By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The notes of the true Kirk [church], therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God … secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus … and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished (Scots Confession, 3.18) .
Did you know that the church is not a club, it has its own court system?
In principle, members and church officers of the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be brought up on charges and tried by a church for disobeying church law, as articulated in the Book of Order . In practice, charges are seldom brought.
Two kinds of justice exist in the legal system in the United States: punitive and restorative justice. Punitive justice serves to punish the lawbreaker; restorative justice serves to restore the lawbreaker to full community. The adult justice system focuses on punitive justice while the juvenile justice system focuses on restorative justice. The Book of Order makes it clear that the purpose of justice within the Presbyterian system is restoration, not punishment. This is also the lesson that the Apostle Paul gives in chapter 2 of his second letter to the church at Corinth.
Chapter 2 focuses on Paul’s instructions to the church in dealing with a particular person who has caused a problem in the church. We are not told who the person is or what the problem was—scholars still debate both issues (v 5). Instead, Paul focuses on how to move forward in restoring this person to full fellowship.
Interestingly, Paul seems to be giving the church in Corinth a “timeout”, giving the church time to work things out themselves. Paul writes: For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you (v 1). Basically, he says that the punishment leveled against the offender is enough (v 6). The offense was against the church and the church dealt with it through, among other things, public shaming (v 7). Paul refuses to take personal offense (v 5). Therefore, the punishment was sufficient for the offense and no more punishment is needed. Instead, Paul writes: so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (vv 7-8) This is a biblical example of forgiveness and restoration.
Harris (2005, 234) sees a 6 step process involved here: offense, punishment, pain and sorrow, repentance, forgiveness, and affirmation .
Clearly, this is not the typical scenario in the church today. What is typical is to hush up controversies and treat them as embarrassments. Then, after some point the pot boils over and people split the church and leave.
Paul, by affirming the offense and the offender, allows punishment, forgiveness, and restoration. The offender does not get off free; those offended are required to forgive. In the end, the community is stronger.
Office of the General Assembly. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA): Part I: Book of Confessions, Louisville, 1999.
Office of the General Assembly. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA): Part II: Book of Order 2011/2013, Louisville, 2011.
 Harris, Murray J. 2005. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdman.