Tag Archives: Geneva

Judge Lest You Be Judged: John Calvin on Grace in Church Discipline

“Judge lest you be judged.” This mantra has become so widely accepted in our 21st century western context that even the the church has come to take it as programmatic for church discipline. Even within the church to discipline somebody is seen as being judgmental; and to be judgmental is to commit one of the most “heinous” sins society can envision. This aversion to judgement or discipline is in some ways understandable, after all many people have been hurt by the judgments (fair or unfair) of the church. But we ought to ask, must the discipline of the church necessarily be seen as inherently harmful or can church discipline be seen as something which is uplifting and helpful to growth? It is my suggestion, that contrary to our contemporary aversion to church discipline, which sees church discipline as a necessary evil, John Calvin saw church discipline as something which was not only necessary but also good for the church. In this brief essay I will describe a few cases that occurred in Geneva and were deemed as worthy of discipline. This will give us a better understanding of how church discipline was enacted in Calvin’s Geneva. Following this I will go on to describe what Calvin takes to be the benefits of church discipline.

Church Discipline in Geneva

William Naphy writes that upon his return to Geneva Calvin experienced opposition to his system of discipline. This opposition actually came at the hands of his fellow ministers. (Naphy, 56) Apparently some ministers felt as though too much power had been given over to the hands of the city’s pastors, and that the Small Council ought to beware of giving away power which belonged to itself. These pastors believed that this shift in power would result in “disorder and revolt.” (Naphy, 56) Naphy argues that at the end of the day, Calvin was able to consolidate power under his own Calvinist party (though naturally there were some concessions). This resulted in the system which Jeffrey Watt aptly describes in “Reconciliation and the Confession of Sins: The Evidence from the Consistory in Calvin’s Geneva.” There he argues that the balance of power laid in the fact that the Consistory could not impose secular penalties to those appearing before it (Watt, 105). The Consistory however had influence to impose discipline which would lead to holy behavior. The way the Consistory did this was by referring “miscreants for criminal sentencing to the small council.” (Watt, 105) However, more powerful than their influence over secular means of discipline, the Consistory’s true power laid in the fact that they “had direct influence over the rank and file” to deny the right to participate in the Eucharist. (Watt, 105)

Among those infractions which merited a suspension from the Eucharist, the most significant act of church discipline next to excommunication, the most common were blasphemy, violence, and sexual sins. As evidence of some common causes for discipline Naphy cites that in 1550 twenty-seven percent of cases involved sexual immorality, fourteen percent involved “religious irregularities,” and forty percent involved interpersonal disputes. As one example of a personal dispute, Watt recounts that a certain Jacques Morellet had punched his wife because she had left the door open, which in turn let in a breeze that disturbed his sleep. (Watt, 107). The Consistory forbade Morellet from taking communion. A less extreme case of a personal dispute involved a feud between Pernett Durrante and Claude Jernoz. The dispute between these women led to neither of them receiving communion for four years. This action was decided with consideration of the biblical injunction to not “come to the altar” until reconciled with one’s brother or sister. As an example of sexual improprieties we may consider the case of a landlord named Jean Losserand, who attempted to rape a married woman. (Watt, 109) The Consistory excluded him from the supper and also referred him to the small council for criminal charges. There were also cases of religious impropriety. In April 1562 a large number of people avoided the regularly scheduled pre-communion pastoral visitation. Their punishment was that they needed to appear before the consistory to prove they knew the basics of the reformed faith. There were also cases of Genevan’s performing Catholic practices abroad. In these cases the consistory often recommended that the person not take communion once, but if repentant they could take communion the following time it was offered. Also, “those who renounced the Reformed faith to save their lives were routinely readmitted to the Community of Geneva after being excluded just one time, provided they were truly penitent.” (Watt, 110) As we can see there were manifold reasons for church discipline. Often these cases required wisdom to decide what was the best course of discipline and other times the proper course of action was clear as day to the consistory.

