God’s design for orderly discipline in graded church courts

Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 4

Discipline is an often-unsavory yet sometimes-necessary practice of the church of Christ. To err is human. To err is institutional. Consistent with the Reformed view of fallen human nature, even those redeemed in Christ, those who hold ordinary office (members), those who hold special office (teaching elders, ruling elders and deacons), and tribunals of the church (sessions, presbyteries, synods and councils) all are susceptible to error and therefore all must be formally accountable.

Presbyterianism, when used properly, wisely provides mechanisms for the practice of discipline to be carried out decently and in order, both bottom-up as well as top-down throughout every echelon of Christ’s church. The goal of church discipline is to reclaim disobedient sinners and restore fellowship between members in the household of faith. 

Discipline is for the good of the entire church. Referring to the ultimate disciplinary measure of excommunication, Apostle Paul instructed one local body, 

(I Corinthians 5:4-5) “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

The Presbyterian Church in America, as a modern example, in its Book of Church Order affirms the solemn responsibility for church officers to exercise discipline for the sake of its peace and purity.

BCO Preface, II.3
“Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty. It is incumbent upon these officers and upon the whole Church in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.” 

In keeping with the example set by Scripture especially in Acts 15, the PCA asserts that higher courts have a supervisory role with respect to lower courts of the church, “Therefore, teaching elders must … jointly practice [discipline] in the context of the congregation and church courts.”

The apostolic order of discipline for resolving offenses

Jesus and Paul set forth the intrinsic right of all members of the church to confront offenses and maladministration decently and in order.

(Matthew 18:15-20) “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

(I Corinthians 6:1-8) “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!”

This order of discipline, of course, was not a New Testament novelty, but was deeply rooted in the presbyterial model of the Mosaic law.

(Deuteronomy 1:9-18) “At that time I [Moses] said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. May the LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.”

Thomas Smyth in 1843 wrote, 

An Ecclesiastical Catechism of the Presbyterian Church
Chapter 4. Courts of the church.

Section 6. Of the third division of the power of the church, or the power of discipline.
257. By what means is the character of the church, as a society of professing Christians, to be preserved? 
By faithful exercise of a scriptural discipline, in enforcing the observance of her laws, and by censure and excommunication.
(I Corinthians 5:7)
258. Why is this exercise of discipline necessary to the purity and peace of the church?
Because offenses will frequently arise from unregenerate professors, and from the remaining corruptions of those who are truly pious.
(Matthew 18:7, Revelation 2:14)

Section 7. Of admission to, and exclusion from, the church.
270. Are any censures of the church to be made public? 

Yes; when the offenses are of such magnitude and publicity as to bring scandal upon the church.
(II Corinthians 2:6, I Timothy 5:20)
271. Is the church injured by the neglect of discipline? 
Yes; for thereby godly persons will be deterred from entering it; the anger of God provoked; and Christ’s name dishonored.
(I Corinthians 5:11, 10:20, Revelation 18:4, Jeremiah 7:11, II Samuel 12:14, Romans 2:24, Ephesians 4:30)
272. May a church, by the utter neglect of discipline, cease to be a true and living church of Christ? 
Yes, this has happened.
(Revelation 2:9, 3:9, 16)
273. On the other hand, are there many and great benefits arising from the exercise of strict and faithful discipline? 
Yes. 
274. What benefits may arise to the offender from the exercise of discipline? 
By this he sees sin to be evil and shameful; and if he receive the censure in a proper spirit, it has a powerful tendency to humble, reclaim and edify him.
(II Corinthians 7:9-10, II Thessalonians 3:4)
275. What benefits arise to the church from the faithful exercise of discipline? 
By it, sinners are discouraged from hypocritically joining the church, and the leaven which might infect the whole lump is purged out; the number of her true converts is increased, her holiness is manifested; the honor of the Head is vindicated; and God’s gracious presence and blessing secured.
(I Corinthians 5:7, Acts 5:11-14, 16:4-5, John 2:16, Ezekiel 36:23, II Corinthians 6:17-18)
277. Are the rulers of the church deeply responsible for the right exercise of discipline? 
They who hold office by appointment from Christ, whose faithfulness will be followed by so many and great blessings, whose negligence must be the source of such deep and lasting injuries to the church, dishonor to Christ, and evil to sinners; should feel themselves under a most solemn responsibility in this matter, and must expect to be called to a most strict account at the day of judgment, for the part which they act in relation to it.
(I Peter 5:4, Hebrews 13:17)

