Discipline in PCA BCO 27-3: Its Proper Usage and Ends

Posted by R. Fowler White

Elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) affirm that they “approve of the form of government and discipline of the denomination, in conformity with the general principles of biblical polity” (The Book of Church Order 21-5). Consequently, they affirm the following statement that appears in the BCO of the PCA, Part II The Rules of Discipline, Paragraph 27-3:

27-3. The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. In its proper usage discipline maintains:

a. the glory of God,

b. the purity of His Church,

c. the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners. Discipline is for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7); therefore, it demands a self-examination under Scripture.

Its ends, so far as it involves judicial action, are the rebuke of offenses, the removal of scandal, the vindication of the honor of Christ, the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church, and the spiritual good of offenders themselves.

There would be wide agreement that the above statement is a good and faithful expression of what Scripture teaches. When reading that section, however, the question might arise: as good and faithful as the statement is, does it say all that it should say? Posing that question does not disparage the care with which the BCO generally or paragraph 27-3 specifically expresses “the general principles of biblical polity.” It is understandable and agreeable that the statement should in fact be both general and principial and not exhaustive. Even so, it might be asked if the statement has in fact identified all the general principles that are necessary and sufficient. For example, two related questions emerge: 1) Does the statement above contain what is necessary to express the proper usage of discipline? 2) Does the statement above contain what is necessary to express the ends of discipline?

Scripturally speaking, the statement is accurate … as far as it goes. But it is, arguably, not complete. Here is what I mean. In WCF 15.6, we affirm that “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” It seems reasonably clear here that the Confession envisions a usage of discipline that BCO 27-3 does not mention, namely, the recuperation of those whom the offender had scandalized and their reconciliation with the offender. Is it not the case, then, that the proper usage of discipline will maintain not only the glory of God, the purity of the church, and the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners, but also the wellbeing of the offended parties, whether they be the church generally or the injured church members specifically (e.g., 2 Cor 2:5-11). Is it not the case also that the ends of discipline will include not only the rebuke of offenses, the removal of scandal, the vindication of the honor of Christ, the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church, and the spiritual good of offenders themselves, but also the spiritual good of the offended parties (e.g., Matt 18:15)?

In answer to the question about discipline’s proper usage, we might say that the wellbeing of the offended parties was meant to be implied in the words “the … reclaiming of disobedient sinners.” In answer to the question about discipline’s ends, we might say that the spiritual good of the offended parties was meant to be implied in the phrase “the promotion of the purity and general edification of the Church.” Neither reading seems to be plausible, however. The phrase describing the reclaiming of offenders seems distinctly insufficient to convey the idea of the wellbeing of the offenders’ victims. Likewise, the words describing the ends of discipline seems to have omitted consideration of a necessary element of biblical judicial action, namely, the spiritual good of the offended. As a result, the statement found in BCO 27-3, though good and faithful as far as it goes, looks to be incomplete.

Would PCA BCO 27-3 not be improved if it included explicit reference to the benefits that discipline holds for those offended and injured?