Calvin on Church Discipline

So far we have seen how church discipline was enacted in Geneva. Modern audiences may agree with the Consistory’s decisions in some of these cases, however discipline in some of the controversial cases, like the a man who sold rosaries or a woman who prayed to Mary, may seem overly harsh. Certainly, one would think, these sorts of infractions should not merit exclusion from the Eucharist! To exclude people from the means of grace they need seems harmful and counterproductive. However, this was not Calvin’s opinion.

In the Institutes Calvin outlines three purposes for church discipline. The first is that those who lead a filthy and infamous life bring dishonor to God and corrupt the name of the church and the name Christian. Thus they ought to be disciplined. (Calvin, 1232) The second is that bad company corrupts good character. In other words, impious people, corrupt the good people in the church. (Calvin, 1233) The third purpose, and the purpose which we shall focus on, is that “those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent.” (Calvin, 1233) Calvin is of the opinion that the rod has the power to awaken those who are stubborn to their own evil. Here Calvin cites Paul’s famous words to hand a sinner over to Satan “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1333) Thus to excommunicate someone, or to ban someone from receiving the Lord’s supper for a time, has the power to waken up a stubborn sinner and lead them to turn back to Christ. In this way, discipline is an act of grace, being a conduit for the stubborn sinner for receiving the grace necessary to repent of their sins.

However, Calvin not only believed that church discipline was a gracious act, he also believed that it ought to be carried out in a gracious manner. For instance, he says,

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. (Calvin, 1234)

Often times these verbal chastisements came through sermons. Parker notes that in calling out the sins of the congregation (not individuals) “there is not threshing himself into fever of impatience or frustration, no holier than though rebuking of the people.” (Parker, 119) In other words he approached sermonic reproof and exhortation in a gracious manner. The exception to this sort of behavior comes when Calvin dealt with injustice and opposition to the gospel. For example, he specifically indicts some of the Genevan Judges for acting contrary to God’s justice. (Parker, 120)

Great severity is not to be used in lighter sins, but verbal chastisement is enough[3] – 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. (Calvin, 1234)

Here we see the gracious nature of church discipline manifested in several ways. First, the sinner ought to be approached in a graceful manner, showing them the appropriate amount of severity. Not only this, but the tone of discipline ought to be fatherly, that is seeking the best for the sinner, not punishing simply for the sake of retribution. Third, the purpose of discipline is not to harden or confuse the sinner, but to bring the sinner to awareness of his sinfulness. Here Calvin shows, that he understands the ability church discipline has to harden the heart of a sinner. Calvin says, this ought to be avoided. Finally, the goal of discipline is not that the sinner feel bad about their sin, but that they may rejoice that they have been corrected and put back on the right path to godliness.

Elsewhere Calvin writes that severity ought to be joined with “a spirit of gentleness” which is fitting for the church, thus agreeing with the spirit of Chrysostom’s question: “If God is so kind, why does his priest wish to seem so rigorous?” (Calvin, 1237) Church discipline should confirm God’s love towards the sinner. Its intent is to lead the sinner to repentance, so that it may bring spiritual health not only to the sinner but the entire church body. (Calvin, 1240)

Conclusion

Thus far we have seen the way in which church discipline was enacted in Calvin’s Geneva as well as Calvin’s stated goals in enforcing church discipline. The purpose of church discipline is the good of the church and the sinner. Those who are charged with the overseeing of the spiritual well being of God’s people are charged with a duty to warn, reprove and correct evil (Calvin, 1239). They do sinners no favor in allowing them to remain guilty before the Lord. Thus church discipline is necessary, not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary means to awaken sinners to God’s grace towards them. According to Calvin, the church ought to be careful in hurting the flock when disciplining them, yet at the same time sometimes the temporary pain that comes from being publicly or privately reprimanded or being excluded from communion or from the church is the most loving and gracious thing the church can do for sinners.

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Pastoral Position Opening: Minister of Word and Sacrament in Geneva

The following is a lighthearted (and facetious), but historically realistic, job opening advertisement for a pastoral position in Calvin’s Geneva.