Chapter 6. Fellowship of the church.
Section 2. Of the duties of church members.
286. What duties do members of the church owe to the church itself? 
They are bound to support it; to take a deep and active interest in all its concerns; to seek its prosperity by all lawful means; and cordially to submit to its discipline.
(I Corinthians 16:2)

Church members’ basic right to submit and appeal complaints and charges

Previously, we demonstrated how congregational appointment of officers is in the spirit of the New Testament, in that “general office” of the royal priesthood serves Christ’s threefold ministry as our Prophet, Priest and King. The church as a royal priestly people assembles at Mount Zion to gratefully receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken, to offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe. Throughout the sermon of Hebrews, its author calls upon the entire congregation to be engaging in prophetic, priestly and kingly work. Everyone in the church should be committed to mutual prophetic exhortation and mutual pastoral oversight: 

(Hebrews 3:12-13) “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” 

(Hebrews 12:15) “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” 

For the imperative Greek “see,” the author used the plural present participle active verb (V-PPA-NMP) transliterated as episkopountes, meaning, to exercise oversight (cf. I Peter 5:2). As the word is elsewhere used by the apostles, it could be translated, “Exercise pastoral oversight toward each other,” with church officers as well as members looking out for roots of corruption that would threaten the creedal marks of the church: unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity. 

Mutual pastoral oversight is exercised not only in congregational election of church officers, but also, at times, in the exercise of discipline: there are times when disorder, negligence, maladministration and corruption in the church necessitate formal complaints and indictments from members even against overseers. 

Though the Protestant Reformation had not yet recovered Presbyterianism during Martin Luther’s time, at the debate in Leipzig in the summer of 1519, he famously argued, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.” (quoted in Here I Stand, R. Bainton, p. 90)

Smyth’s 1843 Presbyterian catechism continues,

Chapter 4. Courts of the church.
Section 2. Of the church session. 
160. How are matters to be brought up before the session for its judgment upon them?
Either by an elder, or by any member of the church presenting a memorial, or bringing a complaint, or making charges. 
161. Is there any appeal from the judgment of the session, by a party supposing himself aggrieved?
Yes; there is an appeal from the session to the presbytery.
(Acts 15:6, Matthew 18:15-20, I Corinthians 14:33)

Section 6. Of the Presbytery concluded.
185. Is there any appeal from the decision of the presbytery? 
Yes; an appeal can be taken from the decision of the presbytery to the synod.
Section 8. Of the synod.
193. Is there any appeal from the judgment of the synod? 
Yes; there is an appeal to the general assembly, the greatest and highest court of the church.

Chapter 5. Power of the church
Section 7. Of admission to, and exclusion from, the church.
277. Are the rulers of the church deeply responsible for the right exercise of discipline?
They who hold office by appointment from Christ, whose faithfulness will be followed by so many and great blessings, whose negligence must be the source of such deep and lasting injuries to the church, dishonor to Christ, and evil to sinners; should feel themselves under a most solemn responsibility in this matter, and must expect to be called to a most strict account at the day of judgment, for the part which they act in relation to it.
(I Peter 5:4, Hebrews 13:17)
278. How may each member of the church fully understand all its rules, and order of discipline? 

By studying the Form of Government and Book of Discipline attached to the Confession of our Faith and which every member of our church should possess.

Chapter 7. Relation of the Presbyterian Church to other denominations and to the world.
Section 5. The advantages and claims of the Presbyterian church.
326. Name some of the further advantages possessed by members of the Presbyterian church?
They possess the right of choosing their own pastors and elders; they are neither subject to the spiritual despotism of a priesthood, nor to anarchy and misrule; they can bring any matter, — whether it be unfaithfulness in ministers or elders, or in the other officers and members of the church, or errors in doctrine, — before the church courts, composed of an equal proportion of clergymen and of representatives of the people, chosen by themselves, for investigation and decision; and they have the privilege and power, when their rights as citizens of Zion are assailed, of appealing from one church court to another.

Section 6. Of the relation of the Presbyterian church to the world. 
336. Why, then, is it the especial and imperative duty of the Presbyterian church, and of every member of it, to engage with all their powers in the great work of spreading the Gospel throughout the earth? 
Since it is thus the great end and duty of the church to act as a missionary association, this also must be the great end and duty of the Presbyterian church, as a branch of the Catholic church; and since the purest form of Christianity, which derives all its doctrines, polity, and worship from the pure word of God, to labor earnestly for its extension to the ends of the earth.

Certain authors of the Westminster Assembly, in their magisterial work on jure divino (by divine law) church government, compared the limitations of independent polity to presbyterial appellate structure:

An Advertisement to the Pious and Judicious Reader
“In the Independent government … All censures and acts of government are dispensed in single congregations ultimately, independently, without all liberty of appeal from them to any superior church assembly; so the parties grieved are left without remedy. …
In the Presbyterial government … All censures and acts of government are dispensed in congregational presbyteries subordinately, dependently, with liberty of appeal in all cases to presbyterial or synodal assemblies; where parties grieved have sufficient remedy.”
(Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici, p. 48)

Part One: Of the Nature of Divine Right
Chapter Three. Of the nature of a jus divinum, a divine right in particular.
“Consequently, in the present case of church government, that which is agreeable to the true light of nature must necessarily be confessed to be jure divino. Though light of nature is but dim, yet it will lend some help in this particular. For example, light of nature teaches … That in every ill-administration in inferior societies, the parties grieved should have liberty to appeal from them to superior societies, that equity may take place. And why not from inferior to superior church assemblies?”
(ibid., p. 62)

An early American Presbyterian pastor commented on the genius of Presbyterian order by availing appellate courts to all church members:

“Thus the youngest and humblest member of the Presbyterian Church enjoys the inalienable privilege of having his case finally adjudicated by the whole Church.”
(Presbyterians and the Revolution
, the Rev. W.P. Breed, D.D., p. 33)

One renowned PCA teaching elder of the Presbyterian Church in America wrote,

“The Westminster Confession affirms that when decisions are made at the local church level with respect to doctrine, behavior, or matters of discipline, there is a court of appeal. If a person is convicted of something in the civil realm, he has the right to appeal to a higher court. Similarly, decisions made in a local congregation can be appealed to a higher court (the presbytery), and then to the highest court (the general assembly). People who are directly involved in a dispute often become so subjective that it helps to have a higher court rule on it.”
(Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, R.C. Sproul, p. 638) 

Discipline is integral to a bottom-up and top-down Presbyterian polity that includes the right to an appeals process. For instance, in any PCA church, any member who is disciplined has the right to appeal, on certain grounds, the Session’s rulings to the next highest court, the Presbytery, which is the court of membership for the teaching elders who vote in discipline cases (BCO 13-9, 39-1, 42-1). In the BCO Part II: The Rules of Discipline, the PCA states:

BCO 27-1
“Discipline is the exercise of authority given the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ to instruct and guide its members and to promote its purity and welfare.
The term has two senses:
a. the one referring to the whole government, inspection, training, guardianship and control which the church maintains over its members, its officers and its courts;
b. the other a restricted and technical sense, signifying judicial process.”

BCO 27-2
“All baptized persons, being members of the Church are subject to its discipline and entitled to the benefits thereof.” 

BCO 27-3
“The exercise of discipline is highly important and necessary. In its proper usage discipline maintains:
1. the glory of God,
2. the purity of His Church,
3. 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.” 

BCO 27-4
“The power which Christ has given the Church is for building up, and not for destruction. It is to be exercised as under a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath. As in the preaching of the Word the wicked are doctrinally separated from the good, so by discipline the Church authoritatively separates between the holy and the profane. In this it acts the part of a tender mother, correcting her children for their good, that every one of them may be presented faultless in the day of the Lord Jesus. Discipline is systematic training under the authority of God’s Scripture. No communing or non-communing member of the Church should be allowed to stray from the Scripture’s discipline. Therefore, teaching elders must:
1.
instruct the officers in discipline,
2. instruct the congregation in discipline,
3. jointly practice it in the context of the congregation and church courts.”

BCO 27-5 
“Scriptural law is the basis of all discipline because it is the revelation of God’s Holy will.
Proper disciplinary principles are set forth in the Scriptures and must be followed. They are:
a. Instruction in the Word;
b. Individual’s responsibility to admonish one another (Matthew 18:15, Galatians 6:1);
c. If the admonition is rejected, then the calling of one or more witnesses (Matthew 18:16);
d. If rejection persists, then the Church must act through her court unto admonition, suspension, excommunication and deposition (See BCO 29 and 30 for further explanation).
Steps (a) through (d) must be followed in proper order for the exercise of discipline.”

The nature and extent of church power

Defining the fundamental functions of the system of church government, the PCA Book of Church Order states, 

BCO 3-5
“The Church, with its ordinances, officers and courts, is the agency which Christ has ordained for the edification and government of His people, for the propagation of the faith, and for the evangelization of the world.”

BCO 3-6
“The exercise of ecclesiastical power, whether joint or several, has the divine sanction when in conformity with the statutes enacted by Christ, the Lawgiver, and when put forth by courts or by officers appointed thereunto in His Word.”

A well-respected expert on polity in the Presbyterian Church in America expounded on the joint power of discipline which must be practiced in the accountability of the congregation as well as the graded courts of the church.

