Category Archives: Church Discipline
Soon after John Calvin was appointed as a pastor of the Genevan church, having only recently arrived as a refugee fleeing persecution in his native France, one of his first actions was to petition the city government for the establishment of church discipline. It was a hard sell. In no other Reformed city had the civil magistrates given clergy such authority. The reformers Zwingli and Bullinger maintained that overseeing the moral lives of Christians was a task for the civil magistrate. Most Reformed theologians and magistrates associated ecclesiastical discipline with papal tyranny.
Calvin acknowledged that the Roman church had grievously abused discipline by wielding it tyrannically to accomplish all manner of church goals. To prevent this evil, he called the magistrates “to ordain and elect certain persons of good life and witness from among the faithful” to shepherd the people on behalf of the church as a whole. These elders, along with the pastors, would bind themselves to the procedure laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18, by which professing Christians were to be held accountable to one another in the life of Christian discipleship.
While the city council granted the pastors’ request in principle, it soon became evident that there was little agreement in practice. Calvin found himself banished from the city. Within three years, however, the city asked him to come back. Though he was reluctant, he agreed to return under the condition that church discipline be established. The city relented, though nearly 15 years of conflict remained before the consistory—the body of pastors and elders charged with the ministry of church discipline—could rest secure from political interference.
Calvin’s consistory disciplined members of the Genevan church for a wide range of sins including idolatry, violence, sexual immorality, marital problems, and interpersonal conflict. They disciplined men who abused their wives and children, sons who refused to care for their aging parents, landowners who exploited their tenants, doctors who failed to care properly for the sick, merchants who practiced price gouging or sought to prevent economic competition, and employers who exploited or mistreated their workers. While many people were brought before the consistory, temporarily barred from the Lord’s Supper, and required to express public repentance or reconciliation, very few were permanently excommunicated (i.e., banished from participation in the sacraments).
Calvin viewed discipline as a necessary extension of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament. While he did not identify it as a mark of the church, he did insist that discipline is essential to the spiritual health of a church, without which a church cannot long endure.
The gospel always leads to righteousness. Grace always leads to life. Having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death, we are enabled to practice love, justice, mercy and peace through the indestructible power of his life.
Grace that fails to produce such righteousness is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It rests on the illusion that grace involves endless affirmation and endless forgiveness. It conflates salvation with justification, the gospel with the forgiveness of sins. It seems loving to us, but it expresses the easy kind of love that costs us nothing. It proclaims the comfort of the gospel but robs it of its power to give life.
Christians often counter the danger of cheap grace by emphasizing that, having been saved through Christ, we are now called to demonstrate our gratitude to God by obeying his law. Yet emphasizing a return to the law merely distorts our understanding of the Christian life. It tempts us to view our practice of righteousness merely as a response to the gospel, rather than as the working of the gospel itself in our lives. It turns the practice of righteousness into a burden, an endless debt of gratitude that we can never possibly repay.
Just as dangerous, emphasizing a return to the law inevitably leads us to associate Christian discipleship with judgment and fear rather than with liberty and life. Confusing the call to righteousness with the demands of the law, we once again come face to face with its pronouncement of death. We become ashamed of our inevitable failures before one another. We bristle against those who would seek to keep us accountable. We resist the rigor of discipleship because we fear that it will rob us of the peace of God’s grace.
In these ways we lose sight of power of grace. We forget that by walking in the power of the Spirit, as hard and difficult as it is, we are walking the path of “life to the full” (John 10:10). We forget that while the way of sin and injustice is the way of slavery and death – even now, even during this life – the way of the Spirit is the way of liberty and life – even now, even this side of Christ’s return.
In short, we lose sight of just how much we are missing when we ignore the gospel’s active power to change and heal us, and so cease spurring one another to pursue the fullness of life in Christ with every fiber of our being.
