(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 30)
Jesus Christ is the Word become flesh. Jesus Christ is God the Son, the Second Person in the Trinity, incarnate. Jesus Christ is the everlasting Mediator between God and men.
Before He ascended bodily to Heaven He said to His disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.” Matthew 28:18-20.
Now, it goes without saying that if God has given all authority to Jesus Christ in heaven and on earth, then Jesus Christ is the king of heaven and earth. In other words, the One who is God and man in One Divine Person forever is the Ruler of all. On earth therefore He is the Head of every sphere, including Family, Church, and State. These three spheres are distinct but not separate from the others. For members of families can also be members of the church and the state.
Now, when it comes to discipline each of these three spheres has its own jurisdiction. And as such, each of these three spheres has its own means of disciplining its members. We speak of the ‘rod of discipline’ in the sphere of the family. The ‘rod of discipline’ is simply a shorthand way of saying that our children are to be raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The State holds the ‘sword of justice.’ The civil authorities are to promote good and discourage evil in society, even to the point of punishing evildoers.
When it comes to the Lord’s Church, it is said to hold the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ Notice that the Family does not hold the sword or the keys. Neither does the Church hold the rod or the sword. Nor does the State hold the rod or the keys. Each sphere has the instrument of discipline suited to its respective sphere. But take note that it is Jesus Christ as Head of all creation who gives authority to the rulers of the family, the church, and the State.
In the following we are mainly concerning ourselves only with the rulership or government of the Church.
The Power of the Keys
The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, has therein appointed a government in the hand of church-officers, distinct from the civil authority.
The Lord’s prophet Isaiah says of Jesus, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” Isaiah 9:6&7.
The connection between these verses and the “Great Commission” verses already quoted should not be missed. Jesus Christ is the Child who was born, the Son who was given. After He had finished His work and was nailed to the cross; after He was dead and buried; after He was raised from the dead, He was given a kingdom. He was given the throne of David, i.e., He was given the kingdom of David. So, when we talk about the keys of the kingdom we are talking about the keys of the kingdom Christ was given. Let’s note again what Isaiah has said about Christ’s kingdom, “…of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”
So, we see then that when Jesus says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” He is saying that His kingdom includes both heaven and earth. And He is saying that His government and peace will continue increasing in these realms.
In His church on earth (which is the visible expression of His heavenly kingdom), He has appointed church-officers through whom He governs. These governors or church-officers are also known as elders or bishops. These two words are interchangeable as they are used as such in the New Testament. However, it should be noted that whereas the word elder ordinarily denotes the office, the word bishop ordinarily denotes the function of that office.
In a letter to Titus the Apostle Paul speaks of appointing elders in every city. Notice that he uses the words elder and bishop interchangeably in the following passage, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you – if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” Titus 1:5-9.
So, not everyone gets to be a church-officer. Not everyone gets to be an elder/bishop. Only males need apply. And only those males with the gifts described by the apostle. But notice also that part of the elder’s or bishop’s office and function is to be able to hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught. Thus he needs to be teachable.
And then he needs to be able to use the sound doctrine or sound teaching he has been taught. He needs to be able to use it in at least two ways, a) To exhort or encourage. And, b) To convict or refute those who oppose sound doctrine. This, of course, is exactly in line with what Jesus says in the “Great Commission” passage, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” So, the church-officers, the rulers, i.e., the elders or bishops are to be about the business of teaching people to observe or obey the Word of Christ.
The Apostle says, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine.” 1 Timothy 5:17. So, all elders are rulers in Christ’s church. However, there are certain elders whose work is especially preaching and teaching. Thus, in Presbyterian churches, there are preaching elders and there are ruling elders. But whether preaching or ruling, all elders are there to ensure that they themselves and the people under their Christ-given authority obey what Christ has commanded in His Word, which is to say that Jesus Christ has put the keys of His kingdom into the hands of His appointed church-officers.
The writer to the Hebrews exhorts or encourages us to, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct… Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” Hebrews 13:7&17.
So, we’ve seen then that the church-officers are to rule in accordance with God’s Word. Therefore they are simply doing a work of administration, not legislation, which is to say that they are not there to make laws, but are there to teach people to observe Christ’s commandments. This is why we call ministers ministers.
Ministers are the Lord’s servants in the Lord’s church. They have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. And with these keys they may: a) Retain and pardon sins. b) Close the kingdom against the unrepentant by the Word and by censures. And, c) Open the kingdom to repentant sinners by the ministry of the Gospel and removal of censures as the situation requires it.
Now again, we need to be reminded that it is not the church-officers of themselves who do any of these things, rather it is Christ speaking by His Spirit in His Word who does them. The church-officers are merely the instruments through which Christ implements His commands in His Church.
The Lord said these words to the Apostle Peter, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18&19.
