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.
Calvin’s Geneva had one of the most participatory political systems in 16th Century Europe. A substantive portion of the city’s population was able to vote in civic elections or on substantive policy changes. Elections were meaningful and could bring real change. For instance, it was through victory at the polls in 1555 that Calvin and his followers consolidated their hold over the city in a way that ensured the longstanding legacy of Calvin’s version of the Reformation.
But Geneva was no democracy. The magistrates of the city were responsible to enact and enforce policies that were for the good of the city but not necessarily reflective of anything like a popular will. One of their primary tasks was to guide the city in matters of religion, virtue, education, and health, to ensure that Geneva would be godly and that God would bless it. Within this mindset unconstrained public debate was not considered to be a good thing. Myriads of people were hauled before the Geneva council over the years to be rebuked or punished for their abuse of speech, whether against the city government or against the theology of its famous reformer. Heresy, blasphemy, false worship, and slander were all crimes regularly punished by the state.
From the perspective of virtually all early Reformed thinkers this made plenty of sense. Calvin and his contemporaries did indeed speak in terms of rights, and they had ideas of religious liberty and Christian freedom. But they had no concept of a right to do wrong. Freedom of religion meant the freedom to practice the true religion, while freedom of speech meant at best the freedom to speak in a way that promoted the welfare of the city or of the true religion.
Over the years the Reformed and the Puritans steadily moved closer towards the rights and freedoms we so value today. Puritan New England gradually loosened the ties between church and state, and it was there in Boston that the American Revolution began. But the Puritans and their heirs nevertheless maintained many of the assumptions about politics and freedom that once guided 16th Century Geneva. New England was the bastion of the Federalist Party that conceived of the future of America in terms of the rule of enlightened and virtuous elites chosen freely by a deferential public. This was the party of John Adams, under whom a Federalist Congress sought to curb the freedom of the press through the infamous legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
But post-Revolutionary America was no longer following the ideals of Puritan New England. In 1800 Thomas Jefferson’s election heralded a Republican revolution after the Revolution, a revolution that carried public opinion to its truly eminent place in American society and politics, insisting on political equality carried to its fullest logical extent. Jeffersonian democracy came to define America, sweeping the Federalist party and its outmoded understanding of politics into the dustbin of history.
In his magisterial history of the early American republic, Empire of Liberty, Gordon S Wood describes the way in which the debates about the Sedition Act and the freedom of the press changed America forever.
The Sedition Act of 1793 marked a crucial point in the development of the American idea of public opinion. Its passage provoked a debate that went far beyond the issue of freedom of speech or freedom of the press; it eventually involved the very nature of America’s intellectual life … and in the process it undermined the foundations of the elitist eighteenth century classical world on which the Founders had stood….
In the debate over the sedition law the Republican libertarian theorists … rejected both the old common law restrictions on the liberty of the press and the new legal recognition of the distinction between truth and falsity of opinion that the Federalists had incorporated into the Sedition Act. While the Federalists clung to the eighteenth century’s conception that ‘truths’ were constant and universal and capable of being discovered by enlightened and reasonable men, the Republican libertarians argued that opinions about government and governors were many and diverse and their truth could not be determined simply by individual judges and juries, no matter how reasonable such men were….
The Federalists were dumfounded. ‘How … could the rights of the people require a liberty to utter falsehood?’ they asked. ‘How could it be right to do wrong… People needed to know the ‘criterion by which we may determine with certainty, who are right, and who are wrong.'”
The Republicans, Wood points out, rejected the old assumption that the truth was the monopoly of the “educated and aristocratic few.” The elites used knowledge just as easily to manipulate and oppress as to guide and promote, Republicans reasoned, and freedom of speech and opinion was ultimately a far better means of promoting the truth than the restrictions of the past.
In making this argument Republicans frequently pointed to the relatively novel yet highly successful experiment in freedom of religion and religious diversity in the United States. If the Puritans and their Calvinist forbears had emphasized the truths of human depravity and the necessity of magisterial or clerical control over matters of education and opinion, Republican minded Christians were more likely to highlight the importance of freedom for religious liberty and genuine Christianity. If the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was once seen as something the state should use all of its powers to promote in its subjects, now the dignity of human beings as made in the image of God was seen as the basis for a free citizenry to give guidance to the state.
Although the Republican vision for America was so successful that virtually no American would question its basic premises today, the old debates endure in more subtle form. Today, ironically, the conservatives are those often thought of as liberals, those who bemoan the decline of the old authoritative media embodied in the Big Three of NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly news, and those who insist on the promotion and maintenance of a centralized system of public education. The true liberals are those who are conservative on so many other issues, those who applaud the democratization of American media and promote charter schools and vouchers as a way of bringing liberty to public education. At the root of these public debates are continuing conflicts over the appropriate relation between educated, enlightened elites and the broader public.
A similar debate plays out in the church. On the one hand are those who want pastors and clergy to tell their parishioners exactly how to live, what to think, and how to vote. They want pastors to do much more than simply teach Scripture and allow Christians individually and collectively to work out its implications for all of life. They want a church that carefully molds and enforces Christian public opinion and practice, and Christians who are obedient and mindful of the myriad of agreed-upon rules and commandments. On the other hand are those who wish their pastors would make sure that when they say “Thus sayeth the Lord” they are actually communicating the teaching of Scripture rather than their own “enlightened” opinion. The point of Christian discipleship, these people point out, is to form people who develop and practice wisdom and virtue by putting on the mind of Christ and conforming to the image of their Lord.
Of course, most thoughtful Americans and most thoughtful Christians realize that both ideas, carried to an extreme, are dangerous. Democratic equality and libertarian freedom are full of pitfalls, and it remains unclear whether or not American democracy can survive the people’s tendency to call government to do more for them than it can possibly do. Radical libertarian freedom in the area of sexual morality has spawned a social revolution whose costs are obvious but whose full tragedy remains to be determined.
On the other hand, virtually none of us would tolerate the sort of authoritarianism that was common fare in the churches and states of the past. We recognize that life is truly blessed when we have the freedom and equality to walk in the wisdom and virtue that God has given us, regardless of what our ‘betters’ may think. We are not eager to turn back the clock and abandon American democracy even as we continue to appreciate the decisive importance of solid education and the clear preaching and teaching of the word of Christ.
We are very much American Christians. That has its pitfalls, but in this respect at least, I think, it is a good thing.