The apostle Paul felt a tremendous burden to communicate this truth about the life-giving power of the gospel. Christ has not merely justified us by saving us from the wrath of God, he insisted. Rather, he has given us the gift of righteousness in order that we might “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). God raised Jesus from the dead in order that “we too may live a new life,” even now, even this side of the resurrection (6:4).
“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (6:15) That is the temptation of cheap grace. It is the call always to affirm a person, regardless of how miserable she might be in her way of life. It is a curtailed gospel, a gospel robbed of the power to grant life. It is well-intentioned, to be sure. It balks at calling a person to walk the hard path of discipleship because it fears that such a call will be heard as one of judgment and death.
And yet, Paul shows us, what calls us to the hard path of discipleship is not the law, but grace. It is not death, but life. After all, no benefit accrues to a person who continues to live in slavery to sin and its desires. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (6:21) Or as he puts it later, “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (8:6).
What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is not merely that God affirms them, regardless of their sin. What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is that God empowers them toward life in the Spirit. They need to know that the church will bear their burden with them as they walk this path.
There are far too many people in the church who “have a form of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). There are far too many who through their teaching “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We need to recover our confidence in the gospel’s truth that “if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness” (8:6, 9-10).
To be sure, we welcome all who confess their sins in a spirit of repentance, no matter what the sin. We celebrate the power of forgiveness even when it has already been granted seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18). We never give up on anyone.
But we remain the body of those who confess that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). At its core, our faith is in one whose life was so powerful that not even death could contain it. The good news is not only that we have been forgiven. It is that we are being changed.
And so, as sinful we remain, as much as we have to confess our sins and repent again every week, even every day, we do so in a spirit of hope. As much as the Christian life is inevitably a life of suffering and self-denial, we take up our cross and follow our Lord because his is the way of life. As Paul put it,
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, … the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs … if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:14-17).
In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.
In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).
Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.
Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay.
Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.
I once attended a church in which a group of women decided to start a book club as a means of fostering Christian friendship among themselves. The women only saw one another at worship and were looking for further ways of connecting. This is not uncommon, of course. But the book club never got off the ground. The women had selected a book to read and were planning their first meeting when the pastor got wind of it. Without discussion or warning, he announced from the pulpit that the women would be reading a different book, one that he had selected. That sort of sucked the life out of the endeavor, turning what had been a bottom-up affair among women to one that came down from the man at the top. Yet I could not help but wondering, why did this pastor assume he had the authority to take control in this way? I eventually realized that this was not an isolated incident. The pastor was a man accustomed to being in control. He was willing to use his office as he felt necessary in order to accomplish his ‘pastoral’ objectives, without accountability.
Of course, there are few controversies in the church older than that of church government. In the New Testament the pastors of the church are interchangeably described as presbyters and bishops. Not long after the apostles passed from the scene, however, Christian churches began to rally around the authority of particular bishops (such as the bishop of Rome) as focal points of unity and standards of orthodoxy. Bishops took on a whole new array of governmental tasks, overseeing the deacons’ care for the poor and adjudicating conflicts among believers. The church’s emerging hierarchy was a clear imitation of the highly successful polity of the Roman Empire.
By the high middle ages the pope had won widespread recognition of his authority not only as the vicar of Peter, but the vicar of Christ. The pope’s authority in the church was embraced as having been instituted by Christ in his famous words to Peter,
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
The canon lawyers of the medieval church recognized that Christ spoke similar words to the apostles as a group, not simply to Peter, and so they came to distinguish between two types of authority grounded in Jesus’ statement. On the one hand, they argued, Christ gave all the apostles, and hence all priests directly, the sacerdotal authority to administer the sacraments, including penance. On the other hand, Christ gave to Peter alone, and hence to the popes, supreme ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘administration’, the power to govern, to legislate, and to adjudicate specific disputes. In such matters the pope had the ‘fullness of power’; he could not violate articles of faith, but he did have full discretionary authority over the church’s temporal affairs, and – very significantly – that authority was backed up by the powers of excommunication.
