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§ 106. Calvin’s Theory of Discipline.


Discipline is so important an element in Calvin’s Church polity, that it must be more fully considered. Discipline was the cause of his expulsion from Geneva, the basis of his flourishing French congregation at Strassburg, the chief reason for his recall, the condition of his acceptance, the struggle and triumph of his life, and the secret of his moral influence to this day. His rigorous discipline, based on his rigorous creed, educated the heroic French, Dutch, English, Scotch, and American Puritans (using this word in a wider sense for strict Calvinists). It fortified them for their trials and persecutions, and made them promoters of civil and religious liberty.

The severity of the system has passed away, even in Geneva, Scotland, and New England, but the result remains in the power of self-government, the capacity for organization, the order and practical efficiency which characterizes the Reformed Churches in Europe and America.

Calvin’s great aim was to realize the purity and holiness of the Church as far as human weakness will permit. He kept constantly in view the ideal of "a Church without spot or wrinkle or blemish," which Paul describes in the Epistle to the Ephesians 5:27. He wanted every Christian to be consistent with his profession, to show his faith by good works, and to strive to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. He was the only one among the Reformers who attempted and who measurably carried out this sublime idea in a whole community.

Luther thought the preaching of the gospel would bring about all the necessary changes, but he had to complain bitterly, at the end of his life, of the dissolute manners of the students and citizens at Wittenberg, and seriously thought of leaving the city in disgust.712712    Friederich Julius Stahl, a convert from Judaism, a very able lawyer and statesman, and one of the chief champions of modern high-church Lutheranism whose motto was, "Authority, not Majority" (although his wife was Reformed and he himself attributed his conversion to the Reformed Professor Krafft in Erlangen), says in his book, Die Lutherische Kirche und die Union (1860), that Calvin introduced a new principle into Protestantism; namely, the glorification of God by the full dominion of his Word in the life of Christendom ("die Verherrlichung Gottes durch die wirkliche volle Herrschaft seines Wortes im Leben der Christenheit").

Calvin knew well enough that the ideal could only be imperfectly realized in this world, but that it was none the less our duty to strive after perfection. He often quotes Augustin against the Donatists who dreamed of an imaginary purity of the Church, like the Anabaptists who, he observes, "acknowledge no congregation to belong to Christ, unless it be in all respects conspicuous for angelic perfection, and who, under pretext of zeal, destroy all edification." He consents to Augustin’s remark that "schemes of separation are pernicious and sacrilegious, because they proceed from pride and impiety, and disturb the good who are weak, more than they correct the wicked who are bold." In commenting on the parable of the net which gathered of every kind (Matt. 13:47), he says: "The Church while on earth is mixed with good and bad and will never be free of all impurity … . Although God, who is a God of order, commands us to exercise discipline, he allows for a time to hypocrites a place among believers until he shall set up his kingdom in its perfection on the last day. As far as we are concerned, we must strive to correct vices and to purge the Church of impurity, although she will not be free from all stain and blemish till Christ shall separate the goats from the sheep."713713    In Tholuck’s ed. of Calvin’s Harmony of the Gospels, I. P. II. 21.

Calvin discusses the subject of discipline in the twelfth chapter of the fourth book of his Institutes. His views are sound and scriptural. "No society," he says at the outset, "no house can be preserved in proper condition without discipline. The Church ought to be the most orderly society of all. As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the Church, so discipline forms the nerves and ligaments which connect the members and keep each in its proper place. It serves as a bridle to curb and restrain the refractory who resist the doctrine of Christ; or as a spur to stimulate the inactive; and sometimes as a father’s rod to chastise, in mercy and with the gentleness of the spirit of Christ, those who have grievously fallen away. It is the only remedy against a dreadful desolation in the Church."

One of the greatest objections which he had against the Roman Church of his day was the utter want of discipline in constant violation of the canons. He asserts, without fear of contradiction, that "there was scarcely one of the (Roman) bishops, and not one in a hundred of the parochial clergy, who, if sentence were to be passed upon his conduct according to the ancient canons, would not be excommunicated, or, to say the very least, deposed from his office."714714    Inst. IV. ch. V. § 14. In the same chapter (§ 1) he says of the bishops of his day that most of them were ignorant of the Scriptures, and either drunkards or fornicators or gamblers or hunters. "The greatest absurdity is that even boys, scarcely ten years of age, have, by the permission of the pope, been made bishops." Pope Leo X. himself was made archbishop in his eighth and cardinal-deacon in his thirteenth year. The Roman Church at that time tolerated almost anything but heresy and disobedience to the pope, which in her eyes is worse than the greatest moral crime.

