IF we take our views of the Christian Church from what is written in Scripture of the nature and ends of the Christian calling, as well as of the pains taken by the apostles to reprove and cast out whatever was palpably opposed to purity of communion, we shall have no doubt that the administration of discipline must be one of its necessary functions. And from the position of the pastor, as called in a peculiar manner to preside over its affairs, the exercise of this function must specially devolve upon him, although, in rightly constituted churches, there will be others to share with him the responsibility and the burden. It is a department of pastoral duty which, from its very nature, must involve a good deal that is delicate and irksome, which will even be found occasionally fraught with trouble and perplexity. For it brings the sword of the Spirit into sharp conflict with man’s pride and corruption, and requires unreserved submission to Him of whom, in some respect, they have been practically saying, We will not have this Lord to rule over us. Here, indeed, there has ever been discovering itself one of the strange inconsistencies that cleave to professing Christians, strange because it is so flatly opposed to the whole spirit and tendency of the gospel, that while they will not only endure, but even insist upon, sound doctrine in the kind of preaching they listen to, they will often not endure sound discipline. And both from this known reluctance on the part of many to submit to the exercise of spiritual authority, and from the habits of intercourse and mutual good-will subsisting between the administrators of the discipline and the subjects of it, a strong temptation naturally arises to be somewhat slack or partial in its application, to do it in many cases but half, or even to leave it altogether undone.
Symptoms of defection in this respect began to discover themselves at a comparatively early stage of the Church’s history, ominous of what might confidently be looked for in the future. The church at Corinth, which started so well, and with such a plenitude of gifts, ere long drew down upon it the severe rebuke of Paul for its want of faithfulness in checking disorder and licentiousness among its members. And of the seven churches of Asia, to whom the glorified Redeemer, as the chief Shepherd and Bishop of souls, sent specific messages, how few escape censure on a similar account? Even in the most favourable circumstances, and in the hands of the most faithful rulers, there will doubtless be occasional failures; backslidings and disorders will not be met with the corrective discipline that should be applied to them; and at no period has the Church to any considerable extent approached as nearly the condition of being without spot or wrinkle in the state of her membership as a thoroughly faithful and efficient administration might have made it. In early times, however, it can scarcely be questioned, discipline did in general flourish; and with its vigorous administration the Church felt her existence of prosperity in a manner bound up. The notices which appear in the history of the times, and the well-known exemplariness of the Christians as a body, furnish on this point the most ample proof. So that it was only expressing the general minds of all the better authorities in the early Church, when Cyprian, for example, spoke of discipline as the ‘safety of the Church,’ ‘the stay of faith and hope,’ ‘inculcated in all Scripture as necessary to the order and purity of the Church; ‘or when Augustine designates it ‘the tutor of religion and of true piety.’ Indeed, the predominant tendency in those times was rather to lay too much stress on it than too little, to expect from it in a measure what could only be accomplished through the direct action of the grace and truth of the gospel. And so, when the ascetic element diffused itself as a subtle poison through the leading minds of the Church, and the higher discipline which it made so much account of came to be identified with the perfection of the Christian life, discipline in the Scriptural sense fell into abeyance; things needful to the guardianship and maintenance of the common Church life were neglected, in order that the bodily fastings, the mortifications, the self-imposed labours and penances of monkery, might have their due prominence and laudation. The very name discipline came by degrees to be appropriated to such things; while, among others who lay beyond its sphere, hypocrisy, corruption, worldliness of every sort, flowed in; and these common forms of evil were, after the establishment of Christianity, for the most part met with worldly modes of treatment; civil pains and penalties, fines and corporeal inflictions of some sort, too commonly taking the place of the true, brotherly, spiritual discipline of the gospel of Christ.
Of this true Christian discipline, as contradistinguished from all coercive measures of a physical and penal description, Milton has justly said in his own peculiar manner: ‘It seeks not to bereave or destroy the body; it seeks to save the soul by humbling the body, not by imprisonment or pecuniary mulct, much less by stripes, or bonds, or disinheritance; but by fatherly admonition and Christian rebuke to cast it into godly sorrow, whose end is joy, and ingenuous bashfulness to sin. If that cannot be wrought, then as a tender mother takes her child and holds it over the pit with scaring words, that it may learn to fear where danger is; so does excommunication [i.e. discipline] as dearly and as freely without money use her wholesome and saving terrors. She is instant, she beseeches; by all the dear and sweet promises of salvation she entices and woos; by all the threatenings and thunders of law, and a rejected gospel, she charges and adjures. This is all her armoury, her munition, her artillery. Then she awaits with long sufferance, and yet ardent zeal. In brief, there is no act in all the errand of God’s ministers to mankind wherein passes more lover-like contestation between Christ and the soul of a regenerate man lapsing, than before, and in, and after the sentence of excommunication.’ (Of Reformation in Engl and, 2d Book.)