The sharpest medieval critic of this view was Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius denied the divine origin of the papacy and insisted that the church is a purely spiritual institution concerned with otherworldly salvation. He vigorously rejected any coercive power on the part of the church, including excommunication, insisting that ecclesiastical affairs of jurisdiction and administration belong to civil government. Marsilius thus became the clear forerunner of the later Protestant theory known as “Erastianism,” in which civil magistrates are placed at the head of the church and the authority of the church’s ministers is limited to the word and sacraments.
The Marsilian or Erastian view became the default view of the early magisterial reformers. To varying degrees, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Henrician reformers in England all not only relied on magisterial power as an emergency source of authority to launch the reformation, but embraced civil government as the rightful overseer of the church’s order and life. On the far extreme was the English Reformation, with Henry VIII’s claim to be the Head of the Church. Much more moderate was Martin Luther, who was always uncomfortable with civil authority in the church, but who struggled to find an alternative.
Most prominent in Reformed churches were the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, who equated the church and civil government as essentially one society with two kinds of power, that of pastors and that of civil magistrates. For Zwingli and Bullinger the tasks of excommunication and poor relief entrusted to the church in New Testament appropriately fell to civil magistrates in the era of Christendom. Now that such civil rulers had converted to the faith, there was no need for ecclesiastical ministers to maintain such functions independently of the city or commonwealth. Ecclesiastical control over discipline and poor relief was associated with the tyranny of the papists.
It was Calvin, finally, influenced by Martin Bucer, who began to navigate a way between the extreme claims of the papacy, on the one hand, and the Protestant Erastians (or Marsilians) on the other. Calvin insisted that as the spiritual kingdom of Christ, the church is called to administer specific spiritual functions without interference from political authorities. These functions do not only consist of the word and sacraments, but of discipline (including excommunication) and of care for the poor. Calvin thus insisted that the church has its own right of spiritual jurisdiction that must be sharply distinguished from the political jurisdiction of civil government.
How was this spiritual jurisdiction to be distinguished from the tyrannical claims of the papacy? Calvin maintained that the church’s jurisdiction is non-coercive. It simply consists in barring a person from the Eucharist and urging him to repent. Just as importantly, he stressed that the church’s right to excommunicate or discipline its members cannot be invoked with reference to any dispute or temporal matter whatsoever, as happened under the papacy, but only with reference to spiritual matters. To put it another way, the church could only discipline a person if she was in direct and clear violation of the moral law of God. Thus the church’s spiritual jurisdiction was not magisterial or discretionary, but ministerial. It was entirely bound up with the word such that church discipline could be said to be an extension or appendage of that word, an exercise of the spiritual sovereignty of Christ.
For Calvin even the church’s care for the poor, an expression of the communion described in Acts 4, is fundamentally spiritual rather than temporal. It is a direct manifestation of the restoration that the kingdom of Christ has begun in human beings.
But Calvin agreed with the other reformers that the outward and temporal matters of the church’s life are to be sharply distinguished from these spiritual matters, and are therefore subject to a different kind of government or polity. Such “indifferent” matters included the appropriate time and day of worship, the speech and attire of women, the forms and postures of liturgy, none of which, Calvin insisted, pertain to the conscience (which does not mean that scripture has nothing to say about them).
Calvin was not very clear about just who should regulate such indifferent things. Clearly he permitted civil government some control here. He submitted to the Geneva government’s decision concerning the frequency of the Eucharist, to its control of the procedures by which the ministers of the church were elected, and to its funding of the church’s ministries (and consequently its control over the church’s finances). Equally clearly, he insisted that civil government could not direct such matters according to its own whim and preference. All the affairs of church life are to be ordered consistent with scripture and for the edification and peace of the body.
