Church Discipline and the Reformation

May 02, 2018

by Alfred Poirier

The Reformers gave great impetus toward the recovery of church discipline. For them, church discipline became a matter of great importance. While there is dispute as to whether they deemed discipline a mark of a true church, all the Reformers saw discipline, if not a mark of the essence (esse) of a true church, as something necessary for its well-being (bene esse).

Surely pride of place for this recovery goes to John Calvin who, in discovering biblical church government, equally recovered biblical church discipline. As one Calvin scholar noted, “To trace discipline through Calvin’s ministry is essentially to write anew his biography.” Calvin was expelled from Geneva, Switzerland, in 1538 over the issue of his disciplinary proposals, and his stance on discipline was the condition for his return three years later in 1541: “I would never have accepted the ministry unless they had sworn to these two points: namely to uphold the catechism and the discipline.”

As in our day, Calvin is aware that many people “in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name.” Nevertheless, he does not recoil from the necessity to exercise discipline within the church. And he answers the question of its necessity by asking rhetorically,

What will happen if each is allowed to do what the pleases? Yet that would happen, if to 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 . . . Now this is the sole remedy that Christ has enjoined and the one that has always been used among the godly.

While the gospel is the soul of the body of Christ, discipline is its sinews, holding the church together.

It is important to note two things about this quote. First, Calvin has in view the discipline of “those who have more seriously lapsed.” Second, in light of such a person who has seriously lapsed, he counsels the church to discipline such a person as a father would his child—mildly and gently. Whatever caricature many may have of Calvin, here is another example that proves us wrong. Calvin calls us pastors to be gentle fathers of our flock.

While Calvin does not list discipline as a mark of the church in his Institutes, he does argue for its necessity to preserve the church in his reply to Cardinal Sadoleto. Calvin’s letter to Sadoleto is his defense of the Genevan reform and against the advances of the papacy. A substantial aspect of Sadoleto’s appeal to the Genevans to return to Rome is his argument that the Roman church alone bears the marks of Christ’s true church.

It is in light of this controversy that Calvin counters, claiming that a true church exercises discipline (which he claims the Roman church does not): “There are three things upon which the safety of the church is founded and supported: doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments.” The key word here is safety. Though Calvin does not regard discipline as one of the marks of the church, he does see discipline as that which preserves the church. While the gospel is the soul of the body of Christ, discipline is its sinews, holding the church together:

Let us 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 . . . 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.

Clearly, discipline for Calvin is a vital part of a true church. Whether considered as a mark (Belgic Confession), one of the “keys of the kingdom” (Heidelberg Catechism, Westminster Confession), or a means of grace (Calvin’s writings, Canons of Dort), discipline is the sinews of the body of Christ.

This piece is adapted from Alfred Poirier, The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 223–225. Used with permission of the publisher.