The object of such dealing in respect to the Church itself, is to have its actual state brought into as near conformity as possible to its Scriptural idea, by repressing incipient evil within its pale, or casting out of it what gives just occasion of offence. And in respect to the parties more immediately concerned, its design is to lead them to a right view of their particular case, and produce in them an honourable shame, by bringing to bear upon them the more earnest, spiritual sense of the pastor and those associated with him in the care and oversight of the flock. And if anything, as again excellently said by Milton in another treatise, (The Reason of Church Government, Book ii. sec. 3.) ‘may be done to inbreed in us this generous and Christianly reverence one of another, the very nurse and guardian of piety and virtue, it cannot sooner be than by such a discipline in the Church as may use us to have in awe the assemblies of the faithful, and to count it a thing most grievous, next to the grieving of God’s Spirit, to offend those whom He hath put in authority, as a healing superintendence over our lives and behaviours, both to our own happiness and that we may not give offence to good men, who, without amends by us made, dare not against God’s command hold communion with us in holy things. And this will be accompanied with a religious dread of being outcast from the company of saints, and from the fatherly protection of God in His Church, to consort with the devil and his angels.’
This, undoubtedly, is the correct view of the matter, and the right mode of aiming at its accomplishment. But the churches of the Reformation did not readily find their way to it; many of them, indeed, have never yet succeeded in doing so, or even in earnestly setting about it. The mournful confounding of the civil and spiritual jurisdictions which had existed for ages still lingered in most of them, and disposed them to trust, in part at least, to legal and compulsory measures for effecting what could only be done to purpose by spiritual means. (How much this was the case for a considerable time also in Scotland, even to a period later than that to which the noble treatises of Milton belong, will be evident from the following historical statement by Dr. Lee respecting post-Reformation times:—‘Every living soul within the realm must either conform to the same profession, and practise the same worship, and submit to the same discipline, or undergo the vengeance of the law. ... A stripling or a girl of the examinable age must either communicate in the parish church or else pay a fine according to the rank of the party. In the year 1600, and again in 1641, the Church prevailed on the State to impose fines on all non-communicants of the age of 15 years complete. The fines on people of condition were very heavy; and every servant contravening the Act was liable to pay one year’s fee toties quoties. These were powers actually granted to presbyteries, who had a right to crave, receive, and pursue for the penalties’ (Lee’s Lecture on Christian History, i. p. 204). The zeal of Baxter not only led him to approve of the magistrates obliging people by penalties to attend on ministers for instruction, but also to compel ministers to instruct and subject the people of their charge to discipline. He would not, however, have any forced to the communion. (See his Confirmation and Restoration.)) The same disposition lingers still in not a few Protestant churches, which can scarcely be said to have any discipline, except what is secured by the administration of justice through the civil and criminal courts of the lands to which they belong;—a state of things which is deplored by all who know what a Christian Church ought to be, though many, not absolutely ignorant of divine truth, have through the ill effects of custom become habituated to the corruption, and in this particular respect have lost sight of the principles of church order and government. Baxter speaks of some such in his day in England, whom he once took, he says, for godly divines; but who afterwards reproached those who endeavoured to maintain discipline, and would not give the sacrament to every one in their parishes, as Sacramentarians or Disciplinarians. He justly expresses his astonishment that such persons could be found in a Christian Church, and says: ‘Sure I am, if it were well understood how much of the pastoral authority and work consisteth in church guidance, it would be almost discerned, that to be against discipline is nearly all one with being against the ministry; and this, again, nearly all one with being against the Church of Christ.’ For to what end does the Church exist, but to be a witness to the truth, and an organ for diffusing the life of Christ? In proportion, therefore, as she harbours corruption within her pale, and extends the sacred symbols of the faith to those who practically belie its spirit, she is unfaithful to her trust, and fails in the very object of her mission to the world.
