What is Sacramental Abuse?

When bad judgment corrupts good preaching…

From the Christian perspective, is it possible for a person to say the right thing but fail to do the right thing?

Of course it is. The Apostle James admonished us, saying “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). If we say one thing, but act a different way, then, he said, we are self-deceived.


The Bible teaches that elders are supposed to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine (Titus 1:9), but sound doctrine consists of more than just the words used during a sermon. Elders must also be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). John Calvin, a father of the Reformed faith, concluded that “we may infer that in the office of the pastors also there are these two particular functions: to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments.” It is from Calvin where the idea of the three marks of the true church originate: the preaching of the Gospel, administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. He wrote that pastors are meant “to instruct the people to true godliness, to administer the sacred mysteries and to keep and exercise upright discipline.” [Institutes, Book IV, Ch. 3]

True godliness goes beyond just what we believe about God (theology); it extends to how we act. The pastor of a church is supposed to preach the Gospel and fulfill the Great Commission by instructing his sheep in sound doctrine. He is also supposed to encourage his sheep to do their part in taking the Gospel into the world and fulfilling the Great Commission. God is love, and He has demonstrated this love for us by making us a free offer of salvation through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. This is a great message of hope to carry into a broken world.

But the Gospel does not end at our profession of faith and baptism. Out of an abundance of gratefulness, we are to live our lives, having put on the mind of Christ, worthy of New Creations in service to our Lord. To serve our Lord, we keep his commandments, He said. The Apostle John wrote:

“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments…For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 2:3; 5:3).

At the heart of the Great Commission is our commitment to encourage all people to also obey Jesus’s commandments:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus taught us that the primary way to demonstrate our love for Him is to obey His commandments: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).


Is doctrine conveyed through the printed and spoken word only, or can it be conveyed by actions and example also?

In the case of the doctrine of laying on hands when ordaining new church officers, this is certainly an example of a doctrine that was communicated by action. Nowhere in the Bible is the church instructed as a rule by an apostle to lay hands on newly elected officers. However, we do it by closely following the example set forth by the apostles in the early church. John Calvin admits this himself, writing “Although there exists no set precept for the laying on of hands, because we see it in continual use with the apostles, their very careful observance ought to serve in lieu of a precept”. [Institutes, Book IV, Ch. 3.16.]

So yes, sound doctrine is established also by action.

It makes sense then that unsound doctrine can be taught by action also.

The conclusion to draw from this is that preaching sound doctrine is not the only measure by which we should evaluate a pastor’s or session’s performance. Paul said elders must be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2), which means not acting wrongly. Therefore, we should also observe what pastors and elders do as well as what they say. Their actions communicate doctrine as much as do the words of their sermons.


This is why Christians must pay attention to not only what their elders are doing and how they are behaving as a court together, but also when they participate in other courts of the broader church.

Any pastor or elder who replaces God’s Biblical standards of justice in official church courts with what seems right or expedient to him at the time to achieve certain ends (which he may think are valiant and honorable) is an act of teaching unbiblical doctrine by example.

God abhors false weights and measures. Church elders who act as judges and violate this doctrine in their actions but not their words have no justifiable defense. They may as well turn to the ancient defense, saying “Do as we say, not as we do!” By their actions they are guilty of teaching false doctrine in God’s name through their example, just as surely as the apostles taught true doctrine through theirs.

When the courts are corrupted by God’s ordained officers, he cares not how pure the form of worship is or how reformed the preaching. “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly” (Is. 1:12-13).


Failure to preach and teach God’s commandments in the pulpit leads to failure to recognize them in all areas of life, including in God’s courts. A people who are deprived of hearing the preaching of God’s commandments and their application to daily life, contrary to the Apostle Paul’s admonition that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” fail to apply them in their marriages, in their careers, in their child-rearing, in their politics, and in everything else in which they are to glorify God.

When the people go wayward and forget God’s commandments, it leads to the corruption of social culture, the destruction of families, and a collapse of justice as faith in universal standards of law and order fades.