Position Focus:
Minister of Word and Sacrament in Geneva

Why This Position Is Needed

John Calvin’s alternate at St. Pierre’s had recently fallen ill. Although the other ministers in Geneva visited our colleague to pray for him on his deathbed, Pastor Abel Poupin, passed away on March 5th into the Lord’s presence.[1] Thus he leaves his position vacant. In addition to the passing away of Pastor Abel, another pastoral position has opened up. Pastor Jean Fabri has been deposed of his position. There have been claims made that he was making sexual advances (if not actually seducing) a married woman and also accusations have been made against him saying that he has gotten his serving girl pregnant.[2] After further investigation, the consistory has decided to dismiss Jean Fabri. Thus, we have two pastoral positions open.

The Church

The churches in Geneva are a multi-generational, multi-site network of churches located on the banks of of Lake Geneva at the mouth of the Rhone River. Our springs are wonderful, and our winters are bitterly cold. During the summer you and your family can spend time at the lake, but make sure to stay away from it during the winter. Many have died due to hypothermia! If you can ignore the fact that the Bernese, The Savory, and the French are always at odds with each other because of us, and the inconvenience that the plague brings, this is a great town to raise a family.

If you take this position you may be one day be appointed to serve as the pastor of St. Pierre’s Cathedral, Magdeleine, or St. Gervais (though in all likelihood you will probably begin by being appointed to pastor one of the countryside churches.)

Primary Responsibilities

‘The Scriptural office of the Christian minister involves nourishing and instructing God’s people on the divine Word by means of sermon, sacraments, catechism, spiritual conversation, and corrective discipline.’[3] Thus your job is divided into several categories:

Ministry of the Word

  • Preaching and teaching will form a bulk of your weekly work. In accordance with most others within the Reformed tradition your sermons ought to be expository, working through a single book, verse by verse (i.e. lectio continua).
  • Your particular parish will have at least four Sunday services. One of these Sunday services will be a catechesis service. This will mostly consist of children, though some adults who are converting Catholicism or Anabaptism will also attend this service. (You may also get some adults who are technically reformed, but are horribly misinformed about their faith).
  • You will also preach during weekday services (Monday-Saturday) and direct the Wednesday Prayer liturgy.
  • As one of eight pastors in Geneva you will be paired up with another pastor. You will alternate preaching duties with this pastor. On occasion you may be moved to another parish to fill needs.
  • There is an expectation that you will continue your theological and ministerial education. John Calvin lectures at 2pm on a book of the bible, verse by verse in Latin. All ministers are invited to be there.[4] There will also be a gathering of the congregation each Friday. Here you will have the opportunity to preach in front of the other pastors. You will receive feedback on your preaching from the other pastors and hear Calvin give his exposition of the text.
  • You are also expected to meet with the Company of Pastors on Friday afternoons.[5] There you will take part in the business of organizing services, making preaching assignments for specific pulpits at specific hours, examine candidates for ministry, etc.

 Ministry 0f Sacrament

  • The Lord’s Supper happens four times per year (even though we wish it could occur more regularly). The Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the first Sunday of September.
  • All those who have reached the age of discretion and are able to satisfactorily articulate the basic doctrines of the faith are invited to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Thus the week before the Lord’s supper you must examine the catechumen regarding their understanding of the Genevan Catechism.
  • The week before the celebration of the Lord’s supper it is your duty to visit all your parishioners for spiritual examination and preparation. (Some of your parishioners will likely not want to talk to you, they may not even open the door for you! But you should find a way to examine them prior to the Lord’s Supper.)
  • It is your duty to ensure that certain people do not receive the Lord’s supper. For instance, those who wear ostentatious or provocative clothing, those who are insane or mentally impaired, and those who have been excommunicated cannot participate in the Lord’s supper. However, those who are demon possessed can participate as long as they behave peaceably.[6]
  • You will lead the rite of baptism before services. You must not use any superstitious elements which rob baptism from its true meaning (i.e. oil, salt, spittle, wax papers, etc.)
  • You ought to follow the baptismal liturgy which is published in the Genevan Psalter. First you should ask who is presenting this child to be baptized. Then you ought to deliver a five minute baptismal exhortation summarizing the gospel and the meaning of baptism. You also ought to give a defense of infant baptism. Once this is done, sure that those presenting the child for baptism recited the Apostles Creed and promise to instruct the child in Christian doctrine. You shall conclude by sprinkling the child on the forehead in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[7]

