Two Views on Church Discipline: Protestant vs. Roman Catholic
There have been various debates over the centuries regarding the differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrine. These disputes have ranged from topics such as justification by faith, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the veneration of the saints, and the way in which a church should be structured and led. Rarely, however, does one see a discussion about how Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on the issue of church discipline. In the following, I will offer brief historical background on the topic, outline both views of discipline, and then assess and suggest appropriate application for the Protestant position.
It appears that for the first several centuries the church consistently sought to apply disciplinary measures in keeping with Scripture. The early church disciplined members both for the propagation of false doctrine and lack of moral purity. Most churches recognized two kinds of repentance: a one-time repentance accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, and a continual repentance of sin throughout one’s life. Christians confronted for grievous, ongoing sin had to confess their wrongdoing before the church, which then resulted in their restoration to fellowship.
Eventually, by the third and fourth centuries, reinstatement to the church became more difficult. Undergoing “penitential discipline,” those seeking repentance had to take specific steps (e.g., solicit the prayers of others for their sin, attend services without partaking of the Lord’s Supper, etc.) to be restored to full membership. This kind of prescribed penitential action contributed to a shift in ecclesial discipline (see Wills, “A History of Church Discipline,” 132–39).
Over time, the process of biblical church discipline—as seen in passages such as Matthew 18—withered and changed in the church, both in the East and West. Church leaders didn’t repudiate discipline in principle, but they slowly abandoned it in practice. In its place emerged a system of confession and individual penance.
ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH DISCIPLINE
The sacramental practices of confession and penance were eventually codified and normalized in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. After sinning, the Catholic Church taught that reconciliation with God entails “sorrow for and abhorrence of sins committed,” and the commitment to sin no more in the future (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1490). Penance consists of three actions of the penitent (along with the priest’s absolution): repentance, confession of sins to the priest, and the intention to make amends by doing works of reparation (CCC, 1491).
Repentance (also called contrition) must be accompanied by faith-filled motives, and arise from love for God (CCC, 1492). One who desires to obtain reconciliation with God and with the Church “must confess to a priest all the unconfessed grave sins he remembers after having carefully examined his conscience” (CCC, 1493). The confessor (presiding priest) then proposes the performance of certain acts of “satisfaction” or “penance” to be performed by the penitent in order to “repair the harm caused by sin and to re-establish habits befitting a disciple of Christ” (CCC, 1494). Typically, these acts of penance consist of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (CCC, 1434), but could also include acts of justice, acceptance of suffering, the Eucharist, reading Scripture, and observing seasons and days of penance in the liturgical year (CCC, 1435–39).
It’s important to note that in Roman Catholicism only priests, successors of the apostles who “possess the ministry of reconciliation and have received the faculty of absolving from the authority of the Church,” can forgive sins in the name of Christ (CCC, 1461, 1495). The effects of penance include reconciliation with God and the Church; remission of the eternal punishment incurred by mortal sins; remission, at least in part, of temporal punishments resulting from sin; peace and serenity of conscience; spiritual consolation; and an increase of spiritual strength for the Christian battle (CCC, 1496).
Beyond these practices, when necessary, excommunication was also upheld in the Roman Catholic Church. Under Catholic standards, certain particularly grave sins incur excommunication, the most severe penalty the Church can render. This act “impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts, and for which absolution consequently cannot be granted, according to canon law, except by the Pope, the bishop of the place, or priests authorized by them.” (CCC, 1463; further details regarding excommunication can be found in The Code of Canon Law, canons 1331 and 1354-1357).
If excommunication aligns with Scripture and Magisterial renderings throughout history, it is deemed infallible, in an indirect way, and the one under excommunication, if they’re not absolved of their sins by means of penance, is outside the church and thus liable to damnation. In summary, the Roman Catholic view of discipline centers on private confession, penance, and, in some cases, excommunication, all under the banner of authority vested in apostolic succession.
PROTESTANT CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Unlike the Catholic practices of confession and penance, Protestant teaching on church discipline focuses on repentance and restoration under the auspices of the priesthood of the believer. Martin Luther, who had experienced the weight of the penitential system, determined that it was a non-biblical practice. His criticism of these practices as substitutes for true repentance and contrition in the context of a local church was a necessary catalyst in precipitating the Protestant Reformation. This also allowed for a more biblical comprehension and application of church discipline by Luther and others.
While a number of his works would be applicable to this issue, Luther wrote three treatises/sermons that relate specifically: A Sermon on the Ban (1520), The Keys (1530), and On the Councils and the Church (1539). Much of the discussion in these documents stems from Luther’s opposition to the Roman Catholic Church’s view of penance and the abuse of papal authority. Luther cites texts such as Matthew 18:15–17, 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, 2 Thessalonians 3:14, and 2 John 1:10–11 to encourage Christians to submit to a local church’s discipline for their own spiritual good. Discipline would serve as a means of their bearing spiritual fruit as they responded to the rebuke for their sin with heartfelt repentance. However, no additional acts of penance were necessary to attain forgiveness from the congregation or from God.
Luther also stressed that the authority of the keys did not reside with Popes or bishops, but with the congregation and its leadership. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 demonstrate that church members should be involved in disciplinary cases; discipline was not rendered by mere apostolic (or papal) fiat. Moreover, the goal of discipline was not to put someone permanently out of the church with no hope, but to work toward restoration by means of genuine repentance. As such, the church was involved in the process and responsible (if it came to excommunication) to render a verdict in keeping with Scripture. But their responsibility didn’t stop there, as church members also had the ongoing responsibility to exhort the excommunicant to repent.
Another Reformer, John Calvin, also practiced church discipline with specific aims in mind. First, he argued, churches should practice discipline to preserve right doctrine, the reputation of God, and godly living among God’s people. Discipline should also be implemented, according to Calvin, for the correction of sinning individuals and, hopefully, their restoration (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.113–).
Anabaptists, such as Balthasar Hubmaier, also believed strongly in church discipline. Hubmaier linked baptism, membership, the Lord’s Supper, discipleship, and discipline together doctrinally, arguing these practices were inextricably linked. As such, he also believed there was a call to uphold biblical standards of discipline exacted by the local congregation in order to protect the church as a whole and hold out to the unrepentant sinner the hope of repentance.
While differing on certain ecclesiological matters, these Protestant representatives repudiated the key-holding authority of popes and bishops, as well as the practice of penance. Instead, local churches exercise authority themselves as it relates to discipline, calling for repentance and not ongoing acts of reparation.
ASSESSMENT & APPLICATION
The first critique of the Roman Catholic view centers on the idea of “penance.” Scripture advocates for repentance, that is, changing one’s mind and life. This involves acknowledgement that one’s thoughts, words, and actions are sinful and thus grievous to God, as well as sorrow over one’s sin and a decision to turn from sin and toward righteousness. This differs from observing penitential acts that gain favor with God in accordance to the sin committed (i.e., the bigger the sin, the more penance is needed). While repentance certainly requires change, it does not earn grace; rather, it’s rooted in grace already given (Phil. 2:12–13), acknowledging the one who paid the ultimate price for sin (Rom. 3:21–26). A Protestant view of repentance more faithfully renders the realities of Scripture.
Second, the ability to wield the keys of the kingdom doesn’t belong to those deemed authoritative by apostolic succession. Rather, it’s based in the local church and its membership, while church leaders certainly must play a critical role in the process. One can see this in the repeated phrase found in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 where Jesus grants the authority of the keys of the kingdom, such that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
In Matthew 18, Jesus says this in the context of church discipline being enacted, which culminates in the whole church taking action. A test case for this is found in 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, where Paul tells the church to act in removing an unrepentant member. The authority of the keys is vested in local churches, not the upper realms of a hierarchical structure of church governance.
In keeping with this truth, the Protestant view of church discipline must be applied in certain concrete ways, three of which will be mentioned here. First, we must take seriously as church members our role and responsibility to fellow church members in exhorting one another and charging each other to flee sin. Second, local churches should not expect more or less than what the Bible requires when we seek to restore a person under discipline, namely, repentance. And finally, while discipline is not going to be popular in our present-day culture, we trust the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and we remain faithful to the task of making disciples, loving God and one another, and pursuing holiness.