“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.” Matthew 18:18-20
Surely anyone who is familiar with church history knows about the atrocities that have been committed by church authorities under the pretense of church discipline. In the 1520s in Spain, when academic scholars began reading Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther, their books were confiscated and burned. Anyone suspected of having read Protestant literature was immediately indicted and subjected to the Inquisition (1478 - 1834) — this often resulted in their iimprisonment and torture. Many Gospel believers were put to death. Later, the situation in France became likewise perilous, and church trials against suspected Protestants were brief, sometimes resulting in execution by burning. Jean Calvin was informed of the mounting persecution in Paris and fled to Geneva in 1537 after a controversy regarding the eucharist (the bread at the Lord’s Supper). At the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563), an anathema was levied by the Roman Church against anyone affirming salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ — all in the name of Christ and church discipline.
So, when we read the Scripture above, we should ask in what sense its teaching can possibly be true. Jesus is plainly saying to his disciples (and through them, to the church) that, however difficult the trial of an accused offender in the church may be, they can have certainty that their judgments agree with God’s (infallible) judgment in heaven! Furthermore, Jesus strengthens his argument by revealing the reason for this certainty — his promised presence among them in the church. But in view of God’s Fatherly care of believers, and the purposes of church discipline, how then does one explain the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition?
In an attempt to apply the above teaching, the Roman Church, over the centuries, forged the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church in matters of judgment. “This is the Roman Catholic theory of the Church: A vicar of Christ, a perpetual college of apostles, and the people subject to their infallible control.” The infallibility doctrine was difficult to substantiate, however, since Church Councils sometimes clashed with the Pope in important church decisions. Clearly, the church had become remiss.
As Reformed Protestants, our approach is to acknowledge the infallibility of Scripture alone in all matters of faith and practice. “We submit to the infallible teachings of his inspired apostles; but we deny that the infallible is continued in the fallible, or the divine in the human.” “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” Our first recourse must be to God the Holy Spirit himself, the author of Scripture, invoking his help in prayer (Psalm 124:8). The analogy of Scripture is then the first hermeneutical tool to employ.
Now the phrase, “in my name” relates to another place where Jesus taught the same concept — in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9, note verse 6). There, Jesus encourages us to pray because, when we pray according to the Father’s will by sanctifying the name of God, we are assured of him hearing us. Other texts that shed light are James 1:5,6 and 1 John 3:23; 5:15.
Praying in the name of God does not mean simply taking up his name and tacking it to just any petition. To pray in his name is to keep in mind all that he has revealed himself to be (Triune, our Heavenly Father, mighty, good, merciful, just, holy, eternal, truth, love, omniscient, omnipresent) together with his works of creation and Providence, and his titles, and to pray in agreement with his revealed will in Scripture. When we pray forgiving others as God has forgiven us and seek his glory in his kingdom in his name, we may be certainly assured of him hearing and answering us.
In the case of church discipline, the government of the church in its elders is similarly promised help from Jesus. Note Jesus’ select use of “in my name” at the head of this chapter (Matt 18:4,5)! Help comes when the elders gather to render judgment in his name, meaning the same thing as in the Lord’s Prayer. These are two applications of the same doctrine. The same reverent submission to God and his revealed will is required in church leaders overseeing discipline as in prayer, in order for Jesus’ promised presence to stand. It is the same condition that Jesus places on his promise to dwell with his people (John 16:23).
Whenever they are met by his authority, or upon his account or command, whether it be for counsel, or judgment, or prayer, or the celebration of any sacred institution of his, he is in the midst of them, to protect and favor them: what they ask shall be done for them; that is, provided the thing asked be good, chap. 7:11, and for a right end, James 4:3, and in a right manner, Luke 18:1; James 1:5–7.
Any church that has departed from the Scriptures to the point of contradicting vital doctrine, resisting, and grieving the Holy Spirit, and overturning the very blessed Gospel of our Savior can have no assured hope of receiving help from the Lord, nor of his blessed presence, especially in matters pertaining to discipline.
If therefore any be cast out of any church for professing or standing to any truth of the gospel, or because he will not do what is sinful, we must not understand them bound in heaven, though they be bound on earth, nor have any such excommunications any terror in them. How forcible are right words! but these arguments, what do they reprove? The church is not by this text made infallible, nor is the holy God by it engaged to defend their errors.
Our Book of Church Order states that the goal of church discipline is to seek the glory of God, the restoration of an errant brother, and to regain the peace and unity of the church.9 Any who gather for church discipline with ungodly motives, in ignorance, or at cross purposes with God will find neither his help nor his presence. Instead, they will likely find confusion, rebuke, and shame at his judgment (Matthew 6:9; Psalm 50:16-23; but especially Matt 7:1-5!). However, all who gather for church discipline truly in his name will, by faith, find help, encouragement, godly wisdom, and sound judgment that at least converges on Scripture’s infallibility.