The Ruling of the Church

“As the Word of God is the life and soul of this Church, so this godly order and discipline is, as it were, sinews in the body, which knit and join the members together with decent order and comeliness.  It is a bridle to stay the wicked from their mischiefs.  It is a spur to prick forward such as be slow and negligent, yea, and for all men it is the Father’s rod, ever in readiness to chastise gently the faults committed, and to cause them afterward to live in more godly fear and reverence.  Finally, it is an order left by God unto his Church, whereby men learn to frame their wills and doings according to the law of God…”

‘The Order of Ecclesiastical Discipline’
The Scottish Book of Common Order  1564




Historic, Reformed Books of Discipline




Binnie, William – The Concurrence of Popular Election and Official Ordinationp. 132, 16 pages



Binnie, William, Church Discipline, p. 98, 7 pages, from his The Church




On the Distinction Between Lesser Excommunication (or Barring from the Table) and Greater Excommunication (Removing from the Church), and that not every Unrepented Sin Proceeds to Greater Excommunication.

See also Gillespie, 111 Propositions, and London Ministers, The Divine Right of Church Government.

Samuel Rutherford, A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker… wherein the way of the Churches of New England is now Re-examined  (London, 1658)

bk. 1, ch. 5, pp. 20-1

“But for such as are excommunicated because of some particular scandal, as incest, or a particular heresy, and yet profess the truth, as to all other points, they are members cut off, and yet not cut off, in so far as they retain a profession, yea and to the knowledge of the Church, are visible converts, though in one particular scandal they lye without and give not such evidences of repentance [so] as [that] the Church can pardon them, as may be proven from the 2 Cor. 2:6-9; they are ordinary hearers of the word, as such as must be reclaimed by the preached word, as sick children, under the medicinal cure of [lesser] excommunication, and the preached word that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5), but they are not ordinary hearers as visible professors [simply, who have not been excommunicated], nor are they members complete [communicant] of the Church in the inner court; admitted to the seals;

2.  2 Thess. 3:14-15, They are cut off members, yet not counted as enemies, but to be admonished as brethen.  Therefore, though they be [Greek] as heathens and Publicans, Mt. 18, yet are they not simply to be counted pagans, nor occasional hearers, as pagans, but brethren: and though Mr. [John] Robinson [a Separatist], and some say the place, 2 Thess. 3, is not meant of excommunicated persons, beside that it is against the text, against the current of sound interpreters, yet it proveth our point, that even such as walk disorderly, [Greek], verse 11, and obey not the doctrine of the Gospel, and with whom we should not keep company, v. 14, and so ought to be excommunicate, by Mr. [Thomas] Hooker’s doctrine [a congregationalist], yet remain brethren, and are to be counted so by members of the Church, and are to hear the word of admonition, and so are visible professors, and so not utterly cast out of the visible Church, and Mr. Hooker doth no more refute our Protestants, than the Scripture who calleth such as are fed, and the hearers of the Lord’s testimonies, the Israel of God, and the sheep of his pasture, his flock, inheritance, his vineyard his garath[?] of red vine, his spouse, and what is this but the Church visible, Ps. 147:19-20; Hose. 8:11.

What? because the excommunicated who thus hear ordinarily are not members of the Church, because they are not whole and entire members, it is no more consequently spoken, than if he would say a wounded soldier, because he is wounded, and under cure, is not a member of the army and sworn to the colors, because he cannot march and fight as other soldiers.”


p. 119

“4.  …it is sure [that] baptism in fieri, as it is administrate[d] and professed, is the means of the excommunicate mans solemn installing and engaging to be a follower of Christ: and by the scandal that brings on [lesser] excommunication, baptism as professed and as binding is so far hurt as the Covenant-Baptismal is violated: and if the man be [greater] excommunicate[d] for apostasy, then it is disputable whether baptism be not quite undone.”


Independent Churches do not have the Authority for Greater Excommunication

Presbyteries do.


Is the Binding & Loosing of Excommunication the Forgiveness, or not, of Sins?  And how much is Required for an Excommunicated Person to be Allowed back into the Church?

Samuel Rutherford, A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker… wherein the way of the Churches of New England is now Re-examined  (London, 1658), Book 1, ch. 14, pp. 148-151

“Hence, by the way, a word of that necessary and judicious question moved by Calvin, Mt. 18:18, ‘What ye bind on earth,’ etc.  Since the Church tolerateth many hypocrites and absolveth and looseth many who do but counterfeit and fancy repentance, shall we say that such are loosed and pardoned in heaven?