It must be owned, however, that even where there is a just appreciation of the nature and of the importance of a sound discipline, the relative positions of churches, I mean of such churches as have a constitution which makes provision for the maintenance of discipline, and aims at it with more or less of fidelity, interpose certain difficulties in respect to the efficient discharge of the duty which it is not quite easy for individual pastors or even churches to overcome. These differ in Established Churches and churches independent of the State. In the former, the territorial principle, which brings along with it a certain advantage and authority, brings also a relative weakness; since persons, living within the bounds of any particular parish, naturally come to regard their local situation as of itself constituting a right to the ministrations of the parish church, and to the participation of ordinances within its pale. And practically it is very difficult, as those know who have had trial of the system, to restrain this feeling within proper bounds, that is, so to restrain it as to make the membership of a parish church present the appearance of even a tolerably pure communion. The unregenerate, the worldly, the merely nominal professor, who finds the name of Christianity useful to him, but refuses to give any material sacrifice or even renounce objectionable courses for its sake, have advantages for obtaining connection with an Established Church which attach to no other Evangelical Communion, and of which they very readily avail themselves. A parochial economy is thus from its very nature better adapted for diffusing a certain amount of religious knowledge and profession than of exhibiting the pattern of a living, spiritual Christian community. For checking the more flagrant social evils, for removing or preventing the existence of cases of extreme spiritual destitution, for ensuring the diffusion of a general decency of behaviour, and bringing within the reach of all the means and opportunities of grace;—for such ends and purposes the parish church, with its appropriate machinery, if well wrought, is perfectly adapted. But, excepting in very favourable circumstances, and within comparatively short periods and limited districts, its congregations can seldom be made to assume the aspect of a community of saints.
In non-Established Churches there is, for the most part, a fairer opportunity for making at least an approach to this, although there are discouraging circumstances of a different kind arising out of the divided state of things implied in their very existence. For this provides facilities to offending parties for evading the close dealing and defeating the just ends of discipline, by transferring themselves from a more to a less faithful Communion. Still it is of great importance that churches which know and hold the truth, that the Free Church in particular should, in spite of all hindrances and discouragements, apply herself in earnest to the maintenance of an efficient and godly discipline. Her influence in the land for good, and the measure of blessing she is to receive upon her public ministrations, will to a large extent depend upon her faithfulness in the exercise of this function. If the cause of righteousness thrives among her members, if sin when it breaks out is sorrowed over and rebuked, if the procedure altogether is such as to show that the Church cannot bear them that are evil, then she will command the respect of the community. More than that, the favour of the Lord will rest upon her, she will be both blessed and made a blessing. But if, on the other hand, she should show herself more solicitous about the extent of her membership than the purity of her communion, if backsliders and transgressors are not properly dealt with, and something like a travailing in birth experienced to have them brought to repentance and the knowledge of the truth, we may hold it for certain that her real interest and prosperity as a Church will decline. Not being jealous for the honour of her Lord in respect to the holiness of His house, she will not be honoured of Him.
Considered merely as a means of spiritual instruction, an ordinance for impressing the minds of a people with right views of things, for leading them to distinguish between what may and what should not be tolerated in Christian communities,—for this end alone a well-regulated discipline is of no small importance. There are many, in all ranks of life, who so readily fall in with the stream of custom, and are so difficult to be convinced of the sinfulness of anything however contrary to the spirit of the gospel, if it be but commonly practised in the neighbourhood, that nothing scarcely will rouse them to proper thought and consideration about it but the formal act and procedure of the Church, treating it as inconsistent with the Christian life. This, if only done on fitting occasions, and done with prudence and discretion, will rarely fail to produce its effect. Individual offenders, it is possible, may not be reclaimed by it, they may even at times kick at the attempt made to interfere with their liberty, and only with increased determination adhere to their objectionable course; but the general conscience of the community will be quickened, inquiry will be awakened, and the things adjudicated upon and pronounced contrary to a sound profession of the faith will be more closely examined by the word of God, and a juster estimate formed respecting them by at least the more thoughtful and serious minds.
