Question 46 What is the duty of private members in reference unto the discipline appointed by Christ in his church?

Answer It is their duty, in their mutual watch over one another, to exhort each other unto holiness and perseverance; and if they observe any thing in the ways and walkings of any of their fellow-members not according unto the rule and duty of their profession, which, therefore, gives them offence, to admonish them thereof in private, with love, meekness, and wisdom; and in case they prevail not unto their amendment, to take the assistance of some other brethren in the same work; and if they fail in success therein also, to report the matter, by the elders’ direction, unto the whole church.

Matt. 18:16-18; 1 Thess. 5:14.

Explication — In these questions an inquiry is made after the exercise of discipline in the church, — as to that part of it which belongs unto the reproof and correction of miscarriages, according to the distribution of right, power, and privilege before explained.

The first act hereof consists in private admonition; for so hath our Lord ordained, that in case any brother or member of the church do in any thing walk disorderly, and not according to the rule of the gospel, he or they unto whom it is observed, and who are thereby offended, may and ought to admonish the person or persons so offending of their miscarriages and offence; concerning which is to be observed, —

First, What is previously required thereunto; and that is, —

  1. That in all the members of the church there ought to be “love without dissimulation.” They are to “be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love,” Rom. 12:9,10; which as they are taught of God, so they are greatly exhorted thereunto, Heb. 13:1. This love is the bond of perfection, the most excellent way and means of preserving church-order, and furthering the edification thereof, 1 Cor. 13, without which, well seated and confirmed in the hearts and minds of church-members, no duty of their relation can ever be performed in a due manner.
  2. This love is to exert and put forth itself in tender care and watchfulness for the good of each other; which are to work by mutual exhortations, informations, instructions, according as opportunities do offer themselves, or as the necessities of any do seem to require, Heb. 3:13, 10:24.

Secondly, This duty of admonishing offenders privately and personally is common to the elders with all the members of the church; neither doth it belong properly unto the elders as such, but as brethren of the same society. And yet, by virtue of their office, the elders are enabled to do it with more authority morally, though office-power properly be not exercised therein. By virtue, also, of their constant general watch over the whole flock in the discharge of their office, they are enabled to take notice of and discern miscarriages in any of the members sooner than others: but as to the exercise of the discipline of the church in this matter, this duty is equally incumbent on every member of it, according as the obligation on them to watch over one another, and to exercise especial love towards each other, is equal; whence it is distinguished from that private pastoral admonition, which is an act of the teaching office and power, not directly belonging unto the rule or government inquired after. But this admonition is an effect of love; and when it proceedeth not from thence it is irregular, Matt. 18:16-18; Rom. 15:14.

Thirdly, This duty is so incumbent on every member of the church, that in case of the neglect thereof, he both sinneth against the institution of Christ and makes himself partaker of the sin of the party offending, and is also guilty of his danger and ruin thereby, with all that disadvantage which will accrue to the church by any of the members of it continuing in sin against the rule of the gospel. They have not only liberty thus to admonish one another, but it is their express and indispensable duty so to do; the neglect whereof is interpreted by God to be “hatred of our brother,” such as wherewith the love of God is inconsistent, Lev. 19:17; 1 John 3:15, 4:20.

Fourthly, Although this duty be personally incumbent on every individual member of the church, yet this hinders not but if the sin of an offender be known to more than one at the same time, and they jointly take offence thereat, they may together in the first instance admonish him, which yet still is but the first and private admonition; which is otherwise when others are called into assistance who are not themselves acquainted with the offence, but only by information, and join in it, not upon the account of their own being offended, but of being desired according unto rule to give assistance to them that are so.