Some say [that] by ‘heaven’ here is meant the visible Church; and they distinguish between sin and scandal: and therefore that by ‘binding and loosing’, here is meant, not forgiveness or justification, or absolution from the guilt of sin in Heaven, or in the Court of God, or condemnation for that sin, but only deliverance from scandal and the removing of scandal and admitting of the man into the visible Church as a member: suppose his repentance be but hypocritical, yet when the Church proceedeth impartially according to the Rule of Christ, the sentence is ratified by God, and the man is loosed from the scandal, though not from the sin; the sin is yet bound before God, because he hath not really repented; otherwise the Church, who knows not heart-actings and who really repent, who not, though proceeding right according to the rule of Christ, should not have the promise of ratifying in Heaven what they do on earth, fulfilled to them; which cannot be said.

But taking it for a good observation that Calvin hath here, that Mt. 16, Christ speaketh of binding and loosing concional, by the Word preached; but here, Mt. 18, he speaketh especially of binding and loosing juridical in the court of the Church, by excommunication or absolution from that sentence.

In the former consideration the question is easy.  No pastor in preaching Gospel-promises or threatnings can bind, but conditionally: If the party do not believe and repent, the man’s sin is bound in Heaven; if he do believe and repent, his sin is loosed in heaven.

As to the other [Mt. 18], we find in the Word no such signification of binding and loosing in regard of scandal, but they are ever spoken of in regard of sin and the guilt thereof.  And therefore:

1. Calvin saith well that the speech of Christ is directed to no other than to those who duly and sincerely do reconcile themselves with the Church; and the Lord being willing to comfort trembling consciences, is not setting down a rule for comforting of hypocrites: But by the contrary, because hypocrites s[b?]oldly provoke to the Tribunal of God, when for gross scandals they are justly cast out; our Savior saith, The sentence of excommunication is ratified in Heaven.  The Scripture-rule is for such as obey, and for those who fulfill the condition, non de obliquis [not for those who are crosswise].

As to the doubt that the Church often absolves such who really repent not, how then can the hypocrite be loosed in Heaven, when the Lord knows he does but fancy repentance?

Answer:  Two things here are to be distinguished:

1.  The Church’s proceeding in the external Court as relating to them, if they impartially, according to the rule of Christ, proceed and be not sudden in re-admitting, but see [that] the incestuous man near swallowed up (though one man’s measure of visible repentance be not the rule to all) before they confirm their love to him, and forgive him, 2 Cor. 2.  Suppose his repentance be but counterfeit, or not saving and real, as was that of Ahab, yet are they to receive him, and admit him to the ordinances, and the Lord ratifies what they do in Heaven.  As:

1.  The Lord ratifies Philip’s baptizing of Magus; and the Lord approves the servants inviting to the marriage-supper the man that wanted the wedding-garment: for what the Lord commands, that He must approve and ratify in Heaven.

2.  What in charitable judgments is praise-worthy, that God also must ratify in Heaven; yea, it is praise-worthy in the disciples, when they heard Christ say, ‘One of you twelve hath a Devil, one of you shall betray the Son of Man;’ every one suspected and feared himself; none of the eleven suspected Judas, but gave him charity.

3.  Without this God should not approve the gathering of Churches, nor the casting of the draw-net in the sea, nor the sowing of seed upon all sort of grounds, the way side, the thorny, the rocky, the good ground, that the chosen, who are yet in the state of nature, may be brought in and effectually called.  But in receiving in excommunicates, the Church would not be sudden.  In the ancient Church, sacrificers to Idols were six years before they were received; they that defiled themselves with beasts, were debarred from the sacrament thirty years; adulterers, seven; women who made away their births, ten years; such as uncompelled denied the faith, twelve years.  What other years Burchardus and Gratianus have, may be seen.  Something for edification sure there was here.

2.  There is another thing here, which concerneth the conscience of him who is to be received, and when the Church-Court applies the sentence to the conscience for his personal pardon, sure whatever satisfaction the people have for removing of the scandal, the sentence of absolution so relating to him, is concional, not properly juridical; and conditional, not absolute; and therefore is to be pronounced by the mouth of the Church, the Pastor, thus: ‘Be it unto thee according to thy faith and repentance;’ and except the man really repent, his sin is not loosed in Heaven.