It is, however, to be carefully borne in mind, that everything, both as regards the practicability and the effect of a righteous discipline, depends upon the Christian sense and feeling which one has to work upon in those among whom it is exercised. While it rests upon the teaching of God’s word as to its formal ground and warrant, this can be made valid as a principle of action, in particular congregations, only in so far as it has been wrought into the minds and consciences of a considerable portion of the community, and is responded to by them as right and good. To get this Christian sense and feeling, therefore, widely diffused and firmly maintained, must always be the first care of the pastor. Behind all specific measures of repression or reform, and as the understood basis on which they are to proceed, there must be a solid groundwork of spiritual enlightenment and conviction, otherwise the measures will fail for want of backing, will not carry with them the requisite moral weight.
Passing now from these preliminary considerations to the actual administration of discipline, the first thing that naturally comes into notice is the matter about or upon which discipline should be exercised. There are things in respect to which no difference of opinion in this respect can well be entertained among evangelical Christians, they are so palpably at variance not only with the precepts of the gospel, but with the findings of the natural conscience, that all will admit them worthy of correction and rebuke. Adultery, for example, fornication, blasphemy, forgery, deliberate fraud or theft, habitual neglect or avowed contempt of divine ordinances, these and such like things leave no room for hesitation or doubt; they are in open contrariety to the Christian character, and no one chargeable with them can be recognised as a proper subject of Christian privilege. But things are ever and anon appearing of a somewhat indeterminate nature; indeterminate, that is, as to the degree of guilt they involve, or the measure of contrariety which the performance of them betrays to the faith of the gospel. With respect to such things great prudence and caution are necessary in determining whether they should be proceeded against by way of discipline, or when. Even some of those just specified, practices of fraud, for example, or habitual neglect of divine ordinances, while as facts in the behaviour of this or that individual they may admit of no dispute, they may still be found accompanied with so many qualifying circumstances, complicated relationships, and grounds of defence real or imaginary, that it may not be quite easy for the pastor, and those associated with him in the oversight of the church, to come to the conclusion respecting particular parties, that they should be subjected on account of them to disciplinary treatment. Then there are others; for example, intemperance, violent, revengeful, or harsh dealing, quarrelsome behaviour, compliance with the follies or questionable customs of the world, which admit of so many degrees, that the point at which the excess becomes such as to warrant the interference of church action is a very variable and shifting one. Even the most experienced minister and elders will often find it difficult to arrive at clear convictions as to the path of duty. Generally speaking, where the conduct has been such as to give rise to offence, and begets serious doubt as to the Christian state of the parties concerned, though it may still not be chargeable with deliberate or palpable sin, there should, in the first instance, be private and personal dealings, which, if wisely conducted on the one side and properly met on the other, will very often render any further or more formal proceedings unnecessary. For such dealings, as stated in another connection, a calm, earnest, and prayerful spirit is peculiarly required; since, if a false step is taken at the outset, or an undue regard should appear to have been given to unfounded rumours, all chance of doing good will be lost, and a sense of wrong evoked on account of the treatment experienced, rather than of regret or shame at the behaviour which occasioned it.
The difficulties connected with these private efforts to bring under consideration incipient and less broadly developed forms of evil have led some ministers to avoid interfering with anything for purposes of admonition or censure but what may have become matter of public notoriety, and as such can be taken up in a formal manner by the Session or other constituted authorities. It is a course which will, no doubt, save the pastor a good deal of anxious thought and occasional acts of annoyance; but this personal advantage will be purchased at the heavy cost of sometimes losing the chance of winning a soul. For, when courses of defection like those referred to are censured at a certain stage, censured when they are still only in the forming, and just beginning to awaken solicitude and concern in thoughtful minds, there is room to hope that something may be done to arrest the evil by faithful treatment, the wrong bias may yet be checked before it takes its final set; while, at a more advanced stage, the transgressor may indeed be officially admonished, suspended from his Church privileges, or altogether cut off from the communion of the Church, but with little prospect of any good being thereby effected on his spiritual state. He has become wedded to his idols, and will not be separated from them.