Fifthly, The way and manner of the discharge of this duty is, that it be done with prudence, tenderness, and due regard unto all circumstances; whence the apostle supposeth a spiritual ability to be necessary for this work: Rom. 15:14, “Ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.” Especially four things are to be diligently heeded: —

  1. That the whole duty be so managed that the person offending may be convinced that it is done out of love to him and affectionate, conscientious care over him, that he may take no occasion thereby for the exasperation of his own spirit.
  2. That the persons admonishing others of their offence do make it appear that what they do is in obedience unto an institution of Christ, and therein to preserve their own souls from sin, as well as to benefit the offenders.
  3. That the admonition be grounded on a rule; which alone gives it authority and efficacy.
  4. That there be a readiness manifested by them to receive satisfaction, — either (1.) in case that, upon trial, it appeareth the information they have had of the miscarriage whence the offence arose was undue or not well grounded; or, (2.) of acknowledgement and repentance.

Sixthly, The ends of this ordinance and institution of Christ are, —

  1. To keep up love without dissimulation among all the members of the church; for if offences should abide unremoved, love, which is the bond of perfection, would not long continue in sincerity, which tends to the dissolution of the whole society.
  2. To gain the offender, by delivering him from the guilt of sin, that he may not lie under it, and procure the wrath of God against himself, Lev. 19:17.
  3. To preserve his person from dishonour and disreputation, and thereby to keep up his usefulness in the church. To this end hath our Lord appointed this discharge of this duty in private, that the failings of men may not be unnecessarily divulged, and themselves thereby exposed unto temptation.
  4. To preserve the church from that scandal that might befall it by the hasty opening of all the real or supposed failings of its members. And, —
  5. To prevent its trouble in the public hearing of things that may be otherwise healed and removed.

Seventhly, In case these ends are obtained, either by the supposed offending persons clearing of themselves and manifesting themselves innocent of the crimes charged on them, as Josh. 22:21-29, 2 Cor. 7:11, or by their acknowledgement, repentance, and amendment, then this part of the discipline of the church hath, through the grace of Christ, obtained its appointed effect.

Eighthly, In case the persons offending be not humbled nor reformed, nor do give satisfaction unto them by whom they are admonished, then hath our Lord ordained a second degree of this private exercise of discipline: — that the persons who, being offended, have discharged the foregoing duty themselves according unto rule, shall take unto them others, — two or three, as the occasion may seem to require, — to join with them in the same work and duty, to be performed in the same manner, for the same ends, with that before described, Matt. 18:15-17. And it is the duty of these persons so called in for assistance, —

  1. To judge of the crime, fault, or offence reported to them, and not to proceed unless they find it to consist in something expressly contrary to the rule of the gospel, and attested in such a manner and with such evidence as their mutual love doth require in them with respect unto their brethren. And they are to judge of the testimony that is given concerning the truth of the offence communicated unto them, that they may not seem either lightly to take up a report against their brother or to discredit the testimony of others.
  2. In case they find the offence pretended not to be a real offence, indeed contrary to the rule of the gospel, or that it is not aright grounded as to the evidence of it, but taken up upon prejudice or an over-easy credulity, contrary to the law of that love which is required amongst church-members, described 1 Cor. 13, and commanded as the great means of the edification of the church and preservation of its union, then to convince the brother offended of his mistake, and with him to satisfy the person pretended to be the offender, that no breach or schism may happen among the members of the same body.
  3. Being satisfied of the crime and testimony, they are to associate themselves with the offended brother in the same work and duty that he himself had before discharged towards the offender.

Ninthly, Because there is no determination how often these private admonitions are to be used in case of offence, it is evident from the nature of the thing itself that they are to be reiterated, first the one and then the other, whilst there is any ground of hope that the ends of them may be obtained, through the blessing of Christ, — the brother gained, and the offence taken away. Neither of these, then, is to be deserted or laid aside on the first or second attempt, as though it were performed only to make way for somewhat farther; but it is to be waited on with prayer and patience, as an ordinance of Christ appointed for attaining the end aimed at.