So then, the Churches loosing from the scandal is conditional, upon a seen condition of outward repentance morally sincere to the Churches apprehension, but they simply and absolutely make him a citizen of the Church and admit him to ordinances according to the command of Christ, both in private and public Church offences (If thy brother who offended, repent, forgive him), but his loosing from the sin or guilt in heaven, is ever conditional and never absolutely to be pronounced by the Pastor, the mouth of the Church, who cannot certainly know the condition.  Hence:

1.  The scandal is loosed in earth and heaven; the Church impartially following the rule of Christ sometime when the sin remains and is bound in heaven.

2.  The Church may say the man is absolutely freed from the scandal, so as the Church sins not in receiving him in, if they follow the rule; but he sins, and the scandal is bound in coming in, if he repent not: and also as to the guilt, he is freed from the sin only conditionally, for the condition of removal of the scandal is seen, and visible: but the condition of the loosing from sin is invisible.

3.  Sometime the man is both loosed from the scandal and from the sin, and every way loosed in heaven and earth, when he both really and visibly repents.

4.  The Church should go as near in readmitting a fallen sinner, and loosing him on earth as they can discern the Lord’s loosing in Heaven: the Corinthians seem to exceed in this, 2 Cor. 2:7, so that contrariwise, ye ought rather to forgive him.

5.  There is more of real saintship required, to receive in again one who hath been once a member and hath fallen, and was cast out, than to admit a member newly come from paganism:

1.  The larger the means of salvation have been, the greater guiltiness, as the scandal of a Christian is greater than the sin and scandal of a Sodomite, Mt. 10:15; Mt. 11:22; Mt. 12:41-42.  And therefore the repentance of the one must be more signal and larger than the repentance of the other.

2.  There is not such a measure of marriage-love required of a virgin before she be married, as after she hath been married, and born children to the husband; nor can any say there is so much knowledge required in a new entrant that knows not the first elements of philosophy, as in one who hath studied seven years.

Hence 6, it is utterly false that as visible saintship and real repentance, as far as can be, is required of one excommunicate, before he can be received in again; so real visible saintship, as far as can be seen, must be required in members before they be first admitted.  But I desire our [congregationalist] Brethren, if they judge the first receiving into the Church a loosing from sin and scandal, as readmission is, they will teach it me.”


The Chief Practical Obstacles to Implementing Excommunication when it Should be Done

Fox, John – ‘What are the Chief Obstacles Hindering Excommunication’  1551  from ch. 8 of De Censura Ecclesiastica Interpellatio, as appended to Book 3 of George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, pp. 274-276

Fox is the one who wrote Fox’s Book of Martyrs.  He gives three main reasons why the practice of excommunication was being resisted as to its implementation in the churches in his day, namely: 

(1) persons’ minds being on the wealth and stature of this world,
(2) nominal Christian persons which serve their own belly and sins, and
(3) those who are not convicted of their sins, pervert the Scriptures and promise themselves a wicked liberty of sinning.


That Persons Committing Scandals are not Actually Excommunicated until they are actually Excommunicated by those with the Power of the Keys (If they are).  Judas is a Case in Point.  Private Persons Cannot Excommunicate, though they ought not to have Personal Fellowship with Them.

Rutherford, Samuel – Ch. 11, ‘Whither or no separation from a true Church because of the sins of professors and manifest defense of scandalous persons can be proved from God’s word, to be lawful’, pp. 158-159 of A peaceable and temperate plea for Paul’s presbytery in Scotland… (London, 1642)  The answer to the question in the title of the chapter is ‘No’.



That Erasure, in some Cases, is Natural, Biblical & Possible and/or Necessary  & that being a member of the visible Church is not restricted to being under the government of a local church.


While it does not appear that an example of erasure is in Scripture (as one might expect, Scripture not being intended to be an extensive book of ecclesiastical procedure), yet erasure necessarily follows from Biblical principles and is consistent with, and necessary from natural principles.

Erasure necessarily follows from Biblical principles in that:

Greater excommunication is not appropriate for every sin continued in without repentance.  Instances of such include, but are not limited to: remaining, indwelling sins (Rom. 7) and sins involved with struggling not to walk after the flesh (Rom. 8).  As greater-excommunication involves handing persons over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5) and not regarding them as visible Christians, so it is not appropriate for many sins that a given church member may continue in over long periods of time without recognition of, or repentance from (as many reformed books of Church discipline teach).

Yet if church members leave a church for whatever reason (of which there are many), and yet cannot be transferred, either for practical reasons or even moral reasons, and yet they do not thereby lose their credible profession of faith (though perhaps they be in sin), then it would be inappropriate to greater-excommunicate them.

