Church Discipline and Judicial Procedures

In the Reformed tradition, church discipline is considered one of the marks of the church. Ultimately, discipline is a way of helping the church stay true to its mission and of helping members become more like Jesus Christ. It’s preferable to discreetly correct a fault, but sometimes an offense rises to the level of involving a church’s board of elders, the classis, or even, in rare cases, the General Synod. The RCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) outlines judicial procedures for handling discipline that requires the involvement of one of these higher assemblies.

What is church discipline?

Discipline, according to the BCO, “is the exercise of the authority which the Lord Jesus Christ has given to the church to promote its purity, to benefit the offender, and to vindicate the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Chapter 2, Part I, Article 1, Section 1). In the RCA, what is considered an “offense” is determined by Scripture and by the RCA’s constitution.

According to the Belgic Confession, one of the RCA’s standards of unity, discipline helps the church “guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master, has ordained for us” (Article 29).

How is discipline practiced?

Discipline should take the form most appropriate to the offense. The BCO points to Matthew 18:15-17 as a model for discipline.

The BCO goes on to say: “The exercise of discipline may take the form of admonition, rebuke, or suspension from the privileges of membership in the church or from office, deposition from office, or excommunication, as the gravity of the offense in the opinion of the assembly or the judicatory may warrant. Admonition and rebuke are pastoral in nature and are exercised by an assembly in the ordinary course of its proceedings. All further steps of discipline—suspension, deposition, and excommunication—are judicial in nature and require the formal presentation of charges to a judicatory. A judicatory may, in the judicial process, impose admonition or rebuke as a form of discipline” (Chapter 2, Part I, Article 1, Section 2).

What is the process for disciplining someone?

The disciplinary and judicial procedures of the RCA are governed by the Book of Church Order. See chapter 2 of the BCO for the full process. If you are a stated clerk or the officer of a judicatory that’s in the process of discipline, consult “Disciplinary and Judicial Procedures in the RCA,” which gives guidance for which steps to take and includes the necessary forms. You can get a copy of this by emailing the general counsel at pkarssen@rca.org. The document doesn’t replace the BCO, but it can assist people involved in disciplinary procedures.

Where can I read more about past judicial matters?

The RCA’s general counsel’s office maintains a searchable summary of judicial matters that have been heard by the General Synod and all regional synods since 1968. For information contained in the summary, contact the general counsel, Paul Karssen, at 712-737-3174 or pkarssen@rca.org.