That the keys of the kingdom of heaven did not belong solely to Peter is easily demonstrated from other passages of Scripture. For example, two chapters later Matthew records Jesus telling the rest of His disciples the same thing He told Peter. Speaking of an unrepentant sinner who refuses to heed private admonition Jesus says, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 18:17&18. And also in John’s Gospel Jesus says to His disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:22b&23.
So then, far from Peter being some sort of pope who alone holds the keys of the kingdom, the keys have been given to the church, i.e., to the Lord’s appointed church-officers.
The Purpose of the Keys
One of the main purposes of the keys is for church discipline or censures. For church discipline is necessary for reclaiming and winning brothers who’ve caused offence. Viewed in this light it is easily seen the church discipline is an act of grace. Church discipline therefore is primarily about teaching people to observe the Lord’s commands, which is, of course, exactly in line with Christ’s “Great Commission.”
Though speaking of the sphere of the family the principle of church discipline is that spoken of in the Proverb which says, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.” Proverbs 13:24. In the sphere of the church the writer to the Hebrews says, “’My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.’… Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:5b&6; 11.
There is an example of the grace of church discipline given in First and Second Corinthians. In First Corinthians 5:1 we read of a member of the congregation committing sexual immorality. Then in First Corinthians 5:4&5 we read what the church at Corinth is to do with him, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now, we believe that the words “…deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…” probably mean something more than simple excommunication. But that aside, we do believe that excommunication (as in expelling the offending brother from the church communion) is at least countenanced here. Thus there is a sense in which this offending man was cast out of the kingdom of heaven, which is to say that the keys to the kingdom were used to lock the door to him in his present unrepentant condition.
However, we believe that God did in due course grant this man repentance, whereby the keys were used to reopen the kingdom and grant forgiveness to him. For Paul says in Second Corinthians 2:6-8, “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him.”
So we see then that church discipline is all about grace. It’s for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren. Also, it is about deterring others from committing similar offences. The Apostle Paul says, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest may also fear.” 1 Timothy 5:20. This verse demonstrates that even church-officers are not beyond church discipline. For this verse is speaking of elders. The principle shown is that public rebuke for serious wrongdoing is a definite deterrent to others. It’s a word to the wise.
Now, church discipline is also about purifying out the leaven that could affect whole lump. Jesus warns His disciples in Matthew 16:6, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” It says of the disciples in Matthew 16:12, “Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
One of the purposes of church discipline is therefore to protect the flock from false doctrine or teaching. Nothing that will influence the whole flock negatively is to be brought into contact with it. As leaven leavens the whole batch of dough, so false doctrine will permeate the whole congregation – if left to run its course.
But the church is to be about the business of teaching those things which Christ commanded. Therefore church discipline is also about vindicating Christ’s honour and the holy profession of Gospel. Christ is honoured where and when His commands are observed. Christ’s commands are observed when people are wilfully obedient to His Gospel. Therefore the main key in the keys of the kingdom of heaven is faithful Gospel preaching. Indeed in the “Great Commission” the nations are to be taught the Gospel. It is the Gospel, and believing obedience to it, that opens and closes the kingdom.
The Apostle Paul says to the Romans, “For, ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘LORD, who has believed our report?’ So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:14-17.
Christ’s honour is vindicated or justified when people profess and obey the Gospel. To obey the Gospel is to believe it and put its teaching into practice in your daily life. The chief purpose of church discipline therefore is to ensure that this happens. Therefore church discipline is primarily the administration of the grace of God. For, it is through Gospel-obedience that God’s wrath is averted.
Therefore it is the responsibility of the church-officers to make sure that God’s covenant, and its seals, i.e., Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are not profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders. Jesus commands, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Matthew 7:6.
When this is applied to the two sealing ordinances of the church it can be seen that they must be guarded against abuse by the unrepentant. The Lord’s Supper has its own warning of God’s wrath built into it, “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” 1 Corinthians 11:29.
If notorious and obstinate offenders are given free rein in the church then what is to prevent the wrath of God from falling upon the church? For it is a sin to permit blatant sin to go unchecked in the church. The sin would be in permitting Christ’s name and His Gospel to be dishonoured.
As the writer to the Hebrews says, “For if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour our adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” Hebrews 10:26-29.
So, the church-officers must use the power of the keys to protect the congregation from God’s wrath against notorious and obstinate offenders who may be in their midst. Therefore for the better achieving these goals the church officers are to proceed first by giving warning to any who are offending. If the warning is not heeded then the offender is to be suspended from the Lord’s Supper for a season. Then, if these church censures are to no avail, finally, the notorious and obstinate offender is to be excommunicated from church.
Now, when it comes to church discipline the punishment must fit the crime. Each offender must only be punished in accordance with the nature of the offence and demerit of the person.
It’s my hope that we’ve seen that church discipline is a ministry of grace. Robert Murray McCheyne summed it up well for his congregation, “When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great work and almost only work was to pray and preach… But it pleased God, who teaches His servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke into my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline.” (Life of Robert Murray McCheyne by Andrew Bonar, quoted by Rowland Ward in The Westminster Confession for the Church Today, p. 211).