John Calvin on Church Discipline

John Calvin's discussion of church discipline in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 12:1-13 is amazingly balanced.  For a man who is accused of being "severe" and "harsh" this is written with great sensitivity.  He enjoins gentleness and moderation upon the one being disciplined and sets forth as the goal, peace in the church.


1. Necessity and nature of church discipline

The discipline of the church, the discussion of which we have deferred to this place, must be treated briefly...  Discipline depends for the most part upon the power of the keys and upon spiritual jurisdiction...

But because some persons, in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name, let them understand this: if no society, indeed, no house which has even a small family, can be kept in proper condition without discipline, it is much more necessary in the church, whose condition should be as ordered as possible. 

Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place.  Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration -- whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance -- are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church. 

For what will happen if each is allowed to do what he pleases?  Yet that would happen, if to the preaching of doctrine there were not added private admonitions, corrections, and other aids of the sort that sustain doctrine and do not let it remain idle.  Therefore, discipline is like a bridle to restrain and tame those who rage against the doctrine of Christ; or like a spur to arouse those of little inclination; and also sometimes like a father's rod to chastise mildly and with the gentleness of Christ's Spirit those who have more seriously lapsed. 

When, therefore, we discern frightful devastation beginning to threaten the church because there is no concern and no means of restraining the people, necessity itself cries out that a remedy is needed.  Now, this is the sole remedy that Christ has enjoined and the one that has always been used among the godly.

2. Stages of church discipline

The first foundation of discipline is to provide a place for private admonition; that is, if anyone does not perform his duty willingly, or behaves insolently, or does not live honorably, or has committed any act deserving blame -- he should allow himself to be admonished; and when the situation demands it, every man should endeavor to admonish his brother. 

But let pastors and presbyters be especially watchful to do this, for their duty is not only to preach to the people, but to warn and exhort in every house, wherever they are not effective enough in general instruction.  Paul teaches this when he relates that he taught privately and from house to house [Acts 20:20], and declares himself "innocent of the blood of all" [v. 26], because he "ceased not to admonish everyone night and day with tears" [Acts 20:31]. 

For doctrine obtains force and authority where the minister not only explains to all together what they owe to Christ, but also has the right and means to require that it be kept by those whom he has observed are either disrespectful or languid toward his teaching.

If anyone either stubbornly rejects such admonitions or shows that he scorns them by persisting in his own vices, after having been admonished a second time in the presence of witnesses, Christ commands that he be called to the tribunal of the church, that is, the assembly of the elders, and there be more gravely admonished as by public authority, in order that, if he reverences the church, he may submit and obey.  If he is not even subdued by this but perseveres in his wickedness, then Christ command that, as a despiser of the church, he be removed from the believers' fellowship [Matt. 18:15, 17].

3. Concealed and open sins

But because Christ is here speaking only of secret faults, we must postulate this division: some sins are private; others, public or openly manifest.  Of the former, Christ says to every individual: "Reprove him, between you and him alone" [Matt. 18:15].  Paul says to Timothy of open sins: "Rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear" [I Tim. 5:20]. 

For Christ had previously said, "If your brother has sinned against you" [Matt. 18:15].  This phrase ["against you"] (unless you wish to be contentious) you cannot otherwise understand than as "with your knowledge alone, no others being aware."  But what the apostle enjoins upon Timothy concerning reproving openly those who sin openly, he himself follows in the case of Peter.  For when Peter sinned to the point of public scandal, Paul did not admonish him privately but brought him into the presence of the church [Gal. 2:14].

This, then, will be the right sequence in which to act: to proceed in correcting secret sins according to the steps laid down by Christ; but in open sins, if the offense is indeed public, to proceed at once to solemn rebuke by the church.

4. Light and grave sins

Here is another distinction: of sins, some are faults; others, crimes or shameful acts.  To correct these latter ones, we must not only use admonition or rebuke, but a severer remedy: as Paul shows when he not only chastises the incestuous Corinthian with words but punishes him with excommunication, as soon as he has been apprised of the crime [I Cor. 5:3 ff.]. 

Now, therefore, we begin to see better how the spiritual jurisdiction of the church, which punishes sins according to the Lord's Word, is the best support of health, foundation of order, and bond of unity.  Therefore, in excluding from its fellowship manifest adulterers, fornicators, thieves, robbers, seditious persons, perjurers, false witnesses, and the rest of this sort, as well as the insolent (who when duly admonished of their lighter vices mock God and his judgment), the church claims for itself nothing unreasonable but practices the jurisdiction conferred upon it by the Lord. 

Now, that no one may despise such a judgment of the church or regard condemnation by vote of the believers as a trivial thing, the Lord has testified that this is nothing but the publication of his own sentence, and what they have done on earth is ratified in heaven.  For they have the Word of the Lord to condemn the perverse; they have the Word to receive the repentant into grace [Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23]. 

Those who trust that without this bond of discipline the church can long stand are, I say, mistaken; unless, perhaps, we can with impunity go without that aid which the Lord foresaw would be necessary for us.  Truly, the variety of uses of this discipline will better show how great the need of it is!

5. The purpose of church discipline

In such corrections and excommunications, the church has three ends in view.  The first is that they who lead a filthy and infamous life may not be called Christians, to the dishonor of God, as if his holy church [cf. Eph. 5:25-26] were a conspiracy of wicked and abandoned men.  For since the church itself is the body of Christ [Col. 1:24], it cannot be corrupted by such foul and decaying members without some disgrace falling upon its Head. 

Therefore, that there may be no such thing in the church to brand its most sacred name with disgrace, they from whose wickedness infamy redounds to the Christian name must be banished from its family.  And here also we must preserve the order of the Lord's Supper, that it may not be profaned by being administered indiscriminately. 

For it is very true that he to whom its distribution has been committed, if he knowingly and willing admits an unworthy person whom he could rightfully turn away, is as guilty of sacrilege as if he had cast the Lord's body to dogs. 

On this account, Chrysostom gravely inveighs against priests who, fearing the power of great men, dare exclude no one.  "Blood," he says, "will be required at your hands. [Ezek. 3:18; 33:8.]  If you fear a man, he will laugh at you; but if you fear God, you will be revered also among men.  Let us not dread the fasces, the purple, the crowns; here we have a greater power.  I truly would rather give my body to death, and let my blood be poured out, than participate in that pollution."  Therefore, lest this most hallowed mystery be disgraced, discretion is very much needed in its distribution.  Yet this can be had only through the jurisdiction of the church.

The second purpose is that the good be not corrupted by the constant company of the wicked, as commonly happens.  For (such is our tendency to wander from the way) there is nothing easier than for us to be led away by bad examples from right living. 

The apostle noted this tendency when he bade the Corinthians expel the incestuous man from their company.  "A little leaven," he says, "ferments the whole lump." [I Cor. 5:6].  And he foresaw such great danger here that he prohibited all association with him.  "If any brother," he says, "bears among you the name of fornicator, miser, worshiper of idols, drunkard, or reviler, I do not allow you even to take food with such a man." [I Cor. 5:11 p.]

The third purpose is that those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent.  They who under gentler treatment would have become more stubborn so profit by the chastisement of their own evil as to be awakened when they feel the rod.  The apostle means this when he speaks as follows: "If anyone does not obey our teaching, note that man; and do not mingle with him, that he may be ashamed" [II Thess. 3:14 p.]. 

Likewise, in another passage, when he writes that he has delivered the Corinthian man to Satan: "that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord" [I Cor. 5:5]; that is (as I interpret it), Paul gave him over to temporary condemnation that he might have eternal salvation.  But he speaks of "delivering over to Satan" because the devil is outside the church, as Christ is in the church.  Some authorities refer this phrase to a certain vexing of the flesh, but this seems very doubtful to me.

6. The handling of church discipline in the various cases

With these purposes enumerated, it remains for us to see how the church carries out this part of discipline which falls within its jurisdiction.

To begin with, let us keep the division set forth above: that some sins are public; others, private or somewhat secret.  Public sins are those witnessed not by one or two persons, but committed openly and to the offense of the entire church.  I call secret sins, not those completely hidden from men, as are those of hypocrites (for these do not fall under the judgment of the church), but those of an intermediate sort, which are not unwitnessed, yet not public.

The first kind [public sins] does not require the steps which Christ lists [Matt. 18:15-17]; but when any such sin appears, the church ought to do its duty in summoning the sinner and correcting him according to his fault.

In the second kind [private sins], according to that rule of Christ, the case does not come before the church until the sinner becomes obstinate.  When it has come before the church, then the other division between crimes and faults is to be observed.  For such great severity is not to be used in lighter sins, but verbal chastisement is enough -- and that mild and fatherly -- which should not harden or confuse the sinner, but bring him back to himself, that he may rejoice rather than be sad that he has been corrected. 

But shameful acts need to be chastised with a harsher remedy.  Nor is it enough if he, who by setting a bad example through his misdeed has gravely injured the church, be chastised only with words; but he ought for a time to be deprived of the communion of the Supper until he gives assurance of his repentance.  For Paul not only rebuked the Corinthian in words but banished him from the church, and chided the Corinthians for bearing with him so long [I Cor. 5:1-7].

The ancient and better church kept this procedure while lawful government flourished.  For if anyone had committed a crime that caused offense, he was ordered first to abstain from partaking of the Sacred Supper, then to humble himself before God and witness his repentance before the church. 

There were, moreover, solemn rites customarily enjoined as marks of repentance upon those who had lapsed.  When these had been performed to the satisfaction of the church, the penitent was received into grace with laying on of hands, a reception that Cyprian often calls "peace."  He also briefly describes such a rite. "They do penance," he says, "for a set period; then they come to public confession and through the laying on of hands of bishop and clergy receive the right to communion."  Although the bishop with his clergy possessed a power of reconciliation, it required at the same time the consent of the people, as Cyprian elsewhere shows.

7. In the ancient church, discipline applied to all offenders alike

As no one was exempt from this discipline, both princes and common people submitted to it.  And rightly!  For it was established by Christ, to whom it is fitting that all royal scepters and crowns submit...

In this place I say nothing about those persons through whom this jurisdiction is to be exercised; for I have discussed this elsewhere.  I add only this: Paul's course of action for excommunicating a man is the lawful one, provided the elders do not do it by themselves alone, but with the knowledge and approval of the church; in this way the multitude of the people does not decide the action but observes as witness and guardian so that nothing may be done according to the whim of a few.  Indeed, the whole sequence of the action, besides the calling on God's name, ought to have that gravity which bespeaks the presence of Christ in order that there may be no doubt that he himself presides at his own tribunal.

8. Severity and mildness in church discipline

But we ought not to pass over the fact that such severity as is joined with a "spirit of gentleness" [Gal. 6:1] befits the church.  For we must always, as Paul bids us, take particular care that he who is punished be not overwhelmed with sorrow [II Cor. 2:7].  Thus a remedy would become destruction.  But, from the purpose intended it would be better to take a rule of moderation. 

For, in excommunication the intent is to lead the sinner to repentance and to remove bad examples from the midst, lest either Christ's name be maligned or others be provoked to imitate them.  If, then, we look to these things, it will be easy for us to judge how far severity ought to go and where it ought to stop.  Therefore, when a sinner gives testimony of his repentance to the church, and by this testimony wipes out the offense as far as he can, he is not to be urged any further.  If he is so urged, the rigor will now exceed due measure.

In this respect we cannot at all excuse the excessive severity of the ancients, which both completely departed from the Lord's injunction and was also terribly dangerous.  For when they imposed solemn penance and deprivation from Holy Communion sometimes for seven, sometimes for four, sometimes for three, years, and sometimes for life, what could be the result but either great hypocrisy or utter despair?  Likewise, it was not profitable or consonant with reason that one who had fallen be again cast out of the church to the end of his life.  Whoever will weigh the matter with sound judgment will recognize their lack of prudence in this.

However, I rather disapprove the public custom here than accuse all those who have used it, of whom it is certain that some disliked the practice but put up with it because they could not correct it.  In truth, Cyprian declares how it was not by his own will that he was so rigorous.  "Our patience," he says, "and gentleness and humaneness are ready for all comers.  I desire that all return to the church; I long that all our fellow soldiers be gathered within Christ's camp and God the Father's abode.  I forgive all things; I overlook much; in ardent zeal to bring the brotherhood together, I do not judicially examine in detail the faults committed against God.  In pardoning faults more than I ought I am myself almost at fault.  I embrace with prompt and full affection those returning in repentance, confessing their sin in making humble and simple satisfaction." 

Chrysostom is somewhat harder, yet he speaks as follows: "If God is so kind, why does his priest wish to seem so rigorous?"  We know, moreover, what gentleness Augustine used toward the Donatists.  He did not hesitate to take back to their bishoprics those who had returned from schism, and that immediately after repentance!  But because a contrary practice had come to prevail, they were compelled to yield their own judgment, and to follow it.

9. The limits of our judgment according to church discipline

This gentleness is required in the whole body of the church, that it should deal mildly with the lapsed and should not punish with extreme rigor, but rather, according to Paul's injunction, confirm its love toward them [II Cor. 2:8].  Similarly, each layman ought to temper himself to this mildness and gentleness. 

It is, therefore, not our task to erase from the number of the elect those who have been expelled from the church, or to despair as if they were already lost.  It is lawful to regard them as estranged from the church, and thus, from Christ -- but only for such time as they remain separated. 

However, if they also display more stubbornness than gentleness, we should still commend them to the Lord's judgment, hoping for better things of them in the future than we see in the present.  Nor should we on this account cease to call upon God in their behalf.  And (to put it in one word) let us not condemn to death the very person who is in the hand and judgment of God alone; rather, let us only judge of the character of each man's works by the law of the Lord. 

While we follow this rule, we rather take our stand upon the divine judgment than put forward our own.  Let us not claim for ourselves more license in judgment, unless we wish to limit God's power and confine his mercy by law.  For God, whenever it pleases him, changes the worst men into the best, engrafts the alien, and adopts the stranger into the church.  And the Lord does this to frustrate men's opinions and restrain their rashness -- which, unless it is checked, ventures to assume for itself a greater right of judgment than it deserves.

10. Excommunication is corrective

For when Christ promises that what his people "bind on earth shall be bound in heaven" [Matt. 18:18], he limits the force of binding to ecclesiastical censure.  By this those who are excommunicated are not cast into everlasting ruin and damnation, but in hearing that their life and morals are condemned, they are assured of their everlasting condemnation unless they repent. 

Excommunication differs from anathema in that the latter, taking away all pardon, condemns and consigns a man to eternal destruction; the former, rather, avenges and chastens his moral conduct.  And although excommunication also punishes the man, it does so in such a way that, by forewarning him of his future condemnation, it may call him back to salvation.  But if that be obtained, reconciliation and restoration to communion await him. 

Moreover, anathema is very rarely or never used.  Accordingly, though ecclesiastical discipline does not permit us to live familiarly or have intimate contact with excommunicated persons, we ought nevertheless to strive by whatever means we can in order that they may turn to a more virtuous life and may return to the society and unity of the church.  So the apostle also teaches: "Do not look upon them as enemies, but warn them as brothers" [II Thess. 3:15].  Unless this gentleness is maintained in both private and public censures, there is danger lest we soon slide down from discipline to butchery.

11. Against willful excess in demanding church discipline

This is also a prime requisite for the moderation of discipline, as Augustine argues against the Donatists: that individual laymen, if they see vices not diligently enough corrected by the council of elders, should not therefore at once depart from the church; and that the pastors themselves, if they cannot cleanse all that needs correction according to their hearts' desire, should not for that reason resign their ministry or disturb the entire church with unaccustomed rigor. 

For what Augustine writes is very true: "Whoever either corrects what he can by reproof, or excludes, without breaking the bond of peace, what he cannot correct -- disapproving with fairness, bearing with firmness -- this man is free and loosed from the curse." 

In another passage he gives the reason: "All pious method and measure of ecclesiastical discipline ought ever to look to 'the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' [Eph. 4:3], which the apostle orders us to keep by 'forbearing one another' [Eph. 4:2], and when it is not kept, the medicine of punishment begins to be not only superfluous but also harmful, and so ceases to be medicine."  "He who diligently ponders these things," Augustine says, "neither neglects severe discipline in the maintenance of unity, nor by intemperate correction breaks the bond of fellowship." 

He indeed admits that not only ought pastors to exert themselves to the end that no fault may remain in the church, but that every man ought to strive to the same end according to his strength.  And Augustine does not hide the fact that he who neglects to warn, reprove, and correct evil men, even though he does not favor them or sin with them, is guilty before the Lord. 

But if he plays such a part that he is able to cut the evil men off from partaking of the sacraments, and does not do so, he sins not in another's misdeed, but in his own.  Only, Augustine would have that prudence used which the Lord also requires "lest, when the tares are being uprooted, the grain be harmed" [Matt. 13:29].  From this point he concludes with Cyprian: "Let a man mercifully correct what he can; let him patiently bear what he cannot correct, and groan and sorrow over it with love."

12. Disruptive severity: Donatists and Anabaptists

But Augustine says this because of the overscrupulousness of the Donatists, who, when they observed faults in the church which the bishops reproved in words but did not punish with excommunication (because they thought they could gain nothing in this way), inveighed fiercely against the bishops as betrayers of discipline and in an impious schism separated themselves from Christ's flock. 

The Anabaptists act in the same way today.  While they recognize no assembly of Christ to exist except one conspicuous in every respect for its angelic perfection, under the pretense of their zeal they subvert whatever edification there is. 

"Such persons," says Augustine, "not out of hatred of other men's wickedness but out of fondness for their own contentions, ensnaring the weak folk by boasting of their own name, strive either to draw them all to their side or at least to divide them.  Puffed up in their pride, mad in their stubbornness, deceitful in their slanders, and turbulent in their seditions, they draw the shade of a rigid severity to hide their lack of the light of truth.  Those things which Scripture enjoins to be done to correct the vices of the brethren with a modest remedy while sincere love is kept and unity of peace preserved, they seize upon and turn to the sacrilege of schism and the occasion of cutting off." 

Thus, "Satan transforms himself into an angel of light" [II Cor. 11:14, cf. Vg.]  when, on occasion of just severity, he prompts men to merciless cruelty.  While this bond remains firm among Christians, all his powers are powerless to do harm, the mousetraps of his treachery are weakened, and his schemes of subversions vanish away.

13. Augustine requires discrimination in discipline

Augustine especially commends this one thing: if the contagion of sin invades the multitude, the severe mercy of a vigorous discipline is necessary.  "For advice to separate," he says, "is vain, harmful, and sacrilegious, because it becomes impious and proud; and it disturbs weak good men more than it corrects bold bad ones."  And what he there enjoins on others, he himself has faithfully followed. 

For, writing to Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, he complains that drunkenness (so severely condemned in Scripture) is raging unpunished in Africa, and he advises calling a council of bishops to provide a remedy.  He then adds: "These things, in my judgment, are removed not roughly or harshly, or in any imperious manner; and more by teaching than by commanding, more by monishing than by menacing.  For so we must deal with a great number of sinners.  But we are to use severity toward the sins of a few." 

Yet he does not mean that bishops should on this account condone public crimes, or remain silent because they cannot punish them more severely, as he explains afterward.  But he wishes the method of correction to be so tempered that, as far as possible, it may bring health rather than death to the body. 

Therefore, he concludes as follows: "That precept of the apostle on the separation of evil persons must accordingly by no means be neglected when it can be applied without danger of violating peace.  For he did not wish it to be done otherwise.  And this principle must also be kept: bearing with one another, we should try to keep 'the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' [I Cor. 5:3-7; Eph. 4:2-3].


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