“Notice that this power of order is a joint power. Were elders individually, or severally, to exercise this power, chaos would ensue in the church. To preserve good order in the worship and government of the church, it is elders only acting in church courts who must exercise this power. …
The work of discipline is what we have termed an exercise of the ‘joint’ power that belongs to the eldership. In other words, elders cannot individually administer discipline. It is a work that belongs to the elders assembled in the courts of the church. This point is certainly in view in Matthew 18:15-20.”
(How Jesus Runs the Church, Guy Prentiss Waters, pp. 72, 75) 

Dr. James Bannerman described the integral structure of graded church courts within which overseers must operate on disciplinary rulings, which is for the protection of church members as well as for overseers’ own protection.

Part II. Power of the Church
Chapter II. The Rule or Law of Church Power
“III. In what light are the office-bearers of the Church to be regarded, in accordance with the doctrine that the Bible, and the Bible only, is the rule of Church power?
The answer to this question is equally plain and obvious as in the former case. They are ministerial and subordinate, having no authority or discretion of their own, and being merely ministers or servants to carry out the will and execute the appointments of Christ. They are not masters to do their own will, or act at their own discretion, but servants, held bound to submit to the will and carry out the instructions of another. There is a magisterial and supreme authority in the Church; and there is a derived and subordinate authority, accountable to the former. The one belongs to Christ as Head of His Church, the only law or limit of His authority being His own will; the other belongs to the Church, or the office-bearers of the Church, the law or limit of their authority being the power intrusted to them by their Master, and the instructions given to them by Him. In reference to the office-bearers of the Church, of whatsoever place or authority in it, they, if they keep within their office, are but the instruments in the hands of Christ Himself, acting in His name, ruling by His authority, and carrying into effect no more than His instructions. It is true here, as in other respects, that ‘the disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord.’ Their office is wholly ministerial; their authority is wholly derived and subordinate. They are not ‘lords over God’s heritage,’ licensed to act according to their discretion or caprice, and independently of any authority but their own. They are not free to administer word, or ordinance, or authority, as from themselves, and independently of the Head that is over them. In all their duties and functions they act only for Christ, and therefore must keep within the strict limits of His commission. The rights and privileges of Christ’s Church are protected from the caprice and arbitrary encroachment of the office-bearers, by the restraint of Christ’s express authority over them; and underneath His crown, and sheltered by it, is found the liberty wherewith Christ has made his people free. The functions of the office-bearers of the Church are ministerial, not lordly. 
IV. In what light are the decisions of the Church or its Courts to be regarded, in consistency with the great principle that the Bible, and the Bible only, is the rule of Church power?
We have seen that the laws of the Church, in so far as they can be regarded as valid, are declaratory and not enactive. We have seen that the function of the office-bearers of the Church is ministerial, and not lordly. And now, when the office-bearers, in the lawful administration of their office, proceed to apply the laws of Christ to any particular case, as the circumstances or emergency may demand, and when, acting not for themselves, but for Christ, they pronounce a judicial decision,in what light is that judgment to be regarded, and to what extent, and in what manner, is it binding upon the conscience? Here, too, the answer is not far to seek or difficult to find, determined as it must be by a reference to the great and fundamental principle that the mind of Christ, revealed and expressed in the Bible, is both the rule and the limit of Church power. If the judgment or decision pronounced in the lawful exercise of their authority by the Church or its office-bearers be in accordance with the principles of the Word of God, that decision was before pronounced in heaven; and it is both valid and binding upon the conscience, not only because it is consistent with God’s Word, but also because it is a decision lawfully pronounced by a lawful tribunal appointed by Christ for the purpose. ‘Verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ (Matt. 18:15-18) But, on the contrary, if the judgment pronounced by the Church or its office-bearers, although in the lawful exercise of their office, be itself unlawful, if it be inconsistent with the mind of Christ as expressed in His Word, then the decision is itself invalid, and the authority by which it was pronounced does not make it binding on the conscience. No judgment of any Church whatsoever can bind the conscience, except in so far as, and no further than, it is grounded upon the Word of God. And in the case of the last resort, when remonstrance and argument and persuasion have failed to induce the Church to reconsider or reverse its own decision, as incompetently or invalidly given, there is yet one remedy, and an ultimate one, reserved to the member against whom the decision is pronounced: he may transfer the case for judgment to a higher tribunal, and for relief and freedom to his own conscience may take appeal from the act of the Church of Christ on earth to the judgment of Christ Himself in heaven. Under the solemn protection of an appeal so taken, his conscience shall be free, and the sin shall not be on him, but on his judges. The acts of the Church are binding and valid only in so far as they are ratified by Christ, and in accordance with His Word.”
(The Church of Christ, James Bannerman, pp. 229-231)