Yet it is noteworthy that when Calvin described the offices of church government he did so with respect to the church’s spiritual functions rather than with respect to its temporal or indifferent affairs. For instance, Calvin was adamant in his preaching that the deacons of the Genevan church – which he said should include an order of women – were to be embraced as possessing a spiritual office like that of the pastors rather than that of the civil magistrates. Even more significantly, he always defined the office of elder with respect to the function of spiritual church discipline. He never characterized it as an office of general rule or jurisdiction in the church. In that sense Calvin was no Presbyterian. His office of elder, unlike that of later Reformed and Presbyterian churches, had one specific spiritual function – the function of church discipline. And it is only with respect to that specific function, he argued, that the elders can claim to administer the spiritual government of Christ’s church.
Why did the later Reformed tradition develop a much broader understanding of the office of elder? When Reformed churches were established in Catholic France, under the cross, it was obviously impossible to concede control of even indifferent ecclesiastical affairs to hostile civil magistrates. French churches therefore tended to turn such affairs over to the control of deacons and elders (in some cases the offices of elder and deacon even blended into one). But they were mindful that this was an outward or temporal authority, not a spiritual one. Evidence for this appears from the fact that they (ordinarily) dealt with matters of (spiritual) church discipline at separate meetings from those in which they handled the general affairs of church government.
A similar development, I believe, explains the evolution of church government in the Dutch Reformed Churches. To this day the elders in Dutch Reformed churches are supposed to distinguish their spiritual oversight of the congregation, with which they deal in meetings of the Consistory (pastors and elders), from the matters of general church government, with which they deal in meetings of the Council (pastors, elders, and deacons). Here the Dutch Reformed ‘Council’ (an office of the church) seems to have neatly taken the place of the Geneva ‘Council’ (the supreme authority of Geneva’s civil government) in governing the indifferent affairs of church life.
What worries me is that in some Reformed churches there seems to be little understanding of the difference between the spiritual government of the church, in which the pastors, elders, and deacons administer the kingship of Christ, and the church’s handling of indifferent affairs, in which they are merely representatives of the congregation. In short, I fear that too often elders and pastors think that when they are exercising their authority over indifferent matters they are exercising the authority of Christ! Perhaps that helps explain why many elders devote far more time to such mundane affairs than they do to the vital and spiritual function of church discipline.
Understanding the difference between spiritual and indifferent affairs also has implications for the involvement of the broader congregation in decisions concerning the latter. If Calvin and the other reformers were willing to cede significant authority over the indifferent affairs of church life to civil authorities (a willingness I think we should wholeheartedly reject) because such matters were simply to be conducted for the edification and peace of all believers, how much more should we yield authority over such matters to the very believers whose edification and peace is its objective? This doesn’t mean the church need always operate by majority vote. It does suggest that the general matters of church government might be appropriately handled at meetings and through procedures in which all faithful men and women, in addition to the officers of the church, can participate.
Such a conception of church government would have a twofold salutary advantage. First, it would make the church more sensitive to the gifts, wisdom, and consent of its full membership. Second, it would help people to distinguish the spiritual government of Christ administered by the church’s officers strictly according to the word from those indifferent matters of government appropriately subject to the primary concerns of love, edification, prudence, compromise, and peace. That in turn might help our fragmented churches achieve a greater measure of unity. I believe the Apostle Paul had something to say about that.
One of the problems with conservatism as a theological perspective is that it tends to assume that the status quo within the church is grounded in Scripture. In an era when the biggest and most visible denominations are all sliding to the left and abandoning Scriptural teaching on numerous points, many Christians fall into the mistake of interpreting every church controversy through the lens of the conservative/liberal dichotomy. In some of these controversies, it is conservatives who find themselves defending theologically dubious practices against those who seek change.
Let me provide three examples, all taken from the early Reformation period.
1. It is well known that the primary point of conflict between John Calvin and the civil government of Geneva centered on Calvin’s insistence that the pastors and elders of the church, not the civil government, had the final say on who could or could not participate in the Lord’s Supper. What is less well known is that Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper to be observed “at least weekly.” For Calvin Communion was the central expression of the union and fellowship of believers with Christ and with one another. Its observance should constantly characterize the gathering and worship of the church.