Tenthly, In case there be not the success aimed at obtained in these several degrees of private admonition, it is then the will of our Lord Jesus Christ that the matter be reported unto the church, that the offended may be publicly admonished thereby and brought to repentance; wherein is to be observed, —

  1. That the persons who have endeavoured in vain to reclaim their offending brother by private admonition are to acquaint the elders of the church with the case and crime, as also what they have done according to rule for the rectifying of it; who, upon that information, are obliged to communicate the knowledge of the whole matter to the church. This is to be done by the elders, as to whom the preservation of order in the church and the rule of its proceedings do belong, as we have showed before.
  2. The report made to the church by the elders is to be, — (1.) Of the crime, guilt, or offence; (2.) Of the testimony given unto the truth of it; (3.) Of the means used to bring the offender to acknowledgment and repentance; (4.) Of his deportment under the private previous admonitions, either as to his rejecting of them, or as to any satisfaction tendered; all in order, love, meekness, and tenderness.
  3. Things being proposed unto the church, and the offender heard upon the whole of the offence and former proceeding, the whole church or multitude of the brethren are, with the elders, to consider the nature of the offence, with the condition and temptation of the offender, with such a spirit of meekness as our Lord Jesus Christ, in his own person, set them an example of in his dealing with sinners, and which is required in them as his disciples, Gal. 6:1,2; 2 Cor. 2:8.
  4. The elders and brethren are to judge of the offence and the carriage of the offender according to rule; and if the offence be evident and persisted in, then, —
  5. The offender is to be publicly admonished by the elders, with the consent and concurrence of the church, 1 Thess. 5:14; 1 Tim. 5:20; Matt. 18:17. And this admonition consists of five parts: — (1.) A declaration of the crime or offence, as it is evidenced unto the church. (2.) A conviction of the evil of it, from the rule or rules transgressed against. (3.) A declaration of the authority and duty of the church in such cases. (4.) A rebuke of the offender in the name of Christ, answering the nature and circumstances of the offence. (5.) An exhortation unto humiliation, and repentance, and acknowledgment.

Eleventhly, In case the offender despise this admonition of the church, and come not upon it unto repentance, it is the will and appointment of our Lord Jesus Christ that he be cut off from all the privileges of the church, and cast out from the society thereof, or be excommunicated; wherein consists the last act of the discipline of the church for the correction of offenders. And herein may be considered, —

  1. The nature of it, that it is an authoritative act, and so principally belongs unto the elders of the church, who therein exert the power that they have received from the Lord Christ, by and with the consent of the church, according to his appointment, Matt. 16:19, 18:18; John 20:23; 1 Cor. 5:4,5; Titus 3:10; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Cor. 2:6. And both these, the authority of the eldership and the consent of the brethren, are necessary to the validity of the sentence, and that according to the appointment of Christ, and the practice of the first churches.
  2. The effect of it, which is the cutting off or casting out of the person offending from the communion of the church, in the privileges of the gospel, as consequently from that of all the visible churches of Christ in the earth, by virtue of their communion one with another; whereby he is left unto the visible kingdom of Satan in the world. — Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:2,5,13; 1 Tim. 1:20; Titus 3:10; Gal. 5:12.
  3. The ends of it, which are, —

(1.) The gaining of the party offending, by bringing him to repentance, humiliation, and acknowledgment of his offence, 2 Cor. 2:6,7, 13:10.

(2.) The warning of others not to do so presumptuously.

(3.) The preserving of the church in its purity and order, 1 Cor. 5:6,7; all to the glory of Jesus Christ.

  1. The causes of it, or the grounds and reasons on which the church may proceed unto sentence against any offending persons. Now, these are no other but such as they judge, according to the gospel, that the Lord Christ will proceed upon in his final judgment at the last day; for the church judgeth in the name and authority of Christ, and are to exclude none from its communion but those whom they find by the rule that he himself excludes from his kingdom; and so that which they bind on earth is bound by him in heaven, Matt. 18:18. And their sentence herein is to be declared, as the declaration of the sentence which the Head of the church and Judge of all will pronounce at the last day; only with this difference, that it is also made known that this sentence of theirs is not final or decretory, but in order to the prevention of that which will be so unless the evil be repented of. Now, although the particular evils, sins, or offences that may render a person obnoxious unto this censure and sentence are not to be enumerated, by reason of the variety of circumstances, which change the nature of actions, yet they m in general be referred unto these heads: —

(1.) Moral evils, contrary to the light of nature and express commands or prohibitions of the moral law, direct rules of the gospel, or of evil report in the world amongst men walking according to the rule and light of reason. And, in cases of this nature, the church may proceed unto the sentence whereof we speak without previous admonition, in case the matter of fact be notorious, publicly and unquestionably known to be true, and no general rule (which is not to be impeached by particular instances) lie against their procedure, 1 Cor. 5:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:2-5.

(2.) Offences against that mutual love which is the bond of perfection in the church, if pertinaciously persisted in, Matt. 18:16,17.

(3.) False doctrines against the fundamentals in faith or worship, especially if maintained with contention, to the trouble and disturbance of the peace of the church, Gal. 5:12; Titus 3:9-11; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; Rev. 2:14,15.

(4.) Blasphemy or evil speaking of the ways and worship of God in the church, especially if joined with an intention to hinder the prosperity of the church or to expose it to persecution, 1 Tim. 1:20.

(5.) Desertion, or total causeless relinquishment of the society and communion of the church; for such are self-condemned, having broken and renounced the covenant of God, that they made at their entrance into the church, Heb. 10:25-31.

  1. The time or season of the putting forth the authority of Christ in the church for this censure is to be considered, and that is ordinarily after the admonition before described, and that with due waiting, to be regulated by a consideration of times, persons, temptations, and other circumstances; for, —

(1.) The church in proceeding to this sentence is to express the patience and long-suffering of Christ towards offenders, and not to put it forth without conviction of a present resolved inpenitency.

(2.) The event and effect of the preceding ordinance of admonition is to be expected; which though not at present evident, yet, like the word itself in the preaching of it, may be blessed to a good issue after many days.

  1. The person offending thus cut off, or cast out from the present actual communion of the church, is still to be looked on and accounted as a brother, because of the nature of the ordinance which is intended for his amendment and recovery, — 2 Thess. 3:15, “Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother,” — unless he manifests his final impenitency by blasphemy and persecution: 1 Tim. 1:20, “whom I have declared unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
  2. The church is, therefore, still to perform the duties of love and care towards such persons, —

(1.) In praying for them, that “they may be converted from the error of their way,” James 5:19,20. 1 John 5:16, “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death.”

(2.) In withdrawing from them even as to ordinary converse, for their conviction of their state and condition, 1 Cor. 5:11, “With such an one no not to eat;” 2 Thess. 3:14.

(3.) In admonishing of him: 2 Thess. 3:15, “Admonish him as a brother:” which may be done, — [1.] Occasionally, by any member of the church; [2.] On set purpose, by the consent and appointment of the whole church: which admonition is to contain, — 1st, A pressing of his sin from the rule on the conscience of the offender; 2dly, A declaration of the nature of the censure and punishment which he lieth under; 3dly, A manifestation of the danger of his impenitency, in his being either hardened by the deceitfulness of sin or exposed unto new temptations of Satan.

  1. In case the Lord Jesus be pleased to give a blessed effect unto this ordinance, in the repentance of the person cut off and cast out of the church, he is, —

(1.) To be forgiven both by those who in an especial manner were offended at him and by him, and by the whole church, Matt. 18:18; 2 Cor. 2:7.

(2.) To be comforted under his sorrow, 2 Cor. 2:7, and that by, —

[1.] The application of the promises of the gospel unto his conscience;

[2.] A declaration of the readiness of the church to receive him again into their love and communion.

(3.) Restored, —

[1.] By a confirmation or testification of the love of the church unto him, 2 Cor. 2:8;

[2.] A re-admission unto the exercise and enjoyment of his former privileges in the fellowship of the church; all with a spirit of meekness, Gal. 6:1.


The Life and Works of John Owen Vol. 15