Part II. Power of the Church
Chapter IV. The Extent and Limits of Church Power
“When church power is employed ministerially to declare the truth of God in a question of faith, or ministerially to judge in a question of government or discipline, the declaration of doctrine and the decision of law are to be received and submitted to on two grounds: first, and chiefly, because they are agreeable to the Word of God; but second, and in a subordinate sense, because they are emitted by the Church, as an ordinance of God instituted for that very purpose. And what is true, as intimated in the Confession, in regard to the exercise of Church power in matters of faith, or government, or discipline, is true also of Church power in any of its other exercises,as, for example, in regard to the administration of the Sacraments in the Christian Church. … The exercise of Church power, when in accordance with the Word of God, will have a blessing more and better than the exercise of a merely human power when in accordance with that Word; just because the one is of God, and the other of man. The use of Church authority, when agreeable to the Scriptures, will have in it a power more and better than human authority when agreeable to the Scripture; just because the one is Divine and the other is not. In fine, the power of the Church is one of authority and not only of advice, when employed in the administration of government; because it is Christ’s ordinance for rule. The power of the Church is a power of blessing, and not a power without a blessing, when employed in the dispensation of ordinance and Sacrament; because it is Christ’s appointed channel to bless. The power of the Church is one judicial, and not extrajudicial, when employed in the execution of discipline; because it is Christ’s ordinance on earth to bind or to loose. To this extent the power of the Church unquestionably goes, being ‘an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.’ …
There can be no such thing in the discipline of the Church as a judicial act sufficient to bind or loose; for discipline in its highest form, as excommunication, can be no more than is the exclusion of a member by any private or voluntary society. Under such a system there would be laws without authority, ordinances without grace, and discipline without judgment. It is not necessary to delay to deal with such a theory of the Church and of Church power as this. It is plainly founded on the doctrine, which has already been considered and found wanting, that the Church is no more than a private and voluntary society, and that its prerogatives and privileges are derived from the delegation and consent of its members. If the Church be of God, it has powers and prerogatives, not its own, but His. If the Church be His ordinance for administering doctrine, government, Sacrament, and discipline on earth, the power of the Church must be something more and higher than merely human power, or human permission.”
(ibid., pp. 249-251)

Part II. Power of the Church
Chapter V. The End and Design of Church Power
“As regards the world at large, the aim of Church power, and the end to be accomplished by it, are not direct, but indirect.
The power conferred on the Church by its Divine Head was bestowed, in the first instance, for the use and benefit of the Church itself, and can have only an indirect bearing on the world at large. It is limited in its objectat least primarilyto certain ends to be accomplished in regard to the Christian society; and does not, except as a secondary object, contemplate results to be attained beyond the limits of the society. This seems to be fairly implied in the general principle laid down by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Church at Corinth, when instructing that Church to exercise its power of discipline in excluding from its membership the incestuous person found within its pale. ‘But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth.’ There is a general principle here laid down by the apostle in regard to Church power, drawing a line of marked distinction between those within the Church and the world without. In regard to those within the Church, the power of the Church was intended to take effect; so that with an offender who is called a brother, the Corinthians were not to keep company, not so much as to eat. In regard to those without the Church, or the world at large, Church power was not intended to take effect; so that in regard to an offender, not a brother, but belonging to the world at large, no such restrictions were to be imposed or observed, and the Corinthians were not called to separate themselves in the same manner from him. In short, because a brother, and within the Church, it was necessary to deal with an offender by the authority of the Church; while it was not necessary so to deal with one equally an offender, but belonging to the world at large. And what is true, as intimated by the apostle, in the case of the exercise of Church power in the way of discipline, is true also generally of the exercise of Church power in any of its departments. The power of the Church of Christ is intended primarily for those that are within, not for those that are without: it bears only indirectly upon the world at large.”
(ibid., pp. 264-265)

Presbyterianism thus declares that it is an extrajudicial abuse of church power — that is, the institutional church, such as a denomination — to overreach its disciplinary decisions beyond its own ecclesiastical jurisdiction. No single Presbyterian elder or even an entire session of elders at a particular church has the divine sanction when ruling discipline over church members in a condition of poimenical autonomy: meaning, a situation without the basic accountability mechanisms of members’ access to appellate church courts as well as the higher courts’ prerogative of review and control.