In actual processes of discipline there are three stages, which naturally succeed each other, and which call for separate consideration. The first has respect to the ascertaining of the facts of the case, often a very perplexing part of the process. The party suspected or accused has an obvious interest in disguising them, putting a different face on them from that which they actually wear: other parties, perhaps, have a like interest in overcharging or distorting them; and persons capable of giving important evidence on the matter are either unwilling or afraid to have anything directly to do concerning it. Hence it will sometimes happen that a very general desire may exist among persons of influence in the Church to leave what is likely to prove delicate and irksome in abeyance, or have it summarily huddled up. In such cases it is always of grave moment that the pastor be known to be a perfectly reliable person, one, I mean, who is seen to be actuated by a sincere regard to the spiritual good of the people, and of firmness tempered with discretion in his endeavours to discountenance what is manifestly evil. If he is either too sluggish in bestirring himself about things which call for serious inquiry, or, on the other hand, too hasty and forward in pressing them into notice; above all, if he is of irresolute purpose, moving but with hesitating step, doing somewhat and again undoing it, the result will commonly be, that matters are concealed from him which he ought to be informed of, or evidence that might be forthcoming is withheld from a feeling of uncertainty as to the use that might be made of it. But even supposing him to possess the proper requisites for inspiring confidence and satisfactorily conducting the inquiries necessary to be instituted, he will often find it extremely difficult, especially in cases connected with uncleanness, to get at the real state of matters; penetration, caution, judgment, patience also and industry, will be required. Guilty or suspected persons will make the most solemn declarations such as it might seem an act of injustice or hardness of heart to discredit, while yet subsequent discoveries may show them to be essentially false; or gross misconduct will be covered with most plausible excuses and pretexts which have little foundation in reality. Ministers generally, and especially young ministers, should hear in such cases with a prudent reserve, taking care not to commit themselves to a view or espouse a side till full time has been had for considering the matter, and every accessible means of information has been turned to account. This should be done, yet so as to beware of giving encouragement to busybodies, or granting a kind of delegated authority to inferior parties, who are likely to become too full of their office to manage it discreetly. Occasionally, though not more than occasionally, and only after every attempt has failed to get conclusive evidence, the matter may be put, if not with the form, at least with the solemnity of an oath, to the individual chiefly interested. This is a last alternative, and one that can rarely yield a satisfactory result, because of the strong temptation it affords to lay all to rest by a false asseveration. It should therefore be very rarely resorted to.
The next step in the process has respect to the proper method of dealing with those whose guilt has been admitted or proved, with the view of bringing them to a right sense of their sin and such a state of mind as would justify the Church in restoring them to its communion. This must always form a most important part of the proceedings, since it has respect to that on which the whole issue for the spiritual good of the offending parties may be said to turn. It will be understood of itself that there should be private personal intercourse held with them. If the whole that is done is limited to the somewhat formal action of an official procedure, it will but rarely happen that any real good is accomplished. Yet even in this part of the dealing, especially in the manner in which the parties are received and addressed when making appearance to confess the misdeed laid to their charge, not a little may be done to prepare the way for future action; that is, if by the proper exercise of the spirit of rebuke the pastor is enabled to penetrate, touch, and soften the heart.
Let it be well considered, however, wherein properly consists the spirit or power of rebuke, and how, in any circumstances, it can be made to tell with due effect upon the minds of such as have gone out of the way. It is very different from a stern and unflinching denunciation of the wrath of God against transgressors, or a fiery ebullition of righteous displeasure at what has appeared of shameful misconduct. A measure of these occasionally may be pardoned, or even in extreme cases justified; but the spirit of rebuke, as it should commonly be exercised by the Christian pastor, is something deeper, calmer, more measured and restrained, and hence is neither so readily acquired nor so easy to maintain in efficient exercise. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say, with Isaac Taylor, (Saturday Night, chap. xv.) that ‘every part of the duty of the minister of religion is more easy to maintain in vigour than the spirit he needs as the reprover of sin and the guardian of virtue.’ He runs over the other leading parts of ministerial duty, somewhat certainly under-estimating the facility with which they may be performed, and then, with reference to the point in hand, specifies various things that may be tried as a substitute for it, argument, erudition, eloquence, and adds, ‘Ah! but to speak efficaciously of that holiness and justice of Almighty God, and of its future consequences; to speak in modesty, tenderness, and power of the approaching doom of the impenitent, is altogether another matter, and one that must be left to those whose spirits have had much communion with the dread Majesty on high. As the punishment of sin springs by an ineffable harmony from the first principles of the divine nature, and infringes not at all upon benevolence, so must he who would rightly speak of that punishment have attained to a more intimate perception of the coincidence of holiness and love than language can convey, or than can be made the subject of communication between man and man. This knowledge belongs to the inner circle of the soul, and is only conveyed to it in any considerable degree when much meditation and prayer and abstraction from earthly passions open the way to its reception and entertainment.’
It is the possession and exercise of such a spirit that is required for the discharge, in its higher style, of the duty under consideration. Of course it will differ, not only in different individuals, but even in the same individual from time to time; and not unfrequently, those who have it most will feel as if they were singularly deficient in the proper manifestation that should be given to it. I speak only of the quality itself, and of what should be aimed at in regard to it; what also, in proportion as it is brought to bear upon persons whose conduct has subjected them to the discipline of the Church, is likely to have most effect in bringing them to genuine contrition and godly sorrow for sin. Even this, when possessed and exercised with comparative perfection, will not always secure the desired result. The most faithful and spiritually-minded pastors may lay their account to not a few dealings with offenders who, whatever temporary effect may have been wrought upon them, will give afterwards unmistakeable evidence that they have undergone no real conversion. Here also, and very peculiarly, the maxim of our Lord applies, ‘The tree is known by its fruits;’ for while there is much in the condition of those whose immoral conduct has brought them into reproach and laid them open to the censure of the Church, to produce a softened and penitent feeling for the time; if it is nature only that works, the recoil of feeling may pass away, and leave the individual as far as ever from the kingdom of God.
The remaining part of the process has reference to what is called the satisfaction of the Church and the formal absolution of the offending parties, or their restoration to Church privileges. This is now usually a very brief and perfunctory thing compared with what it was in the earlier periods of the Reformed Church, and still more in the strict disciplinary period of the first centuries. When one reads the accounts given in Cyprian and Tertullian, for example, of the penitential acts and humiliating services through which the subjects of Church discipline had to pass in their day before they could expect to have their names restored to the communion-roll of the Church, one is apt to be struck with the laxity of present times, and to sigh for the return of such moral strength to spiritual authorities as might enable them to exact from the lapsed demonstrations of sorrow and shame so profoundly indicative of their conscious guilt, and expressions of desire so intense of being re-admitted to a place among the faithful. In describing what was termed the exomologesis of the penitent, Tertullian represents them as appearing clothed in the meanest apparel, lying in sackcloth and ashes; (De Panit. § 9.) either fasting entirely or living upon bread and water, passing whole days and nights in tears and lamentations; embracing the knees of the presbyters as they entered the church, and entreating the more honoured brethren to intercede for them; all this continuing often for a lengthened period, for years sometimes, occasionally even to the point of death; when, the rulers of the Church being satisfied that the repentance was sincere, and that the honour of the Church had been sufficiently vindicated in their contrition, absolution was granted to them, and they received again the right hand of fellowship. But then, as already noticed, this awful stringency, which at first sight carries such an aspect of holiness, at the same time that it tried by vast applications to heal existing sores, was itself indicative of a deep disease; it at once sprung from and fostered a disposition to look to bodily mortifications and self-inflicted penances for what could only be reached through the mercy of God and Christ’s work of reconciliation. Hence we find Tertullian speaking of the penances in question as ‘mitigating God,’ and ‘blotting out eternal punishments;’ and Cyprian, in like manner, who equally lauds the virtue of such disciplinary treatment, describes the penitent who submits to it as not only satisfying the Church, but appeasing the wrath of God; by means of his prayers, it is said, his tears, groans and mortifications, ‘he makes satisfaction to God,’ (De Lapsis.) ‘he purchases both God’s pardon now, and also a crown of glory.’ Thus readily do such external requirements and enforced mortifications rise into a kind of meritorious round of performances, and take to some extent the place of the one glorious object of faith and hope. For the lapsed it came practically to be salvation, remotely no doubt through the redeeming grace of God in Christ, but directly through the rigid observances of a prolonged discipline, the intercessions of a mediating priesthood, and the authoritative absolution of the Church. And we may well be content to want such awful pomp and circumstance in connection with the recovery of fallen members, in order to escape from the deadly errors out of which it in a great degree sprang, and to which it in turn most powerfully ministered.