The opposite view, that one can only leave a local church by transfer, excommunication or death, being founded on the premise that God so regulates Church procedures in his Word (by sola Scriptura) such that Church procedures not found in his Word are invalid, is erroneous and contrary to nature in that:

Though the transfer of members from one church to another is evidenced in Paul’s epistles, yet such is not an inherently religiously thing; rather Paul is simple recognizing the natural propriety of and need of commending to another group of Christians a certain church-member so that they may safely, with trust, receive him for the good name he has.

This principle is natural, and the procedure of transfer amidst groups of an organization is something that is used civilly, in society at large (amongst the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, etc.), and is not inherently religious.  Therefore it is not regulated as such.  Rather, the apostles used it because church government is to be done in accordance with the light of nature.

Because such things, including erasure (which is used by non-religious organizations), are natural, they need not necessarily be proof-texted from Scripture, they being in consistency with the general principles of the Word.



Samuel Rutherford

 A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker  (1658)  Rutherford in these passages is arguing against Congregationalism.

Ch. 19, p. 98

“It is uncharitable, and against the Word, to teach that when a church is dissolved, by no sin and scandal-visible, but by persecution or pestilence, that the dissolved members, though both real and visible converts, have no right to the ordinances: for if the formal cause, to wit, their confederacy into one visible body, as Mr. [Thomas] Hooker saith, be removed, their visible and external right is removed.

The like is to be said of visible professors, and of members of another congregation, and known godly sojourners [travelers]; these Mr. Hooker excommunicates for no scandal, visible and invisible: for impossible it is that they can meet together in one place with their own church…”


Ch. 21, p. 119

“It is bad divinity to join the nocent [noxious] excommunicate[d] man with the innocent dissolved member.”


Ch. 24, p. 139

“The seed of dissolved members, visible saints, are then [upon Hooker’s congregationalist paradigm and argument] without any sin in parents and children (to speak comparatively) [are] born pagans, but the Scripture teacheth us of no losing of covenant-right but by sin, either of the parties themselves or of their parents.”


Ch. 25

p. 159

“Apostles and members-dissolved are not fixed members of a single congregation, and yet members they must be of the visible, Church-catholic: sure it is no paradox, that the Apostles are such members, for they had right to all the seals in all Congregations; Ergo, they must by this reason be members and no members: the like may be said of godly professors so journers, of these baptized by Iohn Baptist, Matth. 3. by Pe∣ter, Act. 10. by Paul, Act. 16. For if we say that professors are only members of a particular Congregation, then we con∣fine a Brother to be gained only to one Congregation, let all the rest perish, they are not my brethren.”


p. 161

“From all this its clear that it is false which Mr. Hookr saith, ‘that all particular churches are all the members that the Church-visible hath.’  For apostles, godly sojourners, dissolved members, are not members of congregations, nor are they congregations themselves, and yet they are members of the visible, integral, catholic Church.”


Ch. 26, p. 164

[If losing membership in a local congregation makes one not to be a member of the visible Church, then a pastor ceasing to be a pastor of a dissolved congregation would defrock him, as congregationalists held.  Yet:]

“When the congregation is dissolved by persecution, the godly pastor [on the supposition of congregationalism] is cast out of his Master’s service by the nature of this [local-church] covenant [of the congregationalists], because he is faithful to Christ, and that by Christ Himself.”


Book 2

Ch. 6, p. 348

“Many martyrs faithfully perform congregational duties, yet doth not Christ make good this promise [to build them on the Rock, Mt. 16], for when members are dissolved by banishment, they are thrown off the rock [Hooker had defined a local congregationalist church as those built on the Rock].

That which by our Savior is set down, as contrary to their comfortable union with, and building upon Christ their rock, is being foiled [by governments banishing faithful local church members out of the local church] with the temptations of Satan and Hell, and being thrown off the rock [on the congregationalists’ definition], like the hypocrite, Mt. 7, who is the house built on the sand…  and so by this interpretation the Lord’s dissolving of a church, which often is a work of mercy, and putting of his children to an honorable condition of martyrdom, and glorifying of God by suffering and scattering of his Church, as Acts 8:12, must be a throwing them off the rock Christ, and a prevailing of the ports of Hell against them: contrary to the scope and intent of Christ in the text.”




Related Pages

Church Government

The Regulative Principle of Church Government


Congregationalism and Independency

Church Membership