He distinguished between the discipline of the people and the discipline of the clergy.715715    He objects to the word clergy as originating in a mistake, since Peter (1 Pet. 5:3) calls the whole Church God’s κλῆροι or possessions; but he uses it for the sake of convenience.

1. The discipline of members has three degrees: private admonition; a second admonition in the presence of witnesses or before the Church; and, in case of persistent disobedience, exclusion from the Lord’s Table. This is in accordance with the rule of Christ (Matt. 18:15–17). The object of discipline is threefold: to protect the body of the Church against contamination and profanation; to guard the individual members against the corrupting influence of constant association with the wicked; and to bring the offender to repentance that he may be saved and restored to the fellowship of the faithful. Excommunication and subsequent restoration were exercised by Paul in the case of the Corinthian offender, and by the Church in her purer days. Even the Emperor Theodosius was excluded from communion by Bishop Ambrose of Milan on account of the massacre perpetrated in Thessalonica at his order.716716    Calvin quotes also Chrysostom’s famous warning against the profanation of the sacrament by the connivance of unfaithful priests: "Blood shalt be required at your hands. Let us not be afraid of sceptres or diadems or imperial robes; we have here a greater power. As for myself, I will rather give up my body to death and suffer my blood to be shed, than I will be a partaker of this pollution." There is a strong resemblance between Calvin and Chrysostom, both as commentators and as fearless disciplinarians.

Excommunication should be exercised only against flagitious crimes which disgrace the Christian profession; such as adultery, fornication, theft, robbery, sedition, perjury, contempt of God and his authority. Nor should it be exercised by the bishop or pastor alone, but by the body of elders, and, as is pointed out by Paul, "with the knowledge and approbation of the congregation; in such a manner, however, that the multitude of the people may not direct the proceeding, but may watch over it as witnesses and guardians, that nothing be done by a few persons from any improper motive." Moreover, "the severity of the Church must be tempered by a spirit of gentleness. For there is constant need of the greatest caution, according to the injunction of Paul concerning a person who may have been censured, ’lest by any means such a one should be swallowed up with his overmuch sorrow’ (2 Cor. 2:7); for thus a remedy would become a poison."

When the sinner gives reasonable evidence of repentance he is to be restored. Calvin objects to "the excessive austerity of the ancients," who refused to readmit the lapsed. He approves of the course of Cyprian, who says: "Our patience and kindness and tenderness is ready for all who come; I wish all to return into the Church; I wish all our fellow-soldiers to be assembled in the camp of Christ, and all our brethren to be received into the house of God our Father. I forgive everything; I conceal much. With ready and sincere affection I embrace those who return with penitence." Calvin adds: "Such as are expelled from the Church, it is not for us to expunge from the number of the elect, or to despair of them as already lost. It is proper to consider them as strangers to the Church, and consequently to Christ, but this only as long as they remain in a state of exclusion. And even then let us hope better things of them for the future, and not cease to pray to God on their behalf. Let us not condemn to eternal death the offender, nor prescribe laws to the mercy of God who can change the worst of men into the best." He makes a distinction between excommunication and anathema; the former censures and punishes with a view to reformation and restoration; the latter precludes all pardon, and devotes a person to eternal perdition. Anathema ought never to be resorted to, or at least very rarely. Church members ought to exert all means in their power to promote the reformation of an excommunicated person, and admonish him not as an enemy, but as a brother (2 Cor. 2:8). "Unless this tenderness be observed by the individual members as well as by the Church collectively, our discipline will be in danger of speedily degenerating into cruelty."

2. As regards the discipline of the clergy, Calvin objects to the exemption of ministers from civil jurisdiction, and wants them to be subject to the same punishments as laymen. They are more guilty, as they ought to set a good example. He quotes with approval the ancient canons, so shamefully neglected in the Roman Church of his day, against hunting, gambling, feasting, usury, commerce, and secular amusements. He recommends annual visitations and synods for the correction and examination of delinquent clergymen.

But he rejects the prohibition of clerical marriage as an "act of impious tyranny contrary to the Word of God and to every principle of justice. With what impunity fornication rages among them [the papal clergy] it is unnecessary to remark; emboldened by their polluted celibacy, they have become hardened to every crime … . Paul places marriage among the virtues of a bishop; these men teach that it is a vice not to be tolerated in the clergy … . Christ has been pleased to put such honor upon marriage as to make it an image of his sacred union with the Church. What could be said more in commendation of the dignity of marriage? With what face can that be called impure and polluted, which exhibits a similitude of the spiritual grace of Christ?... Marriage is honorable in all; but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge (Heb. 13:4). The Apostles themselves have proved by their own example that marriage is not unbecoming the sanctity of any office, however excellent: for Paul testifies that they not only retained their wives, but took them about with them (1 Cor. 9:5)."



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