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Why Calvin Thought Discipline Is Essential to the Health of the Church

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.

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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.

Read the rest of this article at 9 marks.


What’s in a name? How the consistory (or session) can alienate a church.

During Calvin’s time in Geneva probably the single greatest area of controversy between the consistory and the people of Geneva revolved around a seemingly very trivial issue: names. To summarize a longstanding Geneva controversy, Calvin and the other pastors (all of whom were French; not a single one was a native Genevan) launched a campaign to prohibit the people of the city from giving their children traditional or familial names associated with Catholic saints or pagan figures, requiring instead that all infants must be baptized with a Christian (biblical) name.

Now while from the perspective of broader history this may seem like a bizarre issue on which to take a stand, some perspective helps us see why people took the matter so seriously. From the viewpoint of Calvin and the other pastors what a person names his child is a big indicator of what is important to that person. Names were important in medieval Christendom, and the pastors were eager to lead their flock away from Catholic superstition and into biblical Reformed piety.

On the other hand it is obvious why this attitude poisoned relations with the people of Geneva. Many of the predominant family names in the city were names prohibited by the magistrates at the urging of the pastors. Many a man named Claude had to be told publicly by the pastors that his own name was unacceptable and could not be given to his son. And Americans should be able to resonate with the bitterness that the problem seemed to originate with people who weren’t even from the city: the French.

Of course, many of the people, including some of the governing elites, refused to oblige. So when they brought their children for baptism they did so presenting them with names prohibited by the city government. The response of the pastors was, in the middle of the baptismal ceremony in front of the whole church, to choose a name themselves. Remember, at the time the baptismal ceremony and Christening was legally binding. Often this sort of clerical heavy-handedness led to public confrontation and repeatedly it provoked riots.

The pastors did not back down. They insisted that the magistrates excommunicate anyone who participated in these displays of defiance and disorder. The issue had escalated to the point that refusing to give your son or daughter a name the pastors approved could get both you and your children excommunicated.

Of course, anyone who is familiar with Calvin’s discussion of the ministry and of church discipline in his Institutes and commentaries should know that this doesn’t exactly fit with Calvin’s own insistence that pastors are to preach nothing beyond the word of Christ and that people are to be excommunicated only for offenses specifically condemned in Scripture. As Calvin often pointed out, pastors who ignored these restraints ceased being ministers of Christ and, like the Roman clergy, exercised tyrannical authority over the church.

To be sure, Calvin taught that Christians were to obey their civil magistrates, and in that sense Calvin could say that those who were excommunicated were condemned for their refusal to submit to legitimate authority and their participation in disorderly conduct, but of course, everyone knew who had persuaded the magistrates to ban the various prohibited names.

What is the biblical precedent for the approach of Calvin and his consistory? It is hard to imagine that Paul and the apostles would have refused to baptize people who had pagan names. There is certainly no evidence for it. The closest analogy seems to be the issue of Christians eating food that had been offered to idols and on that issue Paul is quite clear: Christians are not to judge one another, though it is very good if the strong (i.e., those who eat the food) give up their rights as a display of love to the weak. In fact, it is clear that Paul lays a moral burden on the strong to serve the weak in this way, though given his comments on judgment, it is evident that he believed this service should be voluntary.

From that perspective, it seems clear that Calvin and his consistory were not simply ministering the authority of Christ and encouraging the people of Geneva voluntarily to serve one another in love. On the contrary, they were – in an authoritarian and heavy-handed way that the people no doubt associated with the clerical tyranny of Roman bishops from whom they thought they had been liberated – domineering over their flock in an area of tremendous personal and familial significance. And they were doing so in a way that violated Calvin’s own principles of church government.

I fear that this happens far too often. While Scripture commands believers to obey those placed in authority over them, it also commands pastors and elders not to domineer over the flock. Jesus told the apostles that they were to follow his model of sacrificial service rather than lording themselves over the church. Yet how often do pastors and elders take an issue not clearly addressed in Scripture and seek to force their own wisdom and practice on a congregation?

To be sure, there are certainly decisions of order and edification that bishops and presbyters have to make, decisions not explicitly informed by Scripture but requiring the use of prudence and wisdom. But when the officers of the church use this discretionary authority they are to do so consistent with the overriding principles of love and unity. There is a difference between ministering the absolute authority of Christ and his word (i.e., preaching, church discipline, regulative principle, etc.) and humbly serving the church by ensuring that all things are done decently and in order. Pastors and elders must carefully consider which type of authority they are exercising in any given context, and conduct themselves accordingly.

For Calvin this issue played a major role in contributing to dissension and factionalism in the Genevan church. With hindsight it is hard to see how it could possibly have been worth it. I wonder how many churches today experience the same problem.

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