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.
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.