The church of Scotland adopted the First Book of Discipline (1560) at the outset of the Reformation; and in 1564 the General Assembly adopted an expanded version of the Genevan Book of Order. Both of these documents set forth the general warrant for ecclesiastical discipline. Nevertheless, what was lacking was a detailed explanation of how to apply the scriptural principles of discipline to remedy offences and scandals within the church.
In this setting, John Knox was commissioned to write The Order of Excommunication and Public Repentance. The Order was reviewed by several other ministers, and then ratified by the General Assembly in 1569. Based upon Matthew 18, this document sets forth specific details for handling serious disciplinary cases; and it describes the process for readmitting repentant subjects of ecclesiastical discipline.
Although the document is over 400 years old, its contemporary usefulness should not be over looked. Modern churches have little knowledge or experience in the administration of biblical church discipline. The Scottish Order demonstrates how the procedures of Matthew 18 may be applied when handling offences and scandals within the church.
The Order begins with a list of heinous crimes which require ecclesiastical discipline. Among the offences listed are murder, adultery, witchcraft, blasphemy, and abortion ("givers of drinks to destroy children" ). The disciplinary process is then described. The Order also mentions the civil prosecution which should apply to such crimes; but clear distinctions are drawn between the authority of the magistrate, and the duties of the church. Instructions are provided for readmitting repentant offenders of the church.
A special section addresses the discipline pertaining to apostates who "have returned back again to the Papistry, or have given their presence to any part of their abomination." Obviously the Reformers did not share the modern notion the Mass attendance was a matter of "liberty of conscience," beyond the purview of church discipline.
The Order lists numerous crimes which merit immediate and decisive attention: fornication, drunkenness, swearing, fighting, sabbath-breaking, and suchlike. Other offences which require prompt admonition include: vain words, uncomely gestures, negligence in attending public worship, avarice, riotousness. Ultimately, any of these "lesser" offences can result in excommunication, if the offender is unresponsive to the entreaties of Christian brethren. In Matthew 18, it is the obstinacy of the offender, in failing to "hear the church," which results in his expulsion from the church. As the Order notes, "A small offence or slander may justly deserve excommunication, by reason of the contempt and disobedience of the offender."
Throughout the Order, we find a consistent emphasis on the doctrine of repentance, with a recognition that those who profess contrition must "bring forth fruits meet for repentance." Moreover, the document exhibits a strong pastoral cast as it stresses the aim of reclaiming the offender, through the administration of ecclesiastical discipline.
As with other Reformation books of order, these prayers and forms are not a liturgy, nor fixed ecclesiastical prescriptions. A statement at the conclusion of the document summarizes: "This order may be enlarged or contracted as the wisdom of the discreet minister shall think expedient; for we rather show the way to the ignorant, than prescribe order to the learned that cannot be amended."
It should be remembered that the Order was ratified when the church of Scotland was in a formative stage. The church was still employing some stopgap measures of church government to compensate for the lack of a full and regular ministry in many regions of the country. Thus, readers will find references in the Order to superintendents: those itinerant preachers whose duty it was to preach and minister the sacraments in numerous congregations, until those local churches could be furnished with a regular ministry. For more details on the extraordinary role of superintendents, readers are referred to the First Book of Discipline (1560).
On the whole, the Order opens a window to the corporate sanctification and holiness practiced during the Protestant Reformation. That it seems so foreign to modern churches is a commentary on how far contemporary Protestants have drifted from both the individual and corporate piety of their Reformed forefathers.
Go to Order of Excommunication
and Public Repentance.
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Copyright © 1993 by
Presbyterian Heritage Publications