Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The primary calling of the elders is discipline. Their work is to keep the church, insofar as that is possible here on earth, pure. It would do the churches well, especially those of the Reformed tradition, to study Calvin’s teachings on this all-important matter.
Schaff says that:
Discipline is so important an element in Calvin’s Church polity, that it … was the cause of his expulsion from Geneva, the basis of his flourishing French congregation at Strassburg, the chief reason for his recall [to Geneva], 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. It fortified them for their trials and persecutions, and made them promoters of civil and religious liberty.1
To Calvin discipline was essential because it was taught in the Word of God. This is the secret of all Reformed ecclesiology. Discipline was desirable, not because men thought the church should be so organised in view of its task, but because these same men declared that the Word of God was explicit regarding this institution. “The church, in its visible form, is not an institution which can be organised just as we like; but already in this matter, the Lord indicates that the Church is His, by laying out the way in which it must be arranged” (J. Courvoisier, Le Sens de la discipline ecclesiastique dans la Geneve de Calvin, 1946, p. 22). The Reformation itself was brought about by the Word, not by the Reformers’ insight, and in this Word discipline was ordained as part of the power of the keys (Inst. IV, xi, 1). For these men that was enough.
Calvin, in one place, states quite bluntly that whoever opposes the establishment of ecclesiastical discipline is an enemy of the Christian faith. Discipline was not invented by men, but was given as an inviolable rule by the Lord to His followers. We may not dispense with it, for by instituting it in His church, the Lord declares that He wishes it to remain to the end of the world. The abolition of discipline would mean the entire dissolution of the church.2
Calvin himself wrote:
No society, 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 gentleness of the spirit of Christ, those who have grievously fallen away. It is the only remedy against a dreadful desolation in the Church.3
Calvin pointedly speaks of the dreadful desolation that comes on the church which does not exercise the keys of the kingdom. Churches today, confronted by apostasy and gross sin within its ranks, ought not to be surprised that such has happened, for the keys of the kingdom hang unused and rusty on a hook in the back of the closet of the consistory room.
While the purpose, Calvin insists, is to apply discipline gently and in the mercy of Christ, nevertheless, it must be rigorous and uncompromising, for the welfare of the church depends upon getting rid of rotten members. Duffield sums it up with quotes from Calvin.
In … [the] corrections [of discipline] 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
were a conspiracy of wicked and abandoned men. For since the church itself is the body of Christ
it cannot be corrupted by such foul and decaying members without some disgrace falling upon its Head….
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 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 felt the rod….4
That emphasis on the glory of the Head of the church which is alone important moves a faithful church to exercise with rigor the discipline entrusted to it. When sin goes unpunished in the church, the enemies blaspheme and Christ is dishonored.
Calvin laid down various details as well concerning how discipline had to be exercised. He insisted that it had to be the work of the church, not the magistrate. He laid the keys of the kingdom of heaven on the table of the elders and gave that responsibility to them in his teachings because Christ assigned this very task to the elders. He told the elders they had to exercise such discipline over the congregation, over the ministers of the Word, and over themselves. He insisted that discipline included excommunication, and he laid down the scriptural rules which had to be followed—and which Reformed churches, faithful in discipline, follow today. He gave the congregation as a whole a role in the exercise of such discipline and taught, correctly, that the entire congregation is responsible for the purity of the church.
Calvin’s discipline in Geneva, as exercised by the elders, was indeed rigorous. But the harsh penalties for “minor” sins (such as fines, imprisonment, putting in the stocks, for card playing, dancing, publicly taking God’s name in vain) mocked by the church today, were penalties imposed by the civil magistrate, not by the consistory. Calvin was not directly responsible for these civil penalties.
Nevertheless, sin was taken seriously and sharply rebuked. In this way Geneva became, to borrow a phrase from John Knox the Scottish reformer, the most perfect school of discipleship to Christ to be found in the world. If the church today looks for a reason for its sad demise, it ought to look at the neglect of discipline. Elders do not discipline ministers who fail to preach the Word and introduce strange heresies. Elders do not discipline aberrations from and corruptions of the worship of God. Elders do not discipline immoral and ungodly behavior in the church. Rather, elders piously join in a commendation of the great evils of divorce and remarriage. Elders turn the other way to Sabbath desecration. Elders close their ears to heresies openly promoted in the congregation. Elders do not rule.
Can such a church long survive? Calvin says not. So does the Word of God.
1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), 484.
2.G. E. Duffield, ed., John Calvin: A Collection of Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 210, 211.
3.Institutes, IV, xii, 1.
4.Institutes, IV, xii, 5.