The civil government of Geneva, for its own not entirely theological reasons, insisted that the Lord’s Supper should be observed quarterly, and most Reformed churches have followed the guidance of the state ever since, celebrating the sacrament at most monthly. Traditions can be hard to break even when there is good reason to do so.
2. When the Reformation triumphed in the Netherlands the Reformed pastors immediately sought to establish what they regarded as biblical church discipline. Like Calvin, they believed the church should be marked not simply by belief in the gospel but by communal living that is worthy of the gospel. But they immediately ran into trouble with the civil authorities who were loath to give so much authority to the pastors. The result was a compromise. As Andrew Pettegree describes it in Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation,
The ministers were expected to marry or baptize any citizens who presented themselves, and in some towns it was only with difficulty that the Calvinist consistories defended their right to restrict access to the Lord’s Supper to full members of their own church…. [T]he Calvinist consistories themselves adamantly defended their right to restrict full membership of their church to those who had made a full confession of faith; a distinction which inevitably led, even among those sympathetic to the Reformed, to a two-tier membership, with full members, the lidmaeten, who subjected themselves to the full disciplinary supervision of the consistory, being far outnumbered by liefhebbers, citizens who attended services but did not make the Confession of Faith which would have secured admission to communion (188, 189-190).
Does this longstanding two-tiered membership help explain the reluctance of so many elders in the Dutch Reformed tradition today to allow children who have professed their faith and understand the basic gospel to participate in the Lord’s Supper? Does this help explain why many find it completely normal when most of the teenagers in these churches are baptized and attend the services but do not observe Christ’s call to observe the sacrament in remembrance of him?
3. Calvin and most of the Calvinist wing of the Reformed tradition consistently rejected the use of musical instruments in worship because they viewed the New Testament rather than the Old Testament tabernacle/temple ceremonies as the model for Christian worship. They rightly observed that organs had been brought into the churches in the middle ages along with the other forms of Roman Catholic piety and superstition to which they were so opposed. The aversion to musical instruments in worship came to mark the Presbyterian tradition until the 19th Century.
The Dutch Reformed are often cited as an example of a branch of the Reformed tradition that broke with this attitude towards instruments in worship. What is less often appreciated is that the reason why the Dutch churches kept their organs was because of the insistence of the state. To cite Pettegree once again,
[I]f the magistrates were expected to maintain the church space, they were not necessarily prepared to allow the ministers to dictate to them on all aspects of their internal decoration. Thus representations from the more precise ministers that organs should be removed along with other ‘idols’, were generally ignored. Organs belonged to the municipality or parish and could not be removed without their permission, a circumstance which provoked some Calvinist ministers almost beyond endurance. ‘I really marvel’, protested Jean Polyander in 1579, ‘that when other idols were removed, this noisy idol was retained.’ But retained it was, despite frequent protests from the Calvinist national synod (188-189).
Does this help explain why many Dutch Reformed elders can be so critical of the musical instruments brought into church in contemporary worship and yet be so oblivious to their own pious appreciation for the pipe organ?
All three of these examples pertain to areas of continued disagreement in Reformed churches today. In each case the Reformed pastors advocated a particular practice on the basis of Scripture and Reformed theology, and in each case the magistrates prohibited that practice for its own reasons. Yet in each case the most conservative Reformed churches today follow the practice once dictated by the magistrates rather than that defended on the basis of Scripture. To be sure, once certain practices were forced on the church theologians rose up to articulate post facto theological defenses of those practices. But such theological arguments should not blind us to the history that often lies behind the practices defended.
These are not matters over which Christians should ever divide. But conservatives need to be just as open to self-criticism on the basis of Scripture as they are to the criticism of whatever seems new and different. After all, the Reformation calls the church not simply to be Reformed, but to be always reforming according to Scripture.