Tag Archives: Judgment

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.

Advertisements