The nature of chargeable offenses

Charles Hodge, 2nd Principal of Princeton Theological Seminary, and a leading exponent of the Princeton Theology, a 19th-century orthodox Calvinist theological tradition in America, in 1858 commented on the nature of chargeable offenses: 

“The end of discipline is to secure conformity on the part of the members and ministers to the terms of Christian and ministerial communion. And as our church does not pretend to demand perfection of Christian character and conduct of church-fellowship, nor perfect knowledge or entire freedom from error, as a condition of ministerial fellowship, so every shortcoming from the standard of perfection in either case, is not to be regarded as an offence. Nothing is an offence, but what, if persisted in, would justify either suspension from the privileges of the church, or from the office of ministry. The importance of this distinction between a sin and an offence, will be at once perceived. No minister or church member would ever be safe from prosecution, and no judicatory could ever know whether they are called upon to prosecute or not, if every sin were an offense, or a just ground of judicial process. Minor evils are to be corrected by admonition, instruction, and the ministry of the word. It is only these evils in the faith or practice of a church member which would bring disgrace or scandal on the church, as tolerating what the Bible declares to be incompatible with Christian character, which can be a ground of process. Such is not only the theory but the practice of the church. We never hear of any professing Christian being arraigned and put on trial, unless for some immorality, or some such denial of the truth, or such neglect of his duty as a professor of the religion of the Lord Jesus, as affords good ground for calling the sanctity of that profession into question.” 
(The Revised Book of Discipline, Chapter I, paragraph 2, p. 697)

The third Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America has written,

“In order for a member or officer of the PCA to be charged and tried there must either be an allegation of a chargeable offense or a charge is filed (BCO 31-2; 32-2). Errors of judgment and relational failures may or may not rise to the level of a chargeable offense. ‘Chargeable offenses’ (BCO 29-1 through 4), are ‘violations of divine law,’ or doctrines or practices contrary to the Word of God, or the Constitution of the Church. The Constitution of the Church is The Book of Church Order, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.” 
(“Chargeable Offenses: BCO 29,” L. Roy Taylor) 

The limits and overreach of church courts’ disciplinary power

We now revisit the integral nature of discipline as needing accountability within all levels of the church. Church sessions have the potestas, meaning power or faculty, to exercise discipline against contumacious church members, which can include suspension from the privileges of communion for a time, and as a last measure, excommunication. However, such indictments, censures and rulings can only take place in the context of the church’s graded courts. Every level of the church, including the session, the presbytery and the synod or general assembly must be subject to review and control.

Again, the Presbyterian Catechism states:

Chapter 4. Courts of the church.
Section 6. Of the third division of the power of the church, or the power of discipline.
259. Who are to exercise this discipline? 
The officers of the church.
(Matthew 16:19, 18:15-18, 28:19, Acts 14:23)
260. How far does this power of church officers extend? 
It is their responsibility to judge who may be admitted to the church; to inspect their conduct when received; and to censure and expel such as prove to be unworthy.
(II Timothy 4:2, Titus 2:15, I Corinthians 5:12, Hebrews 13:17)

Bannerman enumerated four limitations to church power.

