Church Discipline: What is Rebuke?

Reformed, confessional theologians often point out that discipline is one of three signs of a true church.[1]  Highlighting this distinguishing mark, my seminary professor once rhetorically asked our class, “How many true churches are out there?” 

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) chapter 30, “Of Church Censures,” teaches in section one that “The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.”[2]  WCF 30:2 continues, “To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.”[3]

James Benjamin Green warns that,Church officers have been remiss in not applying the power of the keys to keep the church pure in its faith and in its morals.  As a result the church has suffered much loss of prestige and power.”[4]  G.I. Williamson laments that, Lack of church discipline is to be seen for what it really is—not a loving concern as is hypocritically claimed, but an indifference to the honor of Christ and the welfare of his flock … When error and sin are left alone they will spread.”[5]

The remarkable minister, Robert Murray McCheyne once testified to his church:

When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline.  I thought that my great work and almost only work was to pray and preach…But it pleased God, who teaches his servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke into my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline.[6]

Thus, WCF 30:3 instructs: 

Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.[7]

Such ecclesiastical discipline has its steps, as WCF 30:4 describes:  “For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person.”[8]  Most modern books of church order add “rebuke” and “deposition”.  Here we consider rebuke, which the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Book of Church Order explains, “… is a form of censure more severe than admonition.  It consists in setting forth the serious character of the offense, reproving the offender, and exhorting him to repentance and to more perfect fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.”[9]

Leviticus 19:17 commands, Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him, teaching that citizens of a sacred society love one another enough not to leave them unchallenged in sinful living.[10]   

The phrase, thou shalt in any wise rebuke”, is literally,rebuke, you rebuke” for emphasis.  This verse even equates a lack of reproof with hatred rather than love, appealing to not suffer sin upon him”.[11]

Prov. 27:5-6 counsels, Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend …  Faithful church officers also reprimand.  Just as Hebrews 12 says Christians know we are sons of our Heavenly Father because He chastens us.

Jesus loves His little children enough to discipline them: As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. (Rev. 3:19)  Repentance leads to life (Acts 11:18).  When Christians rebuke their brethren, they show they love them.  Parents who chasten their children love them.  Elders and ministers that call church members to repentance love them.

Hate abusively abandons and avoids.  Love compassionately confronts and corrects.  Contrary to much contemporary church culture, It is Loving to Rebuke.[12]

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He also serves the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals as community engagement coordinator as well as assistant editor for  He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] The others being the right preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the Sacraments.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2003), 119.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Benjamin Green, A Harmony of the Westminster Presbyterian Standards with Explanatory Notes (?: Collins World, 1976) , 222.

[5] G.I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 1964) , 237.

[6] R.M. McCheyne, Life of Robert Murray McCheyne, Andrew Bonar (reprint London 1960) ; 87-88, as cited in Rowland Ward, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Study Guide (Wantirna, Victoria, Australia: New Melbourne Press, 1996), 187.

[7] WCF, 119-120.

[8] Ibid, 120.

[9] The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, Pa.: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011), 112.  See chapter VI, “Censure and Restoration”, B.: Degrees of Censure.  Note also that there are steps ready for restoration and receiving back even an excommunicated member, and our Session has been happy to be part of those steps of censure as well.  In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus provides very important degrees of discipline to follow from informal and private to official and public.  In Luke 17:3, He also commands: … If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.

[10] So Titus 1:13 testifies, This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.

[11] Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death …

[12] See the author’s sermon by this title here:


Grant Van Leuven