Still it is possible here, as in other things, while shunning excess in one direction, to be guilty of it in another. And one can readily apprehend, when no marked difference of outward treatment appears between those who have fallen into scandalous sin and such as have maintained a consistent Christian behaviour, when, even though some pains may be taken privately to bring them to a better mind, the path of admission to the more distinctive privileges of the Church is left equally open to them as to others, the inevitable result must be a lowering, in the general sense of the community, of the estimate formed of their misdemeanour. So far as overt acts are concerned, no account seems to be made of it by those who have the charge of God’s house; how natural, then, for others to treat similar transgressions lightly, or, if more seriously inclined, to take offence at the seeming indifference of their spiritual guides! Yet, as matters now stand, it is not quite easy to adopt a procedure that shall present very broad and cognizable distinctions; it is only within narrow limits that they can be found. In post-Reformation times the practice of public confessions and rebukes, closed with a formal absolution and a charge to go and sin no more, was set up as a regular part of the discipline of the Kirk in this country, and continued to prevail for several generations. (‘The extremitie of sackcloths was also prescrivt be the acts of the generall discipline,’ and was not to be dispensed with for any ‘pecunial sum’ (Book of Universal Kirk). Nor was any exemption allowed to persons in high life. Among those who made public satisfaction we find the Lord Treasurer in 1563; the Countess of Argyll in 1567; in 1568 the Bishop of Orkney (M’Crie’s Life of Knox, p. 454).) In most churches there was even what bore the name of the ‘repentance-stool,’ placed nearly in front of the pulpit, on which the offending person was obliged to sit for two or three successive Sundays, and to rise up a little before the close of the service and receive solemn admonition and rebuke in the presence of the congregation; on the last, a formal absolution was pronounced. But as times changed, the practice first became irregular in its administration, and then fell into desuetude. Fines in many places were taken as a substitute, the money so obtained being forfeited to the poor, which could only be characterized as a species of simony; and as it would, of course, be chiefly taken advantage of by the richer portion of the congregation, it was attended with the additional evil of forming one kind of discipline for the wealthier and another for the poorer classes of the Church. This was to do the work of God with respect of persons, therefore doing it so as certainly to defeat the ends which it should have been mainly directed to promote. Such a halting procedure could not last; and as the spirit of the times changed, the repentance-stool for the one class and the money fines for the other were disused; public rebukes, also, in great measure disappeared; while acts of formal excommunication and acts of absolution ceased to be delivered from the pulpit in presence of the assembled congregation.
Is this change to be regretted? It is not quite easy to say; indeed, it turns very much upon the further question, whether the general state and tone of society now be upon the whole more favourable, or the reverse, to vital godliness, than they were in earlier and ruder times? Without debating the point as to the absolute merits of the two, there can be no doubt that in the conventionalisms and proprieties of life there is a decided change for the better in that part of the population which constitutes the life and stay of Christian society; so that, as in familiar discourse and in current literature, in the formal proceedings also of a Church, things would appear unseemly and indelicate in present times, would grate upon people’s feelings, and tend rather to annoy than to edify, which at an earlier period would have been heard or witnessed without emotion. It is impossible to deny, and hopeless to fight with success against, this altered style of things; it is an essential part of the civilisation and refinement of modern times; and it is the policy of the Church to accommodate her procedure to it, retaining as far as possible the substance, while she lets go the form of the older discipline. The form is, for the most part, gone anyhow; public professions of repentance and rebukes are no longer practicable as in the olden time; and in the few cases where I have known a return to them attempted, under a zealous pastorate, the attempt has always failed, and it was found necessary, for the interests of righteousness themselves, to have them abandoned. But if matters be otherwise rightly ordered, especially if those who have the spiritual oversight of a particular Church be men of principle, discretion, and probity, and enjoy the respect and confidence of the members, the real objects in view may be substantially served through their instrumentality. As representing the spiritual community, let them, in their more private intercourse with the parties interested, do what was wont to be done in public, so far as reproof, admonition, confession of sin, promise of amendment, suspension from Church fellowship, restoration or final excision are concerned. What is done thus is really done by the Church, and, one may say, in its presence; just as what is done by the representative body of a commonwealth is done by the commonwealth itself, and is so regarded by its constituent elements. And if it is done conscientiously, prayerfully, judiciously, it will also be done to edification, more so a great deal than by a rigid adherence to the letter and form of proceedings which may be no longer adapted to the state and temper of society, and which, for the sake of an apparent conformity to Scripture precedent, would sacrifice the reality.