Part II. Power of the Church
Chapter IV. The Extent and Limits of Church Power
“There are four different ways in which distinct and well-marked limits are set to the power of the Church.
1st. Church power is limited by the nature of it as distinctively and exclusively a spiritual power.
This first limitation excludes the possibility of the power of the Church being made use of in the way of Romish usurpation arrogating a right to a temporal or a civil supremacyfollowing up ecclesiastical sentences with civil or semi-civil pains and penalties, such as bodily penances, pecuniary fines, or legal disabilitiesand trampling under foot the political liberties and social rights of men. It still further excludes the Popish and semi-Popish doctrine of anything beyond a spiritual influence in ministers and ordinances, and a spiritual grace in the right use and observance of them; thus shutting out the opus operatum of the Church of Rome, the physical virtue which it attributes to ordinances, and no less shutting out the theory of a priestly charm in the ‘successors of the apostles,’ and sacramental grace in the ordinances dispensed by them, as held by High Churchmen of whatever communion.
2d. Church power is limited by the source of it, or by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, from whom it is derived.
This second limitation very clearly points to the character of the power vested in the office-bearers of the Church as entirely subordinate and ministerial, and bounded, as respects its authority and obligation, by the institution and rule of Him who has appointed it. It excludes the possibility of that power becoming an independent despotism or lordship in the hands of rulers, and of their regarding it as if it were given for their own aggrandizement and exaltation, or to be used for the subjugation, by a spiritual tyranny, of the consciences and understandings of the other members of the Church. Because limited by the authority of Christ, that power can never become independent itself, or make the administrators of it independent. They are, in the strictest sense of the terms, the ministers or servants of Christ.
3d. Church power is limited by the rule prescribed for its exercise, or by the Word of God.
This third limitation ties down the administration of Church power to certain fixed principles and a certain definite law, and excludes the possibility of its becoming a wayward and arbitrary authority, to be wielded at the will or caprice of man. It forbids the unauthorized addition or subtraction of anything in the constitution, doctrine, worship, or discipline of the Church, such as Christ has not sanctioned in His Word.
4th Church power is limited by the subjects of it, or by the rights, privileges, and liberty of the Christian people.
This fourth limitation more especially prevents Church power from becoming the instrument of spiritual oppression and tyranny as directed against the members of the Church, and shields from violence and wrong the liberty wherewith Christ has made His people free. Beneath the shelter of such a limitation, the conscience has a sanctuary which is blessed and sanctified by Christian freedom within, and over the threshold of which authority, even the authority of the Church, cannot pass. Within that sanctuary none but the Lord of the conscience may enter; and because it is His dwelling-place and home, His presence protects the conscience from the intrusion of the Church. The right of Church power is limited by the rights of conscience.
Such, then, are the limits, and such the extent, of the power of the Church. There is a double error to be avoided in regard to it. It is an error to make Church power not a reality, but a name, such as that it shall carry with it no Divine authority, and convey no Divine blessing. It is no less an error to make it not a name, but such a reality as that it shall become a power inconsistent with its own essentially spiritual character, independent of Christ, at variance with His Word, and incompatible with the liberties of His people. We shall then only apprehend it aright, when we are taught to recognise both the extent and the limits of Church power and authority.”
(The Church of Christ, James Bannerman, pp. 259-261)

Apparently expounding on the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6, Bannerman taught that the light of nature provides enough logical evidence that while any association has the right to admit, discipline or expel any of its own members, no association has the right to discipline or censure anyone who does not actually hold membership in that society. This further shows that such overreach on the part of any Presbyterian ruling body or office-bearer would be an abuse of power and authority.

Part III. Matters in Regard to Which Church Power is Exercised
Division III. Church Power Exercised in Regard to Discipline
Chapter I. Nature, Design, and Limits of the Discipline of the Christian Church
“… that exercise of church authority which respects discipline, may be held to be directed to two grand objects, which are essentially necessary for the order and well-being of the Christian society. In the first place, its aim is to carry into effect the institutions of Christ in regard to the admission and exclusion of members in connection with the Christian society. There are certain principles laid down in His Word which sufficiently indicate the terms of membership which Christ has enacted for His Church, and the character and qualifications of those entitled to be received into the Christian society, or to remain in it as its members. And the first object which that particular branch of Christian authority which respects discipline contemplates, is to execute the laws of Christ in the admission to Church membership of those entitled to the privilege, and in the exclusion of those who are not. In the second place, its aim is to carry into effect the instructions of Christ in regard to those who belong to the Church as its members, in the way of securing their obedience to His laws, and of promoting their spiritual edification. There are certain laws which Christ has appointed, not only for the admission and exclusion of members, but also for the regulation of the conduct of those within the Church,prescribing to them the duties to be done, and the order to be observed by them, as members of the Christian society. And, accordingly, the second object which this branch of Church power contemplates is to promote and secure both the obedience and the edification of the members of the Church, by the restraints of ecclesiastical authority imposed upon them; by the inflictions of the penalties of censure and rebuke, and deprivation of the privileges of the society, when these have been merited; and by the operation of a system of spiritual rewards and punishments, calculated to promote the order and profit of the Christian community. Speaking generally, these are the two grand aims of that exercise of spiritual authority in the Church which relates to discipline. It provides for the execution of the laws of Christ as these have been revealed in connection with, first, the admission of parties into, or their exclusion from, the Christian society; and second, the obedience and edification of Church members.
Such being the general nature and design of that power of discipline claimed by the Church, the question that meets us at the outset of the discussion is, as to the ground on which this claim rests. It will not be difficult to show that the right to exercise such a power is one that belongs to the Christian Church, both by the law of nature, as evinced by reason, and by the law of Christ, as revealed in His Word.
I. The power to regulate the matter of the admission and the exclusion of members, as well as their conduct while they continue members of that society, belongs to the Church by the light of nature itself. It is an inherent right vested in every voluntary association of whatever nature it may be, and necessary to its existence and well-being as an orderly society.
The very conditions necessary to the subsistence of an organized body of men, and the order implied in combined operations, obviously require that they shall agree on some fixed principles both of union and action,a compliance with which forms the terms of their admission into and continuance in the society as members, and departure from which must entail the forfeiture of the privileges of membership. No society created for a common end, and requiring a common action, could possibly subsist upon the principle of being compelled to admit, or to continue to regard as its members, those who transgressed its regulations, or set themselves in opposition to the ends for which it is established. There must be in every voluntary association a right to impose its own laws on its members,a power to refuse admission to such as give no guarantee for their conformity with the rules and ends of the society,and, when no other remedy is sufficient, authority to deprive of its privileges and expel from its fellowship those who perseveringly and systematically depart from the order and obligations of the institution. If a society be a lawful association at all, it must have this right to exercise the power of order and authority over its members which is necessary to the very ends for which it is instituted. The existence of the right as belonging to the Church, in common with every other lawful society of men, is clearly demonstrated from the light of nature itself.
And from the same source it is not difficult to gather a proof, not only of the justice of such a claim, on the part of the Christian society, but also of the limits that are justly appointed to the right. In regulating the order of the society and the conduct of the members, and in exercising the right of admission and expulsion in conformity with its fixed principles, there are two limitations plainly set to the power so used. First, no society has a right of this kind beyond the circle of its own members, or of those who have voluntarily come under the rules and obligations of the society. The right of order and authority exercised by it does not extend to those beyond the association. And second, in enforcing its regulations even upon its own members, it can award, in the case of transgressions, no other kind or amount of penalty than the deprivation of some or all of the rights or advantages which the society itself has conferred. When it has deprived the offender of the privileges he enjoyed in communion with the society, and expelled him from its membership, it has exhausted all its rightful authority and its legitimate power in the way of punishment. And these two limitations, which are plainly set to the powers of any voluntary society over its members, restrict also the exercise by the Christian Church of its powers of discipline. By the very law of nature, applicable to the Christian society as well as any other, it may lawfully assert a right to regulate the admission and expulsion of its members, and their conduct while they continue members within it. But first, the Church has no power of discipline or authority over those who have not sought or adopted its communion; and second, the Church has no penalties in its storehouse of authority beyond the forfeiture it may award to offenders of the privileges which they have received from its communion. And when the sentence of expulsion from these is pronounced, in the case of the last extremity, its authority is then and there exhausted and at an end.”
(ibid., pp. 704-706)

