(Excerpts from the original essay by P.H. Mell, Corrective Church Discipline: with a development of the Scriptural Principles on which it is Based [Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1860])
What relation does the pastor of the church bear to corrective discipline? and what are his duties in the premises? There is no question more important than this. Often have difficulties been aggravated, and churches torn to pieces, because pastors did not have a clear conception of the relations they sustain to cases of discipline. The question at the head of this paragraph will be answered, 1st, Upon the supposition that the pastor is, himself, involved in the difficulty; and, 2d, Upon the supposition that he is free from entanglement.
1. Should the pastor be involved as one of the parties at variance, or be charged with a public offence, what should be the course of proceeding?
Ans. Precisely that which is prescribed in the case of a private member of the church. He should lay aside his authority as presiding officer, and take his seat among his brethren; for surely no man would assert the claim to preside in his own case. If he has a private grievance against one of his brethren, he is to pursue the gospel steps prescribed to others; and I, in the last resort, he tells his grievance to the Church, he is to stand aside, and permit the Church to appoint, temporarily, an officer in his place. If he is charged with a public offence, he is to be dealt with like a private member, with the single exception that an accusation is not to be received against him except from the mouth of two or three witnesses. The question whether a minster can be dealt with and expelled without the intervention of a Council or Presbytery will be discussed in a succeeding number.
2. Upon the supposition that the pastor is himself free from entanglement, what relation does he sustain to corrective discipline? This question will be answered, 1st, In relation to cases of private dealing; and, 2d, In relation to cases of public dealing.
1st. What is the pastors duty in regard to cases of variance between brethren? To this it is answered, -
(1.) To instill into his members in advance, by his ministry, such principles as to prevent variances; and after their occurrence, to enlighten them with such instructions from the Scriptures as to show them how to manage them according to the mind of Christ. Ministers of the gospel should see to it, that their members, young as well as old, are thoroughly instructed in regard to scriptural polity; and that in this they are perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
(2.) It is his duty to see that every case of private dealing, if brought into the Church at all, be introduced according to the Saviours directions.
(3.) it is his duty to maintain the strictest neutrality as between the parties. Questions of order he is to decide: principles which are applicable to the case, he should announce in conference, and in the pulpit, with boldness and plainness. But as soon as he begins to decide upon questions of fact, or to announce as to who, in his opinion, is guilty or who innocent, he trenches upon the prerogative of the Church, which alone has the right to decide upon such points. He should keep profoundly locked in his breast his opinions of the facts, and of the guilt or innocence of the contestants. Just so soon as he indicates an opinion, he ceases to be an umpire between those at variance, and the moderator of the Church, and descends to be the head of one of the parties which may be formed or forming in the Church. The pastoral relation, with ministers who violate this principle, can never survive more than one serious church difficulty.
(4.) Where all believe that he is in fact a neutral as between the contending brethren, the pastor has it in his power to bring the pulpit to bear with telling effect upon the adjustment of the difficulty. And this he should not fail to do. In serious difficulties, he should direct his attention to the accomplishment of two objects: First, to prevent the formation of two parties in the Church, with the members at variance at the head of each respectively; and, second, to make the combatants themselves ashamed and tired of their relations. In every case of variance of long standing, where both parties are wrong in feeling and equally matched in strength, the attempt of each inevitably will be to array to himself in advance as many partisans in the Church as possible. This the pastor in the pulpit can prevent. It should be his purpose to isolate the case, - to fence the contestants off to themselves, and, if they must fight, to make them fight it out alone. To accomplish this, he should never in the pulpit refer directly to the case. This would be very malapropos. The Scriptures abound in principles which he can so discuss as to make the pious members of the Church afraid to involve themselves, or by their act to encourage either of the parties in his course. The particular case should never be mentioned; but the remarks should be so directed as to graze along by it, and suggest it to the mind of the hearer. When the members of the church have been thoroughly drilled into neutrality and silence, then the case becomes more simple; and the pastor can bring all the artillery of the pulpit to bear upon the individuals at variance. To these we should give no rest, and afford no consolation. They should not be permitted ever to retire from the sanctuary without being wounded and bleeding. They should be made to feel that the gospel has nothing for them but condemnation. To accomplish this, no little address is necessary. The pastor should never in the pulpit refer to the case in terms. This would be a personality and offensive. But the contending brethren should be compelled to believe that, somehow or other, he is preaching to nobody but to them; and yet they must find nothing in his remarks to complain of him about. What he says must be in the form of principles equally applicable to both in common, so that the blow leveled may not be weakened by the suspicion that he is discriminating for or against either. In this way, if they are thoroughly convinced that the pastor has not taken sides in the issue between them, and they are Christians, it will not be long before they become heartily sick of the position they occupy, and ready to hail with pleasure a proposition of some mutual friend to mediate between them. In the management of cases of this kind, time, prudence, and faithfulness are all-important.
2. What relation does the pastor sustain to cases of public dealing? The same principles that are to govern him in private dealing hold good here. The reader may make the application for himself. It will be enough to say that it is never his duty to arraign one before the Church, or to charge him in private with any offence he has not confessed, unless he (the pastor) witnessed the commission of the act. In the pulpit and the chair, the pastor bears, in many respects, the same relation to the Church in the trial of public offenders, that the judge upon the bench does to the court in the trial of criminals. It is the duty and prerogative of others to arraign the offender, to array the testimony, and to prosecute to conviction. To the pastor it is reserved to see that the trial is commenced and prosecuted upon gospel principles. From the beginning to the end, he is to intimate no opinion, publicly or privately, of the guilt or innocence of the accused who pleads not guilty; but to hold the scales of justice even. The Savior has devolved upon His Churches, and not upon His ministers, the responsibility and the duty of condemning and putting away from them wicked persons. If, however, the Church permits immoralities to be perpetrated by its members with impunity, it is the prerogative and the duty of the pastor avoiding personalities to give a scriptural delineation of the crimes committed; to hold them up to public reprobation; and to give the church no rest until it is willing to do its duty. And all this, too, without saying in terms that the crime has been committed by any of his members, or tolerated by his Church.
In answer, then, to the question, What relation does the pastor sustain to a case of discipline? It is said,
- He has entire control of all the principles that are operative in the case; and he should announce them on all proper occasions from the pulpit and the chair.
- He has nothing to do with the facts, or with the guilt or innocence of parties; and he should keep profoundly silent on these, giving no one occasion to infer what his opinions are. By this means, -
- 1st. He will be an umpire between the parties and he can gain unobstructed access to them for the gospel principles with which he would influence their judgments and their consciences.
- 2d. He will retain an influence with all which he can wield for the good of the church in the progress of the trial.
- 3d. He will avoid the formation of a faction against him, which may embitter his existence, cripple his influence, and terminate in the severance of the pastoral relation.
This essay is featured in Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life