 Pastoral Services

  • Funerals
    • Burials generally take place in the afternoon. You ought not do anything which would approximate Roman Catholic masses for the dead. Funerals ought to be austere.
    • Burial must take place within twenty four hours of the death.
    • There is no specific church service, but by custom you ought to visit the home of the deceased before the procession of the gravesite. There you are free to speak some words regarding the faith of the person being buried.
  • Marriages
    • Marriage ceremonies occur prior to services. You must announce the banns for couples seeking to marry. If everything is in accordance with the rules you will follow the marriage liturgy and then begin the time of worship. Please ensure that the wedding party stays for the whole service.
  • Pastoral Visitation
    • The Venerable Company expects that all of Geneva’s ministers would pray for their parishioners…offer them spiritual counsel and consolation, correct their sinful behavior through discipline, and visit them in their homes.[8]
    • The Ecclesiastical Ordinances stipulate that every year before Easter pastors ought to visit all the households of the parish in order to examine the members of the household for the Lord’s Supper. As Beza has taught, ‘As a minister of the gospel it is our duty to fulfill all the duties that our office required, which includes chiefly the consolation of poor sick people.’[9]
    • You are also expected to conduct less formal visits throughout the year, especially when parishioners are suffering bereavement and extreme poverty. (The family of those suffering are expected to notify a pastor of any pressing needs.)
    • You are also expected to join a rotation of pastors who visit our local prison, the Evesche, on Saturday afternoons. Here you will preach a brief sermon, and help take care of the needs (spiritual and physical) of the inmates.
    • You are also expected to visit the sick and dying in the hospital, even though they may be suffering from the plague. We understand this can be a frightening thing. Some of our pastors have contracted the plague and died after visitations. However, we believe this is part of our pastoral duty.
  • Pastoral Services Towards Exiles & The Oppressed
    • At times you may have to follow Calvin’s lead in offering pastoral care to those who are suffering for their faith. This includes exiles who escaped from persecution and are seeking refuge in Geneva. You may also have to write letters to Christians undergoing persecution. You ought to encourage these brothers and sisters[10] reminding them of the great call that is upon their life to suffer for Christ. Remind them that he will give them strength to fulfill their duty.
    • Although Calvin was in the habit of writing letters to government officials and even going on journeys to other cities to lend support to persecuted protestants we do not expect you to go to the same lengths as Calvin did in offering these brothers and sisters pastoral care.[11]

Prior to Being Hired:

In addition to having the ability to fulfill the duties prescribed above you must be able to sign on to (with good conscience) the Genevan Catechism and the Ecclesiastical Ordinances. Also you must meet the following requirements, based upon Calvin’s theology of calling and ordination, prior to being hired:

All Christians have received a calling to glorify God and seek the well being of their neighbors. However this does not mean that Christian ministers do not receive a special calling in which they are entrusted with being “the chief sinew by which believers are held together in one body.”[12] Those who are called are ordained to govern the church through the act of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. These are the means by which God’s people are instructed and nourished. In order to take this job, you must agree that this is your primary vocation. You also must be able to describe the subjective aspect of your twofold calling. All those who are called to be ministers receive a conviction in their heart that one ought to aspire to ministry, not for personal gain, but out of a fear for God and a desire to edify the church. If you can testify that you have received such a call, the Church will determine whether you are objectively called as well. Once this is met, your theology and way of living will be examined by your fellow ministers. Second, the magistrates will give their approval of your ordination. Third, the congregation will give consent to our choice. Fourth, you will take office by the laying of hands. We sincerely believe that the church should seek the candidate, and not the candidate seek a church,[13] thus if we have a sense that you are the right candidate for this job we will extend an offer to you.


[1] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 69.

[2] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 74.

[3] Manetsch, 72

[4] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 65.

[5] McKee, “A Week in the Life of John Calvin”, 73.

[6] Manetsch, 279.

[7] Manetsch, 258-9.

[8] Manetsch, 280.

[9] Manetsch, 287.

[10] McKee, 321 and 330.

[11] McKee 315-20.

[12] Manetsch, 71.

[13] Manetsch, 81.