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Picture of a shield with the words 'Fight Valiantly'

Fight Valiantly! Doctrinal Discipline

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 12 Apr 2019

Lee Gatiss looks at what happens when discipline breaks down in the church, as part of our Lent series on contending for the faith. Watch today's video podcast episode on our YouTube channel.

Contending in the Church of England today will mean drawing lines. The biblical teaching here is very clear. There will be times when, if we are to be faithful to the Lord Jesus, we will be forced to defend the truth of God’s word in public, even when it is uncomfortably counter-cultural. We will need to disassociate ourselves from false teaching and those who propagate it, however painful that may be—particularly today from those who would deceive us on issues of sexual conduct by trying to recalibrate our morality (Ephesians 5:3-7).

We must disobey orders which contradict Christ’s or bless what God has not. We must enforce godly discipline, driving out those who are recalcitrantly immoral and leading others astray (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). We must peacefully disrupt and financially degrade the capabilities of those who scandalise the church and seek to undermine its foundations from within. And we must in every way deny the deadly doctrine underpinning such attempts to turn the grace of God into a license for immorality (Jude 4).

Doing nothing is not an option, when wolves inevitably intrude themselves into the flock. Passivity is action; but it’s the wrong kind of action. If we know that something needs to be done, but shy away from controversy for the sake of a quiet life, that is not being faithful. James says, “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). It is essential that we examine our practice in this area, and ask how we are doing those things or enabling and empowering them. The purpose of drawing lines is to clarify the glorious message of the gospel itself, without which we are lost.

Whatever actions we take, we should ensure that they are clearly and evidently linked to the scriptural imperatives that we have seen. And as Paul said, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:4), which means reacting in a proportional way, not writing off every archdeacon because of the actions of one, or the whole House of Bishops because of the teaching of a minority. Speak evil of no one, avoid quarrelling, be gentle, and show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:2).

One of our biggest problems in the Church of England today is the breakdown of doctrinal discipline. The admonitions to Timothy and Titus about silencing false teachers are not being followed by those with the responsibility for such discipline in Anglican polity. Article 26 of The Thirty-nine Articles says that “in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good.” Yet that has never been an excuse to let false teaching go unchecked. The Article continues that, “it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.”

That doesn’t mean we need to go actively sniffing out heresy, like an Inquisition. It means guarding the flock and responding to public challenges to the doctrine and practice of the Church. However, those legally holding the power to do this are not doing it, or certainly not doing it as effectively as they need to. It’s true that one cannot be disciplined for preaching the doctrine of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which is a good thing; but one could, it seems, get away with preaching almost anything these days!

There could be several reasons for this: the expense of “heresy trials” and the financial choices this involves; the PR nightmare and fear of adverse publicity; the difficulty of establishing a case; the uselessness of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure (1963) and the exclusion of doctrinal matters from the procedures of the Clergy Discipline Measure (2003) which is explicitly for “Disciplinary proceedings concerning matters not involving doctrine, ritual or ceremonial”; or the fact that some bishops themselves may hold erroneous views far short of the standard of doctrine set out in Canons A2 and A5.

Yet many bishops do not even seem to use their “soft power”, to preach the truth and publicly refute error, never mind engage in effective discipline. Given that heresy is gangrenous, pernicious, and poisonous according to scripture, why is it so unthinkable that it should be rooted out in the church today? Why are those to whom we have entrusted this task not keener to safeguard our spiritual health and wellbeing?

This failure of episcopal discipline causes many problems. It creates ambiguity and uncertainty about our message and makes people question whether we really believe it. It also means that lower authorities, such as presbyters or deanery chapters, will always feel somewhat impertinent and out of their official depth when dealing with unchallenged heresy in the wider church. It is not technically their job to discipline people outside their parish, but the bishops’ and archbishops’.

When bishops fail to act against scandalous individuals or ministers or even fellow bishops who deny the faith or propagate scandalous heresies, not only is it frustrating for those who have to sit by in legal impotence, but it undermines the credibility of episcopal polity itself and brings the faith into disrepute.

Bishops are often concerned with “jurisdiction”, with guarding their dioceses from outside interference or administrative infringement; but in reality, many do not patrol their patches spiritually, and so they begin to resemble the anarchy of the Wild West, where might makes right and any gunslinger with a blog or a pulpit can terrorise congregations with their calamitous errors.

We should add that when doctrinal discipline breaks down, there is always a temptation for people who feel rightly aggrieved at this to walk away in disgust. It is hard to deny that a godly fervour for truth and the honour of Christ is deeply wounded by excessive, liberal tolerance of error or unholy licentiousness. Remember Phinehas (Numbers 25:6-9)! Yet this can also go too far, into an unhealthy and unbiblical seeking after perfection. As Calvin said, “very many, under the pretence of zeal, are excessively displeased, when every thing is not conducted to their wish, and, because absolute purity is nowhere to be found, withdraw from the Church in a disorderly manner, or subvert and destroy it by unreasonable severity.” This does not mean we should tolerate doctrinal errors, he is quick to add, but it does mean we ought not to lose courage when the battle seems tough, or give up too easily.

Questions for Reflection

1. Why are we tempted to shy away from controversies in the church?
2. Why is it a problem when there seems to be little doctrinal discipline?
3. How can we encourage others to stick with it even when the church seems far from pure?

Catch up with all the blogposts and videos from this Lent series here.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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