Question 41 — What is the discipline of the church?

AnswerIt consists in the due exercise of that authority and power which the Lord Christ, in and by his word, hath granted unto the church, for its continuance, increase, and preservation in purity, order, and holiness, according to his appointment.

Matt. xvi. 19; Rom. xii. 8; 2 Cor. x. 4–6; Rev. ii. 2, 20.

Explication — Sundry things are to be considered about this discipline of the church; as, — First, The foundation of it, which is a grant of power and authority made unto it by Jesus Christ as mediator, head, king, and lawgiver of his church; for all discipline being an act of power, and this being exercised in and about things internal and spiritual, no men can of themselves, or by grant of any others, have any right or authority to or in the exercise thereof. Whoever hath any interest herein or right hereunto, it must be granted unto him from above by Jesus Christ, and that as mediator and head of his church; for as all church-power is in an especial manner, by the authority and grant of the Father, vested in him alone, Matt. xxviii. 18, Eph. i. 20–23, so the nature of it, which is spiritual, the objects of it, which are the consciences and gospel privileges of believers, with the ends of it, — namely, the glory of God in Christ, with the spiritual and eternal good of the souls of men, — do all manifest that it can have no other right nor foundation. This in the first place is to be fixed, that no authority can be exercised in the church but what is derived from Jesus Christ, as was spoken before.

Secondly, The means whereby the Lord Christ doth communicate this power and authority unto his church in his word or his law and constitution concerning it in the gospel; so that it is exactly limited and bounded thereby. And no power or authority can be exercised in the church but what is granted and conveyed unto it by the word, seeing that Christ communicates no power or authority any other ways. Whatever of that nature is beside it or beyond it is mere usurpation, and null in its exercise. Herein is the commission of the guides and rulers of the church expressed, which they are not to exceed in any thing. Herein are bounds and limits fixed to the actings of the whole church, and of every part and member of it.

Thirdly, This power or authority, thus granted and conveyed by Jesus Christ, is to be exercised, as to the manner of the administration of discipline, with skill and diligence, Rom. xii. 8; 1 Cor. xii. And the skill required hereunto is a gift, or an ability of mind, bestowed by the Holy Ghost upon men, to put in execution the laws of Christ for the government of the church in the way and order by him appointed, or a spiritual wisdom, whereby men know how to behave themselves in the house of God in their several places, for its due edification in faith and love, 1 Tim. iii. 15. And this ability of mind to make a due application of the laws of the gospel unto persons, times, and actions, with their circumstances, is such a gift of the Holy Ghost as whereof there are several degrees, answering to the distinct duties that are incumbent on the rulers of the church on the one hand, and the members on the other. And where this skill and wisdom is wanting, there it is impossible that the discipline of the church should be preserved or carried on. Hereunto also diligence
and watchfulness are to be added, without which ability and power will never obtain their proper end in a due manner, Rom. xii. 6–8.

Fourthly, The end of this discipline is the continuance, increase, and preservation of the church, according to the rule of its first institution, 1 Cor. v. 7. This power hath Christ given his church for its conservation, without which it must necessarily decay and come to nothing. Nor is it to be imagined that where any church is called and gathered according to the mind of Christ, he hath left it destitute of power and authority to preserve itself in that state and order which he hath appointed unto it. And that which was one principal cause of the decays of the Asian churches was the neglect of this discipline, the power and privilege whereof the Lord had left unto them and intrusted them withal, for their own preservation in order, purity, and holiness. And, therefore, for the neglect thereof they were greatly blamed by him, Rev. ii. 14, 15, 20, iii. 1, 2; as is also the church of Corinth by the apostle, 1 Cor. v. 2; as they are commended who attended unto the diligent exercise of it, Rev. ii. 2, iii. 9. The disuse, also, of it hath been the occasion of all the defilements, abominations, and confusions that have spread themselves over many churches in the world.