Without God’s commandments to guide them and establish the boundaries between what is right and what is wrong, wayward elders in the courts of God’s church, much like the sheep they (fail to) serve, revert to applying that age-old principle of humanistic ethics to guide them: doing what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). The goal of humanism is power, and moral relativism and expediency are the tools to gain that power.

Baptized humanistic methods should be abhored by Christians.

Even earnest Christians who resort to expediency in an attempt to achieve their own ends leads to abuse of God’s courts. Eventually they will gain control of the church courts and turn their great judicial power to “bind and loose” towards their political “enemies” identified as such by the pastor and any misguided elders on the session.


You can recognize that the infection is serious and the patient is in need of heavy intervention when “Robert’s Rules” become more important to a church session for ensuring “justice” is done than do the Old and New Testaments.

This is a problem. “If anyone says, ‘I know Him,’ but does not keep His commandments, he is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).

It is easy to conclude from the Apostle’s simple logic that if a pastor claims to be God’s servant, but permits or participates in judicial abuse by ignoring God’s commandments in the church courts, then he is a liar, and the truth is not in him. The same thing goes for any elder who claims to be a Christian but participates in the sacramental abuse of God’s courts.

God commands us not to show favoritism to people in matters of justice; he commands us to apply his laws and commandments equally and fairly. God does not punish people for being Democrats or Republicans; against choosing a political party, there is no law. He punishes people, and calls for the punishment of people, who violate his moral commandments, like the prohibition against murder or theft.

Similarly, God does not punish men for pointing out violations in his Church’s courts. When men who are supposed to be acting in God’s name choose to punish men who identify violations in God’s courts instead of covering them up like a dysfunctional family would, then they have departed from God’s standard of justice and crossed the boundary between what the Bible declares is right and what is wrong.

Since they are no longer speaking God’s commandments rightly as true judges, they lose their power to bind and loose and therefore their legitimacy. Justice is perverted, the people see it, and the courts of Christ are made into a mockery. Since the purpose of the elders who make up the church courts is to guard the sacraments from improper use by judging what is morally right and wrong in terms of Biblical standards of justice, then when the courts can no longer judge rightly, the sacraments are left vulnerable. “Fencing the table” loses its meaning since the guards can no longer tell the righteous from the unrighteous because they evaluate by their own standard instead of God’s as He revealed it in the Bible.


Simply preaching God’s Word and administering the sacraments are not sufficient marks of the true church. Church discipline is the required third mark. All three are matters of judgment.

A court that cannot discern right from wrong in God’s terms cannot practice true discipline because it cannot exercise Godly judgment. An inability to evaluate right and wrong according to God’s laws and commandments negatively effects preaching, administration of the sacraments, and any acts of formal discipline that may be attempted.

Such a court cannot hope to maintain the purity of the church. Having fallen into error itself, unable to discern right from wrong as a result of substituting its own standard of justice in order to achieve whatever ends it thinks is worth protecting, such a church court cannot properly fulfill its duty of fencing the table. Incapable of preserving the purity of the church, the session and its pastors may circle the wagons and move into self-preservation mode.

When that happens, preaching turns inward, focused on protecting the existing establishment instead of sending forth the Gospel into the world. Emphasis shifts from encouraging the members to a life of repentance unto good works to inducing them through guilt manipulation to feel sorry for the paid pastor standing behind the pulpit and those men who participate in his schemes.

This is a form of the Wizard of Oz defense. Instead of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” it becomes “Ignore the corruptions of justice in the courts. Focus on the preaching–it is good! The sacraments–we serve them!”

What is the antidote? The Apostle James was quick to tell us: “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25).

The solution is for pastors to preach not only repentance and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also God’s laws and commandments. They must teach the people how to apply them in their lives so that they can obey Paul’s injunction (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).

But more importantly, the preachers must also walk the talk, especially in God’s courts. Otherwise, God will not be pleased, for He is not mocked.