As Mark Dever reminds us in his Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, biblical church discipline is an essential aspect of church life. Church discipline has two main elements:
1. Formative, which involves teaching the disciples of Jesus to observe all he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20).
2. Corrective, which involves rebuking those who are straying from the faith, and may even include removing people from church membership on account of serious error, or open sin.
Puritanism was a movement dedicated to the further reformation of the Church of England along biblical lines. Independents wanted to churches to comprise not of everyone who lived in a parish, but of people who had been truly converted, and whose lives adorned the gospel; congregations of visible saints. Early 'Reformed Baptists' would have agreed, while they parted company with their Independent brothers over infant baptism. Given that the Puritans were by definition zealous for the purity of the church, it is not unexpected that they were sticklers for church discipline. Their opponents sometimes labelled them 'Donatists'.
Donatism was a movement in the early church that refused to readmit into the membership of the church Christians who had renounced their faith during periods of state-sanctioned persecution. Augustine of Hippo was a great opponent of Donatism. He argued that the church is made up of saved sinners. The holiness of the church is not maintained by the unwavering faithfulness of believers, but by renewed application of the gospel. Augustine held that the Christian life is one of constant repentance from sin and faith in the blood of Christ. Lapsed believers could therefore be restored to the church on expression of sincere repentance and a pledge of renewed faith in the Saviour. Augustine's pastoral realism and compassion for straying sheep is rooted in the witness of Scripture, 1 John 1:5-10, Luke 17:3-4. Donatism was condemned as a gospel-denying heresy.
Puritans like John Owen contested the charge that they were Donatists. In his The True Nature of a Gospel Church (Works, Volume 16), Owen sought to set out his mature thinking on church life from an Independent perspective. As the title suggests, the divine wanted to work through how the gospel is to permeate every aspect of ecclesiology. That includes church discipline in its corrective element. The gospel must be allowed to determine the purpose for which a person might be removed from church membership and the basis upon which they may be readmitted.
Owen readily acknowledged that corrective church discipline had been subject to much abuse. Under the Roman Catholic system excommunicated people could be deprived of their livelihoods and property, arrested and even killed. If the pope excommunicated a ruler, subjects were within their rights to rebel against their prince or even assassinate him. Owen insisted that excommunication from the church was a purely spiritual matter, having only to do with removal from the privileges of church membership. A church member could be excommunicated for persisting in serious doctrinal error or for flagrantly sinful conduct.
The process of excommunication should be overseen by the elders to whom the rule of the church was committed. But the consent of the whole church was to be sought before a person was put out of the fellowship. And their consent gained to readmit someone who had been excommunicated, but had been brought to repentance. Owen gives special attention to Matthew 16 & 18, 1 Corinthians 5, and 2 Corinthians 2:6 in this regard.
The excommunicated person is to lose all the privileges of church membership. They are “handed over to Satan”; that is put out of the church and placed back into the world. Excommunication is a most solemn use of the keys of the kingdom. What is bound on earth will be bound in heaven. The whole process is to be bathed with prayer. Should a wayward member withdraw from the church to avoid church discipline, they are still to be formally excommunicated, Owen advised.
The aim of excommunication is not to punish the straying believer, but recover them to the fellowship of the church. Should the person in question genuinely repent during the disciplinary process, it must be halted, and they should not be put out of the church. This is in line with the gospel, which promises forgiveness on the basis of repentance and faith. Similarly with those who have been excommunicated and then repented, “the principle design of the gospel…is to evidence that all sincerely penitent sinners… are and shall be pardoned and accepted.” “It is no dishonour to any church” says Owen “to have sinners in it who have evidenced sincere repentance.” (16:176-177). Church discipline must be gospel centred. Owen for one was no hard-line, unforgiving Donatist.