Bannerman even uses the laws of physics, how objects and forces of nature interact with and counteract each other, as an analogy for the “weights and balances” of the proper ecclesiastical court system.

Part II. Power of the Church
Chapter V. The End and Design of Church Power
“We have now brought to a close our discussion of the extent and limits of Church power: its extent, as maintained against the views of those who deny its reality, either ascribing to it a human origin, or unduly restricting it, like the Independents; its limits, as maintained against the system of the Popish and semi-Popish worshippers of Church authority. There is a reality in Church power, and there is a certain extent assigned to it in its administration and exercise of authority: it is not a mere name or a nullity. But, on the other hand, while its authority and its exercise are real, and not merely nominal, there are definite limits prescribed to it, beyond which it cannot pass: it is checked and restrained by fixed and definite principles. Church power is a real and effective element in the ecclesiastical system; but it is an element like some of those forces, both in the moral and material world, which are balanced and modified in their working by other and counteracting forces. The harmony of the system is maintained, not by ignoring the existence of Church authority, or denying its extent, but by the operation of those opposite and counterbalancing principles in the ecclesiastical body, which modify its direction and limit its force.”
(ibid., pp. 263)

The careful exercise of church discipline often involves walking something of an ecclesiastical tightrope between the body’s purity and peace, which concerns its doctrine as well as its harmony. Church overseers ruling in ways that preserve the denomination’s “honor and purity” (cf. BCO 31-3) at the expense of its “peace and unity” (cf. BCO 21-5.6) can tend to the injury of the church, just as methods that favor the “peace and unity” of the church at the expense of maintaining its “honor and purity” can undermine the goals and welfare of the whole church.

All members entitled to appellate rights, and higher courts empowered with review and control of lower courts, are purposed to help the church avoid falling off one side or the other side of the proverbial horse. To carry this equestrian language further, such failure of peace or purity in either direction ultimately impedes the progress and extension of the whole church and its dressage before a spectating world — and more importantly, the Lord who is jealous for the church he claims as his beloved bride. 

Other articles in this series:
Why ecclesiology is important for Christians, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 1
God’s apostolic model for elders in graded church courts, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 2
God’s decree of congregational right to elect church officers, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 3
The folly of corrupt clergy who rape Christ’s bride of her electoral rights, Fundamentals of Presbyterianism, part 5

Covenant theology, ecclesiology, polity, Presbyterianism, systematic theology